When a woodworker threw two workbenches down well No. 49 at the Roman fort at Saalburg 1,800 years ago, he (or she) likely anticipated retrieving the benches once the Germanic tribes attacking the fort (or attacking the nearby limes) were defeated or retreated.
That didn’t happen, and so in 1901, and the workbenches were retrieved during massive excavations and reconstructions at the fort at Saalburg, resulting in thousands of surviving artifacts in wood, leather and metal.
During my visit to Saalburg in June, I was allowed to measure the workbench to a make a reproduction for my upcoming book, “Roman Workbenches.” During the last few months, I’ve been getting ready to build this bench. This is one of those cases where preparing for the project will take much longer than building it.
The bench itself if simple: A slab with five to seven sticks driven into it. Placing those sticks and selecting the right material is what has vexed me since June.
The primary problem has been what 1,800 years in a well will do to a slab of wood. Rüdiger Schwarz at Saalburg explained the problem perfectly this summer when he showed us a wooden yoke that had been pulled from one of the wells. The wooden yoke was shriveled and distorted, like someone had made a Shrinky Dink of a yoke and left it in the oven too long.
Next to the yoke was a casting that had been made of the yoke right after it has been rescued from the well. It looked like a brand new farm implement. Schwarz explained that wooden objects, such as the workbench and the yoke, had distorted noticeably after they dried.
So the workbench was likely much less twisted than it is today.
Also: The bench’s legs are not original. They were added shortly after the bench was recovered so the bench could be shown. As the “new” legs were wedged in place from below, there is no way to know how the mortises are angled. In other words: Who knows what its rake and splay are really like?
So the last couple weeks has been all about laying out the joinery on my benchtop, performing trigonometry equations to determine some sample rakes and splays and them comparing the results to my photos. Oh, and lots of wondering and thinking and imagining. (I know this doesn’t sound scientific at all.)
In the end, my numbers were driven by several factors aside from the photos of the Saalburg bench, including other low workbenches I have used and their working characteristics.
Today I bored out the waste inside the square mortises. There is no going back now.
— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site: christophermschwarz.com