Sometime during the last two weeks I looked around the house and wondered: Do I have a low Roman workbench here somewhere? Because I need one for my demonstrations at Colonial Williamsburg’s “Working Wood in the 18th Century” conference, which runs from Jan. 14-17, 2021.
Here’s the problem: I gave my low, eight-legged workbench (based on a fresco at Herculaneum) to Brendan Gaffney. That bench is (I think) somewhere in New York state. Then I loaned the low bench I built that’s based on the world’s earliest extant workbench at Saalburg, Germany, to Dan Raber at the Artisans Guild in Millersburg, Ohio.
Then, while dishing out our family supper on my Loffelholz workbench in our dining room (which is too high for the Colonial Williamsburg demonstrations) I barked my shins against something. A Swedish sitting bench I’d built in 2010 for Popular Woodworking Magazine. The bench is from the Älvros Farmstead, a group of buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries that were moved to Skansen, Sweden, which is a living history museum.
The Skansen bench’s top is 11” wide, more than 2-1/2” thick and 72” long. The bench’s seat is about 19” off the floor.
Hmm. I guess I do have a Roman workbench here.
Today I started to add workholding to the bench. First up: A twin-screw vise based on 14th-century French benches. I made a couple screws from maple and threaded them with my 28mm threadbox from Dieter Schmid. The tool works brilliantly, is expensive and never gets loaned out. The threads are about 7” long, and have a 1”-diameter x 5”-long tenon on the other end.
I drilled a couple quick holes on 22” centers in the side of the Skansen bench to receive the tenons. This spacing allows me to hold and shape a chair seat. The vise chop is made from 2” x 4” x 30” red oak. The chamfers reduce the weight of the chop without reducing its grip (thanks vector forces). The vise nuts are maple.
To make the vise grip better, I looked around for coarse leather to glue to the bench and the chop. I am presently bovine-free. So I took a tip from the late Jennie Alexander and lined the vise with Safety Walk anti-slip tape. You can buy it at any good hardware store. It’s designed to stick on ladders and such to improve your footing. I use it on handscrews and the like. It’s not period-correct (the French used sturgeon swimbladders to line their vise jaws, JK), but I just forgave myself for the lapse.
All the parts are finished with linseed oil and beeswax.
Tomorrow I’ll add an adjustable planing stop, a “palm” and a chairmaker’s shaving stop.
Finally, I’ll chain this Roman workbench to a heavy object in the library so it doesn’t escape.
— Christopher Schwarz
If you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about in this post with low workbenches and “palms” and swimbladders, you haven’t read my book “Ingenious Mechanicks.” It’s all about early ways to work wood without a complex bench.
17 thoughts on “Getting Ready for ‘Working Wood in the 18th Century’”
Having attended the conference for over 15 years I was really looking forward to seeing your presentation and you in person. I know Megan would have been there and the best of Popular Woodworking, when it was great, would have been represented. Maybe next year.
Maybe it’s the shape of the legs, but the bench looks like it was meant to be fitted with that twin-screw vice. Interesting form those low benches. Looking forward to the conference!
I’m glad you’ve not lost your quirky wit in spite of increasing time spent in a variety of enterprises!
How will that setup handle the back and forth lateral movement of something like planning? It looks as though without stretchers that the 90 degree angle of those legs will want to stretch those mortises and or break no? Now I want to mortise mine this way and find out.
I guess we will find out.
These are stout tenons, and the planing action on a low bench is a little different. You are on the bench. Your feet are on the floor. So you are providing anti-racking forces during the stroke.
When one walk on the bottom of a small boat, the small boat moves in the opposite direction of one’s move because the center of gravity of the set consisting of the boat and the person tend to stay at the same place.
When planing while seating on this bench, the legs are not affected by the planing force between the plane and the planed board which remains internal to the set. The legs are only affected by the movement of the mass of one’s body while planing.
I hope this makes sense.
Put wheels on it and see what happens.
Ha! I knew it the moment I saw that bench in the archives. Let us know if you end up adding gussets across the legs.
Calavera Tool Works always has leather scraps for sale. Looks like great leather. They are in South Carolina , so fairly close.
There you have it, introducing the bow legged Roman Workbench. I am not poking fun of bow legged people by the way. My wife, two sons, and I are all bow legged and proud of it.
You beat me to it. I was going to name it the Bow-legged Bench.
You beat me to it. I was going to dub this the Bow-legged Bench.
You’re using a workbench as a dining table, and a dining table bench as a workbench. Pleasing symmetry there.
Chris got 99 problems, but a bench ain’t one.
Skansen! I’ve been there….golly, that was nearly 25 years ago. I was 15 and on tour in Scandinavia with (if you can believe it) an all viola ensemble. Just dug out my photo collection from the trip. 15 rolls of film and only about half a dozen pictures from Skansen. I was a terrible photographer. Couple random shots of the zoo portion, a photo of the glass blowing forge in operation. Oh, and the obligatory shot of the entry sign–think entry building to Disney World, but with a Hollywood-esque block lettering style, half circle “SKANEN” sign over the top. Not one pic of the woodworking history museum part. Sigh. At that time, woodworking for me was my dad trying to crosscut a full sheet of plywood on his Delta Unisaw and having me hold the offcut. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!
P.S. Good thing you’re going to chain that bench down. Otherwise it’s liable to walk away.
I wanna borrow it!
Great for shaping outside edge of stool seats with seat blank in vertical position. I use a B&D Workmate like this but it’s not nearly as pretty as your svenska bench.
I’ve been attending the CW conferences since 2008 and am looking forward to this one. Sad though, that it will be virtual, as seeing old friends, talking to the presenters, and visiting the trade shops is a large part of the fun.
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