Chris Schwarz's Blog

French Bench Details

My rusty high school French has been getting a workout this week. I’m slowly consuming bits and pieces of the book “Les Rabots” by Pierre Bouillot and Xavier Chatellard. It’s a beautiful monster of a tome about planes – 352 pages of densely packed information on the
history, manufacture and use of handplanes.

And it’s all in French.

I picked up the book this summer in Paris to gain more of a European perspective on the tool. Mike Dunbar also has a copy, and that lucky chairmaking Francophone has read it all and reports on it on his blog.

In addition to relearning my French, I’ve also picked up on a couple interesting details on workbenches shown in the books, and I have
sketched them up for you.

The first one is from an engraving showing a shop in the suburb of Saint-Antoine. Two of the benches feature the board jack shown in the drawing above. The board slides in and out of the notches and can be moved up and down depending on how wide a board or panel you need to support.

This jack isn’t as versatile as a sliding deadman, but it gives you more versatility than using just a few holes bored in your bench’s leg with holdfasts, which is another traditional approach. And it’s easy to build with scraps and nails. I wouldn’t use this jack on a bench that’s against the wall, however, because the movable board couldn’t be easily slid out of your way.

The other engraving shows a commercial card from the early 19th century from the company “La Flotte D’Angleterre,” and it features a
bench with a dramatically curved stretcher on one end. The curved stretcher allows you to use a traditional tail vise and stabilize the
bench with a rear leg right behind the tail vise. The overhang required by some benches with tail vises makes them a bit unbalanced. This curved stretcher fixes that problem.

That stretcher would be quite a feat to steam-bend, though it would be a fairly easy bent-lamination.

— Christopher Schwarz

Hey, We Have a Lot of Workbench Stuff in Our Store. Really.
• Both of my books on workbenches, “Workbenches” and “The Workbench Design Book” are in stock and available.

• Our new DVD “Build an 18th-century Workbench” shows you how to build a French workbench entirely by hand.

• And if you want something free, check out this article I wrote in 2007 on “The Rules for Workbenches.

17 thoughts on “French Bench Details

  1. me.yahoo.com/a/XcA_NKVz2_JIWA8SFvMedIlmfSGnzMREASXa

    Christopher
    I know this is not about this article, but I don’t know of another way of posting. I received your DVD- Build an 18th-century Workbench last week and cannot watch it, something about codec or how it was coded. So I hit HELP and it directed me to programs to purchase which I did for 14.99. Which did not solve my problem. what is going on? I have never had this problem before in purchasing DVD’s.

  2. Rob

    Sorry, that tool rack post of yours was 26th August, not June. It was your Lost Art Blog post that was in June, I think – 7th June 2008. Rob

  3. Rob

    Hi Chris, while on the subject of old French benches, back in June you posted details of a tool rack fixed to the back of your 18th century French style bench, and from my armchair viewpoint I dared to suggest the dangling chisel blades stored in it posed a risk of slicing your hands when reaching under the bench from the back (assuming it was still parked in the middle of the shop). Having noted the rack dimensions – 28.5 inches long x 3 inches wide – I have just read something elsewhere suggesting the great Roubo would have made this rack considerably wider, possibly for the reason of protecting hands from injury. It comes from one of your own posts at the Lost Art Press Blog, a translation of part of L’Art du Menuisier, where dimensions for such a tool rack are quoted as follows:
    ‘At the rear of the workbench, which is opposite the hook, we place a plank of about 18” long by 6” to 8” wide that is attached to wood supports that separate it from the workbench. This plank is named ratelier [rack] and is used to store tools with handles such as chisels’
    Best regards, Rob

  4. Brian Whittaker

    It seems counter-intuitive to me to put the extended leg under the end of the tool tray, which is not a stress point during work, and leave the vice corner, which is a stress point, unsupported. Would this arrangement not encourage the bench top to wind?

    On the source of curved oak beams, between 1812 and the advent of steam ships, the great warships of Nelson’s fleet (as well as the Canadian and American Great Lakes fleet were de-commissioned and scuttled. Curved beams from ribs would have been free for the taking.

    Brian

  5. Peter Oster

    At the time of the commercial card, navies would not have bent timber the apparent size of the one in the bench. It would have been cut from a natural crook. Something that size would have come from the junk pile.
    In the 1980s Mystic Seaport was ecstatic with all the crooks they got from the hurricanes that hit the Carolinas. Lots of oak.

  6. PAUL

    Hey Chris,

    After seeing the plate a la curve.
    i looked around the house I discovered that with minor mods, Mother-in-law’s Baby Grand is perfect!…

  7. Frank Vucolo

    The curve’s the thing!

    Maybe high quality and the things that make something very special are the result of a designer/craftsperson going to great effort to make a relatively minor yet important improvement in the functional design.The cost to benefit ratio of such pursuits skew out of the range of mass manufacturers and the "good enough" or "get-er-done" crowd. These kinds of pursuits live in the shops of individuals making a personal piece or in the shops of small, custom manufacturers.

    So when we design and build furniture we get to use style for style’s sake. Bonnet tops and bellflowers, fluting and finials don’t do anything for storing our underwear and socks. In furniture, we can throw in a curve because it looks good, for beauty’s sake. Beyond the fun and fashion there is no need for the curve.

    But in something as practical and functional as a workbench, adding a curve for the sake of a curve could look whimsical. Yes, the occasional, subtle workbench design gets tossed in at times – a gentle curve, some contrasting wood, some just-barely-over-the-top dovetailing. All plausibly deniable with a wink.

    This curve, though, is right out there with no winks or apologies. It has license. A designer/craftsman when to great effort to make a small improvement in function and a byproduct is this beautiful curve.

    I have no plans in the foreseeable future to build a new workbench, but when I do…

    Frank Vucolo

    PS: I’m thinking cut from one solid piece with a couple of lugs left on for clamping, sawn off and blended in after assembly.

  8. Eric

    That horizontal jack in the first illustration would still work even if the bench was up against the wall. If the support was the same length as the bench’s width, and if the legs are at least 5" or 6" thick, you’ll still have plenty of meat stuck in the far leg when you slide it out to support the stock in the front. IMHO…

  9. Greg M

    The curve may be French, but the bench isn’t! This looks more like a modern(ish) anglicized version of a traditional Scandinavian or German bench – much like my own adaptation of Tage Frid’s classic. As with the bench shown here, I have a typical end vise, but replaced the L-shaped shoulder vise with a quick-release face vise on the front of the bench. "La flotte D’Angleterre" translates as "the English Fleet". I’m wondering if this is really a commercial company. Could this perhaps be a turn-of-the last century Royal Navy bench? They would certainly have wood bending expertise.

  10. Sean

    "The curve in the leg allows better clearance for workpieces that are held in the tail vise."

    To me the mouth of the tail vise looks little, if any, wider than the leg. An angled stretcher tenoned in the middle of the leg seems very unlikely to interfere with any workpiece that is extending straight down to the floor at the max width of the tail vise jaw.

  11. Michael Brady

    The curve in the leg allows better clearance for workpieces that are held in the tail vise. It also looks impressive.

  12. Bob Miller

    Re: the curved stretcher.
    I wonder if you have the bending jig and experience that it might actually be easier. In a production setup bending it might not take that long and it means your mortises are square and the bottoms of your legs are identical. Assuming square legs. If I had to build 50 benches I would do it that way.

  13. Sean

    The curve is pretty, but I don’t see why it is necessary. A straight piece at an angle would work fine, it looks like. You could also cut out/piece together a reasonably strong curve from a wide enough board – think pieced arm/back assemblies on windsor chairs. You might also be able to find a branch that had an S curve that you could use. Just some thoughts.

  14. Duane Lindsey

    I just built a small Roubo bench (my bench top is 61" long 20" wide) combining different elements from your book, dvd, and magazine article. Like your newer bench, I left out the sliding deadman. I found that the leg vise holds so well that you often don’t need to support the other end when edge planing smaller pieces. But I wish I had a way to support thinner, longer pieces when edge planing. I think that board jack may be the answer.

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