‘Roman Workbenches’ Isn’t Quite Right

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Today I glued up my recreation of the Roman workbench from the Saalburg fort and museum outside Frankfurt, Germany. The Saalburg bench is, as far as I know, the oldest surviving workbench from about 187 A.D. And as I pounded home the maple wedges, I pondered how the title of my book – “Roman Workbenches” – isn’t quite correct.

While two of the benches I’ve built for this book are definitely Roman, with a third from the Holy Roman Empire, the thrust of the book isn’t about Rome or the workbenches that came from there. It’s about the workholding on early benches.

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Thanks to the paintings dug up by Suzanne Ellison and the addition of my active imagination, the book is becoming a treatise on: “Look, you don’t need a lot of complex devices on your bench to build fine furniture. You just need to be smarter than physics.”

For about 1,500 years, these forgotten workbench appliances were common on both low benches and high ones. Then we became a mechanical people. We tried to make our lives easier by inventing devices that would assist us in our work. I’m sure there’s some formal name for this idea. Until someone tells it to me, I’m going to call it “Arthur’s Law.”

(W. Brian Arthur was an economics professor at Stanford University and is now at the Santa Fe Institute. He wrote in 1993: “Complexity tends to increase as functions and modifications are added to a system to break through limitations, handle exceptional circumstances or adapt to a world itself more complex.”)

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I’m not saying complexity itself is a bad thing. Some systems are complicated. But many times we attempt to overcome a problem with additional complexity when the answer might actually be simplicity.

So while the glue dries on this bench I’m going to give the title of this book some more thought. Likely I’m going to stick with “Roman Workbenches” because that’s where the historical record of these benches begins.

— 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.
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33 Responses to ‘Roman Workbenches’ Isn’t Quite Right

  1. dsgoen says:

    I rather like “Smarter than Physics: Early Roman Workbenches”

    • Brian Smith says:

      I like it too. But also consider; “Roman Workbenches: Smarter than Physics”. Roman Workbenches subject is the lead, but followed up by a hook. (“smarter than physics? why is that? I have to buy that book…”)

  2. Will Myers says:

    Mr. Newton had a thought on simplicity I have always liked:
    Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.

  3. brentpmed says:

    Chris, why a diagonal wedge? Is there a mechanical advantage? Decrease chance of spitting either the bench or leg? I understand you were recreating a historical bench, what are your thoughts about diagonal wedges?

    • The original bench was missing its legs so we don’t know if they used diagonal wedges.

      Diagonal wedges spread the tenon out in four directions. While this orientation slightly increases the chance of splitting the joint, it is better at closing up any gaps in the fit between the tenon and mortise opening. Some woodworkers will even use two diagonal wedges – creating an X – to enhance this effect.

      I consider this wedge orientation to be just one of the many options you can explore with mortise-and-tenon joinery. I’ve had great success with diagonal wedging for many years and recommend it.

  4. Ziggy Liloia says:

    I can’t help but think of this video, and the Japanese woodworkers merely sitting on the floor, doin’ their thang, with nary a bench in sight.

  5. Peter Brown says:

    I’ve got my printout scotch taped in for p. 28. Am I going to need one for the cover and spine as well?

  6. A beautiful bench but your floor is much too clean.

  7. Lex says:

    I started wood working two years ago. Last winter I built a bench and went with Vic Tesolin’s take on the Nicholson bench because it was attainable. While i bought a screw to attach a vise, I haven’t done it yet. I should, and I believe that I will, but to date I’ve approached work holding piecemeal. And while I won’t make any claims of fine furniture, I’ve been able to make without an absurd expense on either bench or vise.

    Oddly, I don’t dream of a Roubo. When inbuild another bench, I think it will be a better Nicholson that incorporates lessons learned and accommodates a developing type of work. And maybe I’ll finally use that screw.

    • tsstahl says:

      I like your attitude. Don’t feel pressured to have that ‘perfect’ whatever. Just build stuff.

      My first bench has a ten dollar Wilton knock-off vise on it that I use to this day. I’m finally building it’s replacement which will have a Hovarter vx20. The new bench is made of Ash, because they are literally giving it away in some places, though I did pay for mine. The legs are from a couple of southern yellow pine 2X12’s purchased from a home center store on a trip to North Carolina (SYP is not the whitewood sold around me).

      Including the vise, I’m into this bench for well under $300. To be honest, I’m probably going to drop another 30 and get the Benchcrafted plane stop, but not before I try filing and drilling some bar stock.

      • Lex says:

        I have the veritas planing stop and it’s fantastic except for thin stock, but that’s easily solved by a piece of MDF with wood screws that rests against the stop. The Veritas stop can struggle if there’s any warp in the board that causes the far end to lift when you start planing, but that’s generally solved by a piece of 1/4″ plywood scrap between it and the bench.

    • jayedcoins says:

      Amen. I’m coming up on three years in this craft (please, don’t call me a craftsman, it is insulting to people that do good work :p ). I’m still kickin’ with the “hobby” bench I scored on Craigslist for a hundred dollar bill. I moved the vice from a tail to face orientation, got wise to the ways of the doe’s foot, and it works.

      I do dream of Roubo and I do have a red oak slab sourced. But that is more about mass, as my bench is light as a feather which makes most handwork skittish — and frankly, just being able to build a badass bench and being able to say, “Heck yeah it’s a Roubo!”

  8. boclocks says:

    “Any damn fool can get complicated, it takes a genius to simplify things.”
    I’ve heard this from many people in many fields.

    Beautiful bench, Chris. I built your SYP bench years ago. It still works fine for me. (I did modify it a bit. I modify everything!)

  9. No one’s said “Workbenches of Necessity”?

  10. Hugo says:

    Hi Chris!

    Sublime again. Really look forward to that book. Btw… Why the “dovetails “…? Sorry if stupid question.

    Cheers!

  11. kaisaerpren says:

    I shared this to the FB page “Unplugged Woodworking”. we were talking about how many vises to put on a bench the other day… the original poster there was thinking three were the minimum “needed”. I proposed none are needed. and explained how you go about making things without vises…
    be well , thank you again for the well written articles
    K

  12. jayedcoins says:

    Don’t get me wrong here — machines have a great purpose and I am not at all anti-machine. But I will say that I just don’t get the “hobby” woodworker (which I’d consider myself) that works one or two projects at a time and will go to the trouble of say, setting up their table saw and dado stack just right to cut four tenons. Talk about over-complicating things. Now, if you’re making doors for your entire kitchen, sure, I wouldn’t be doing that by hand either… I’d find a friend with the machines. Hell, that’s a simple example. Some of the router table setups… geez. Seems a lot simpler and more fun to boot to just pick up a marking gauge and a saw and do it.

    I really try not to judge. If people genuinely enjoy machine setup, more power to them. Sometimes, I think a lot of people enjoy the finished product, and the journey doesn’t really provide much pleasure to them. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Pride in the finished product is the, uh… admittedly the moneyshot. Makes sense that people strive for it. But I can’t help but thinking that folks that sort of discount the journey are doing themselves a disservice.

    Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe more people are doing this professionally or at large scale and this stuff all makes sense for them. A local group is hosting a well-known and highly-skilled woodworker soon that is going to demonstrate some of his innovations and approaches for machine setup and jigs. I just think of all the time that goes into making the dang jigs before you end up actually working wood!

    • Lex says:

      I’m not anti-machine either and inherited the better part of a competent shop’s worth of them. I use them all the time. But i generally find myself looking at a task and weighing the pros and cons of completing it by hand or by machine. I don’t have a planer, but at this point have no plans to purchase one because a bandsaw and handplanes are already in the shop (which is small). At the same time, i have no interest in acquiring the tools and skill to resaw by hand.

      But maybe some of this is because i don’t have room for a bunch of jigs and there are a lot of instances where conceptualizing the machine setup is befuddling as opposed to conceptualizing the work process with hand tools. That being said, i’m happy to get things close (a miter for example) with machines and fine tune it by hand. This method feels a little like the best of both worlds to me.

  13. alleneross says:

    Hi, also wondering what the two dovetail openings are for?

    • Suzanne and I think they are part of system of stops to restrain work from the side. We’ve found both evidence in the record of paintings (in the New World and Old) and on the Saalburg bench. It will all be in the book.

  14. Toolnut says:

    How The Romans Conquered Workbench Envy: or Doing More With Less.

  15. bluefairywren says:

    How about Workbenches From Antiquity – that way if you discover a Greek workbench or a Persian workbench etc they can be included without fuddling the title.

  16. How about Workbenches of Antiquity

  17. spenczar5 says:

    I think you’ve hit on an important difference here: complicated and complex are not synonyms.

    Sometimes, stuff is just hard, full of a zillion competing variables, like trying to predict the weather. That’s complex.

    Other times, things are simple and easy to describe, like holding a workpiece in place, but we make it hard for ourselves with wonky jigs and contraptions. That’s complicated.

    This is engineering 101 stuff, but it’s easily forgotten.

  18. mctoons555 says:

    Long before the age of political correctness we had an acronym for this – KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Left to its own the universe and everything in it tends toward chaos and it takes energy to find the simplicity and apply it, but the rewards from expending that energy are greater and longer lasting. Nature is a great teacher of this principle. Natural selection is typically the pathway – try something and if it doesn’t work throw it away, keeping any parts that do work, and try another. Over time the simple, and sometimes elegant solution appears and tends to prevail. My two cents.

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