Chester Cornett & His Roman Workbench

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I’ve seen a blurry photograph of a detail of Chester Cornett’s chairmaking workbench and read Michael Owen Jones’s description of the bench in “The Craftsman of the Cumberlands.” At the time I thought: That sounds like a Roman-style workbench.

And yesterday I found out that I was correct.

Brendan Gaffney and I visited the storeroom of the Mathers Museum of World Culture in Bloomington, Ind., to view artifacts related to Cornett. And we got more than we bargained for. In addition to some of Cornett’s traditional chairs and rockers, the Mathers also had Cornett’s incredible “bookcase rocker” (more on that from Brendan in a future entry), a chair made by Cornett’s grandfather, Cornett’s worn-down Pexto drawknife, his worn-out dumbhead shavehorse and his workbench.

Located on the top rack in the storeroom, the workbench is a segment of a log with four staked legs. The workholding consists of three pegs that Chester could wedge his work between – exactly as described by M. Hulot in his 18th-century book on turning and chairmaking.

I’m pretty sure that Cornett didn’t read Hulot. So it is an amazing thing to see this low Roman-style workbench made by a 20th century woodworker who lived in the wilds of Eastern Kentucky. Did he come up with the idea for the bench himself? Was it something he learned from his family members who also were chairmakers?

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The bench is 11” wide at the top and the benchtop is 10” from the ground. The log segment is 4” thick at its thickest point and about 62” long. The four legs are about 1” to 1-1/4” thick and wide x 8” long (minus their tenons).

So this is just another data point showing that low workbenches, as described in “Ingenious Mechanicks,” haven’t disappeared.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Ingenious Mechanicks, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Chester Cornett & His Roman Workbench

  1. frpaulas says:

    I.M. has caused me to think most work benches evolve from, “What can I knock together so I can get on with my real work?”. Except for hobbyists (self included) who search for the best solution.

  2. nrhiller says:

    What a fascinating discovery. I love that you are getting us all to see Roman workbenches everywhere.

  3. jenohdit says:

    I’m still not seeing what’s Roman about any of these benches.

    • tsstahl says:

      They talk with their pegs?

    • ehisey says:

      It is style that was extremely common in Roman Empire, and example of the bench survived in Herculeum. It is not so much that it Roman Furniture style, but that we have record information on these benches form Roman time. Ingenious Mechaniks is worth the read just for the history and earlest records of this type bench.

  4. Nate says:

    Dude!, I live in Bloomington I know where all the good beer is can’t believe you wouldn’t call first !!

  5. alan - planesaw says:

    Chris, et al,
    Please show us a demonstration of how a bench like this would be used in chair making. Particularly chair making, but also in other aspects of woodworking. Will appreciate the education.

  6. Rudy says:

    I assume you will be building a replica of this one to try out a very low roman workbench and the advantages it may have?

  7. Great post, Chris. It’s neat to see close up pictures of the bench.

    This excerpt from the documentary about Cornett shows the him chopping mortises on his low bench: https://vimeo.com/38520882.

    I highly recommend watching the full documentary called “Hand Carved” which is available for purchase here: https://www.appalshop.org/store/appalshop-films/hand-carved/

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