I’ve seen a blurry photograph of a detail of Chester Cornett’s chairmaking workbench and read Michael Owen Jones’s description of the bench in “The Craftsman of the Cumberlands.” At the time I thought: That sounds like a Roman-style workbench.
And yesterday I found out that I was correct.
Brendan Gaffney and I visited the storeroom of the Mathers Museum of World Culture in Bloomington, Ind., to view artifacts related to Cornett. And we got more than we bargained for. In addition to some of Cornett’s traditional chairs and rockers, the Mathers also had Cornett’s incredible “bookcase rocker” (more on that from Brendan in a future entry), a chair made by Cornett’s grandfather, Cornett’s worn-down Pexto drawknife, his worn-out dumbhead shavehorse and his workbench.
Located on the top rack in the storeroom, the workbench is a segment of a log with four staked legs. The workholding consists of three pegs that Chester could wedge his work between – exactly as described by M. Hulot in his 18th-century book on turning and chairmaking.
I’m pretty sure that Cornett didn’t read Hulot. So it is an amazing thing to see this low Roman-style workbench made by a 20th century woodworker who lived in the wilds of Eastern Kentucky. Did he come up with the idea for the bench himself? Was it something he learned from his family members who also were chairmakers?
The bench is 11” wide at the top and the benchtop is 10” from the ground. The log segment is 4” thick at its thickest point and about 62” long. The four legs are about 1” to 1-1/4” thick and wide x 8” long (minus their tenons).
So this is just another data point showing that low workbenches, as described in “Ingenious Mechanicks,” haven’t disappeared.
— Christopher Schwarz
The only thing that disappoints me about my Saalburg workbench is the finish. It’s not jet black like the original I studied in Germany in June.
Of course, when the bench was thrown down a well circa 200 A.D., it probably wasn’t jet black then. But still, the black looks correct to me because I’ve been staring at photos of a black workbench for months now.
Today I figured out how to reproduce it.
I’m at Larry Barrett’s house this week taking a chairmaking class with four other friends. We’re building the Jennie Alexander Chair (with a few modifications) made famous in the book and DVD “Make a Chair From a Tree.”
Today we split out the long back posts from green oak and began by sorting through the oak stacked in Larry’s yard. Some of it looked exactly like the oak Saalburg workbench. And I do mean exact.
This oak had been stored in a giant steel tub in the side yard of Larry’s house and the steel had rusted through, releasing a continuous supply of iron into the water. The result: jet black oak that wasn’t just on the surface. The wood was jet black as much as 1/2” into the wood.
This makes complete sense. At Saalburg, The wooden objects were thrown into wells along with lots of iron objects. It made the same stew in Larry’s log tank.
I have no plans to reproduce the finish on my bench, however, but I know how to achieve it.
— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site: christophermschwarz.com
Before I can complete the expanded edition of “Roman Workbenches,” I have to build a reproduction of the bench I saw at Saalburg this summer – the oldest surviving workbench I know of (about 187 A.D.).
I took complete measurements of the intact bench during my visit and I will reproduce the bench as best I can, right down to the unusual dovetail-shaped recesses in one edge of the benchtop.
What I won’t be reproducing, however, is the bench’s waterlogged, black and shriveled appearance. When wooden objects were pulled from the wells at Saalburg, Rudiger Schwarz says they were well-preserved. But as they dried out, the objects distorted a bit.
The original bench was oak and was perhaps rived from a trunk, according to Peter Galbert, who studied my collection of photos of the Saalburg bench this July.
My bench will be red oak from a slab cut by Lesley Caudle in North Carolina, who supplies wood for slab workbenches (read all about that here). Will Myers dried the wood and has roughed out the slab to its final dimensions.
I’ll pick up the slab next week and begin building the bench – the remainder of the work will all be by hand. I’m juggling two other projects currently – a walnut backstool commission and a dugout chair – so my progress will be slow at first. Despite this, the work should go fast. One of the great virtues of Roman workbenches is they take only a couple days of work to build.
So unless something goes haywire, this revised book should be done by the end of 2017.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. We still have a 28 copies of the letterpress edition of “Roman Workbenches” available. Once these are gone, they are gone forever.
Brendan Gaffney sent me this incredible video – likely from Vietnam – where woodworkers are building stair components using a low workbench as a router table.
The low bench is exactly what you’d see in an ancient Roman or Chinese workshop. Most intriguing to me is the V-shaped bench stop at the end of the bench. It is exactly like the Chinese “palm,” a workholding device that Suzanne Ellison dug up and helped me research for the upcoming book “Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding.”
Seeing it in use as a router table is amazing.
The entire video is interesting. The music, however, will make you batty.
Please do not leave a comment on the lack of “workshop safety” in this video. I will delete them. In showing you this video I refuse to open the door for criticism of their work, tradition or culture. You might think that you’re a more evolved being, but that’s really just your Superman Underoos talking.
— Christopher Schwarz
My work on the expanded edition of “Roman Workbenches” continues. I need to build one more bench (oh, if I had a dime for every time I’d written those words) and then sort through the pile of research I’ve accumulated, plus the mass of images and links that that researcher Suzanne Ellison has sent me.
Here’s the surprising/not-surprising thing we’ve found so far: These benches are everywhere. It doesn’t matter what time or place you are researching. If you look long enough at a society’s paintings and material culture, you’ll find a low workbench. It might have vises, stops, dogs or holdfasts. It might have none of these things. Or all of them. The Christ child might be tenoning (as shown) or he might be using a chalk line (not shown).
But whenever I encounter these benches, I am both amazed and thankful that Jesus was a carpenter and not a shoe salesman.
Recently Suzanne dug up the example at the top of this blog. (“La Segrada Familia” by Juan del Castillo, 1634-1636. From the Museum of Fine Arts Sevilla.) Of note: The massive top, the face vise (we see these first in the 1300s) and the stretcher at the end between the legs.
Also, two people tenoning? Is this something the artist made up or had seen before?
Time for bed.
— Christopher Schwarz