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.
The good news: We have a new printing on order of “The Woodworker’s Pocket Book” … but it won’t be in until mid-April.
The better news: You can get it now from Lee Valley Tools and Lie-Nielsen Australia, and Classic Hand Tools (in the U.K.) is awaiting its shipment but taking pre-orders. (Tools for Working Wood, Highland Woodworking and Rubank Verktygs – all of which did have it – are, like us, currently sold out.)
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.
With the last large batch of dividers, it became clear that the demand for the heat-treatable tool steel version is much greater than anticipated. So, for the latest batch, half of the sets in inventory are O1 tool steel, and the other half 12L14 steel.
At the moment, there are about 50 sets total available, with another few dozen sets milled and awaiting hardware. Unfortunately, as with so many things this year, backlogs in production and delivery have made it increasingly difficult to predict timing – but I believe I have found a solution to the pivot hardware issue using off-the-shelf hardware developed for the custom knifemaking world.
So, over the past week I’ve been developing a simple approach to modifying pivots manufactured specifically for folding knives. This hardware is specifically designed to hold very tight tolerances, which is perfect for the needs of the dividers. Because they are intended as a sort of DIY-customizable solution, the bolt-and sleeve (aka “Chicago bolts,” or “sexbolts”) system only needs to be modified to take the #10 spanner drive I use for adjustment, and some light shaping to make them nearly identical to the custom manufactured hardware I’ve always used to date.
While this is no guarantee against production delays – these bolts are occasionally prone to stock shortages themselves – having another, much larger channel to source this hardware makes it much easier to avoid long-term stock issues.
So, if you’ve been wanting a set of dividers, this is a good time; but as always the goal is to have these available on a continuing basis, and this development puts the dividers much closer to that goal.
O1 and 12L14 dividers as well as a few remaining hammer kits are available at daedtoolworks.com.
When Wilbur Pan was doing his pediatric residency at Children’s Medical Center/University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, he and his colleagues developed a routine. Each Saturday, when they were on call, they’d go through their rounds as swiftly as possible so that the residents who were on call the previous night, and any patients who could be discharged, could go home – as Wilbur notes, no one sleeps well at the hospital, and that includes children.
They were usually done with rounds by lunchtime. Saturday afternoons were generally quiet – they got few kids in the Emergency Room. So Wilbur and his colleagues would “sit around in the residents’ lounge watching college football,” he says.
After the football Wilbur would grab the remote control and switch the TV to PBS “to watch Norm or Roy.” Because they watched “The New Yankee Workshop” or “The Woodwright’s Shop” every Saturday afternoon, they quickly figured out how the episodes typically progressed. At some point during any given episode of “The New Yankee Workshop,” Wilbur recalls, “one of us would say, ‘Hey, I bet Norm’s going to get the dado stack.’ And then Norm would say, ‘I’m going to get the dado stack!’ and we would all high-five each other.” Ironically, he goes on, “none of us did any woodworking.”
What a bunch of geeks.
Today, Wilbur does as much woodworking as he can. He started – or more precisely, started back up – around 2006, after he and his wife, Mary, bought a house in East Brunswick, N.J. After living in apartments for most of his life, it was the first time since high school, when he took a shop class that taught him to make a bellows (which his parents still use), that he had a place to do woodworking at home.
Wilbur was born in Lafayette, Ind., in 1964. His parents had emigrated from China to Taiwan in the late 1940s, and from Taiwan to the U.S. in the late 1950s. His father, Jaming, completed a master’s in physics, eventually completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering as well; his mother, Clara, has a master’s in accounting. They met in Chicago, then made their home in Homewood-Flossmoor, a suburban area south of the city. Dr. Pan senior taught at Purdue University-Calumet, in Hammond, Ind., just over the state border; it was less than a half-hour commute, which gave the family the best of both worlds: steady employment, while continuing to live close to the city they loved.
When Wilbur was a boy, his father built a set of bookcases for their home, a project that Wilbur found inspiring. You could turn some bit of creative imagination into practical, handsome objects for the family? Pretty amazing, when you think about it.
Wilbur attended Northwestern University, then graduated with an M.D./Ph.D. from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 1994. After completing his pediatrics residency in Dallas, he did a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at Children’s Memorial Hospital/Northwestern University Medical School back in Chicago. Bart Kamen, an attending physician he’d worked with in Dallas, happened to get in touch one day; he asked whether Wilbur might be interested in caring for children with brain tumors…in New Jersey. On a lark, says Wilbur, he flew to New Jersey for the interview; on the way back, he had a job offer – the hospital wanted him to build a pediatric brain tumor program from scratch.
By this time, Wilbur and Mary, a Chicago native, had married. They moved to New Jersey with a mutual understanding that they could always move back to Chicago if the East Coast didn’t feel like home. That was 21 years ago; they’re still in New Jersey.
His shop is in the basement of their house, which was built in the 1940s. On moving in, they learned that their neighbor Marc was an excellent woodworker who had built the kitchen in his family’s house, as well as most of their furniture. Wilbur credits Marc with showing him the difference between a finely sharpened tool (specifically, it was a handplane) and one that…well…is not.
Having lived next door for many years, Marc was able to share what he knew about the Pans’ new-to-them house. The father in the previous family had used part of the basement as a woodshop – one wall still had the painted outlines of tools he’d hung there. Marc recalled that after spate of noisy banging around, his former neighbor emerged from the basement with a boat.
In around 2006, Mary thought a gift certificate to a woodworking class would make a good present for her husband. Marc referred her to an adult education program run by their county’s community college. The teacher, Mike Zaslav, had trained at the College of the Redwoods. Wilbur signed up.
“I go to the first class and Mike spends the whole time teaching us how to sharpen a chisel,” Wilbur reports, adding that enrollment had dropped by 50 percent by the time he showed up the following week. But Wilbur was hooked. He learned how to sharpen and picked up the basics of working with power tools. He made his first dovetail joint, edge-glued boards together and made his first mortise and tenon.
Beyond that course, his training as a woodworker has been less formal. “It was a lot of me messing around and reading, and trying to figure out how things work.”
When Wilbur was first getting started in his 10’ x 20’ basement shop, he understood that he’d be working with limited space. He had to choose between a table saw and a band saw – the shop was too small to accommodate both. He chose the bandsaw. Besides its small size, his shop’s location beneath the family living space led him to minimize the production of fine-particle dust, which the HVAC system would spread around the house; both of their kids were young, and Wilbut knew the kind of damage dust can do to children’s lungs. Hand tools would be better for everyone.
Then Wilbur learned about Japanese hand tools. So many woodworkers were crazy about them and considered them superior to Western tools. He couldn’t figure out why they had the cutting properties they did, so he starting researching the question through practice, as well as reading. He was intrigued, as a woodworker, as a scientist and as an American of Chinese descent. “Probably the whole Asian thing kicked in and it was easy for me to get interested in them,” he suggests (I imagine with a wink).
His father had taught him to look at things from the perspectives of science and reasoning, so Wilbur was not about to accept that Japanese tools were superior without some systematic investigation through reading, reasoning and hands-on research. “Japanese woodworkers have the same priorities as Western woodworkers,” Wilbur says. “They have sharp pieces of metal that they use to shape wood so they can build things, and they want to do things as efficiently as possible. If that was true, then the tools must be similar,” he inferred, adding “at least, in certain ways.”
He decided to focus on how the tools were similar instead of how they were different. Based on his research to date, he says, “If there is a divide, it’s not an East-West thing but a pre-industrial versus industrial thing,” He shared what he learned along the way through his blog, articles, an “End Grain” essay for Popular WoodworkingMagazine and presentations at Woodworking in America. It was at Woodworking in America that Wilbur first came to my attention.
“It’s true that there are obvious differences between Japanese and modern Western hand tools,” Wilbur acknowledges. “But if one looks at pre-industrial Western hand tools, when blacksmiths were making chisels and plane blades, there are similarities that stand out. Chisels and plane blades were made by forge-welding a hard piece of steel to a softer piece of steel. And both chisels and plane blades were made in a way so that there was some concavity to the back, for ease of sharpening.
“My approach is that I want to present a straightforward explanation of how to use Japanese tools. I try to stay away from the Zen stuff. I go on the assumption that the audience’s workshop is your typical hobbyist workshop in the U.S.; I’m not expecting people to work on the floor. The things I teach are centered on your typical woodworking shop – I have a typical workbench, a band saw and a drill press.”
What about Chinese tools, I wonder? After all, they would be more directly related to Wilbur’s cultural heritage. “For woodworkers, China has a tradition that may be more interesting to woodworkers interested in furniture making,” he replies. “There’s tansu [in traditional Japanese woodworking], but people in Japan didn’t have chairs and tables for the most part. They sat on the floor.
“China had furniture you’d recognize, made with tropical hardwood species – lots of rosewood and ebony. The joinery is very intricate; decoration can be very elaborate. But not much is known about the tools that Chinese woodworkers used.”
He attributes the differences between what’s known about Japanese and Chinese tools partially to differences between the two cultures in how they think about objects. “I think there’s a case to be made that in Japan, objects seem to be fetishized. There seems to be this reverence for objects that doesn’t exist to the same extent in China.”
For example, in Japan, much attention has long been paid to samurai swords. China has a similar tradition with respect to swords, but in China, swords occupy a less-central position when it comes to symbolic appeal. “In a Chinese movie a warrior may have his sword that’s a family heirloom. And then he loses or breaks his sword in a battle,” Wilbur has noticed. “He picks up something else, like a chair, and fights with that.” In Japanese films, the warrior often seems lost without his sword.
In China, he says, tools were historically valued in instrumental terms: They got the job done. The Cultural Revolution resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge; such information is still hard to come by, especially for those who are not based in China. “It’s coming back, though,” he says, mentioning a school that teaches traditional techniques for carving with hand tools. But today, he notes, this school also teaches students how to carve by CNC, because they recognize it’s a means to produce furniture that’s affordable to vastly more people.
Wilbur values woodworking as a counterpoint to his daily work. He still cares for patients, although now indirectly as a director of breast cancer clinical trials for the pharmaceutical company Merck; he left pediatric oncology after 18 years on faculty at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. But when it comes to his medical work beyond basic physical exams, it’s very hands-off. He spends “a lot of time in front of a computer.” As a result, he says, “woodworking fills this urge to be able to create something physical and scratches an itch I think a lot of people have.”
That said, he notes that while “a lot of things in medicine are done with protocols and algorithms, there is a lot of creativity in medicine because there’s always the patient that comes along and doesn’t fit any protocol. So you have to figure out how to take care of that patient. Plus, the process of diagnosis is a creative act, because there’s a puzzle you’re solving.”
He ends with a nice metaphor. Several years ago he made a joined box (pictured above), “a completely American form going back to the late 1700s in the Philadelphia area.” The one he made “looks just like an old one.” But he made it entirely with Japanese tools.
“It doesn’t matter what part of the world your tradition comes from,” he concludes. “There are more similarities than differences than you might think.”