Chris Schwarz's Blog

Roman Workbenches High And Low

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When researching Roman workbenches, one of the things that leaped out at me was how low many of them were low, knee-high like a sawbench. After building a low bench based on drawings from Pompeii and Herculaneum, most visitors to my shop had one question: Were the Romans really short?

The answer is: no. These low benches are used differently. You sit on them to plane faces of boards. You kneel on them to plane edges and saw. (I’ll write a post that explores some of the clever workholding on this bench in the future.)

I admit I’ve been surprised by how many operations you can perform on them (even dovetails) once you adjust your thinking.

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What also has been interesting is discovering that these low woodworking benches didn’t just disappear with the Roman Empire. Many woodworkers in rural areas in Europe, Russia and North America use these benches up until the 1950s. I suspect many are still in use today. (And the Chinese bench continues to be low.)

Ethnographer Ants Viires, the author of “Woodworking in Estonia,” shows these benches in use in the mid-20th century for a wide variety of rural woodland crafts, including cooperage, box-making and general furniture construction.

As I began finding low benches in paintings all through the last 2,000 years, I began to wonder: Was the low workbench the first workbench and later eclipsed with our familiar thigh-high workbench?

metz-lightened

The more I look at old paintings and sculptures, I think the answer is: No, low benches and high benches have existed simultaneously for at least the last 2,000 years. One of the pieces of evidence is this Roman sculpture from the 1st century A.D. (residing in Metz, France) in which two Roman woodworkers are shown working at a high bench. One is planing with a Roman plane and the other is likely using an adze.

So if the Romans had both workbenches, the real question becomes: Why don’t we?

— Christopher Schwarz

9 thoughts on “Roman Workbenches High And Low

  1. PlanePastor

    While I think Chris is right about the high and low benches being around for at least the last 2000 years, I don’t think the carving is of a high bench. The artist does has great perspective and scale, so why the angled legs of the worker on the right? If the legs were straight, the bench would be waist high. The worker on the left, while very difficult to see, appears to also have a bent knee. If you play with the image lighting, contrast, and such, its a little clearer.

  2. erichlund

    I would say a combination of factors were relevant:
    1. Roman’s didn’t use power tools (except perhaps some water/animal powered tools).
    2. Roman’s didn’t do their woodworking in a garage designed for cars (and sized as such), so their woodworking space was based on woodworking needs, not limited by how many cars it would hold.
    3. Roman’s probably did all or most of their woodworking on the bench, where we use table saw, planer, jointer, sanders, shapers/routers, etc.

    Oh, and yes, their woodworkers were quite possibly shorter than us. While a Roman soldier may have been 5′ 7″ (which may only have been a requirement of special units), you have to reduce that by the Roman digits. Their foot was 0.97 of an English foot. Also, it’s likely the working class woodworkers were mostly not Roman’s, but others of lesser height, due to lesser diet. Not necessarily slaves (many were), but workers from other cultures, who didn’t have the wealth of Rome.

  3. SATovey

    In some work cultures in America, sitting down to do a job = lazy.

    This is evident by the experience myself and another man had working for a landscaper back in the late 80’s. We were tasked to dig up roots so that a bush or tree could be moved, so there we were standing there digging as any normal hard working American would do.

    That was until the boss man came over and asked: “What are you doing?!” Took one of the shovels from us, got down on his knees and said: “get down here and
    dig, it’s much easier on you.” and started digging making more progress than the two of us had been. The two of us just looked at each other in shock. Then we both smiled as we agreed with each other that he was not a normal boss.

    A good majority of employers have employees do their job in the most inconvenient, and difficult manner possible. Even if you can realize a much easier and efficient manner that produces higher quality. The employer wants it done their way or the highway.

    Frankly, if a job is easier to do standing, one should stand to do that job.
    If the job is easier to do sitting, one should sit to do that job.

    Getting back to the high bench verses low bench, I’ve seen an episode or two where Roy Underhill and a guest woodworker have used the low bench to do some planing on the Woodright shop.

    Typically, if it’s general planing, Roy Underhill uses his high bench. However, if he’s dealing with something that requires a little more finesse, he’ll tend to go to his low bench or a desk level bench where he has more control. I think it depends on the job and level of precision that is needed. On the other hand, it may just depend on what he feels like doing at that point in time.

  4. Fraise

    We do in the form of sawhorses, Christopher. I adapted your instructions for making a pair so that one is much wider on the top for stacking. I find myself doing all kinds of work on it and would probably make an even wider pair next time.

  5. Dave

    Did the low workbench disappear, or did it perhaps evolve into what we know as the sawbench? I often use my sawbenches for boring, mortising, chiselling, even the occasional planing job…..

  6. abt

    Your bench, very nice. Assuming low benches were still around into modern times, thinking (or not) out loud, did the advent of power tools somehow finally cement the notion of a high bench only?

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