Chris Schwarz's Blog

An Early American Workbench

You’ve heard me rant and rave about
French, English and Scandinavian workbenches since the day this blog was
launched. But what about American benches? Is there even such a thing?

As
we are a nation of comparatively recent immigrants, many of
the old American workbenches I’ve seen are spiced heavily by European
and English forms. But not all. The Shakers’ had a distinctive bench – a
massive cabinet below topped by a flat work surface. And many American
bench manufacturers, such as Hammacher Schlemmer, offered workbenches
using this idea; storage below was a key selling point.

Recently
Deborah Chalsty, a woodworker and tool collector, acquired an early
American workbench that is an interesting form that has an even more
interesting story behind it.

While rust hunting in Virginia with Lee Richmond of The Best Things,
Chalsty saw the workbench pictured here underneath a bunch of tools
owned by a collector. Richmond has a sharp eye for antiques; he is one
of the appraisers for PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.”

“Lee told me this bench should really be in a museum,” Chalsty says. So she bought it.

Overall
the bench is quite nice. In some respects it is similar to the
workbench of H.O. Studley, a piano maker known mostly for his incredible
tool chest. Like Studley’s bench, this bench has a frame-and-panel
cabinet base made from exotic wood, and the bench is topped by an
enormous lamination of what looks like Cuban mahogany. It has a tail vise that resides in the massive top overhanging the cabinet.

While
Studley’s bench has two banks of small drawers, this bench has only two
drawers. And while Studley’s bench has incredible cast face and end
vises, this bench has more standard European face and tail vises.

But the vises, especially the tail vise, are quite remarkable.

The
tail vise is stamped as the work of “J. Thomas,” who worked in
Baltimore, Chalsty says. Richmond told Chalsty that this vise screw
dates the workbench as one of the earliest non-manufactured cabinetmaking workbenches
in America. (Update on 12-15-10: Richmond supplied me with some more information on this bench, which is detailed here.)

And while
the bench was in decent shape when she bought it, there were some things
about it that needed work. So she shipped it off to Robert Baker, a
toolmaker and restorer in York, Maine. He was the best in the business
and has restored many famous woodworking tools.

Baker did some
structural and cosmetic wok on the bench. The two drawers needed repairs
so they were usable, the end vise needed a new keeper piece, some
veneer on the top needed repairing in two places on the top and the face
vise needed a proper handle.

Baker completed the work and died in July
before the bench could be delivered. Two days after Baker died,
however, the bench was on its way across the country to Chalsty, who
lives outside San Francisco.

Chalsty says she doesn’t plan to use
the bench. Instead it will grace her new study, a 500-square-foot room
devoted to her passions. One wall will be covered in her books. The
other wall will be covered with shelves of her tools. And the bench will
be in the middle.

And some day, she says, she hopes it will find its home in a museum. 

Construction Details of the Bench
For
those bench nerds out there, Chalsty was kind enough to supply these
photos and notes on the bench. The benchtop is 86″ long – plus the tail
vise – and 30″ deep. The sliding section of the tail vise is 26″ long
and 6″ deep. The face vise is 21″ long and 6″ deep.

The top is an
interesting lamination with bolted-on end caps. The front 16″ of the
top is made from two boards face-glued together. At their thickest
points, the top board is 2″ thick and the bottom one is 1″ thick. The
rear 14″ of the top is made from three pieces – a 1/2″-thick piece on
top, a 1-1/2″-thick piece in the middle and another 1/2″-thick piece on
the bottom. This construction strategy could have been a way to conserve
mahogany – the middle lamination at the back is a secondary wood,
perhaps oak.

— Christopher Schwarz

More Workbench Insanity
• Have you been bitten by the workbench bug? Here’s the cure: workbenchdesign.net.

• I’ve written two book on workbenches. The 2007 “Workbenches” book has been one of our best-selling titles for three years and is in its third printing. It’s companion volume, “The Workbench Design Book” just came out in September.

• The classic: “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis is a great read and a great resource.

12 thoughts on “An Early American Workbench

  1. Mark Singleton

    If you go to youtube there is video of Norm and the Studley tool chest. It is hanging on a wall, over the bench, which is never mentioned in the video as being his (Studley’s). And yeah, the do look like benchcrafted vises! Goes to show, again, good ideas are timeless.

  2. Ken

    "…some veneer on the top needed repairing…"

    Veneer on the top of a workbench? I don’t understand. Are you referring to the 1/2" thick lamination?

    Outstanding bench. You should lobby PW for a trip to SF to make photos and measured drawings.

    Ken

  3. John Cashman

    I just checked The Toolbox Book and The Workbench Book, and only the Studley tool chest was featured. If you come across the source for a Studley workbench, I’d be glad to hear of it.

  4. John Cashman

    Me too. I wasn’t aware of a Studley workbench. I hope you will rectify this grievous oversight. What else has Studley got? I would think a full article on him would be worthwhile.

COMMENT