Ingenious Mechanicks: Proving It

Book of Hours, MS M.739 fol. 10r, Germany, possibly Bamberg. 1204-1219. Morgan Library & Museum, New York

While sifting through bushels of old images for the research for “Ingenious Mechanicks,” Chris and I would often come across some odd something or other that made us scratch our heads. To give you a look behind the scenes, I’ll show you examples of how we verified a workholding device was real and not a figment of the artist’s imagination. The first two examples are not in the book and are some investigations I did on the side.

Grasping Limbs
In the image above Noah is directing the building of the Ark. A board is held on two stands. I termed them “grasping limbs,” and Chris said it was a weird way to depict sawbenches. Plenty of images from the same time period showed four-legged sawbenches. Was this an anomaly? Could I find more images like this and, more importantly, find a description or photograph with the “limbs” in use?

Bronze bas-relief panel, 12th century, Basilica of San Zeno, Verona, Italy.

In fair Verona an even earlier example of the “grasping limbs” showed up in another scene of Noah’s Ark. But, more proof was needed.

Copyright Guédelon. Photo by F. Folcher.

In northern Burgundy the building of a 13th-century castle using traditional methods is underway. Here we see an actual example of the “grasping limbs.” They do exist.

“Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen” are a rich source for learning about the work of 15th and 16th-century craftspeople. In several paintings there are carpenters using various means to secure wood to sawbenches or other supports.

Hans Mathes, 1500-1585, “Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger” Amb.317b.2º folio 45v (Mendel II). German National Museum.

Brüder Hans prefers to use staked sawbenches for his work and is using sturdy metal kramps, or clamps for workholding. This makes sense for heavy work at a construction site. Were metal clamps such as this still in use several hundred years later and were they used by different crafts? Let’s go to Slovakia.

Trencianske Muzeum v Trencine, Slovakia. Photo by J. Hanusin.

Here we have a spoon carver drilling holes in the bowl of a very large spoon. He is using metal clamps to hold the spoon in place. The photo is dated 1954. With a little more research I’m sure many more examples can be found.

The Way of the Peg
Using a combination of early 20th-century photographs, some help from the “Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger” and the Old Testament (plus try-outs in Chris’ workshop), the power of the peg as a workholding devise was revealed. Pegs are covered at length in the book, below is a small portion of the discussion.

“Woodworking in Estonia” provides valuable information on how carpenters worked on the low Roman-style workbench. Pegs at the end of the bench were a common method to use as a planing stop.

Karl Schreyner, 1425, “Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger” Amb.317.2º fol 21r (Mendel I). German National Museum.

The “Schreyner pegs” were a key to using pegs as end and side stops on the workbench.

Bible Historiale, MS M394 fol 57r, Paris, France, ca. 1415. Morgan Library and Museum.

Moses guiding carpenters in the construction of an altar. The carpenter traverses a board with the pegs on two sawbenches serving as side stops. Using your sawbenches as auxiliary work surfaces to your low workbench is also featured in “Ingenious Mechanicks.”

A shot from Chris’ shop with end and side pegs securing a board on the low workbench.

A return trips to Estonia for edge-jointing a board. Adjust the height of the pegs to better hold the board. A peg at the end and pegs on either side hold the board in place.

Historie Biblie Figurate, Manuscripts of the Library of Raphael de Marcatellis, Sint Baafskathedraal, Gent, Belgium.

And we are back to Noah. If there is a gap between the board and the side pegs, a wedge will take care of the problem.

When Chris was looking for the right space to create his workshop he mentioned one of his goals was to have a woodworking laboratory. He wanted a place to exchange and explore ideas on work methods and design. “Ingenious Mechanicks” is one product of that goal. It is also an invitation to other woodworkers to join the conversation.

In the next behind the scenes look I go looking for Saint Joseph; he isn’t always easy to find.

— Suzanne Ellison

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25 Responses to Ingenious Mechanicks: Proving It

  1. Bruce Lee says:

    The first ‘bench’ is it seems, well know in Scandinavia and Holland. It is referred to as a jointing or shooting bench – in English, or a Skottbenk. For more see;
    and also some older post on Havelbenk. (the complete set of 1664 dated tools sitting in near new condition in a Skokloster Castle in Sweden is well worth the look too – April 2015 posts)


  2. Lars says:

    Also the “metallkrampe” is still used here in Scandinavia when building log houses and timber frames then it is called “timmerhake”, direct translation is something like “timber hook”. For example:


  3. Speaking of limbs, Noah better watch his leg or his hallowed carpenter is going to remove it with that hewing axe!

    Also, have you seen that Egyptian hyrogliphic where the carpenter is ripping a board with it tied to a post? I think that’s pretty cool.


    • saucyindexer says:

      Jacob, yes, I have seen the Egyptian woodworking scenes. It’s pretty cool we can still view and learn from them!


  4. jwatriss says:

    Looks like some of the equipment from “Grandpa’s Workshop.”

    Early on in the book are some particularly beefy sawhorses with, I think, some holes. I remember wondering about those…


  5. Dave Fisher says:

    Great post, Suzanne. I love the sliding tapered dovetail joints connecting the legs to the body of the horses in the northern Burgundy photo.


  6. Gavin Forseth says:

    As for the “Metallkrampe” here in the PNW I,ve always called them a log dog. Lots of scandi folk here though using tools like the granfors. Im fairly young and have known them most of my life, I have a vintage one stuck in my wood shed now. Seem pretty common if you live close to the timber and cut wood around here. Great for tacking anything to choping block or logs together.


  7. Jonathan Schneider says:

    Neurnberger-Hausbü is a crazy source! The pictures you find under Berufe/Schreiner are incredibly detailed and high quality.


  8. Marius Moe says:

    Very interesting Suzan, most saucy of indexers!
    There is a silent film documentary on the Swedish national TV´s open archive or “öppet arkiv” about the making of wooden shoes, spoons and chairs in 1923:

    It used to be available for watching outside of Sweden, but not any more. I highly recommend you to contact SVT to get a permission to watch this documentary for it is gold! It shows work holding, a low workbench and the Scandinavian two man ox plane in action in the preindustrial countryside of Sweden. Contact info should be here on SVT´s site:

    If it´s too difficult to get permission to watch, you and Chris should remember this film if you´re ever stuck in a hotel room in Stockholm with bad weather some time in the future…


  9. haandkraft says:

    About the grasping limbs. Have a look at this blog post by Peter Follansbee. It shows a guy cutting a groove using a gradping limb to hold the work. Fourth picture from the top.


  10. Ian McNemar says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve already read my PDF of Ingenious Mechaniks and I loved it. It was fascinating and inspiring. I really admired the journey of retrieving all the background and history of the low benches the most. I’m already planning a staked-leg low bench with a face vice that will double as my toddler’s workbench.


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