Roman Workbenches & the Trail of Artworks


I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the research for the book on Roman workbenches, it became a text that would feel at home in the “art history” section of a bookstore.

Researcher Suzanne Ellison, who has a deep love of art, and I spent months poring over texts that discussed Roman and early German tools and woodworking for the letterpress edition of “Roman Workbenches.” After we completed that book, I switched gears to finish up work on other authors’ books (and some furniture commissions).

Suzanne, however, expanded the scope of her research and began finding paintings, drawings and mosaics that dealt with the low-style workbench that I had never seen. And not only were they from Europe, but they also came from the New World, especially South America.

I could barely keep up with the pace of her research. Before I could fully digest a series of paintings to sort through their interesting bits, she had already dumped another load in my inbox. This crazy pace has continued for the last nine months.

After discussing hundreds of paintings, we narrowed our scope to ones that were truly representative of a long-term pattern. Or ones that showed methods of workholding that were, quite frankly, shocking to me.

As a result, this book – an expanded edition of “Roman Workbenches” – has become something far greater. It is a survey of early workholding methods that were used on simple and low workbenches for almost 2,000 years. Many of these workholding devices are incredibly simple – like the doe’s foot – but also incredibly effective. If you’re reading this blog, you probably agree with the statement that early artisans were incredibly clever and resourceful.

And this book has gotten much bigger. So big, that I wonder if I should even call it “Roman Workbenches” anymore.

During the coming months I’m going to share some of the gold that Suzanne dug up, along with some of the dead ends. The painting at the top of this entry was right up the road from me in Indianapolis and almost made me wet myself.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to Roman Workbenches & the Trail of Artworks

  1. jfthomas70 says:

    I have enjoyed looking at the different pictures.
    The fact that they are religious themed is great,
    since they would not have survived otherwise.
    Anywhere Catholicism has been should have
    pictures with workbenches and tools.
    Joseph was supposed to be a woodworker.

  2. Matt Voigt says:

    I think the best option is to make a book about Roman workbenches that can actually be used as a Roman workbench.

  3. nrhiller says:

    This is super exciting. I can’t wait to learn more.

  4. Michael Rogen says:

    I think I’ll hang around for this one. Sounds fantastic!

  5. BobDeViney says:

    Some of those early benches had an odd dovetail slot on the front face, but no vise. This one appears to have some sort of stop slotted in it.

  6. captainjack1024 says:

    Is that painting at the IMA? I haven’t been over there in quite a while, but this looks like as good an excuse as any to visit again. 🙂

  7. Farmer Greg says:

    Once again proving the internet is for cats.

  8. Gustave Corbeau says:

    The Internet is ruled by cats.

  9. franktiger says:

    The letterpress book has been an eye opener to say the least.
    Thanks for all the hard work that each book requires.

  10. David Arginteaun says:

    I know this is a bit off topic, but I’m confused about how to cut tenons on the low Roman workbench. I’m in the process of finishing up my first workbench (need to flatten and bore about planing stops and work-holding pattern). The description in the book confuses me. Thank you.
    *I’m also pretty new to woodworking and have not cut a tenon before.*

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