Chris Schwarz's Blog

Early 17th-century Swedish Joiner’s Bench

Alert reader Bengt Nilsson of Stockholm, Sweden, sent in this great photo of a joiner’s bench that was recovered from the Vasa , a Swedish battleship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.

Nilsson took the photo while touring the Vasa Museum with an American exchange student. He estimates that the bench is about 24″ high, 16″ deep and 8′ long.

It has some interesting features. Check out the location of the crochet and the holes below the open part of the hook. Those holes appear to line up with the holes in the sliding deadman. This set-up makes it easy to rig up a long board to plane its edge.

Also interesting: The angled legs at the rear of the bench. This feature is common on English benches and some French and Canadian benches I’ve seen. One possible explanation for its appearance here might be that it helped the bench nest against the hull. You often see that explanation for the shape of sea chests.

However, the more likely explanation is that it is for stability. At only 16″ wide, the angled legs would help the bench’s stability when working across the grain of your work. Also curious: The lack of a rear stretcher.

If you’d like to explore this photo even more, download the high-resolution version below (be sure to check out the planes and other tools in the display case above the bench).

Vasa_Bench_Large.jpg (517.45 KB)

- Christopher Schwarz

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6 thoughts on “Early 17th-century Swedish Joiner’s Bench

  1. Rick

    Perhaps it was a one-purpose bench. What if hull boards to be used on this bench were already surfaced 2S and all the ship’s carpenter had to do was cut to length and work the edges?

    If so, think about conserving space on a ship and maybe other benches were not what/where/size we expect…

    Rick

  2. David

    Chris – The lack of a rear stretcher and the purpose of the bench (i.e., shipboard carpentry) makes perfect sense, as does the narrowness of the top. Most 16th and 17th century "men of war" or "ships of the line" had at least 3 decks. I would expect that this bench would’ve been located on the uppermost deck below the top (open) deck beneath a hatch so that the carpenter would’ve not required torches to see.

    The second deck on such a ship would’ve had ribs supporting the hull planking that intruded on the interior space. The lack of a rear stretcher would’ve allowed the benchtop to fit flush against these timber, the backwards splay of the legs would’ve followed the curve of the hull (wider towards the deck), and the 16" width would’ve conserved precious center-line access.

    One thought is that this carpenter fellow must’ve had a really stout sea-legs. I really can’t imagine being bent over a bench in a dark hold as the ship rolled and swayed in a heavy sea, particularly if I’d had hard tack, salt pork and watery beer for lunch.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Rob,

    Perhaps. When I examined the original photo (a large 3mb file) I couldn’t find any evidence of a mortise on the rear leg. While the original stretcher might have been lapped onto the rear of the legs (similar to the side stretchers) that would be a bit unusual considering the front stretcher is clearly tenoned into the legs.

    Without sneaking into the display and pulling that bench away from the wall we cannot know for certain.

    Chris

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