Last night I reached into the fridge while looking for a beer and found a Stone IPA. I used to love this beer, but I haven’t had one in years. Why? I always seem to chase something new. Weirder. More IBUs. Odd yeast. Whatever.
I poured the Stone beer into a glass, took a sip and became 30 years old again. What an amazing beer. Why have I eschewed this well-made staple in favor of temperamental exotics?
It’s human nature, I guess. We are easily excited by things that are new and novel in comparison to things that are familiar and tried. Not just for beer. But for workbenches and vises as well.
This fact was driven home during the last couple years as I built the workbenches and workholding devices for “Ingenious Mechanicks.” As I put these “obsolete” designs to work, I was pleasantly surprised by how robust, straightforward and easy they were to use. If you have a modicum of hand-eye coordination, you’ll find that these benches and appliances work like old friends.
They have some advantages to modern vises. Their simplicity is at the top of the list.
We have 10 workbenches in our shop in Covington, Ky. The earliest is from 79 A.D. and the latest is from about 1970. And the more modern the bench, the more maintenance it requires. Modern screw-driven vises can suffer from all manner of odd problems. The more parts a thing has, the more things that can go wrong.
Oh, and metal parts that move have special requirements. Rust is a problem. Beyond that, metal parts are typically fit so closely that almost anything can gum up the works, including pitch, sawdust and shavings.
For the first 1,500 years of the so-called “common era,” woodworkers used benches that were simple. They were mostly wood with very few metal bits. Instead of relying on brute mechanical force to hold the work steady, these benches relied on clever geometry, wedges and pegs.
As I folded these ideas into my work, they became second nature. And as I finished up work on “Ingenious Mechanicks” in 2017, I thought to myself: “This book is utterly stupid. All these things are obvious and not worth discussing.”
Good thing I have customers and friends. As I explained to them how these dirt-simple appliances functioned, I saw their surprise. It was the same surprise I felt when I first encountered the doe’s foot, the palm or the belly.
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To be sure, “Ingenious Mechanicks” is an incomplete work. Suzanne Ellison and I scoured every museum, painting and old book we could find to offer a new look at ancient benches. But what is missing is the complete and unabridged instruction manual for these benches.
I built a lot of furniture using these benches and appliances, but there is still much work to be done. Every time I sit down on these benches and get to work, my head is filled with new ideas about how these benches work. I crammed as many of these ideas into “Ingenious Mechanicks” as I could, but there is lots of work to be done.
If you pick up this book and put its ideas to use, you will be part of a group of experimental archaeologists who are exploring the past – the largest undiscovered country on earth. Woodworking (and workbenches) didn’t begin in the 17th century. That’s just when the written record begins.
Need a taste of this book before you commit? I don’t blame you. Here you go:
You don’t have to register for anything. Just click the link and you’ll have a pdf of some of the pages from the book.
— Christopher Schwarz