A Book of Probable Benches

corsica IMG_9465

My next book, “Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding,” is about one-third designed. As with all my books, it is wrestling with me like an alligator in a vat of Crisco.

Suzanne “The Saucy Indexer” Ellison has turned up a number of new images of old workbenches recently that have reinforced and nuanced some of my findings and conclusions about early workbenches.

The image at the top of this blog entry is not one of them.

Suzanne plowed through about 8,000 images (a conservative estimate) for this book. And some of the images were dead ends, red herrings or MacGuffins.

In the image above (sorry about the low quality), we have a bench that is off the charts in the odd-o-meter. It is from Corsica, sometime between 1742-1772, and was painted by Giacomo Grandi, who was born in Milan but lived on Corsica.

Here’s what is strange:

  • It is a low workbench with the screw-driven vise perhaps in the end of the bench. Or the benchtop is square. Either way, that’s unusual.
  • The screw vise has only one screw and one vise nut.
  • The vise’s chop is weird. It is longer than the bench is wide.
  • The chop is being used in a manner that simply doesn’t work (I tried it on one of our lows benches). This arrangement offers little holding power.

So instead of saying: “Hey look we found a bench that makes you rethink end vises,” we are instead saying: “Hey I think this bench is the result of the painter trying to create a workbench to assist his composition.”

tilting IMG_9452

As I am typing this, Suzanne and I are trying to figure out if we’ve found a tilted workbench from Corsica that is similar to Japanese planing beam. Or if it’s a victim of forced perspective. Or something else.

At times such as this, I can see how a book could fail to be published. There is no end to the research, the new findings or the greasy alligators.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to A Book of Probable Benches

  1. Francis Beaulieu says:

    My main occupation is to build early (pre-1750) musical instruments. It is a field where a lot of people rely on the iconography to take a lot of decisions, to develop theories and to fill the gaps in the history, about the way these instruments should be build, how they were used, and how they should be played.

    Over the years I have become extremely careful whenever I have to deal with the iconography. With woodworking images, just like with musical instruments images, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the artist or the models had the proper knowledge to understand, use or depict the objects properly.

    To support my point, let’s look at some of the “modern” iconography:



    Of course I chose the worse pictures, but you get the idea!

  2. Patrick M. says:

    In image #2, is Joseph building a new workbench, perhaps? Does he have two legs installed, with the other two on temporary, lower supports? Apologies if this is not helpful.

  3. jenohdit says:

    The quickest way into a bit of insight about what’s going on with the second picture is to draw an equilateral triangle based on the line along the corner between the face and edge of the board on the bench.The left endpoint should be on the very end of the board and the right should be where Jesus’s red string crosses the edge. The upper corner ends up at the center of the nimbus around Mary’s head.

    The colonial paintings Susan has come up with have tended not to have complicated geometrical layouts while the European ones tend to be very complicated. That’s a very complicated one and the triangle is just the beginning. I haven’t yet figured out if something else determines its placement.

    The one in this older post https://blog.lostartpress.com/2017/07/05/it-might-be-a-roman-workbench/ is based on 2.5 circles (roughly, its actual height is based on a hexagonal subdivision of the lowest circle rather than it’s midpoint.) Those circles are further subdivided into 3,4,6, and 12 parts with vertical and horizontal lines intersecting those points to form a series of superimposed grids. What looks like a misunderstanding of perspective fits right into the layout scheme (and I think intentionally creates an animated effect to the sawing).

    I am certain that the dividers in that picture are a key symbolic element and very carefully placed. A picture is really the only way to demonstrate why I think that.

    I don’t know for sure but it’s possible that at least some of those painters used tools similar to those used by Spanish carpenters of the era. It’s the angle of the dividers on the bench that made me start to think that.

    Scroll about halfway down this page until you find hands with a red pencil drawing layout lines using a wooden triangle. The next picture is what was being laid out.

    That triangle is only one of many that might be used for layout. This shows the full set as far as I can tell. http://www.albanecar.es/los-cartabones-de-armadura/
    Scroll to the sixth image that says “Trazado de cartabones de 4,5,6,7,8,9,10,12…”

    Look around the rest of both of those links or better yet do a google image search for the term “carpintería mudéjar” to get some sense of what a master carpenter of the time of those paintings might have made and how pervasive complex geometry was (and still seems to be) in many Spanish churches.

    I’ve looked for Moroccan and Tunisian workbenches thinking that they might have a lot in common with Spanish benches and they do seem to. A lot of all of their carpentry is heavily carved which often seems to be done both at fairly high benches and also in groups working on the same piece or assembly. Someone who speaks Spanish or Arabic might be able to find a lot more. I know enough French to find some Morrocan stuff but just barely.

  4. Damien says:

    #2 is aware of some perspective rules but not all of them or breaks them by prioritizing composition. Even Vanderweyden does that. John for example is depicted two heads taller than Joseph. The workbench is maybe set to the height of both users, giving out of respect each a proper position/stance.

  5. johncashman73 says:

    “At times such as this, I can see how a book could fail to be published. There is no end to the research, the new findings or the greasy alligators.”

    Well, sure. I can remember when this book was basically going to be a standard reprint of “Roman Workbenches.” But since I already have one of those, I’m happy to get this major “rewrite.”

  6. I think it’s fair to say that your intended audience for the book is happy to wait for the exhaustive research. Besides, alligator skin would be a fine addition to the chair that has horns on it.

  7. mark burton says:

    besides being a woodworker I am a fairly good golfer. It amazes me when I see commercials on TV how ugly of a swing the actors have. several years ago I got a blanket for Christmas with a golfer embroidered into the blanket. I could not use the blanket because the posture and swing was soooo ugly. therefore, my point is, never assume the artist knows the trade that they are picturing. they are painting picture, not documenting a trade or showing the correct way to perform a task.

    I love your posts

  8. mikeholz2 says:

    Does the vise in pic#1 have two chops that squeeze the workpiece like giant tweezers?

    • Byron says:

      I reckon it does. It looks like textbook ripping form for a southpaw with a bow saw. Seems like the worker’s left foot could be holding down a stop. The chops could be set near vertical to start a long rip, with the worker using left knee instead of stop. The worker’s right foot is in position to stand on a rope or strap, coupling his weight to the bench. Chisels/gouges in background may suggest two-handed use toward board end, as depicted (beware splinters). Or turner’s tools? Perhaps the vise could be useful for riving, when set to horizontal.

  9. jenohdit says:

    Picture 1 has a very complex geometry. At first glance I thought its proportions are 1:sqrt 2. It’s much more interesting than that and seems to be derived from a pentagon.

    The painting has been damaged so it’s not flat (you can see the stretcher bars where the canvas is sunken in) and the photo distorted it even more so finding the geometry is a bit challenging but I’m pretty sure I’ve got some of it.

    For anyone who wants to take a look at its underlying geometry follow the steps below. You will have to do the actual drawing. I’m not smart enough to upload my results and you might find a lot more than me once you get going.

    I’ve done it in illustrator but it’s probably (definitely) easier to print and do it by hand. Use tracing paper or print several copies.

    As a disclaimer, I don’t think the steps below are necessarily what would have been done to lay the painting out but they do give some insight into the inherent geometry beneath it. Explore on your own and you might be able to figure out why Jesus’s broom handle points where it does.

    1. Set a compass at the full width of the drawing and swing an arc from each corner. (the image itself not its frame) The ends of those 4 arcs establish 2 horizontal lines. Draw them.

    The upper line touches the bottoms of both Mary and Joseph’s chins. The lower line is the dividing line between the red color mass and the darker upper square and Jesus’s hand is touching that line. (That is 2 overlapping squares in case you missed that.)

    2. Draw both diagonals across the rectangle of the full image (not including the frame).

    3. Go back to each of the corners and draw arcs tangent to the diagonals.

    4. Draw a vertical line through the points where those arcs intersect the upper and lower edges of the image. That establishes the left side of the window behind Joseph and the left side of the window above Mary. The line of Jesus’s broom also intersects the point where the lower left to upper right diagonal intersects the left line just drawn.

    If you have been following along correctly you now have 8 arcs, 2 horizontal lines, and 2 vertical lines.

    5. Draw a line from the upper left corner to where the upper horizontal intersects with the right edge. Draw another line from the lower left corner to where the lower horizontal intersects with the right edge.

    6 Using those those 2 lines draw a pentagon whose base is the right edge between the 2 horizontal lines. Just swing arcs of its length from its endpoints to mark the lines just drawn. Two more arcs of the same length from those points complete the pentagon. That’s how the width of the image rectangle was laid out.

    7. Mirror step 6 for the other side. (I’m still exploring what else the pentagons do)

    8. I’ll describe this step for one corner. Repeat for the remaining 3 corners.

    Starting with the lower right hand corner, draw a line to the point where the upper horizontal intersects with the left edge. Follow with one to where the left vertical line intersects with the upper edge, and finally one to where the right vertical intersects with the upper edge.

    One of those lines is the top edge of the board Joseph is working on, another forms the right side of Joseph’s leg.

    A line drawn from the upper left hand corner to the lower right point found in step 4 defines the right edge of Mary’s figure. Note where Jesus’s upper hand and Joseph’s eye fall. (you have to complete step 8 for all 4 corners first)

    9. Draw 2 half circles centered on the midpoints of each side edge – radius is 1/2 total height.

    The line along the bottom edges of the carving tools hanging on the wall passes through the intersection of those 2 half-circles.

    10. Draw a circle with its origin centered in the rectangle (where the diagonals cross) passing through that same intersection point.

    That circle touches the right edge of the window behind Joseph and a corresponding vertical line to Mary’s left.

    11. Draw another circle again from the center of the rectangle with a radius of 1/2 of its width. That circle also passes through the points where the diagonal lines drawn in steps 5 and 7 intersect.

    12. In step 6, two points on the diagonals drawn in step 5 were found by swinging arcs. Draw a vertical line passing through those 2 points.

    13. From the point where the line from step 12 intersects the top edge draw a line to the lower right point found in step 3. (where the right side vertical line drawn in step 4 intersects the bottom edge)

    Note how that relates to the knuckles of Joseph’s right hand. A line through both of Joseph’s hands also intersects with 2 points we’ve already found.

    I haven’t yet found why the vise screw is where it is, but I’m confident that the placement of everything is controlled by geometry.

  10. Paul Fowler says:

    I just developed a blinding migrane…………

  11. TT says:

    My wife is a painter and I’ve noticed artists paint what they see not necessarily what’s there.

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