It Might be a Roman Workbench


My work on the expanded edition of “Roman Workbenches” continues. I need to build one more bench (oh, if I had a dime for every time I’d written those words) and then sort through the pile of research I’ve accumulated, plus the mass of images and links that that researcher Suzanne Ellison has sent me.

Here’s the surprising/not-surprising thing we’ve found so far: These benches are everywhere. It doesn’t matter what time or place you are researching. If you look long enough at a society’s paintings and material culture, you’ll find a low workbench. It might have vises, stops, dogs or holdfasts. It might have none of these things. Or all of them. The Christ child might be tenoning (as shown) or he might be using a chalk line (not shown).

But whenever I encounter these benches, I am both amazed and thankful that Jesus was a carpenter and not a shoe salesman.

Recently Suzanne dug up the example at the top of this blog. (“La Segrada Familia” by Juan del Castillo, 1634-1636. From the Museum of Fine Arts Sevilla.) Of note: The massive top, the face vise (we see these first in the 1300s) and the stretcher at the end between the legs.

Also, two people tenoning? Is this something the artist made up or had seen before?

Time for bed.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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17 Responses to It Might be a Roman Workbench

  1. nrhiller says:

    Super cool. You are the definition of a gentleman and a scholar.

  2. jarvilaluban says:

    Is that a Benchcrafted-style handwheel-equipped Moxon vise on there?

  3. I’m pretty sure that sandal salesman would have been more lucrative, but yes. I agree.

  4. bloksav says:

    They must be working on some difficult wood.
    If you look at the plane below the bench, it has a frog angle of around 80 degrees.

  5. Damien says:

    I think they are ripping a board, unless it is a rather long tenon. The painter is still searching perspective back then, the board top and the saw alongside are in a different perspective system. There is also (typical) posture symmetry, both father and son are holding the saw at elbow (left hand) / shoulder (right hand) height, and that’s the fun part of being creative with perspective.

    • daveincolo says:

      Also, it appears that father is sawing parallel to the bench and son perpendicular.

      The face vice is left-hand threaded; has your research turned up any information about standardization of threads or was that immaterial before assembly lines and interchangeable parts?

  6. weyrichwood says:

    If low benches were so ubiquitous, as you suggest, that they can be found anywhere if you look long enough, did they serve a particular purpose or class of work that was unfulfilled by a higher (although contemporary) workbench? (Sorry; haven’t read the book yet.)

    • Jeff Faulk says:

      If I had to guess, there are any number of potential reasons, but a few come to mind– they are easily multi-tasked (extra people over for supper? sit over there on the workbench), they can be adapted easily into shave-horses and the like, they might extend themselves more readily to green woodworking, etc…

  7. zeelandmatt says:

    Thanks for the insight you provide Chris. I figured that the painting showed Joseph teaching Jesus some carpentry skills, thus the reason both of them are holding onto the saw.

  8. I’m bet having the Son of God as an apprentice would be super awkward at times.

  9. Curious. How do you like working on such a low bench?

  10. Out of curiosity, what’s the attribution/source of the image?

    • saucyindexer says:

      Towards the end of the article the title of the piece, the artist and museum holding the painting are provided.

  11. kaunfried says:

    I don’t know if there were two person tenoning. I Imagine a eager young child coming into his step fathers shop saying “can I help”

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