Ingenious Mechanicks: Ah-ha!

Top: House of the Vettii, Pompeii, March 2017. Bottom: Saalburg, Germany, June 2017.

This time last year Chris Schwarz and Narayan Nayar were in Naples, Italy. In between consuming vast quantities of pizza they made a visit to Pompeii to study and photograph a fresco depicting a Roman workbench (Daedalus and Queen Pasiphae are also in the picture). Not long after Chris returned from Italy his limited edition letterpress book, “Roman Workbenches” went to press. And in June, Chris and his friends Görge Jonuschat and Bengt Nilsson traveled to the Roman fort at Saalburg to meet with archaeologist Rüdiger Schwarz to study and photograph two extant Roman workbenches.

The transformation of the planned expanded version of “Roman Workbenches” into “Ingenious Mechanicks” started in mid-July. Things, lots of things, started turning up in our research. While putting together a couple blog posts on Latin American workbenches during the Colonial era, this 18th-century workbench from Colombia turned up.

San Jose carpentero, artist unknown, Museo de Arte Religioso, Duitama, Boyaca, Colombia.

One of the mysteries of the Saalburg workbench is the two dovetail-shaped notches found on the long side of the bench. Half a world away, the Colombia bench had a similar notch and was equally perplexing. Was it for riving, securing a piece for tenoning, a place for a jig or other device? A few days later a different notch showed up, this time from Italy.

San Giuseppe nella Botega di Falegname, 1640-1692, Francisco Refini. Fondazione Zeri Photo Archive, Bologna.

A notch on the end of the bench was not so unusual and was normally used for riving or tenoning. This image went into an ‘X-file’ until we had other images or information to help decipher the possible uses of the notch.

Mid-July was blazing hot and humid and as I ran workbench searches (in air-conditioned comfort) a flurry of images were turning up. Anything without a date, artist, title or location went into a ‘Find It’ file. I sent Chris pdfs of benches from Italy, Spain, Germany and other European countries. While trying to verify if one particular painting was Italian or Spanish and its physical location, I just stopped to take a good look at the detail. I was drawn to the toolbox to left of Saint Joseph.

The Dream of Saint Joseph, ca. 1700, Luca Giordano (Neopolitan), completed in Madrid. Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo by Christopher Schwarz.

Next, because Chris and I have discussed baskets for tools, I took a look at the tool basket…and there it was. Holy Cow! At the end of the bench a wedge was in a notch. I sent this off the Chris. He had it one of the pdfs I sent but now I was sure he had not yet seen this detail.

Was this a wedge in a dovetail- shaped notch? Could it be used as a planing stop? Could the wedge be taken out and the notch used for tenoning or something else?

Chris was on his way out of town but quickly replied. He was stunned. Very soon after he returned from his trip he drove the two hours to Indianapolis to see the painting for himself. In the blog post he wrote about it he said he almost wet his pants. Huh. I am pretty sure, although he was over 500 miles from me, I heard him shriek like a little girl, a 6 foot-3 inch-ish little girl.

One detail, well to one side of a painting, opened the door to further workbench explorations and discoveries.

On the end: notch, wedge in notch.

One of the paintings in my ‘Find It’ file was found on a Spanish site. It turned out to be German, part of a ten-panel work by 16th-century artist Bernhard Strigel of Memmingen and in the collection of the German National Museum in Nürnberg. It has a squared notch on the long side of the bench the painting is dated in the same year as the Löffelholz Codex.

Top: Löffelholz Codex, 1505, Nürnberg. Bottom: Hans Kipferle guild table, 1561, Bolzano. Right: Holy Family, 1505-1506, Bernhard Strigel, Memmingen.

Two other images of workbenches with the straight-side and square notch have long been known to woodworkers: the Löffelholz Codex from Nürnberg and the guild table from Bolzano/Bozen.

Strigel’s painting helps to confirm the presence of the notch on workbenches, at least in this southwestern part of Germany and/or Löffelholz wasn‘t crazy. Additionally, the Hans Kipferle table tells us that a half-century later the side notch was still in use.

Map by Brendan Gaffney.

If we step back to the time of the Roman Limes Germanicus and the Roman road network you can see another dimension to the European workbenches with side notches: where the workbenches are located.

So what happened next? Chris went to the shop to try out the theory of the ‘notches and wedges’ on the Saalburg and Holy Roman (Löffelholz) workbenches.

Saalburg workbench. Dovetail-shaped notch ready to cut.

The side notches with the wedge in place serve as side stops for traverse planing.

Wedges in side notches and Roman iron planning stop in place.

On the Holy Roman workbench notches were cut on the end and one on the side.

The notch cuts in progress and the finished bench.

Several weeks before he finished “Ingenious Mechanicks” Chris invited some woodworker friends to a Benchfest. He challenged them to use and critique the three workbenches, French belly and shaving horse attachment that he built for the book. He took notes and Narayan Nayar took photos. The notches with wedges and the notch as vise (with a small wedge) worked beautifully. It was another example of a seemingly simple workbench feature having multiple uses in the shop.

Since the publication of “Roman Workbenches” and the Saalburg visit a cornucopia of workbench and workholding ideas have surfaced and are packed into the forthcoming “Ingenious Mechanicks.”

If you are still on the fence, undecided or torn about adding “Ingenious Mechanicks” to your library Chris will post a short video later in the week to illustrate some of the features of the workbenches.

— Suzanne Ellison

This entry was posted in Historical Images, Ingenious Mechanicks, Roman Workbenches. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Ingenious Mechanicks: Ah-ha!

  1. jfthomas70 says:

    You are discovering some interesting facts, keep it up. Saving unknown things into a file is a smart thing to do. In my previous work, we save data points even if they did not appear to be part of the data set at the time. Getting the data point that tied everything together was really the ’ aha ’ moment.


  2. Dennis says:

    Very interesting. I have one for you. . We often read about Japanese buildings with no nails but have you ever read about this “no nail church” in Russia ?

    They used a method of ” interlocking shingles” for the domes that I have been unable to find any info on and thought you might have something on it thru you research for this book.




    • saucyindexer says:

      I have read about the no-nail churches of Scandinavia and Central Europe, but they were not part of the research for this book. Try searching for stave churches, European Union cultural heritage research papers and UNESCO documents (which would include the Russian church).


  3. Daniel says:

    I find the wedge intriguing. Based on the excerpt you released on work holding, I may forgo my intended wagon vice and add several wedges on the edge of my split top roubo. Is the dovetail a 45 degree slope?


    • tsstahl says:

      37.2. Seriously, I don’t think it matters. The angle on the Roubo plate 11 joint is something in the 30 degree area. It only needs to be snug and able to resist lateral force.


  4. Dan says:

    I know I’m going to figure out the blindingly obvious thing I’m missing within moments of posting this, but what the heck. I get how the dovetailed notches hold, but I don’t understand how the square notches on the end and side of the Holy Roman workbench hold anything. Wouldn’t anything put in there just fall out as soon as you push your workpiece in the direction of the notch?


    • saucyindexer says:

      For the Holy Roman bench the notches function as a face vise: put your workpiece in the notch and secure it with a small wedge. The book has seceral photos illustrated the use of both notches.


  5. Aquila says:

    My grandfather, who was born and trained as a carpenter in the Schleswig-Holstein area of Germany, had the double dovetail wedges on the side his bench. My father, who was trained by his father above, also used the double dovetail wedges. As he was frequently moving from work site to work site, he made a traveling bench that was clamped to two saw horses which also had the double dovetail wedges on the long side. I didn’t know it was such an old practice.


    • saucyindexer says:

      Oh, to have some photos of your grandfather’s and father’s benches!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aquila says:

        Sadly, no one ever thought to take photos of them and they’re long gone. They most resembled the photo of the bench with the two dovetail wedges on the long side of the bench you had in the post, the benches were somewhat higher and my father had a vice on the end of his portable one. There were saddles that fit over the sawhorse tops which were then clamped so the clamps were out of the way.


  6. Brian G Miller says:

    Wow. Excellent job, detective.


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