One of the important parts of my book on Roman workbenches concerns holdfasts. Likely a Roman invention, the origin of the holdfast and its early form remains a bit of a mystery.
Modern sources, such as Roger Ulrich’s “Roman Woodworking,” don’t shed much light on the tool. Instead these sources focus on what the Romans built more than the tools and processes used.
So Suzanne Ellison and I have turned to looking at Roman gravestones and monuments – hundreds and hundreds of them – to find clues about the Roman workbench and its workholding equipment.
We’d both dug up some drawings from this source – which is about 1,700 pages all told. Including one that looked like a holdfast. Probably.
But you have to be a little skeptical when you are looking at an old drawing of an even older monument that had been decaying for 1,500 years.
Then Suzanne found it. A photo (above) of the monument that clearly shows the holdfast with a curled-under proboscis – Suzanne calls it “the curlyfast.” (Shown is An altar to Minerva in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, erected by a ‘College of Fabri’ and dated 31 BC.)
Would this device work on the bench? If I were on an Internet discussion forum, on pain pills and in a particularly crotchety mood, I’d say: No way. And I’d make up some claptrap about the spring action of the curled-under front would resist the tensioning forces exerted by the shaft vis-a-vis. The point is moot. Lorum ipsum dolor.
But the truth is we don’t know. No, Gary, not even you know.
So I sent an email to blacksmith Peter Ross today….
— Christopher Schwarz
As part of the fifth anniversary of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” we are printing 1,000 signed copies of plans for the chest that are hand-drawn and printed via letterpress.
The project is in conjunction with Steamwhistle Letterpress in neighboring Newport, Ky. As I type this, Brian Stuparyk and his mom are pulling copies of the poster from the Vandercook 425 press and allowing the dark blue ink to dry.
The posters will be $20 apiece (that price includes domestic shipping in a rigid cylindrical mailer) and each one will be personally signed by me. We are making these prints as affordable as possible as a “thank you” for all the people who have bought the tool chest book – allowing me to quit my job without having to live in a cardboard box. They should be available in our store for ordering next week.
The construction drawing of the chest was handmade by Randy Wilkins, a film set designer and the man behind The Designer’s Assistant blog. The print includes all relevant dimensions for building the full-size chest, plus specifications for the hardware.
Our intent was to make the print useful enough (and affordable) so you could use it in the shop. But it is also nice enough that you could tack it on the shop wall or even frame it.
The tool chest print is also our trial run for large-scale letterpress work for the book on Roman workbenches that I’m writing. The process during the last few months has been a real education for me in processing images and type so they could be reproduced on a polymer plate for the Vandercook proof press.
Earlier this week I spent an afternoon at Steamwhistle as they set up the press for the run, which will take several days. Brian hand-mixed the ink (blue with a little black) to suggest a blueprint. One of the many nice things about letterpress is the texture of the result. You can feel every line of the drawing in the paper. It is nothing like traditional offset lithography.
These are printed on smooth 100 lb. cover stock, which is rigid and durable. The finished size of the print should be about 17” x 22”, a typical size for an engineering print.
— Christopher Schwarz
After considering several ideas (including a children’s book about a constipated snail), I’ve decided my next book will be a short 64-page folio on building Roman workbenches.
I’ve been researching these benches for many years, but thanks to some recent breakthroughs in research by Suzanne Ellison I have become obsessed with making two of these benches because I have questions that can only be answered by building the dang things.
Also, the physical book itself will be another big step for Lost Art Press. We’re going to print it via letterpress with Steamwhistle Press in Newport, Ky. You are going to be able to buy the book in three formats:
- Letterpress and unbound (maybe even uncut) pages, tied with a string. You can bind the book yourself or (shudder) put it in a three-ring binder.
- For a little more money, Ohio Book has agreed to bind the folio.
- And a pdf for people who just don’t like printed matter.
We are doing everything we can to make this book affordable (including me working at the press). I don’t have any prices as of yet. With any luck, this will be a quick project and we’ll be selling it by Christmas.
Work on the book is well underway. The wood for the two benches has been cut and is drying (I’ll pick it up in May). And blacksmith Peter Ross has just delivered two bits of hardware for the the bench from Herculaneum – a planing stop and a holdfast.
The holdfast is of particular interest for two reasons. It’s the earliest known (to me) image of a holdfast – 79 AD. And the shape is unusual. There is no flat pad at the end.
You can posit that the artist made a mistake. But a Roman grave inscription has a similar holdfast where the tip of the holdfast actually curves under. Again, you can protest and say it was an artist’s mistake, but all the other tools made by these two artists look right and proper.
So the only way forward is to make the darn metal bits.
The Herculaneum holdfast has been hard at work this weekend at my bench while I was building chairs. The thing works like crazy, though it really dents the crap out of the protective piece covering the work.
There’s much more to say – enough to fill half a book. And the other bench I’m building for this book is even wilder. Stay tuned.
— Christopher Schwarz