By the 18th century, there were lots of people throughout Europe who were writing about the material world and how it worked. Thanks to people in the French Academy of Sciences in general and individuals such as Denis Diderot, A.J. Roubo and Henri-Louis Duhamel, people began documenting mechanical practices, such as woodworking.
And so we have a wealth of information on how woodworking was practiced from the 1700s to the present. As we look further back in time, however, there are fewer and fewer sources.
So when researcher Suzanne Ellison and I began looking for images of workbenches from the 1400s, there weren’t a lot of sources. There is no “Big Book of Woodworking During the Hundred Years War.” Though I wish there were.
I don’t know how, but Suzanne got the idea we should be looking at misericords. These small wooden seats in European cathedrals were many times intended for choir members to rest themselves. And they were sometimes carved with different scenes. Because the carvers were woodworkers, sometimes those scenes were of woodworking. And so we began searching the image files of every church’s website we could find.
Suzanne hit gold with a misericord in the Chapel of St. Lucien de Beauvais in northern France that was carved circa 1492-1500 of a woodworker planing on a thigh-high workbench. Take a look at the photo above.
It is built with square legs that are vertical to the top (it’s not a staked bench with legs that rake and splay). The legs are pierced with holes for pegs or holdfasts. There is a planing stop. But what else is going on in this image?
Does the bench have stretchers? I think it’s difficult to say with any certainty. There is a big timber below the bench. Is that a stretcher that is joined to stretchers that we cannot see between the front legs and back legs? Or is it just a big board underneath the bench? It sticks out at the front of the bench quite a bit, but not much at the back. My guess is it’s a board that is unattached to the workbench.
What about the structure that is between the front leg and the benchtop that is angled at 45°? Does that prevent the bench from racking? Or is it a part of the carving left to strengthen the carving itself against damage?
My guess is this is a bench much like what is shown in the famous Stent Panel. No stretchers. But I could be wrong. In any case, stretchers for workbenches are definitely on the way. Soon.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. This blog entry is an expansion of my work in “The Anarchist’s Workbench.” You can download it for free here. We don’t have any physical copies of the book in stock as of now.
13 thoughts on “And the Choir Sings: Workbenches”
The front of the bench in 2D looks just like a bent from a timber framed building. The two arched braces look like they came out of a home. It seems natural they would build a rock solid bench the same way they would build a rock solid house or barn.
The next stage in evolution maybe deleted the braces and added a stretcher instead.
We will see some more evidence of that when we journey to Italy!
Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture . . .
People talk about what you’ve added to woodworking. Resurrecting historical methods. Workbenches. Toolchests. Squirrel in a tree puzzles. It’s all outstanding work.
I think your number one contribution, your bigger legacy, will be all of the fantastic people you’ve helped everyone to recognize. Folks we wouldn’t know without your articles and blogs. Fitz, Ron Herman, Nancy Hiller. All of the great people that Nancy is introducing in her Acorns series.
Suzanne Ellison should be getting a standing ovation. From her first Saucy Indexer work to researcher extraordinaire.
Nancy, where the heck is Suzanne’s bio?
The long board beneath the bench casts a shadow. Therefore, it is elevated from the shop floor. That raises the possibility that it is resting on stretchers. (Close examination reveals that the long board projects symmetrically from both ends of the bench.) Possibly the long board is a stretcher that is lapped to short stretchers. The question remains why the long board projects beyond the ends of the bench surface. Perhaps to prevent the bench tipping into its end under pressure of exceptionally strenuous planing? Outriggers!
Perhaps the board merely was ballast. The bench top appears to be about two inches thick, so the bench may not have been sufficiently heavy to prevent it skittering while planing.
One needs to be very careful when looking around in the furnishings of a church choir! There is an apocryphal tale (which I think is mostly true ;-)) that when Satan fell out of heaven he landed in the choir.
It is interesting to me that if you look to the right under the bench, just behind the worker’s leg there appears another member which is perpendicular to the bench leg and does not align with the board extending from under the bench to the left. A stretcher maybe, or the carver changed his mind following a slip of the chisel or a change in grain direction (I’ve done that).
Also, the 45 degree member appears to me to be a support to eliminate racking. In my mind it is to intentional to be otherwise.
Great research, as an Architect as well as a woodworker, it really stimulates me to study art and architecture history further.
Chris a couple years back I built a low bench 18 ” it’s about 30 ” wide and around 6 feet long. I do a lot of restoration of furniture and I make a lot of custom stuff. I built the low bench as an assembly table and work table as it puts the piece at just the right height to work or assemble. Have you seen such a bench in your research on benches?
Assembly benches are common in modern shops, especially with the advent of nail guns and drill/drivers. In historical shops, assembly could take place on sawbenches. Or a plank over sawbenches.
I agree the 45 degree piece looks like a bracket to prevent racking: if planing always happens right-to-left towards the planing stop one would only need to reinforce the left leg(s), not the right.
Nice find! Makes sense to me that the top would be braced to the leg especially where most of the force is applied by the woodworker. The top looks pretty thin, so a tenon and mortice joint there would be weak on its own. Probably stretchers between the legs holding the plank. Great research you guys are doing, very interesting.
Great image of 13th century woodworker snd his eork bench. What I find, just as interesting, is the plane the woodworker is using.
Perhaps this is not the right place to ask questions related to historical workbenches, but … I am wondering if there is any examples of workbenches that are short? I would like to build a bench to start out with, and have been reading about the Saalburg bench, but the 101″ won’t fit into the space I have – 60 or 70″ might work. Would it be meaningful to try making a shorter version or should one look into some other solution?
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