The following is excerpted from “Ingenious Mechanicks,” by Christopher Schwarz. This book is a journey into the past. It takes the reader from Pompeii, which features the oldest image of a Western bench, to a Roman fort in Germany to inspect the oldest surviving workbench, and finally to Christopher’s shop in Covington, where he recreated three historical workbenches and dozens of early jigs. (We’re down to just one low bench here now; it gets used every day.) – Fitz
Woodworking has changed little during the last 2,000 years. The basic set of hand tools, the joints we use and the need to hold things at the bench is the same as when the Egyptians constructed furniture.
Put succinctly: Workbenches need to immobilize the work so you can work on a board’s faces, edges and ends. Any workbench from any era can accomplish this task, whether it be a Roman bench, which resembles a log with legs, to a fantastical dovetailed German bench with a shoulder vise, tail vise and series of obedient metal dogs.
The challenge when designing your bench is to make it suit both your work and your personality.
If you are a furniture maker, any of the bench designs you’ll find in magazines, woodworking stores and videos will likely suit the work. As I said before, the work itself hasn’t changed all that much since Roman times. A hollow-core door on sawhorses can be pressed into service to make fine furniture.
But I urge you to find a bench that also suits your personality. If you are an engineer (or a recovering engineer), you might prefer a bench with metallic screws that move swiftly and smoothly to hold the work. If you are an apartment woodworker with little space or money, you might desire a Roman workbench that can also serve as a sitting bench at the dining table, or as a coffee table in front of the couch.
The rest of us are likely somewhere between these extremes. We might have tendencies toward gizmos. Or we might prefer bare-bones simplicity. There is not a “best bench” out there for all of woodworking, full stop.
This book exists to expand the array of benches and workholding ideas available for those who like to keep it simple. It is not a criticism of modern benches. I’ve built and used many of these. I have an early Ulmia in use in my shop. I understand their advantages and disadvantages. I definitely think they have a place in many modern shops. But they are not the end-all. Our ancient ancestors didn’t need them to make fine things.
I won’t rejoice if you read this book and melt your tail vise (unless you invite me to what would be an awesome party). Instead, I hope only to expand the range of discussion when it comes to workbenches, and perhaps give the engineering woodworkers additional options for holding the work when they don’t have a fancy bench at hand.
But before we do that, I think it’s only fair to discuss the ideal characteristics of all workbenches, young and old, low and high, simple and Steampunk-y.
Wood for a Workbench
You can use any wood to make a good workbench. Except for wood that is on fire. I do not think that would work. But other than wood on fire, use whatever you have on hand.
Our society of woodworkers is still in recovery from The Great Malaise of Steamed European Beech, a period during the 20th century when beech was seen as the only sane option for a would-be bench builder. (And if you couldn’t get beech, maple was the eyes-cast-downward-in-shame option.)
History has shown that Woodworkers of Old used almost any species for a bench, from white pine to purpleheart. (The earliest surviving bench we know of is made from oak.) The wood doesn’t have to be dry or knot-free. To be sure, however, there were some species that were desirable because they were cheap, heavy, strong and readily available.
So, if you lived in Pennsylvania, maple would meet those characteristics. In Hungary, beech was the thing. In France, oak. In England, whatever could be gotten off the boat. In South and Central America, the choices were incredibly vast.
Many woodworkers, myself included, like to use dense softwoods for benches because they are incredibly cheap, available everywhere and (if you choose the right softwood) heavy and plenty strong.
So, please don’t fret over the wood species. Any species will do.