Chris Schwarz's Blog

Holtzapffel's 1834 Workbenches

Recently I stumbled on an 1834 tool catalog from Holtzapffel & Co. in London that describes every tool a 19th-century woodworker could ever want, from planes to wrenches to chisels to tools I’ve never seen (brass straightedges, Water of Ayr sharpening stones, crow irons).

Naturally, there is a section on workbenches. Of course, I’ve pored over it. And I am intrigued and a little bewildered a bit by some of its details.

The Holtzapffel company offered a number of “planing benches” designed for joiners and even offered a drawing of it on the second page of the catalog, which I’ve shown above.

Now here’s the description of the bench:

“521 PLANING BENCH of beech-wood, framed with screw bolts, two side screws at the front, and one end screw, framing to correspond, with the sliding bench hooks, to serve as a Vice, opening 5 feet, a case moving upon rollers, with eight drawers, one tray, and partitions for each tool, made to fasten with one lock, also a well at the bottom, with a slide, and long drawer underneath.”

Then follows a long description of tools supplied with the bench. Then the catalog describes all the ways you can buy the bench without tools, from 4′ long to 7′ long and with different vise configurations.

So let’s break down the description and see what you would get with this bench.

1. It’s framed with screw bolts. I assume this is to make the bench easy to break down and ship to the customer. No surprises there.

2. Two side screws at the front. This is, I assume, a twin-screw vise at the front left of the bench.

3. “(O)ne end screw, framing to correspond, with the sliding bench hooks, to serve as a Vice, opening 5 feet.” The end screw is, I assume, a tail vise. What are “sliding bench hooks”? Joseph Moxon and other English sources use the words “bench hooks” to refer to planing stops or bench dogs. So a sliding bench hook could be a moving dog, like the moving dog in a tail vise or wagon vise. The 5′ dimension is the maximum dimension between the dogs.

4. “(A) case moving upon rollers.” Hey this is neat. These benches have a toolbox that slides under the bench. This keeps your tools handy and allows you to push them out of the way for clamping or storage.

5. “(A) well at the bottom, with a slide.” This is a bit confusing. I assume the well is the area between the stretchers, but I’m not following what the “slide” would be. Perhaps that is what the tool case moves upon.

In any case, I like the idea of the sliding tool cabinet. It would provide storage that wouldn’t get in the way of clamping. If I added one to my workbench, I’d place it behind my sliding deadman so that both could be positioned anywhere as needed.

Excuse me while I go scratch my itching SketchUp finger.

– Christopher Schwarz

13 thoughts on “Holtzapffel's 1834 Workbenches

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Joe,

    If the top is thick (3” or more), then it won’t bend to conform to the floor. Just shim the feet, flatten the top, then move it in position and shim again. That’s what I do, and I’ve never had a problem.

    As to the tolerance required, I have found that my planes start to misbehave on a top that is out by 6 thou in a critical area. The most critical area for a bench is the front 12” of the benchtop. That’s the place to focus your energies. The rear area of the top comes into play when you are doing panels. And you don’t need them to be quite as flat.

    Good luck.

    Chris

  2. Joseph Sullivan

    Chris:

    Not sure this is the right place for this question, but I don’t see a better place so here goes:

    In remodeling my old bench, I have hit on a vexing problem with flatness. The bench is quite long and has three sets of legs. The shop floor is far from perfectly poured. As a consequence, it is not possible to have all six legs on the floor at the same time. I have to shim the heck out of them. Now, I am about to follow your advice and flatten the new work surface with my fore and jointer planes. However, I fear that some of the wind may be due to the uneven flooring. If that is true, the bench will wind again as soon as I move it and it adjusts to the floor as it is in its new location -even if that is only a few inches.

    SO, any thoughts on this, and just how important is serious flatness in the scheme of things anyway.

  3. Joseph Sullivan

    Chris:

    In the latest issue of the mag, you talk about the pros and cons of the Roubo bench, but you don’t mention your Holzapffel. Have you had tome for a similar reassessment of it?

    Also, you mention the deficiencies of the crochet or planing hook and that it needs a support under it. I agree. I am near the end of a dramatic remodeling of my main bench, which is 10 ft long and 23 inches wide. I adapted an idea from John White’s Newfangled Bench, and use an adjustable planing beam that is about 8 ft long. It has a matching hook over it, so the work is wedged top and bottom,and fully supported on the bottom. If you really want to trap something, you can run a board up against the back and clamp it in the face vise, or of course just run a long clamp across the bench top.

    It is a highly functional setup.

    Joe Sullivan

  4. Denis Walsh

    In your artical you mention never hearing of a crow iron. in England this is now known as a crow bar, I believe you in the USA call it a pry bar. Great artical.

  5. imdrmarshall.myopenid.com

    like Mr. Hilton stated above, i too am a lover of yesteryear… i try to use no power tools unless absolutely necessary, and i try to use only aged and seasoned planes, chisels, and other tools of the like. i really love it when you guys have articles about "dated" tools, furniture, and especially techniques. i just wanted to drop a line and thank you ALL for your hard work and dedication to try to pass on as much information on as many aspects of the "wide world of wood working" to all those who embrace the up’s and down’s of working with wood…(even those of us that stray a bit away from the beaten path like myself)

    so thank you and keep up the good work
    Rev. Dr. Marshall W. Snead
    "SEMPER FI"
    San Diego, Ca.

  6. me.yahoo.com/a/iW1ZUdFypdN6QP5sQc6EBs75k3Qi7Q--

    Hey Chris. I hope your "sketch-up, itchy fingers" work some overtime figuring out as best you can (almost Stickly?) the most accurate drawing of this magnificent bench. I am addicted to yesteryear’s woodworking aminities and anxious to see what you come up with. I do appreciate your research efforts, as does, I believe, the population of true craftsmen dedicated to you and the work of the entire staff at "Popular Woodworking" and "WOODWORKING" magazines. Keep up the great work and I want to wish all of you that work so diligently to keep those like me intrigued a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Steve Hilton—Prescott, AR

  7. Lindley

    If you were to google "holtzapffel bench fullchisel" using the images option you’ll see an image titled "1805 turning" which is a rather good drawing of their Treadle Lathe.

    Looking at the rather clever method of moving and securing the tool rest and the tail stock assembly, I’m wondering if your 1834 bench’s sliding bench hook was something similar, with just the upper part changed.

    Chris, can you post a picture of this image so others can see what I’m talking about? That design would certainly be very solid, but yet, very easy to move along the 5 feet or so of bench top.

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Stephen,

    Yes, the text below says “planing and vise bench.” It’s a bear to read.

    I assume the drawer unit moves right and left. I cannot see any other way for it to work. I don’t know if it’s removable. The text doesn’t say.

    I don’t see an end vise in the drawing either. It was offered without.

    Chris

  9. Stephen Shepherd

    Chris,
    Does the caption of the bench say Planing and Vise Bench?

    The drawer unit moves from left to right under the bench is that correct? It doesn’t move from under the bench?

    I think the slide over the well is a cover or sliding lid.

    I don’t see an end vise in the engraving. Is that a metal vise held in the twin screw vise?

    Stephen

  10. John Vernier

    Not to sidetrack your bench thread, but you mention Water of Ayr stones. These are still being sold to jewelers and watchmakers, in various slip sizes for smoothing and finishing soft metals. They are also called Tam O’ Shanter hones, and are sold with labeling which clearly hasn’t been redesigned in the last century ("Gold Medals, London 1885 and 1890"). It is a speckled grey natural slate, probably the equivalent to a 4000 grit Japanese stone. I’ve never seen a bench-sized version, but they are decent finishing stones for carving gouges.
    -John Vernier

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