I empathize with the early woodworker. My brain is wired to look for a simpler solution to a problem instead of creating complexity.
Example: Earlier this year, I spent a couple hours in the dentist’s chair and was force-fed several episodes of a home-improvement show focused on carving out storage from oddball places in a home. Some of the examples I remember over the whirring of the dental Dremel include:
• Hinge your steps to create trap doors on the landings of your stairs to make small bins in the wasted space between your stringers. • Find stud walls that are chases for utilities and turn them into built-in chests of drawers. • In attic spaces, create sliding racks on the interior of a high-pitched roof. You slide giant plastic bins into the racks – it’s a bit like a top-hanging drawer. Through the entire program I wanted to puke (that was mostly because I have a sensitive gag reflex). But it was also because these “storage solution” programs neglect to mention the easiest way to control clutter:
Get rid of your excess crap.
No one should have so much stuff that they have to slave excessively to make a place to stow it. In the same way, no workbench needs vises on all four corners (I’ve built these for students and customers) to build fine furniture. You just don’t.
With this book, I hope to expose you to early and simple ways of holding your work. While many of these devices were used on low workbenches, most of them work on high workbenches as well. I use both sorts of benches – high and low – in my work for building all manner of things, from stud walls to Welsh stick chairs, dovetailed chests to nailed-together coffins.
The workholding on these benches is truly ingenious and effective. Things change when you sit down to work. And I think you’ll be surprised what you can do on your bum: planing, chiseling, shaving and even dovetailing.
The low bench form might not be for everyone. But it might be right for you and you might not know it. Woodworkers with limited mobility use low benches because they can sit and work. Apartment woodworkers use low benches because they take up little space and do double-duty as seating or a coffee table. Curious woodworkers use them because – dammit – they are an interesting form to build and use. Many chairmakers already use a low bench (but they call it a shavehorse), as do many other specialty trades, including coopers and basketmakers. Oh, and a low bench is the best sawbench ever made – promise.
One more plug for these early benches: Using their lessons, you can make almost any surface into a worksurface. A couple drywall screws can turn a picnic table into an English-style workbench. A missing brick in a wall (and a pine wedge) can become a face vise. A shavehorse can be cobbled together with a rock and a scrap of wood strapped to your gut.
Even if you never build a low workbench and reject its appliances as “not whiz-bang-y” enough for your engineering mindset, you might enjoy the journey of discovery required to write this book. It involved trips to exotic Italy, Germany and Indianapolis. (And understanding the low bench might connect your work to Chinese benches.) In the process, we rescued oak slabs from a pallet factory. We flushed $1,000 down a metaphorical toilet to learn about the construction of the first modern workbench in 1505. We ate a ton of Neapolitan pizza.
Workbenches are at the heart of everything we do. So, let’s take a brief look at the history of Western workbenches and consider why it’s even worth looking at ancient benches.
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.
While screw vises were known in Roman times (there is an extant example of one used for jewelry making at Augusta Raurica), they don’t start showing up on woodworking benches until much later. The earliest image I know of is from northern Italy in the early 14th century and shows workers constructing Noah’s ark.
While these vises appear similar to modern vises, there are significant differences. On these early vises, the screw does not move. Instead, there is a movable nut that presses the chop against the work.
These older screw vises are easier to make than a modern vise and can be installed directly into the benchtop without much effort. To make these vises, you’ll need a threadbox and a matching tap. These once-common tools are available used, and it’s worth searching out a functioning set because with them you can make all manner of vises and clamps. I also use these tools to make threaded parts for furniture pieces to allow them to be knocked down flat.
Note that the German threading kit shown in the photos cuts a 1-1/8″-diameter (28mm) thread, which is a good size for general workshop use. The 1″ version would also work fine and allow you to use a store-bought 1″-diameter dowel to make the screws. You can make the vise’s jaw any size you desire, including the entire length of the benchtop. Because I don’t build boats or fear the Great Flood, I made the jaw of my vise (sometimes called a “chop”) 1-3/4″ x 6″ x 36″.
Begin by making the screws. Mine are hard maple, 1.10″ in diameter (which works with the 28mm threading tool) and 12″ long. Turn down 4″ of the length to 1″. This 1″-diameter section will be glued into the benchtop. Thread the remainder of the stick.
Now lay out the location of the through-holes for the screws on the chop. My holes are 30″ apart on centers and located 2″ down from the top edge of the chop. Bore 1-3/8″ holes through the chop at both locations. The oversized holes will allow your chop to pivot and clamp tapered workpieces.
Show the chop to the front edge of the benchtop and use your 1-3/8″ bit to punch centerpoints on the front edge. Drill 1″ holes that are 4-1/4″ deep into the benchtop. Glue the screws into their holes.
Make the nuts from maple. Before wasting time on shaping the nuts, bore and tap several holes in a board and use the two tapped holes that came out the straightest and cleanest. Cut the nuts to shape using [the figure above] as a guide. Then rasp the corners. Simple screw vises such as this are nice for working on the edges of chair seats, planing the edges of boards or working on anything that needs to be held securely. I have installed them on low benches and tall ones.
The following is from “Ingenious Mechanicks,” by Christopher Schwarz – this excerpt from Chapter IV, by Suzanne Ellison.
Tracing the history of workbenches takes one into the realm of Greek myth, along ancient trade routes, through the harshness of secular and religious empire-building and the glories of golden ages in arts, science and literature. There are many frustrations in the great gaps in the records, and regret over the loss of civilizations, languages and traditions. But the one thing that never disappoints, and alleviates the frustration and regret, is the wonder of human ingenuity.
The research for this topic began in 2014 when Christopher Schwarz asked me to translate an 18th-century description of the fresco from Herculaneum. I picked up the Herculaneum trail again in 2016 to search for contemporary accounts of the excavations and also 19th-century accounts of the condition of the fresco. Here and there, in other research, a low Roman workbench would turn up, but the majority of the images Chris uses in this book, and the workbenches discussed in this chapter, were found in June through September of 2017.
I primarily used publicly available image and text databases maintained by museums, universities, photographic archives, auction houses, academic journals and papers, and used search terms in seven languages. Occasionally, I contacted an archivist or academic researcher, and (with few exceptions) they were more than willing to offer assistance. A conservative estimate of the number of images viewed last summer is 8,000 to 10,000, with images from the Spanish Colonial era contributing about a third of the total.
Verifying the geographic origins of the artwork was the starting point to connecting commonalities in history and development of workbenches with distinctive features.
In the last couple years more public and private museums and universities have collaborated to put collections and other resources online. As we get more access there will be many more discoveries to be made, and I expect the gaps in our timeline will be filled. You may find, as Chris did, a missing piece in the puzzle is in a museum near you.
The Earliest Discoveries: 1st-15th Centuries As Chris and I unearthed examples of the low Roman-style workbenches, there was an emphasis on dating the benches and thinking in terms of a timeline, especially a timeline of innovations. Thanks to my father’s brilliant idea of handing me a map to track our family trips, and to keep me quiet on those trips, I started thinking in terms of maps. I had a workbench-discovery map developing in my head. Date, and place, would become important in solving some of the questions about the technology and the quirky features we found.
Low and higher workbenches and shaving horses are seen in flat outline in Roman funerary iconography, but for our purposes we start with four benches depicted in more dimension and detail. The first four low benches date up to the Roman Empire in the second century. Three are from the heart of the Empire: an engraving of a fresco from Herculaneum; a fresco depicting the myth of Daedalus and Queen Pasiphae from Pompeii; and a piece of decorated Roman glass found in catacombs. The fourth find, and the only extant benches, are the two from Saalburg, the frontier fort on the Limes Germanicus in the Roman province of Raetia. The Saalburg benches had the added interest of puzzling notches, a mystery that was solved, we think, by a Spanish painting executed more than 1,500 years later.
After a gap of six centuries in our record I found an 8th-century fresco of a carpenter working while sitting astride a low bench. The fresco was in an Umayyad bath house in the desert at Qusayr Amra (present-day Jordan), in a region once part of the Roman Empire. The bath house follows a Roman plan and the fresco is one of several “portraits” of the craftsmen who built the structure. After another six-century gap, five benches show up in 14th-century Spain and Italy. The Spanish bench is from Teruel Cathedral in the Aragon province of Zaragoza. Two decades before Qusayr Amra was built, the Umayyad led the Muslim invasion of Spain. In Teruel, Mudejar craftsmen (Muslims who remained in Spain after the Reconquista) built the cathedral and are depicted in portraits similar to those in Qusayr Amra. The Mudejar woodworkers were using low Roman workbenches. Of the Italian benches, one is from a Sephardic manuscript and three are scenes from the construction of Noah’s ark.
In the 15th century, low benches are depicted in Flemish and French paintings of the Holy Family, and in two books from southwest Germany and central Italy. Karl Schreyner, a woodworker in Nürnberg from about 1425, is one of the woodworkers in “The Mendel and Landauer Hausbücher.” In 1485, a woodworker and his bench are on the cover of a novella published in Florence. Both are notable because they are not religious images.
Each time there is a large gap in the image record, huge societal shifts were at work. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman Empire was weakened by plague outbreaks that caused troop shortages and disrupted food production. During the 3rd century, there was a 50-year-long crisis that saw the Empire split into three warring parts. The devastation of wars and plague led to population shifts and, despite a reunification late in the century, there were cities in the western part of Europe that never recovered. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Empire struggled to keep control over its vast territories. And by the conclusion of the 5th century, the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the age of Classical Antiquity was at an end.
With the advent of the Early Middle Ages, Western Europe splintered into small kingdoms and city states. In the East, the surviving portion of the Roman Empire attempted to retake Italy and other areas lost to invading tribes. It was, to say the least, a time of great social and economic upheaval, and not every invading or land-grabbing group put record-keeping at the forefront. Artwork from the time does include scenes of woodworking, usually of a Biblical theme, rendered in manuscripts, frescoes, tapestries and mosaics. Representations of the construction of Noah’s ark have yielded a few low workbenches. To Chris’s delight, a series of benches in an early 14th-century Northern Italian manuscript have full face vises.
Two things to consider concerning the lack of image records from the last centuries of the Roman Empire and through the Middle Ages are: Who commissioned the art and who controlled what could be made? In other words: Who had the money and who had the power? The answer: wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church. For the wealthy, a nice selection of art might include portraits to exhibit the richness of your garments and jewels, illuminations for your Book of Hours and tapestries illustrating scenes from the Bible (and to keep out the cold). The Church commissioned frescoes to teach illiterate parishioners lessons from the Bible and the life of Christ. The civic authorities of a city state might commission artwork illustrating themes of good government and portraits of city luminaries. Artwork featuring woodworkers and other craftsmen, all of the low end of the social and economic scales, was not desirable.
How the artwork was made also figures into what survived. Manuscripts and paintings were easy to move to safety, or be looted then saved. Frescoes can be incredibly durable, but given the great age of any work created in this time period they are, nevertheless, fragile. Add in questionable conservation methods and the countless wars and conflicts extending well into the 20th century, and it is remarkable we have anything left to ponder and appreciate.
Many operations on low workbenches seem difficult or a lower-back nightmare until you overcome two obstacles. The first is that many operations are much easier when you are sitting down. Not just sitting on the bench but sitting on a sawbench or stool that is next to the low workbench. Dovetailing while sitting isn’t difficult as long as you allow your sawing arm to swing freely – just like when you are standing while dovetailing.
Likewise, traversing a board with the side stops (detailed below) is fairly easy. The worker remains stationary in front of the side stops and the board is moved from right to left. So, before you dismiss an operation as impossible with a low workbench, sit on it for a while before you pass final judgment.
The other obstacle to consider is your smooth, modern floor. Many low benches will move quite a bit because they lack the mass of many taller workbenches. Many early shops had dirt floors, or the work was performed outside (the book “Woodworking in Estonia” made this clear to me).
So, take your bench into the yard or find a way to immobilize the legs, especially for traversing. A quick solution is to purchase some adhesive anti-skid pads at the hardware store. Those help for all but the heaviest work.