Workbenches that are powered by wedges, friction and stops have been fascinating to me since I first started looking into Roman workbenches. My interest and research into these benches eventually became “Ingenious Mechanicks.”
And now an old Norwegian Sloid (Sloyd/Slojd) manual has shed some new light (for me, at least) on these wedge-based benches – thanks to some drawings and text.
Eivind Reed of Breim, Norway, sent along these drawings plus a translation he made from the first Norwegian textbooks on school Sloid, “Sløidlære for skole og hjem” (Craftsmanship for School and Home), which were written by H.K. Kjennerud and Karl Løvdal. Here is the translation:
No. 244. Wedgebench. Pine in the benchtop, birch in the front vise, the board at the front end, planing stop and wedges. The bench can be made larger or smaller according to the intended use. By the drawings you see that the planing stop will sit slightly within the edge of the front board. The fit in the mortise must be so tight that it stays without slipping down. To avoid having to remove the planing stop when using the birdsmouth, we make two recesses for the teeth, so that it can be flush with the benchtop.
The bench can be put on a box, kitchen counter or similar. It will of course not measure up to a regular workbench, but when you get used to it, it does good service. To plane the face of a board, put it on the benchtop, thrust it into the planing stop so that the teeth sink in and it rests toward the front board. The teeth stop the board from moving backward when withdrawing the plane. To plane the edge of a board, we put it in the front vise [a crochet]. If it will not stand securely, we use the wedge. If the board is narrower than the thickness of the benchtop, we drive down the planing stop and put the piece in the birdsmouth. To shoot the ends of the board, we wedge it in the front vise, back vise or we use the front board as a shooting board. To rip boards, we use the front or rear vise as we see fit. To crosscut, we lay the piece on the bench as usual. To avoid losing the wedges, and to keep them always at hand, we hang them by string on eye hooks on a fitting place on the bench.
No. 245. Wedgebench to attach to the wall. See No. 139. The bench is attached with hinges and can be put up when not in use.
There are some clever aspects to both of these benches that are not covered by the text.
Both benches are on the small size, like the Milkman’s Workbench. The sizes are in metric. (My mind defaulted to American customary units when I first looked at the drawings. I saw a benchtop that was 6” x 20” x 80”. Dumb American.) The second wedgebench (No. 245) is longer, but that’s mostly to make room so your handplanes don’t poke you a new window in your wall.
One of the bits of cleverness are the rotating toggles below the benchtop that allow you to hold work on edge. I’ve seen sliding bars, but not toggles. These are much simpler to make and install.
The best stuff is the wedges. The opening in the benchtop has one straight side and one angled side. The angled side is 6° off vertical. The wedges shown below the notch both have faces that are angled at 6°. One wedge for small work; one for larger. The angles on the vise and the wedges keep the clamping pressure square to the workpiece.
In investigating early benches, all the notches that I recall encountering had square-sided notches (the dovetailed notches in the Saalburg bench are one exception). Clamping work in those proved less-than-spectacular until I tried using softwood wedges with almost no slope on them. The softwood compressed when struck and then held the work like crazy. These angled notches are another excellent solution to the problem.
The crochet is called out in the text, and it’s nice that this one also comes with a complementary wedge. Both the crochet opening and the wedge are at about 11.3°.
Also interesting is the “front board” – basically a full-time wide planing stop. It’s only about 3/8” thick (9mm). Combining that with the toothed planing stop is pretty clever.
When I first looked at figure No. 244, I assumed the holes in the benchtop were for holdfasts. That is, of course, silly for many reasons. It’s likely because of the way they are drawn that they are the way you fasten the benchtop to a table or box.
If I make another Roman bench, I will definitely incorporate the angled notches and wedges into the design. Thanks so much to Eivind for the image and the translation.
— Christopher Schwarz