The ‘What the Heck is That?’ Game

While writing “The Anarchist’s Workbench,” I unearthed a lot of new historical images, and I reviewed images that had been bugging me for years.

One of the buggers is shown here.

Dr. Johann Georg Krünitz’s “Ökonomische Encyklopädie” (or “Economic Encyclopedia,” a 242-volume work published between 1773-1858) illustrated three interesting workbenches in a 1781 volume – about the time of A.J. Roubo. But obviously with more schnitzel and less brie. 

The Krünitz bench shown here has everything. A planing stop and crochet (which are on the right end of the benchtop, suggesting this image was copied from an earlier source). A removable twin-screw vise. A holdfast with a doe’s foot. Plus two tool racks. 

But what has kept me bewildered for months now is the structure on the left side of the bench. It looks like a drawer without a bottom. It is figure F, but I don’t have the original key to the illustration.

I can’t recall ever seeing anything like this on another historical workbench. If you have any thoughts (other than “bacon drying rack”), let me know in the comments.

— Christopher Schwarz

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91 Responses to The ‘What the Heck is That?’ Game

  1. Justin Rogers says:

    Is it possibly just a drawer without the bottom shaded?

    • Justin Rogers says:

      Somehow I missed you saying that exact thing in the post. But that’s what my vote would be.

  2. aaronkessman says:

    It is a perfect place for a drawer. Maybe it is just a drawer, drawn that way (either light colored or invisible bottom) so you can clearly see that it has both depth and a divider?

    • loxmyth says:

      Especially given the suspicion that this was redrawn. Details indicating the drawer’s bottom could have been forgotten in the process.

      I don’t recognize the object directly above it; I wonder if that’s a clue. It looks to be the same size as the drawer (?) compartments.

  3. John Jarosz says:

    A sector for calculating proportions. It doesn’t have the pointed ends but it could be a copy of a sector by someone who didn’t know how it worked

  4. antinonymous says:

    The drawer holds the removable egg carton, which is used to keep the wrought-iron nails handy, and also holds the hard-boiled eggs for lunch. It could happen.

  5. pschempf says:

    How about a drawer planing jig? I was wondering what the ice cube tay just above it was for.

  6. Luis DeFana says:

    The first thing I thought, which is biased based on the modern benches I’ve seen this on, is that it could be be a retracting shelf for holding a sharpening stone.

    • Luis DeFana says:

      After looking at it some more, specifically how wonky that folding ruler right above it looks, it could just be a badly drawn drawer.

  7. Fitz says:

    It’s an ärgernsiedenzukünftigenleseranhang

    • Carl Maltby says:

      Well, it most certainly is not an lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas. That much is known.

      • Mattias Hallin says:

        I agree. It does not look very much like an Air Plane Jet Turbine Engine Assistant Aircraftman Non-Commissioned Officer Aspirant to me, either.


    • Richard Clark says:

      Might be a turboencabulator, although the drawn reciprocating dingle arm is not shown.

    • Jim says:

      Attachment to anger future readers, exactly!

  8. Mark Kessler says:

    What do you suppose the divided rectangular object above it is? At first I was thinking maybe that was a tool holder that could be placed in the drawer with no bottom, maybe it is interchangeable with other configurations for a specific task but then looking closer at the drawer with no bottom the rail in the middle appears to be dowel shaped ( maybe, who knows) could it simply be a place to hang a wet rag used during assembly for cleaning up glue?

  9. Robert Hahn says:

    Looks like a bottomless drawer with a dowel connecting the sides. I know it’s not, but it makes me think of a paper towel rack. Maybe a roll of paper was installed there for glue ups?

  10. Rob Collins says:

    First idea that comes to my mind is a riving break, or if not one for riving, at least a break for wedging a piece being worked. It could be that the open end closest to the bench is for a thinner section of wood, and the adjacent opening, which looks to be wider, for a thicker piece of wood.

  11. woodskills says:

    Drawer holds the removable tray on the bench. To hold small wood parts or fittings? Explains the lack of a drawer bottom. It probably sits on a rabbeted ledge. Tray appears to have been removed to be accessible on bench. Norman

    • Michael O’Brien says:

      I agree you Woodskills. I can just see the small ledges inside the drawer sides that hold the removed tray above. The fact that the small rectangular and divided tray, above it, would suggest that the two items go together. I do believe you are correct

  12. Justin R says:

    The ice cube tray above the bacon drying rack looks like a folding rule or sector. I think the bacon drying rack could actually be a rack. The drawer divider visually seems to suggest a lack of a drawer bottom to me. Perhaps this was used as a rack to keep narrow long stock at hand while awaiting or completing an operation. …or how about a great spot for hanging the oily rag?

  13. Chuck says:

    there is a hole in the front.

    • I’m thinking the bench was owned by someone who worked from left to right based on where the planing stop is. It may be a rest for that very long try plane.

  14. Jeff Burks says:

    Add under one end of the workbench a small drawer F with compartments, which contains grease for the brace bits, chalk, pierre noire (black stone used for marking), some pieces of sea dog skin, that are more worn than the others: because in many cases they are too rough being new.

    Jean-Antoine Nollet
    L’Art des expériences – Volume 1, 1770

      • Jerome says:

        As well, the original german description is available here: if you click on the ‘Hobel’ entry and scroll down on the page that pops-up until you see Fig. 1369 a)

        • Jerome says:

          Apologies, I meant Fig 1369 c)

          “einen kleinen Schubkasten f” (a little drawer f)

          • Brian B says:

            Yes, I looked it up in Trier University as well:
            “Under one end of the bank, put a small drawer f, with compartments, grease for the drills, chalk, Röthel (red ochre?), and some pieces of seal skin in it, some of which must be more worn out than others because there are cases in which the new ones are too sharp.”

      • Ken B says:

        I found the original German text and popped this part into Google Translate: I prefer this last sentence to the translation above…

        “Under one end of the bank, put a small drawer f, with compartments, grease for the drills, chalk, Röthel, and some pieces of seal skin in it, some of which must be more worn out than others because there are cases in which the new ones are too spicy.”

        • flyandgrain says:

          I do love a spicy seal dog skin.

        • Brian B says:

          Yes, “Scharf” can be spicy, or sharp… probably in the way of rough.

        • wrduffield says:

          Not seal or sea lion or sea wolf, it’s dog fish, a kind of shark, its skin is used as an abrasive instead of sand paper.

          Not an ice cube tray, or a sector; it’s a two-foot four-fold arch joint rule. Jane Rees, in The Rule Book, notes that “by the latter part of the seventeenth century, the folding rule was becoming available to the artisan.” Since the thickness of the body of the rule appears to be twice that of the brass arch joint, it is a four-fold rule, not a one foot two-fold rule.

    • John Koenig says:

      This appears to be correct, based on what I found as well. Sharpening drawer with rods for hanging skins

    • I would always sit Jeff Burks in the Center Square. And then I would say “I’ll take Jeff Burks for the win.”

    • Clay says:

      Are people familiar with what sea dog skin is and how is it used in woodworking?

      • William Duffield says:

        As I noted in an above reply, it is the skin of a dogfish, a kind of small shark, used as an abrasive.

  15. Justin R says:

    Crap…totally forgot about the sea dog skin thing.

  16. MarkBuildsIt says:

    That would be a great place to hang a woobie.

  17. Leslie A Clement says:

    That’s easy. It’s a cat pull-up bar.

  18. Brian Welch says:

    Unter dem einen Ende der Bank bringe man einen kleinen Schubkasten f an, mit Fachern, Fett für die Bohrer, Kreide, xxxx [whatever pierre noir is in German], und einige Stücke Seehundshaut darin aufzubewahren…

    p. 46 of volume 24 of the Oeconomische Encyclopädie

    • Carl Maltby says:

      Perhaps Pierre Noir is saltpetre, used for curing bacon and defending oneself from Gorn attack.

  19. Choirboy says:

    Drying rack for when your woobie gets wet….

  20. Relax, it’s just a drawer for keeping Occam’s razor in.

  21. John Koenig says:

    How’s your German? I’m emailing you the German language version of the original bench description and key

  22. Raymond Bowers says:

    I am pretty sure that is a cord wrap for his corded Dewalt tools because this guy clearly got into wood working before their 20v cordless lineup came out…

  23. Steven McDermed says:

    Pretty sure its a drawer. It does have a bottom. It’s just an old black and white print. What did you think of the star wars workbench? I sent the pic over awhile back.

  24. Michael Gruber says:

    You can read the complete compendium at the following link.
    the description in the original text says it is a drawer with different compartments for storing drillbits chalk and something like a leather strap.

  25. Duncan says:

    I know what I’d use it for – stretching out oily rags when they dry to avoid mishaps. Closing the drawer might help keep the dust off (slightly).

  26. Bill says:

    The grid device is a filter element from his shop vac.

  27. Eric Brown says:

    I’m thinking the illustration was flipped before the captions were put on. Looking at the twin screw vice it appears to have left-hand threads. I was thinking the drawer was for cabinet scrapers or extra plane blades, but can’t argue with actual description listed above. Above the drawer on the bench it looks like a 12″ fold up ruler. To the left standing up looks like a fathom ruler.

    • AertPietersz says:

      I think the fact that the illustration appears “flipped” is a function of the image likely having been copied from a drawing, with the reversal being a direct result of the printing process. Like you, I would assume that the type/caption was added after the fact. This did open up a line of thinking for me about woodcuts/engravings where the type is more integral to the design (I never thought about the text in prints such as Melencolia I having to be engraved backwards).

      No real point to this comment, just an interesting fold to the image making process that I wouldn’t have considered.

      • ericfromdayton says:

        Flipping the image and looking at it again, is also puzzling. If I were putting hand planes into the bottom, it would be with my dominant hand. However, (and I may be wrong), it seems as though the bench stop is opposite the planes in direction that they are used. I would have my board against the bench stop and then put the does foot against it, so the planning pressure was more on the bench stop. The bench itself looks like a laminated construction, but that might just be the way it was drawn. The twin screw threads are also very long. I can’t imagine them boring that deep a hole and threading it all the way. Perhaps there’s a mortise on the underside? It’s also puzzling why there are two holes in the leg under where the twin screw would go and not the other end. The other end does have what appears to be a “dead man” type block that could support a long board in the twin screw.

  28. Joe Newman says:

    A drawer with removable small parts bins?

  29. Richard Mahler says:

    Other than that it may be wrought metal rather than wood, with a rod (not a divider), perhaps a stationary rack since there are no visible runners to suggest a drawer, I have no clue.
    Did folding rules exist at the time? That thing defying gravity above the mystery device sure looks like one.
    And what’s with the perspective on the bench top which looks correct from the left but wonky on the right?

  30. Don Williams isn’t getting any younger, and 242 volumes is a lot. Time to dig in.

  31. Ronald says:

    It is a drawer and the thing above it is a removable small parts tray for that drawer.

  32. Ron Stephen says:

    Could it be a pull out rack that holds the divided till shown above it? If so it may simply be a frame with no bottom that supports the till on battens or with pegs. I have seen that before in old illustrations, where an object is shown resting next to its home, so both the home and object can be seen more clearly. Be a good location for a tray full on nails, and you could put your fingers under it to press it up and make it easier to remove. Although I seem to see a pull handle on one end of what I am assuming is a till, so that is puzzling.

  33. Ken B says:

    Thats a Rob Cosman sharpening station!

  34. P Z says:

    Could that “graduated” thingey above it be some sort of ruler or scale? And the “drawer/thingey” be where the “scale/ruler” is stored?

  35. Steven DAmico says:

    Chris – this may be a bit out there, but since, like you said – the planing stop and cleat are on the right, which means the left side we’re looking at is probably where that removable vice was used. Is it possible that this was some sort of orientation device for that vise to sit on top of or connect into? My eyes may be playing tricks on me, but I think I make out some sort of hole or screw to the right (our below) the box.””

    From your previous writings I know these renderings aren’t 100% accurate, but another clue is that the vise only has one face, which means it has to use the bench-top as the other.

  36. JW says:

    Cup holder.

  37. It doesn’t help that there was less gravity back then. I’ve been trying to get my tools to float like that for years but there’s just too much downward force in our modern world. What gets me is, how is the twin-screw vise able to float in mid air but the plumb bob is hanging straight down? With such inconsistencies in these illustrations, one never knows if the attachment in question is really fastened to the bench or if it’s just sort of floating in the general area.

  38. brendan says:

    just me or does it look similar to item no 7 here

  39. No man would ever admit that he has empty drawers between his legs.

  40. Bart says:

    I tried to look it up in the European database of industrial goods, saw many but not the one you were looking for

  41. thwellen says:

    …a drawer in wich you can set different “boxes” with little compartments, to store nails or other smaller things…one of those things is maybe lying on the bench (if that´s not a sector)….

  42. Justin R says:

    That was the storage drawer for the Antikythera machine.

  43. Bert Vanderveen says:

    Maybe someone already mentioned this (I am too excited to read all comments), but this is what 15 minutes of searching resulted in:

    An dem andern Rande der Bank, aber noch an eben demselben Ende, befestige man, vermittelst zwey kleiner Riegel, eine Leiste e, von etwa 15 Zoll lang, welche zwischen sich und der Bank einen Raum von 7 bis 8 Lin. lässet, diejenigen Werkzeuge, die man am öftersten braucht, als: Stämmeisen, Zirkel u. s. f. hinein zu stecken. An dem andern Ende eben dieses Randes kann man eine andere solche Leiste anbringen, um Bohrer, einige Pfriemen zum Vorzeichnen, verschiedene grobe und feine Raspeln u. s. f. bey der Hand zu haben. Unter dem einen Ende der Bank bringe man einen kleinen Schubkasten f an, mit Fächern, Fett für die Bohrer, Kreide, Röthel, und einige Stücke Seehundshaut darin aufzubewahren, von welchen letztern einige mehr abgenutzt als andere seyn müssen, weil es Fälle gibt, in welchen die neuen allzu scharf sind.

    Source: Krünitz Online. The images are in a different directory, but link to the full texts, so this is about Plate 1369, item f.

    … At one of the ends of the bench one attaches a small drawer (item f) with compartments, fat for the drills, “Röthel” (??), a few pieces of sealskin kept in there, of which some need to be more worn off that others, because there are cases where the new ones are too sharp.”

    That is my rough translation.
    Hope this helps!

    • It does look like a divided drawer. But what is hovering on the bench top above it? Might be something that was in the drawer. But it would have to be common enough for the illustrator to include it. Looks too big for a tallow box. Maybe a sharpening stone?

    • On second thought, looking at what appears to be a hinge on the end and graduations down the length makes me think the floating object may be a folding rule of some sort. There are examples of folding rulers going back to the Romans.

  44. Bill says:

    its a folding rule

  45. Todd D Reid says:

    Could it be for assembling drawer sides?

  46. Al says:

    Fat and sealskins in your drawers, sounds about right, certainly wouldn’t want sandpaper down there.

  47. Kurt Roeder says:

    Nicholson wrote that this is a common spot for storage of small items. This is in Mechanics Companion, Rude Mechanicals Press p. 89: “…there is in some benches a cavity, formed by boarding the under edges of the side boards before the hind legs…this deposit is called a locker.” “Hind” refers to the end of the bench, the left end in your picture. It would be the right end on a right-handed bench.

  48. Russell H says:

    I saw Jeff Burks’ response, but was a little disappointed. I was sure it was a device for disciplining apprentices …

    “Go on – put them in the device.”


    “Now don’t do it again.”

  49. mgmoody42 says:

    I’m pretty sure that is the CD tray someone absent-mindedly left open so it gets broken just to anger the IT guy. It could happen.

  50. T says:

    I think it might be a bacon drying rack…

  51. emjayb says:

    What I don’t understand is why anyone dries bacon…

  52. All My Fingers says:

    Wisdom and research here shows that it is a drawer. Original translated text by others says this. The twelve compartment item is a possible drawer insert. Would hold small items. Good work everyone.

  53. Matt says:

    I wonder if that thing on the end of the bench is some kind of extendable work support (similar to an out feed support on a table saw) or perhaps it’s a support/place for applying a finish (with an open bottom the finish would just drip off and not puddle)

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