Chris Schwarz's Blog

Southern-style Franco-Roman Workbench

At high school reunions there’s always the guy you don’t recognize because he’s gained 200 pounds and is nursing a spectacular goiter. This workbench is like that.

Eagle-eyed reader Andrew Midkiff sent in these photos of a workbench he spotted in a water-powered grist mill at the West Point of the Eno City Park in Durham, N.C.

The top is a huge slab. But what confused me at first was that the legs are attached to the top using giant, round through-tenons. Midkiff found no sign of an end vise, but says there are square dog holes just cut into the face of the slab. The dogs are completed by a board nailed to the front.

The underside is completely rough. Midkiff wrote: “It looks like it was chopped out by a rabid beaver on meth.” (Note that this is unlikely; methamphetamine was not developed until 1893 and beaver culture didn’t embrace the drug until after the species was named as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.)

When I first saw these photos, my gut said the slab was old but the legs were newer just because the legs were lighter in color. Also, the round tenons seemed weird at first. After a few minutes, however, I realized that though this looked like a French bench without stretchers, it actually has a lot of Roman bench bones.

Roman workbenches (which were common even into the 15th century) consisted of a big slab top with the legs tenoned into it using round tenons. Usually there were no stretchers below. (In this way, workbenches and Windsor chairs enjoy a common ancestor.)

In any case, the square leg and round tenon really threw me at first.

Bottom line: I want this slab. And I want to flatten it. To steal it, however, I’ll probably have to sneak past the drug-addled beavers.

– Christopher Schwarz

A Bench Geek’s Delight: More Links

– First, let’s get the commercial stuff out of the way. We just got advance copies of my new DVD “Build an 18th-century Workbench” where I build the Roubo on the cover of the August 2010 issue. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to cut big joints by hand, this is the ticket. It ships real soon. If you buy it through this link, they give me beer money. No lie.

– Want to see the coolest leg vise ever? It’s creepy. It’s in a factory where they made … wait for it … legs. This 1916 photo shows an awesome leg vise (the bottom middle of the photo) that has a huge handwheel and a St. Peter’s Cross. Want. Just want.

11 thoughts on “Southern-style Franco-Roman Workbench

  1. Matt

    "Drug-addled Beavers!"

    That did it, I’m done……a giggling mass the rest of the day. I laughed so loud, my cubemates turned and stared. Still laughing…..

  2. Ethan

    I love the way they made square dog holes by notching the edge of the slab and throwing another board on the end.

  3. John Walkowiak

    You wouldn’t even need a lathe to make those leg tenons. A few turns with the auger on the top of the leg would give you the size to work down to. Most of the waste could be sawed off, then a rasp, chisel or better yet a shallow gouge could take the rest off. A 3/4" thick sizing board made with the auger would be the guide. The mortise in the bench top could be flared then the tenon wedged to fit. Of course Mr. Underhill would probably thread the joint!

  4. Alan

    I find the round tenon to be fascinating.

    I have to wonder if the Romans didn’t have pole lathes??? Seems they could have learned that from the Egyptians.

    The reason I find it fascinating is that the shoulder looks pretty rough, or much rougher than most sawyers could accomplish.

    I know the Egyptians have a long history with turning on the lathe, and they also had bow drills which they used.

    Fascinating to ponder how they could have done both the tenon and the mortise also. The fit looks good! 🙂

  5. Guy Forthofer

    I followed the above link to the 1916 photo of the old leg vise and it reminded me of a vise made by Norm Vandal for his bench, featured in Scott Landis’s The Workbench Book.

    The height of the jaws of Norm’s vise also extend above the bench top, but most interesting is the scissors mechanism that keeps the jaws parallel. Norm’s scissors device is housed in the bench leg and matching face of the vise rather than on the outside of the leg vise as shown in the 1916 photo, but still quite ingenious.

  6. Lee Laird

    Could the extra large dog hole, on the right end, possibly have held a post with some sort of screw mechanism running through it? Acting as the means to apply pressure across the piece being worked?? Just a thought.

  7. Doug F.

    Wow! That sounds like an ideal first bench, or a good way to build a work site bench. Glue up some two by fours into a benchtop, grab some six by six or eight by eight stuff for the legs and go to town. I wonder if you could create a square tenon kind of like you did with your earlier Roubo leg glue up (or was it the Holtzhappfel), and leave some mortises during the benchtop glue up instead of making the round tenons? Is there any advantage to using the round tenons I wonder?

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