Though I am done writing books on workbenches (scout’s honor), I am always on the lookout for interesting historical examples and clever features that I can use in the future.
This week I spotted one that was particularly interesting. I’m calling it the “Baby Deadman,” which is the most horrible name I have ever given anything in this world (including the time I tried to name a cat “Kilgore Trout”).
The bench shown above is featured in “The Cabinetmaker’s Art in Ontario: Circa 1850-1900” by Lilly A. Koltun, published in 1979 by the National Museums of Canada. Researcher Suzanne Ellison recently dug it up using her superpowers. Download the pdf here.
The paper is a biography and shop inventory of Francis Jones of Middlesex County, who made furniture (and dealt in farm implements and undertaking) during the second half of the 19th century.
The section on the workbench notes that its top is 21-1/2” x 78” and the bench is 34-1/2” high. Unusually, the bench has a tail vise, but it doesn’t appear to have a series of dog holes on the top. It does have a metal planing stop (barely visible) which is mentioned in the inventory. And a nice holdfast.
I was struck by the two sliding board jacks (sometimes called a “deadman”). The large one is typical. But the small one on top is unusual and ingenious. Here’s why: I built my first board jack in about 2001, and it’s great for holding large panels and residential doors on edge. But most of my work doesn’t need the full capacity of the jack. Mostly, I just want a movable peg that will help support boards as I edge-joint them.
This bench gives you both.
In fact, I might consider adding only the smaller Baby Board Jack (now THAT’s a better name) to one of our existing benches to fool around with it.
When we published “The Book of Plates” years ago, we received many questions from customers as to why they should buy a book filled with pictures of dinner plates.
“Plate” is, of course, an old word for “engraving.” And the pictures in the book were not of dinner plates, but of the drawings in A.J. Roubo’s “l’Art de Menuisier.”
But today we’re going to talk about a delftware dinner plate from 1769 that shows an interior of a nice woodworking shop with lots of tools, a workbench and (perhaps) a zombie attack.
The plate appeared on the cover of The Magazine Antiques’ May 1981 issue and was in the collection of James C. Sorber, a well-known Pennsylvania collector. I learned about this plate from Dan, a woodworking comrade in Texas, and so I bought an old back issue to examine it.
Delftware has its origins in the Netherlands, and so it didn’t surprise me to see a Dutch saw hanging on the back wall of the shop. The other tools on the back wall are typical for the time, including the chisels with the fishtail blades, the braces, the nail pincers and the dividers.
The workbench is interesting (of course). It gives me a Dutch vibe as well. It bears some resemblance to the one shown in the altarpiece at St. John’s Church in Gouda (circa 1565). The Gouda bench has six legs, with the front three pierced with many holes for pegs or holdfasts. No vises.
The 1769 bench also features three “legs” pierced with many legs for holdfasts or pegs. No vises. But two of the legs are drawn more like sliding board jacks (aka deadmen). Though a bench with two sliding board jacks is unusual – this is the first one I’ve seen.
I’m not sure what tool the woodworker is using on the bench. It looks like a scorp or travisher to me. But I have chairs on the brain.
Also, we have to keep in mind that the purpose of this plate was not designed to educate, but to immobilize some gravy or restrain some pudding.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the guy to the right. At first I thought he was destroying the picture frames leaning against the wall. Then I looked at his feet, and it appears he is standing on a board. It looks like he’s holding an axe, but it could be an adze. In either case, he really should look where he is cutting, or the artist will have to add some red glaze to the plate.
In fact, I think he looks poised for a 18th-century zombie attack on the workshop. If this plate were indeed made in the Netherlands, then they are probably Spanish zombies.
And now I am going to end this blog entry before it gets too ridiculous.
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.
Each of my books about workbenches has been about missing links in the history of workbenches.
“Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use” (Penguin Random House) was about the benches that preceded the dominant style of bench in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Euro-Scandinavian-German-Ulmia-style bench.
“Ingenious Mechanicks” was about the first recorded workbenches in Italy up until the 15th century when modern vises began to appear.
“The Workbench Design Book” (Popular Woodworking Books) was about another kind of missing link. My boss at Popular Woodworking said our unit needed to come up with $30,000 to $40,000 in revenue to avert a layoff or two. Could I write a follow-up book on workbenches?
So what’s “The Anarchist’s Workbench” about? On the surface, it’s about the workbench form that I have come to prefer after more than 20 years of building benches. But for me, it’s also about an important change in the way workbenches were constructed between the end of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century.
During this period, workbenches went from being built like a chair – staked furniture with splayed legs – to being built like a rectilinear timber frame with square mortise-and-tenon joints and stretchers connecting the legs. This is a time period that researcher Suzanne Ellison and I have visited before, but for “The Anarchist’s Workbench” we dug deeper to try to discover evidence of the evolution.
I think we found it.
As always, I have to thank Jesus Christ for His help with this book. Not so much for being the Son of God, but for being the son of a carpenter. Because of the connection to woodworking, tools and workbenches show up in religious paintings and drawings in every century.
When I started the book, the best evidence we had of this evolutionary change was a circa 1580 drawing by Hieronymus Wierix (1553-1619) of Antwerp. He was the son of a cabinetmaker and produced an influential folio of drawings about the early life of Jesus. These drawings are a gold mine of woodworking information from the period.
The Wierix drawings and their proliferation across Europe could be the subject of a book in and of itself. Wierix and his brother, also an artist, were colorful characters. And Wierix spent time in prison for murder.
Have a look.
This carpentry drawing is my favorite in the series. It shows a low bench but it looks like it is built with square joints. And it might have a stretcher. There’s a holdfast and all manner of tools to ogle. I also love the ladder and its square through-tenons.
In the drawing of the infant Jesus sawing, we get so one of the “batwing” squares I’m so fond of. Plus dividers, a hammer, a mallet and some helpful angels.
The third drawing of a workshop is also awash in tools. Check out the marking gauge on the bench and all the tools on the back wall. Also fun: stacking lumber in the corner until it becomes hazardous is an ancient practice that hasn’t changed.
But after more digging, Suzane and I found that Wierix was not the earliest illustrator of this important bench. But that bench wasn’t far away.
— Christopher Schwarz
You can download a pdf of “The Anarchist’s Workbench” for free here. We are currently sold out of hardbound copies of the book, but we expect to restock as early as next week.
A: Chris finds the Retro (shown above) is easier to install. The Solo requires perfectly straight and deep holes, which for many people requires a drill press. So he chose the one that’s easier for beginners or for those without a drill press to install.
54. Q: In Mr. Schwarz’s first workbench book, he states that the stock is cut to rough length and ripped oversize when the stock is first purchased. It is then stickered and allowed to dry for a time before starting the build. In his latest book, Mr. Schwarz states on pg. 197 that he piles the latest purchase on top of the pile in the basement. When he has a bench-sized pile, he makes a bench.
Is one method preferred over the other? Should the wood dry as full 2x12s and when ready to begin the build, cut the wood to length, rip it a bit oversized and the glue and clamp it up?
A: Both are correct. If he has a bench in mind and knows the rough sizes, he’ll go ahead and rough cut then sticker the stock, and it’ll dry faster. But if not, he’ll buy a pile and let those dry until he’s ready – it takes longer for them to dry that way. But both approaches work.