Chris Schwarz's Blog

What to do With an Antique Bench

Reader Michael Holcomb writes: I’m writing to ask your advice about an old Pennsylvania cabinet maker’s workbench I was lucky enough to buy a couple of years ago. It came from the shop of a Berks County, Penn., cabinet maker and has many of the features of the line drawing in Eric Sloane’s book on early American tools. It’s massive: The top is just shy of 9′ and is made of two planks of 3″ chestnut (I think). It has a leg vise on one end, an end vise on the other, and a board jack which slides the entire length of the front. I sent photos to a friend, Ernie Conover, who thought its construction techniques might date it to the 1830s. 

My question is, should I do anything to plane and resurface the top, which has the normal nicks, dings, holes and abrasions from almost two centuries of use? There is slight warpage on one end of one of the planks, but otherwise the surface is certainly usable, due mainly to its substantial construction and weight. Would I destroy its historical value by planing the surface? Or is it better just left alone?

Answer: It’s a good question that deserves some consideration and debate.

Here’s my take: If you are going to use the bench for hand work, then you don’t have much of a choice. You should flatten the top. Otherwise, handplaning will be impossible. I find that once the top goes out of flat by .006″ or so, then my work tends to spring on the top unacceptably.

I take flattening to be routine maintenance for a piece that is in service — like waxing the top of a dining table that is in use in your home.

While I’m sure there are some workbenches that are truly “museum pieces” (such as the Dominy bench at Winterthur), most benches should be put to use in workshops so they avoid a worse fate — being used as houseplant holders or decorative accents by sellers of antiques. Maybe someday there will be a “workbench museum” and I’ll change my tune. Until then, do your best to bring this bench back to life.

- Christopher Schwarz

8 thoughts on “What to do With an Antique Bench

  1. Louis Bois

    I agree with the above posters. For an overview of the procedure for flattening the bench, check out Chris’ excellent article in the latest (Feb/2008) issue of PWW!

    That bench has many tales to tell…listen to it…feel the history and the countless hands and tools that have gone before you…and write the next chapter. Enjoy!!! I’m envious.

    ~Louis~

  2. Rocko McCombs

    All,
    I think the original owner would love to see it fully flattened and refurbed ready for another generation of projects.

    I would not hesitate to add my own "touch" as well.
    Make it useful for your projects in your shop.

    -Rocko

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Sean,

    A planing tray is certainly an alternative — thanks for mentioning that.

    I’d definitely flatten it, however. Then I’d use it and it would end up looking like it does now — well used.

    That’s just me!

    Chris

  4. Samson

    Chris,

    Wouldn’t a planing tray be an alternative? Also, the OP mentions a "slight warpage at the end of one plank;" perhaps it is flat "enough" on other portions?

    All that said, if it was mine, I’d refurbish it as gently as possible trying to think of what it’s original owner would have done to it had he or she come upon it in this condition.

    Thanks,

    Sean

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Mike,

    The short answer is that I flatten the top when my work starts misbehaving on my bench. When planing things flat becomes difficult because the work springs under the plane, I flatten it.

    For my bench, that’s usually once (maybe twice) in a year.

COMMENT