Nicholson Bench

The “Nicholson” or “English” bench is a simple workbench, possibly made using 2 by construction lumber, that features a characteristic deep front apron drilled to enable to the use of holdfasts or pegs to support work vertically. It lacks any penetration through its top save a single planing stop. A simple and ineffectual face vise adorns the front left side of the bench. No tail vise or additional means of support are shown.

The bench gets its name by its depiction in Peter Nicholson’s early 19th c text “Mechanic’s Companion….” (the real title is a paragraph long, typical of the period). Nicholson’s text is much in the same form as Moxon’s late 17th c text “Mechanic’s Exercises…” and contains much of the same sort of information. Nicholson covered a variety of trades, and republished the manuscript over a period of years in various forms, very like Moxon. One of the biggest differences between the authors is that Nicholson was actually a workman whereas Joseph Moxon was a chronicler.

The image of Nicholson’s bench should be familiar to woodworkers. It appeared in Landis’ coffee table book “The Workbench Book” (Taunton Press) and Chris Schwarz included a reprint in his vastly superior text “Workbenches” (FW publications). This oft republished image also shows the surface plane trinity: fore, try, and smoother, as well as a plow, sash and moving fillester planes, all essential to the work of a house joiner.

The entire text of Nicholson is available on line, thanks to the good folks at Google Books. You are free to download a pdf copy to your hard drive (highly recommended). Google “Mechanic’s Companion” and choose the 1845 edition, as its a better scan and the pdf includes hyper links. The image of the bench is on page ii in the opening pages of the book. Don’t miss the description of the construction of this bench including its hidden “locker”, which I’ve never seen reproduced.

In addition to the engraving in Nicholson, similar benches are shown in contemporaneous paintings of English woodshops (see Landis’ or better yet, Gaynor’s (see below) book for reprints of these paintings). Slightly earlier texts by Frenchmen Roubo and Diderot depict benches that are similar to each other, yet contrast starkly with the Nicholson bench. These, now called “French” benches, feature thick, monolithic tops mounted to stout legs with no evidence of aprons. Roubo also showed a variant of these benches with an elaborate face and tail vise, and identified it as a “German” bench. Perhaps due to Roubo’s regionalized identification, combined with the corroborating English paintings and contrary French images, some have taken to referring to Nicholson’s bench as an “English” bench.

One problem with the use of the term “English Bench” is that it suggests that regionalism was the cause of the form as opposed to typical use, materials, or available technology etc. Thus obscured is the fact that the Nicholson bench is always depicted in association with joineries, not cabinetshops. Interestingly, the lid of an English joiner’s tool chest circa 1790 (he may have been a cabinetmaker) shown in Jay Gaynor’s fine must-have text “Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America” depicts a thick topped bench with no tail vise (so far similar to a “French” bench) with a twin screw vise applied to the front left. The Dominy bench is somewhat similar in form. What I like best about the tool chest lid (which I believe resides in Jane Rees’ personal collection) is that it shows the workman holding a tankard of what must be beer, thereby engaging in an apparently ancient woodworking tradition that I hold dear and sacred.

The advantages of the Nicholson bench appear to be its simple and inexpensive construction, light yet stiff design, and easily achievable extreme length. These features, along with its apron, suggest a particular superiority for the work of a house joiner, responsible for long runs of moldings, and the fabrication of household doors and windows.

I don’t personally consider the bench to be universally superior to any other style. It works for its intended use. But I appreciate the inexpensive materials required, simplicity of its joinery, and its light weight. All of which would certainly be attractive to joiners who required little else, may be called upon to transport or construct a bench on site, and who had access to wide, sawn, often softwood timbers.

I recall one woodcentral.com participant bemoaning the then fad quality of the Nicholson bench, suggesting we were a fickle bunch to switch from French bench devotees to English bench devotees and back again, possibly with a layover in Scandinavia in between. Though the thread died shortly thereafter, I think the poster had a good point. Workbenches do indeed seem to come in and out of style, seemingly for no good reason. In my opinion, the reason for bench fads is the lack of real and basic analysis. Schwarz has provided more and better analysis than anyone has to date. But he also left a fair bit up to the reader, and instead focused on more useful subjects like how to actually build the darn thing, what works and what doesn’t.

I think if you have a question about what a Nicholson bench and whether its right for you, you should do the following:

1) Read Landis’ book at the public library (or neighborhood Woodcraft!)
2) Read Nicholson on line
3) Buy a copy of Schwarz’ book (if for no other reason than to encourage the only guy giving serious thought to such subjects)
4) Add Gaynor’s book to your personal WW library
5) Consider that form probably more often reflects use than geography
6) But most importantly, consider what sort of work you do, intend or wish to do, whether you’ll ever need to transport your bench, and honestly assess your woodworking skill, budget, and time available for bench construction. And while you’re considering all of that, build a Nicholson bench next weekend using Schwarz’ book as a guide so you can get some woodworking done in the meantime.

- Adam Cherubini

9 thoughts on “Nicholson Bench

  1. Tom Dugan

    Adam,

    Thanks for touching on a subject that’s currently near and dear to my heart. I’ve recently agreed to demonstrate period woodworking at our local state park’s 1812 reenactment, and I’m embarking on building the "correct" bench for this time and place. One thing that’s frustrated me with Roubo, Moxon, and Nicholson is; why always the joiners and no cabinetmakers? Of course, it could simply be that there was no difference, but working much smaller pieces as cabinetmakers do tells me otherwise. On the other hand, as you indicated the artwork of the period shows at least one cabinet shop using the "Nicholson bench".

    Right now my current plan is to build a 6′ bench with some 4" oak planks I’ve had for a few years. I might put a twin-screw vise on the front, or else a leg vice (my preference), but no tail or wagon vise. More Dominy than Nicholson. I’ve stopped using the tail vise in my current bench just to make sure it’s feasible (i.e. I don’t make a fool of myself). I’ve been pleased so far with the results.

    By the way, I also heartily recommend the "Working Wood in 18th C America" book. Definitely one of my go-to texts. And yes, that chest lid is owned by Jane Rees.

  2. Al Rossi

    Adam, Great post. Although I keep wondering when you’re going to build a roubo for yourself. I got lucky and built that the first time when I built my bech a couple of years ago, and it’s worked well for both house joinery and cabinet making. In fact I made about 100 square feet of beaded ceiling on it this weekend.

    Now if I just had a workshop big enough to make the bench longer…..

    Al R.

  3. Adam

    Hi Gary,

    Yeah, I’m with you. Yes I can’t answer your question, but a few small facts may help: We know that Moxon’s engraver borrowed many images Felibien’s prints from 1676. They appear in Moxon as reverse images and were touched up, seemingly intentionally. Several tools were added to the image including what I believe is a coffin smoother and an open handled saw. Most notably, the image of the "French" bench was modified to include a twin screw vise. I really think that bench, the twin screw vised "French" bench was the ubiquitous cabinetmakers’ bench from the 18th c. This is the sort of bench Wmsburg ditched in favor of the Nicholson benches they now use. I think this was a mistake.

    I don’t know that Nicholson borrowed any images. We just don’t know whether the grouping of tools shown have any thematic or contextual message (BTW They certainly would in one of my articles and I definitely do seek to control the images and their apparent messages, which in some cases have been subtle.) We can say that the tool depicted in the opening of Nicholson were all very expensive tools, very likely the most expensive tools in the shop at that time. So that may have been the reason they were depicted.

    Adam

  4. Gary Roberts

    Adam… another fine review pulling together the applicable literature, current thought and great practicality. A point that we can’t answer is what the author or engraver thought when the engraving of the bench was commissioned. Did the author oversee the work or was it fully ‘out-sourced"? Who chose the selection of planes for the engraving? Perhaps these planes were the most ‘photogenic’, if you can imagine trying to engrave a tiny image of a molding plane that looks like a molding plane. Did the engraver leave out certain details or elaborate others to make the image better balanced? Personally, I’ld like to send a letter to Msrs. Nicholson, Roubo and Moxon to ask their opinions.

    Thanks for the excellent blog
    Gary

  5. Doug Fulkerson

    Wow! Adam, I really appreciate the thorough and thoughtful answer. Right now, my woodworking skills would be described as bumbling apprentice level. I’m not currently on the market for a bench, but I like to learn as much about period woodworking and period tools whenever possible, so thanks for the Nicholson, Gaynor, etc reading suggestions. I’ve had my eye on Schwarz’s book since it came out and with a few more weeks of saving my pocket change I’ll be able to order a copy.

    By the way, I picked up a copy of Hand Tool Essentials about three weeks ago and feel it has helped my understanding of hand tool work by and order of magnitude. I’ll be trying to make a striking knife out of an old 1 1/8 spade bit this afternoon. A couple of weeks of ago, I was laying out some cuts for a project and found myself alternating between my marking knife and my scratch awl almost every other cut. It seemed that I always needed the one I didn’t have at hand. Maybe this will solve that problem.

    Thanks, again.

    Doug

  6. Ed Kurkoski

    Adam,

    When I checked online, Google showed three publishing dates – 1831, 1832 and 1842. I could not find the 1845 version that you mentioned. So I downloaded all three.

    Thanks for the info and keep up the fine work. I subscribed to Popular Woodworking just so I could get your articles.

    I check your blog daily in hopes that you’ve put something new online.

    Thanks again

    Ed K……………….

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