One of the things we strive to do at Lost Art Press is give away as much information as we possibly can, whilst still eating, sheltering and being (you’re welcome) fully clothed.
And so today we are offering my 2017 book “Roman Workbenches” as a free download. You don’t have to register, give us your email or type in some code at checkout. Heck, you don’t even have to prove you’re not a robot. Robots are welcome to download it as many times as they like (poor misbegotten robots).
All you have to do is click the link below, and the pdf will download to your computer or phone.
“Roman Workbenches” was the precursor to “Ingenious Mechanicks,” my most recent book. “Roman Workbenches” explores the origins of the first-known Western workbench. “Ingenious Mechanicks” traces the development of the workbench through the 1600s.
We printed “Roman Workbenches” via letterpress, which was a crazy and fun experiment. It was a short press run. And the letterpress company, Steamwhistle, closed its doors shortly after publication. (It was not our fault, promise.) After we published “Ingenious Mechanicks,” the Roman book became somewhat of an orphan.
So we are inviting you to adopt it today – free of charge. It has its shots and is ready to go home with you.
The first time I saw the bench in Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” (1831), I thought: That’s not right – the benchtop has only a planing stop. There are no holes for holdfasts, dogs or other workholding devices. While the front of the bench features a screw-driven face vise, I thought surely the illustrator forgot to draw in some details.
Then I got a copy of André Félibien’s “Des Principes de L’Architecture” (1676-1690) and the workbenches shown there (below) are also stripped down. They feature a planing stop and some holes in the top and legs for a holdfast. As I worked my way backward through the visual record of workbenches in technical manuals and paintings, the message was clear: Early workbenches had simple workholding.
It would be easy to assume that early benches are simple because the screw vise hadn’t been invented. Yet, large scale screws show up in early Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Assyrian writings and drawings. And archaeologists have found evidence of screw-driven vises (likely for metalworking) at Augusta Raurica, a Roman site in Switzerland active from 44 B.C. to 260 C.E.
They knew about screws. Perhaps the screws were too much trouble to make for a woodworker’s workbench. Or they simply preferred to work without them.
So, I stopped using a tail vise and didn’t miss it one bit (I still don’t). I began to plane up panels with only a planing stop and became quite fast at processing stock. This small taste of success drove me to experiment with pegs, wedges, battens and notched sticks. Things that looked like they could never hold your work (such as a doe’s foot) worked brilliantly.
I am convinced there is a world of workholding out there that doesn’t require gizmos, but instead requires a little cleverness and some basic skills with the tools. The following account only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Every tradesperson, from the armorer to the shoemaker to the block builder, had simple ways of holding the work that don’t look like much to the modern eye. These are just a few of the devices that show up repeatedly in the historical record.
Planing Stop On early workbenches, the simple planing stop is the foundation for all the other bits of workholding for woodworking. In fact, some benches are equipped with only a planing stop. There’s a lot you can do with a planing stop and a little skill.
Most planing stops are comprised of a square piece of wood that is long enough to penetrate the benchtop and give the woodworker a lot of height for planing boards on edge – 3″ x 3″ x 12″ is a typical size.
The stop is adjusted up and down with hammer blows so it needs to be a durable wood – oak is typical – and dry.
You might think that fitting the planing stop requires you to consider how wet the benchtop is and the current season. Will the stop and benchtop (or both) shrink as they dry? Or, if the stock is bone dry, will that component swell during the humid season? Most bench builders have a slab that is somewhat wet that might take years to acclimate to the shop, plus stock for a planing stock that is at equilibrium with their shop.
There are formulas and lots speculation for how tight or loose to make things. I ignore it.
When I fit a planing stop, I assume that I’m going to have to adjust it later on if it becomes too tight or make a new one if things get too loose. So, I focus on getting a good snug fit that day. I want the stop to move about 1/8″ with each heavy mallet blow.
After I get that fit, I simply pay attention to how it is working during the months ahead. If the stop becomes almost impossible to move, I remove it and plane it a tad. If it’s too loose you can glue some veneer onto the existing stop or make a new one. In time, the wood will settle down and your planing stop will do the same.
This time last year Chris Schwarz and Narayan Nayar were in Naples, Italy. In between consuming vast quantities of pizza they made a visit to Pompeii to study and photograph a fresco depicting a Roman workbench (Daedalus and Queen Pasiphae are also in the picture). Not long after Chris returned from Italy his limited edition letterpress book, “Roman Workbenches” went to press. And in June, Chris and his friends Görge Jonuschat and Bengt Nilsson traveled to the Roman fort at Saalburg to meet with archaeologist Rüdiger Schwarz to study and photograph two extant Roman workbenches.
The transformation of the planned expanded version of “Roman Workbenches” into “Ingenious Mechanicks” started in mid-July. Things, lots of things, started turning up in our research. While putting together a couple blog posts on Latin American workbenches during the Colonial era, this 18th-century workbench from Colombia turned up.
One of the mysteries of the Saalburg workbench is the two dovetail-shaped notches found on the long side of the bench. Half a world away, the Colombia bench had a similar notch and was equally perplexing. Was it for riving, securing a piece for tenoning, a place for a jig or other device? A few days later a different notch showed up, this time from Italy.
A notch on the end of the bench was not so unusual and was normally used for riving or tenoning. This image went into an ‘X-file’ until we had other images or information to help decipher the possible uses of the notch.
Mid-July was blazing hot and humid and as I ran workbench searches (in air-conditioned comfort) a flurry of images were turning up. Anything without a date, artist, title or location went into a ‘Find It’ file. I sent Chris pdfs of benches from Italy, Spain, Germany and other European countries. While trying to verify if one particular painting was Italian or Spanish and its physical location, I just stopped to take a good look at the detail. I was drawn to the toolbox to left of Saint Joseph.
Next, because Chris and I have discussed baskets for tools, I took a look at the tool basket…and there it was. Holy Cow! At the end of the bench a wedge was in a notch. I sent this off the Chris. He had it one of the pdfs I sent but now I was sure he had not yet seen this detail.
Was this a wedge in a dovetail- shaped notch? Could it be used as a planing stop? Could the wedge be taken out and the notch used for tenoning or something else?
Chris was on his way out of town but quickly replied. He was stunned. Very soon after he returned from his trip he drove the two hours to Indianapolis to see the painting for himself. In the blog post he wrote about it he said he almost wet his pants. Huh. I am pretty sure, although he was over 500 miles from me, I heard him shriek like a little girl, a 6 foot-3 inch-ish little girl.
One detail, well to one side of a painting, opened the door to further workbench explorations and discoveries.
One of the paintings in my ‘Find It’ file was found on a Spanish site. It turned out to be German, part of a ten-panel work by 16th-century artist Bernhard Strigel of Memmingen and in the collection of the German National Museum in Nürnberg. It has a squared notch on the long side of the bench the painting is dated in the same year as the Löffelholz Codex.
Two other images of workbenches with the straight-side and square notch have long been known to woodworkers: the Löffelholz Codex from Nürnberg and the guild table from Bolzano/Bozen.
Strigel’s painting helps to confirm the presence of the notch on workbenches, at least in this southwestern part of Germany and/or Löffelholz wasn‘t crazy. Additionally, the Hans Kipferle table tells us that a half-century later the side notch was still in use.
If we step back to the time of the Roman Limes Germanicus and the Roman road network you can see another dimension to the European workbenches with side notches: where the workbenches are located.
So what happened next? Chris went to the shop to try out the theory of the ‘notches and wedges’ on the Saalburg and Holy Roman (Löffelholz) workbenches.
The side notches with the wedge in place serve as side stops for traverse planing.
On the Holy Roman workbench notches were cut on the end and one on the side.
Several weeks before he finished “Ingenious Mechanicks” Chris invited some woodworker friends to a Benchfest. He challenged them to use and critique the three workbenches, French belly and shaving horse attachment that he built for the book. He took notes and Narayan Nayar took photos. The notches with wedges and the notch as vise (with a small wedge) worked beautifully. It was another example of a seemingly simple workbench feature having multiple uses in the shop.
Since the publication of “Roman Workbenches” and the Saalburg visit a cornucopia of workbench and workholding ideas have surfaced and are packed into the forthcoming “Ingenious Mechanicks.”
If you are still on the fence, undecided or torn about adding “Ingenious Mechanicks” to your library Chris will post a short video later in the week to illustrate some of the features of the workbenches.
One of my peculiarities is that I try to complete the writing for a book before the close of the calendar year. I believe I’ve been doing this ever since writing “Campaign Furniture.” Maybe longer.
This year is no different. I’ve just completed (yay!) the first draft of “Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding” and am tying up loose ends before I design the book. This week has been about making the construction drawings and reviewing the manuscript for accuracy and poop jokes.
I’m also excited that Suzanne “Saucy Indexer” Ellison is planning on contributing a chapter to this book that ties the workbenches we discovered with their geography and current events during their construction.
I’d also like to say something about this book that will have to be repeated at least 71 times.
This book is not an attempt to get you to burn down your European bench. It’s not trying to make you feel guilty about owning a tail vise. Or having a tool tray. Instead, the goal of this book (and all my books) is to try to expand the world of ideas when it comes to workholding and bench design.
My only true criticism of the ubiquitous European workbench is that it was a virtual monoculture for most of the 20th century. And the reason it became the dominant workbench design is because it is a good design. And it is suited to mass-manufacturing.
The benches and ideas in “Ingenious Mechanicks” seek only to show you what your long-dead ancestors used to build fine furniture for 1,500 years before the advent of the modern bench. These ideas can be adapted to the bench in your shop. They can help you transform a picnic table into a workbench while you are on vacation. Or they can help a poor college student build furniture without a single vise. But mostly, I hope this book will open your eyes to the devilishly clever ways you can make a stick of wood behave.
The research for this book took me all over Europe. And Suzanne spent untold hours in the digital archives of museums all over the world, including China and the countries in the long-neglected South American continent.
We are so close. And my writing cervix is fully dilated. (Um, but it might not be working properly based on that last sentence.) So grab my hand and start breathing in the following pattern (he-he-hoo, he-he-hoo). Nope, definitely not working.
It’s been almost six months since my last haircut and three months since my last shave. This is not intentional. I simply don’t care what I look like or what others think of my visage (hey, a Fancy Lad term!).
But I do notice that as my hair gets longer the people of Covington address me differently.
When I have short hair, they call me “sir” and ask for work. When I have long hair, they call me “brother” and ask for a cigarette. Alas, I have neither.
Today I processed all the stock for the doors for the Horse Garage. My goal is to get these suckers built by Sunday. If you are offended by machine work, please avert your sensitive eyes. While I would love to cut the joints by hand for these doors, I have winter bearing down hard on me. These doors are going together with loose tenons from the Domino XL.
The other project at hand is building a lot of bench accessories for “Ingenious Mechanicks.” Today I modified the Roman bench I built earlier this year so I can straddle it (without feeling like I’m going to the gynecologist) and to add some vises.
I did this by ripping down the top during a visit to the shop at Popular Woodworking Magazine. During the visit, David Lyell asked me why I was doing this. I said:
“So I can add a 14th century Italian twin-screw vise for boatbuilding.”
He busted out laughing like I was joking. I wasn’t.