Saalburg Workbench: The First Cut

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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.

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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.)

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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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Roman Workbenches, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Saalburg Workbench: The First Cut

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    Ultimately it seems the angle and position of the legs would be what provides maximum stability to the bench compatible with not getting in the way of the carpenter during use, and of course with what evidence survives by studying the original.

  2. boclocks says:

    Actually, “…lots of wondering and thinking and imagining.” IS very scientific, of the best kind, i.e. not the reductionist type. Please keep up the “…wondering and thinking and imagining.” That’s what I want to hear.

  3. tpobrienjr says:

    Interesting. I’ve found that wood is like a cat. It does what it wants, and is not too predictable. Southern Yellow Pine is particularly catlike.

  4. Mike Nicley says:

    Roy Underhill told an interesting story at the closing of Handworks – something about axes that had been found in a well. As I remember it, the axes from the well were the worst ones made (that’s how they had come to reside in the well). Hopefully the Saalburgians would have had the good sense to burn the workbench if it was a dud, instead of tossing it into a well.

    • These were not garbage pits. The Romans typically threw all their possessions into wells if they were in danger of being overrun.

      There is zero evidence this – or any of the thousands of objects at Saalburg – are garbage or rejects.

  5. Larry says:

    Years ago I rebuilt the walls in a hand-dug well 30′ deep. It was three weeks of hard muddy work, and we didn’t even have to dig.

    The idea that somebody would actually dig something like that and then throw junk into it is folly. They threw things into it that were valuable in times of distress in hopes of recovering them later, and possibly to deny the use of the well to the enemy.

    My home town of Huntington NY has a revolutionary war history that includes a story of the wife of the minister of the Presbiterian church and a rebel leader throwing the family silver into their well before they fled from the British across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

    They came back and retrieved the silver after the British left for Nova Scotia after the war.

  6. Stephen Kowalczyk says:

    Dear Chris
    Of all things to interest me in this article, the last photo tickled me the most. Not the new slab, but rather the very loved saw horses it is resting on.
    3 years ago, I built these from your plans. They have been used and abused for all this time. I have been somewhat ashamed of their condition, but apparently should not be. They show all the signs of being useful and being used. Many thanks.
    Steve

    • tangle70 says:

      You should never be ashamed of a well worn tool. The shame should be in buying a tools and not using it. They where meant to be used to create things.

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