Chris Schwarz's Blog

Roman Workbenches at Woodworking in America

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I’m building a pair of Roman workbenches in my shop that I’ll be demonstrating at Woodworking in America this fall (Sept. 16-18 in Covington, Ky.). This will be my only public appearance in 2016 – I am in full-on hermit mode right now.

Why the heck would an Arkansas boy build Roman workbenches? Easy. They were the dominant form of workbench for about 1,500 years, they are simpler to build than modern workbenches, and I think they have some things to teach us.

The workholding is simple and ingenious. The Roman-style holdfast is unlike any modern holdfast I’ve used. And the tail vise is literally a tail vise. You put your tail on the work. And there is a lot more to demonstrate, especially when jointing edges.

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I’m building two benches to show the variants. When you look closely at old images it’s obvious that there are two bench heights. One is about knee-high and narrow. The other is the height of a modern workbench – about thigh-high.

Both are made using staked construction – splayed legs that are mortised into the top. No stretchers. No shelf. No tool tray.

The short bench won’t have any vises whatsoever. Just holes for pegs and holdfasts. The tall bench, on the other hand, will explore a very late Roman bench that I think is the transition point between the Roman bench and the modern bench. It has both a tail vise and face vise, though they work differently than our modern ones.

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If you’d like to get a look at these benches, be sure to come to Woodworking in America this fall. The organizers have lined up a bunch of demonstrators that are top-notch (check out the list here). My benches will be there the whole time and you’ll get a chance to give them a try for yourself (you’ll have to bring your own toga).

— Christopher Schwarz

7 thoughts on “Roman Workbenches at Woodworking in America

  1. kwhp1507

    Will you be posting any pictures of the benches once they are done? I can’t make it to the show to see them, but would love to see pictures if nothing else.

  2. sduncan

    The attire of the worker in the color photo doesn’t appear to be wearing Roman garb. A Roman would be wearing a tunic, which would look like a long T-shirt. He has one shoulder exposed, so it’s not a tunic. Depending on the actual time period, he might be Greek, but I only say that as I’m not familiar with Ancient Greek garb.
    It would not surprise me if he’s a slave, as they tended to do most of the work.

      1. sduncan

        Pompeii was Italic, Etruscan, Greek, Italic again, and Roman. That means just about anybody could have painted it, I suppose, but regardless of being a Roman bench (is there a difference from Greek/Etruscan/Italic benches?), the worker appears to be Greek.

        As another interesting tidbit, a bronze age (~1000 +- 200 BC) box was excavated from the mud in Britain. It looks like a mud encrusted box, but originally rectangular. No good pics of it, yet, but the lid/bottom looks like it’s set in a groove. No bronze woodworking tools were found there, unfortunately, to tell how they made it.

  3. DaveS2

    The attire worn while working on them seems different too, ranging from toga-esque to cherubic draping. I’m looking forward to seeing that demonstrated too.

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