Roman Workbenches. Why?

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When I got to inspect the two Roman workbenches at the Saalburg fort outside Frankfurt, Germany, my hands shook so much that I had to take a break. Close contact with ancient woodworking technology unsettles me.

Why do I become a blubbering idiot trying to kiss Kim Shoulders for the first time on the 8th-grade dance floor while they play Little River Band’s “Cool Change?”

It doesn’t have to do with a reverence for pure history. Most historical sites I visit are aesthetically interesting at best. I don’t have an emotional tether to paintings of the Christ child or the architecture around Him. Instead, I get unnerved when I find clues that help me as a furniture maker who is trying to push into the future.

Obvious example: Tail-vise technology. The more I studied workbenches, the more I realized that I didn’t need a tail vise. After shedding the tail vise, my workbenches became simpler and my operations followed suit. When I encounter tail vises at schools and other shops I step aside like they have the bad herpes.

Second example: Staked furniture. Once I understood how the technology worked, the time it took me to build a chair, stool or table was slashed in half (or maybe more).

I honestly and truly think that we are a retrograde society when it comes to woodworking. For much of our time on this earth, almost everything was made from wood plus small bits of iron or steel. Today, most of us can send a text across the planet, but we can’t cleave a piece of wet wood to create an unimaginably strong chair leg.

And that’s what I was trying to explain to my German students at Dictum GmBH last week as we worked together and then drank beer under the Bavarian horse chestnut trees. I don’t want to return to the past. I want to capture what they knew so I can make my march into the future much easier.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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21 Responses to Roman Workbenches. Why?

  1. kapitman says:

    Where is Kim today?

    I’d like to know where Susan Smith from 8th grade is today.

  2. guadfly says:

    I’m not meaning to skip the philosophical and go right to the practical, which I love, btw, but I’m planning on building my first workbench, and I’d like to build a roman workbench for my apartment. I want to keep it simple, but I also want it to be part of the focal point so I’ll love it, and more importantly, use it. Being a Texan, I have two woods available that I want to use, mesquite or live oak. I’m as green as the wood and thinking of using one of the densest woods in North America. Is that brave, stupid, or otherwise?

  3. There’s a good herpes?

  4. Silly question, but I am intrigued by your comment. What do you mean by staked furniture?

  5. thwaves says:

    ..well, your message came through as did the beer..and i totally agree.
    thanks again for a great course and your inspiring work in generell (the winding sticks work amazingly good). I´m sorry, i had to leave a little early, but i had to get home to start my roman workbench……

  6. I can see how a tail vice might not be a necessity but does it not offer a few advantages? Just trying to imagine how the thought process would go if you were looking at two benches- one sans tail vice and you think “Ah… that’s obviously the one for me”. Just a little elaboration since you invited herpes. Jeez Chris… Herpes!?!?

  7. Ben Ice says:

    Great, great post! Keep pushing, Chris. Keep pushing.

  8. I welcome your open opinion but I can’t agree that we are in a retrograde woodworking society. Woodworking is different now, in many aspects, that I can appreciate, but it is not backward, in reverse or headed to oblivion. I see no evidence that supports your claim. Woodworking has become much, much more diverse, that is certain. Potentially, you may simply be leaving methods that don’t suit your interest in simple, unadorned work. That’s great.

    On the tail vice, and similar devices, these were in use in France during the 18th century, likely due to a mix of German craftsman earning their living in that area at the time. They did not abandon the vice once they encountered a more simple vice. In addition, Joyce, Peters, Krenov and countless “nameless” masters over the years found value of system and it helped them create work of world class standards. They gravitated to the system.

    What you learn on your journey will help you become better at what you want to do. That will be the same to anyone who wants to improve. Beware loosing babies with bathwater.

    • One such baby – or maybe twins – might be draining heft and the holdfast from workbench design. The tail vise might compensate for it in minor ways and also add some functions of it’s own, but the sturdiness, speed and versatility will never be matched.

      I have a German style workbench that I inherited. The real deal with a tail vise opening up the full height of the bench plate with no tubular or threaded obstructions of any kind. It does have its uses, but it is worn and sagging, and leaves me with the thought that having a full length solid bench would be so much nicer and easier to maintain. I honestly don’t know what to do about the worn vise, if not build an entire new piece from scratch… Which is not likely to happen anytime soon. A solid bench with heft, holdfast and a leg vise on the other hand… And a roman.

      • From Roubo’s “Description of the Tools of the Cabinetmakers” and shown in pl 279, the bench is of great thickness and weight, has your preferred leg vice, hold fast with and tail vice. The tail vice was complicated and was constructed with both wood and metal screw variants. It is unlikely people of a pre-industrial age would of wasted their time with it if they could of got by without using it in their profession. Not every woodworker would have required such a device, but likely, the cabinet makers who made some of the most incredible pieces of furniture the world has ever known, rather than the joiners would of found value in it.

        As I mentioned in my comment, it’s about finding the right solution for the job. If largely your work is using machine prepared wood and your furniture is of an unadorned vernacular style (one of my favourite styles to live with) then your bench can be very basic. I’ve often had to work with a scaffold plank between two saw horses, sitting on the work to clamp it. Guess I must have roman blood as the solution to the work at hand was not difficult to work out.

  9. charlie says:

    Popular music is full of tribute bands copying the past. Woodworking is much the same with precisely measured reproductions copying originals. You explanation of learning from the past (not copying the past), makes sense. Your like the Jack White of woodworking; steeped in the past but still coming up with “new” ideas.

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