Roman Workbenches, in France, for Chairmaking

Hulot_Plate_13_fig4

One of the primary reasons I decided to expand the book “Roman Workbenches” into a larger text was an unexpected gift from Jennie Alexander that was courtesy of John and Eleanor Kebabian.

The story starts some months ago when Jennie sent me photocopies of some old drawings and asked if I saw anything of interest. After about two seconds I wrote her back with an emphatic “yes.” The photocopies had sent my head reeling.

A few weeks later Jennie sent me a box. I was in Italy at the time, and the delivery person was not too bright. So he left it on top of the air conditioning unit, where it was rained on for several days until I returned.

I found the box in tatters and took it inside the shop, expecting the worst. The box fell apart on the bench and inside was a no-worse-for-the-wear copy of  “L’Art du Tourneur Mécanicien” by M. Hulot. It’s a 1775 book about turning and many other aspects of woodworking.

Written about the same time as A.J. Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” it’s in a similar format: giant pages of text followed by gorgeous plates. After browsing through the plates, many looked similar to Roubo’s, but others didn’t. I’ve spent several hours studying the plates and am convinced this book deserves my undivided attention.

Of particular interest are plates 13 and 31, which depict a low staked workbench that is outfitted with a variety of appliances for chairmaking.

So I started isolating all the text that relates to these two plates so I could translate it. (And here I thought my meager French skills would get a rest.) Unlike Roubo, Hulot discusses these two plates in more than a dozen places in the text. This is not going to be easy. But you have to start somewhere.

During one long evening, I translated the section that introduces the bench, which Hulot calls appropriately “a saddle.” Take a look:

IV Description of the Saddle for Planing & Boring & Assembling the Work

FIG. 4, Plate 13, shows a bench type which is called a Saddle for planing/flattening and assembly; That is a piece of oak wood 5 feet long, about 12 to 14 inches wide, and very thick, carried on four feet, R, Y, X, Z, which enter into as many Round holes which have been pierced in the whole of the Saddle AB. The workman has the face, turned towards the head, B, which is a large piece of soft wood, such as alder, and the tail of which forms a flat tenon which passes into a mortise through the saddle; The top [of the head] forms a kind of step, the steps of which are cut into different fences, some at right angles and shallow, to receive the ends of the flat workpieces for planing its sides/edges; The flat stage receives the pieces that are to be planed flat. Other stepped [heads] are horizontally and vertically notched with the shape of a teaspoon to receive the tip of a stick. There are small cuts [or kerfs] that are perpendicular to the round hole [in the head], as seen in the figure. Independent of the tenon which fixes the head H, it rests against the support K, which is also called the crossbar or buttress of the head, and which is a stop at the end and is across the saddle. [It is secured] by two strong wooden dowel pins, [made of a wood] such as ash or dogwood, which pass perpendicularly through the saddle.

When the wood that is to be worked is large and long, we do not rely on the saddle, but we stand it upright. Place the end of the wood in the recess HK formed by the crossbar and the side of the head of the saddle.

I see many long nights of (exciting) translating ahead. I’m fairly certain this bench is another important piece of the puzzle in understanding the low workbench and all the ways it can be used.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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16 Responses to Roman Workbenches, in France, for Chairmaking

  1. As long as you’ve started translating it, maybe a print is in the future? As a turner, I’d be fascinated to read it

  2. tpobrienjr says:

    The wood-gods are pleased, so much so that they allowed the book to be preserved (at least for this long). It is indeed a second chance, and you are using it well.

  3. Anthony Wilson says:

    This is gold.

  4. sawnutz says:

    There is a nice discussion of the Hulot bench in the shaving horse chapter of Scott Landis’ Workbench Book (at least in the 1998 paperback edition) with that plate and a picture of Jennie’s own version of this bench. Jennie mentions that a nearly identical bench can be found in an unnamed book on Appalachian crafts. Jennie also recommends making this bench the same height as your shaving horse so that you can use them together as sawhorses.

    • pfollansbee says:

      The book on Appalachian crafts might have been Michael Owen Jones’ books on Chester Cornett and other chairmakers. “The Hand Made Object & Its Maker” and “Craftsmen of the Cumberlands”. I don’t have either book anymore to check, but I remember JA & I poring over what Chester used for his chairmaking. There was a film, pretty sad really, about Chester done near the end of his life. He was from Kentucky – something of a savant. The end of his life he lived in Cincinnati I think – http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/features/chester-cornett-humble-chair-maker-mad-genius/
      When Chris started down this “low bench” road, I remember thinking “That’s what we used making JA’s chairs in the early days. Got away from it after a while, but I still use one every now & then. I have 4 or 5 scattered around here.

  5. stevevoigt says:

    Chris, is it possible that the shaving horse descended from this bench? All it would need to do is get a little narrower, smaller legs and top, and then acquire a dumbhead or similar fixture. Maybe the Roubo bench and the shavehorse represent two evolutionary forks from the same starting point…well, I am sure you’ve thought of this already!

  6. William Bee says:

    This low workbench was discussed on an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop.

    • Yup. I was the guest on that episode.

      • William Bee says:

        Not so fast. I am referring to an earlier episode – Season 8, 1988 – episode 4: “Woodworking Benches.” Roy Underhill shows a copy of Hulot’s plate, a low workbench he made himself, and how to construct and use it. This plate is also shown in Roy Underhill’s book “The Woodwright’s Workbook: Further Explorations in Traditional Woodcraft” page 24.

      • Paul Straka says:

        1988 Season 8 Episode 5 – Saint Roy. Around 13:55.

  7. Let’s see…. My wallet’s got to be around here somewhere.

  8. anfaith says:

    So, I have been following all of this staked furniture conversation and experimentation and a question has arisen from my vast pool of ignorance. Have you discovered a minimum thickness for staked furniture? I’m talking about the effectiveness of the legs. It seems that at some point the wood would be too thin for staked legs to work. Maybe it’s a ratio of thickness of top to diameter of legs. I would easily imagine the related question, minimum thickness to make a staked bench would have more to do with the use and the length between supporting legs (to avoid bowing and deflection).

    I’m looking at making my first saw benches and I’m considering staked leg benches like you had on the WW Shop episode on the Roman bench.

    Thanks for any insight from all of the experiments.

  9. davevaness says:

    At cat walks up to to a tuxedo cat and comments that his markings makes him look like he is dressed in a tuxedo. He responds, “How do you know I’m not?”

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