Chris Schwarz's Blog

Original Moravian Workbenches at Old Salem

The forms of workbenches that interest me the the most are (spoiler alert) the older and simpler forms that haven’t been corrupted by unnecessary complexities that woodworkers want to heap upon them.

In other words, I want to see benches that have seen real work.

At the Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, N.C., the reproduction joiner and cabinetmaker’s shop has three excellent workbenches that the costumed interpreters work on. Those are fantastic benches, but they weren’t the ones I’d come to see.

Instead, I’d come to see original Moravian workbenches, including one likely dating back to the 18th century, that Old Salem has in its warehouse.

“These benches are one of Old Salem’s hidden assets,” said Brian Coe, the director of interpretation at Old Salem. “They’ve only been out a few times for exhibits, and on Roy Underhill’s show.”

Underhill showed off some of the benches on episode 2710, which you can watch for free online at the PBS web site here.

And on Saturday, Coe was happy to show me and a small group of woodworkers
the benches they had in storage. Though Coe is the director of interpretation at Old Salem, he spent 15 years working as a woodworking interpreter for the museum. He’s built copies of the Moravian benches, including two that are used in the shops that people visit every day. And Old Salem is in the middle of building a reproduction of its oldest
known bench.

And Coe has done extensive research on the benches and the woodworkers who used them – he even has many of the original tools from the makers who worked in Old Salem. And he’s generated a big fat file of shop drawings and original documentation on the benches and craftsmen.

“Now I just need the time to write a book on the benches,” Coe said with a smile.

An 18th-Century Bench?
The older benches at Old Salem are made from oak, and the oldest bench in the museum’s collection looks to be made from pieces that could have been left over from construction the timbered houses at Old Salem. The mouldings and details on the bench’s base match many found at the settlement.

This old bench is absolutely massive with an 8’-long trestle base and a massive oak top that lacks a tool tray. At some time during its life, its owners sawed off the ends of the top, removing the original vises.
However, Coe pointed out that they left us clues as to how the bench was
outfitted.

At the left end of the bench, Coe pointed out the large tenons that were likely used to support a structure for a shoulder vise. And on the right end, there are remnants of what Coe suspects was a traditional tail vise. The top was likely 10′-long Coe guesses. I didn’t have a tape measure on me, but I’d guess that the top was about 28″ to 30″ off the
floor.

The woodworkers are currently at work building a reproduction of this bench. The base is complete and in the joiner’s shop. Next comes the top, along with their best guesses as to what sort of vises it had.

Karsten Petersen Workbench
Perhaps the most interesting bench in the Old Salem collection is one of the three workbenches owned by Karsten Petersen (1776-1857), who lived in Denmark and Germany before coming to the Old Salem community in the early 19th century (read more about Petersen here).

Coe built a reproduction of Petersen’s workbench, which features an interesting shoulder vise, a tail vise and a curious extra row of dogs on the front edge of the bench.

The shoulder vise is interesting because Petersen angled the extra leg required to support the shoulder vise so that the leg joined the sled foot at the base. This keeps the leg out of your way so you don’t trip over it and the bench takes up less floor space.

The horizontal row of dog holes is a bit of a mystery to Coe. Few benches show up with this feature. And judging from the fact that they show little use indicates that they probably weren’t used much.

The holes closest to the tail vise show some wear. The ones near the shoulder vise show no wear. They could have been used to pinch work so you can work on it on edge, though Coe concedes that the grip isn’t all that great.

They could have been used at times to support some boards on edge – one end would be clamped in the shoulder vise and the far end would be propped on a dog sticking out of the front of the benchtop. Coe also points out that pulling the drawer out slightly allows you to use that as a support when planing long pieces.

The reproduction of the bench, built in the 1990s, sits under a window in the joiner’s shop at Old Salem and sees a lot of daily use.

There were more benches, but this entry is entirely too long. So I’ll save those for later this  week.

— Christopher Schwarz

Other Workbench Resources:
workbenchdesign.net is a great place to learn about benches and explore their forms.

• I’ve written two books on benches that you might fine useful. “Workbenches” and “The Workbench Design Book,” are both available in our store.

7 thoughts on “Original Moravian Workbenches at Old Salem

  1. David Chidester

    Thanks for sharing Chris! These benches are awesome! Seeing them gets me more excited to build mine. Heck, it makes me want to build a few benches!

    You should totally encourage Coe to write a book about them. Maybe you could even co-author it with him, if he were okay with the idea. Then you could include a chapter about building a reproduction of the Middle Shelf Bench you like. That would be the perfect excuse to build it!

  2. Lee Laird

    Chris,

    While initially looking at the bench and trying to digest the dog holes on the vertical face, I wondered if they might have been trying to come up with another way to hold pieces for dovetailing or some such operation. Reading your info about the wear pattern on those holes closest to the tail vise sounds as if it could fit. I would think the great majority of dovetails would be cut in narrow pieces, as in drawers. Maybe it’s just too late and this makes no sense??

    Best,

  3. Lee Laird

    Eric,

    If you look at what I believe is the original Karsten Petersen bench, that is up on another bench, it does seem to have a single dog hole in the tail vise on it’s vertical face. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, this would seem to line up with those other strangely placed dog holes. 😉

    Best,

  4. Mark Singleton

    Maybe the front dog holes are simply an apprentice’s goof-up, now in full view of posterity? Re-purposed component of an earlier bench? We will likely never know for sure. Fascinating though.

  5. Eric sandvik

    i don’t see a corresponding dog hole on the front face of the tail vise. I don’t see how you could easily pinch a board for edge work without one.

  6. William Duffield

    Curious. I saw a bench very similar to the Karsten Petersen bench in an antique store in Alexandria VA yesterday. The extra row of dog holes attracted my attention. They were all well worn, as was the rest of the bench. Now, I wish I had taken some photos and measurements.

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