Rudy Everts (aka Underhatchet, Chair Chatter, sculptor, painter, lover of Mexican food) made this amazing sculpture for me that’s a scale replica of “The Anarchist’s Workbench.” Even more shocking: It’s all one piece of linden.
The bench is remarkably detailed. The holdfast holes are properly spaced. The planing stop looks like the fancy one that Tom Latane made for the bench. And the leg vise looks like you could give it a spin (I wouldn’t dare).
On top of the workbench, Rudy has carved a board, a handplane, a doe’s foot and a holdfast.
I cannot imagine how nerve-wracking some of this must have been for Rudy to carve.
I’m going to need to make a display case to protect it from harm. This is one bench that I won’t be treating like a rented mule.
“Ingenious Mechanicks” is my worst-selling book. Since it was released in 2016, we’ve sold about 4,000 copies. But I don’t care. That book changed my workshop life more than any other project I’ve been involved in.
Roman workbenches are insanely useful creatures. The only operations I don’t use them much for are dovetailing large casework and planing large tabletops. Otherwise, I can always find a way to hold my work and get the job done.
Since I built my first Roman bench, we’ve had one or two of them in the shop constantly. And when someone else is teaching in our bench room, I take a seat on the Roman bench and get to work on my personal stuff.
Last week, I built a stick chair plus the base of a dining table on my Roman bench while Megan Fitzpatrick taught a tool chest class.
Most of the work is secured by my body or by pressing it against the Hulot block at one end of the bench. Or I pressed the work into one of the holdfast holes in the bench with one hand and planed the stock with the other hand.
For complex shaping operations, I used my carver’s vise to hold the odd pieces then could freely plane, rasp and scrape my work. Carving the legs of the dining table was easy with my body holding the work against the benchtop (though I wish I had more padding in my rear end for this job).
One thing I cannot overstate is how much energy you save while using these benches. Sitting down and working allows me to work longer hours, and I’m less whupped at the end of the day.
At our upcoming open house – 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 26 – you’re invited to help us build a workbench – or simply watch us work and ask questions.
We’ve been working with the Cincinnati Museum Center for a new permanent exhibit, Made in Cincinnati, that will include in the “made by hand section” an educational display about the very important 19th-century Cincinnati craftsman (and ahead-of-his-time ersatz epidemiologist) Henry Boyd. On exhibit will be one of his “swelled railed bedsteads” and a re-creation of his shop space, which is where this Nicholson-style workbench will end up.
We have been working on a book on Boyd for the last couple years – more on this exciting topic in the next week or so.
Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to find extant pictures or drawings of Boyd’s shop – but given the prevalence in his lifetime (1802-1886) of this sturdy and inexpensive bench style, it’s a logical inference that his bench was similar to the one featured in “Mechanic’s Companion.”
Join us in this build, and help us and the Museum Center celebrate the legacy of craft in our city and to share Boyd’s amazing story.
Made by Hand is scheduled to open July 1 at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Some elements will change over time, says Stacey Kutish, senior director of exhibition development, but she expects Boyd’s bed and shop exhibit to remain on display.
We have just received delivery of a new Benchcrafted Classic Bench in our shop, which replaces Megan Fitzpatrick’s LVL bench in the center of our bench room. Megan and I have been in long-running discussions about building her a new workbench sometime during 2022. But recently we decided to buy (actually, trade) for the Benchcrafted bench. Here’s why.
I’ve built a lot of workbenches since 2000, written five books about workbenches and have been hailed/derided for popularizing the 18th-century French bench for woodworkers who like to use hand tools. And when Megan first approached me about replacing her bench, I said I was happy to help build her a new one based on plans in “The Anarchist’s Workbench” (the book is free to download).
But after looking ahead at our schedule for 2022, my brain began to do the math. I can build a bench in about 40 hours of work. The hardware would be about $400. The wood would be about $500. On the other hand, the Benchcrafted Classic is $2,900. After about 5 seconds of ciphering (and carrying the gazinta), the decision to order the Benchcrafted was obvious.
First, the bench completely fulfills my dictum for a good workbench: That you can work on the faces, edges and ends of boards with ease. The Benchcrafted Classic comes with a Crucible holdfast and a planing stop (they added our planing stop by request), and the holdfast pattern is the same pattern that’s on my workbench.
The bench’s form is based on the 18th-century plan. The joints are drawbored. The raw material is hard maple. And the bench weighs plenty for handwork – 300 lbs. The craftsmanship is excellent – as good as any workbench I’ve made. The joints are tight. The vise runs smooth. And the top is flat.
The bench even comes unfinished – a real blessing. Today Megan added a boiled linseed oil finish to the bench, which suits the way we work. A straight oil finish adds a little protection and color, without adding any slipperiness that comes from a wax or varnish.
If you have been reading my books on workbenches, then you know that this Benchcrafted bench pushes all of my buttons. Benchcrafted got it exactly right with no compromises. And they made it for less than I could, at my hourly rate.
So about the payment. I was perfectly happy to pay cash for this bench. But Jameel and FJ said they were interested in trading the bench for one of my stick chairs and a Dutch tool chest made by Megan. So everyone is happy.
Megan has a new workbench with a leg vise that works perfectly. Her LVL workbench is going to live in her basement as “an expansive horizontal storage facility.”* And I’m sure it will be used as a workbench. It’s still a good bench – it has just been eaten up and beaten up by all the workholding experiments I’ve inflicted upon it.
And I have 40 more hours this year that I can use to work on other projects – chairs, refurbishing the bar in our storefront, books and new tools for Crucible.
Now I just need to figure out what to do with our Ulmia workbench, my least favorite bench in the shop. And then the workshop will be complete (cue the laugh track).
— Christopher Schwarz
*Megan here. I do still love my LVL bench, and the top remains dead flat after 11-plus years of hard use – an excellent result from our material experiment. But we also built the base out of LVL, and that was less successful. The stuff is made to compress a bit (to handle earthquakes and the like), and compress it did from the force of the leg vise against the top; the top got pushed back from the front of the leg over time – and despite many efforts to fix it, nothing worked for long.
Now, I have a scabbed-on piece of plywood at the top of the leg to bring that front edge flush…but I know it will move again.
It’s not that big a deal to me; I’m used to it and have myriad workarounds – but I don’t like it when students have a less-than-perfect experience with our equipment, hence my desire to build a new bench. But I am delighted to not build one. I have plenty to be going on with, too, and the Benchcrafted Classic is darn close to what I would have built anyway – basically a larger, heavier version of the petite white pine Roubo in my basement shop (which features an OG Benchcrafted Glide vise).
So now I’ll have two good benches in my basement shop – one little, one big. Oh – and one crappy built-in “bench” – I use the term loosely – that was left by a previous owner. It is indeed a horizontal storage facility. The two actual benches, however, will get used for woodworking. In my free time.
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.