Chris Schwarz's Blog

The First Recorded Workbench

A Roman bench from Pompeii. Probably 50 A.D.

A Roman bench from Pompeii. Probably 50 A.D.

The first time I saw an 18th-century workbench, I thought: Wow. That will never work.

But then I built some of these benches (dozens, actually), and I am a huge fan of the form’s stability, simplicity and purity.

So the first time I saw a Roman workbench from 50 A.D., I thought: Hmmm. That would never work. But then, in a rare act of self-awareness, I caught myself before I dismissed the form entirely.

Roman workbenches are almost certainly not the first workbenches in our culture. The Egyptians had rocks with notches that they would use for bracing the work, which probably counts as a proto-bench. But the Roman form is undeniably dominant in art from the time of Pompeii up until the 15th or 16th centuries.

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Let’s put that in perspective. The so-called “European” workbench has been around for about 200 years. The Roman bench was popular for more than 1,400 years.

So it probably has some merit.

But when I look at the thing, I can’t help but think that it’s spindly, lightweight and springy. It looks too low – many times artisans are pictured sitting while working at the bench. And there is very little in the way of workholding devices – perhaps some nails or pegs that you can push your work against.

There is little doubt that the Roman bench is solidly made. From drawings of the bench we can discern that it is made with a solid plank top that has legs tenoned into it. This is the same format for one of the most durable forms of furniture ever: the Windsor chair.

There is no shelf below the top. No stretchers to join the legs. So all the strength of the workbench comes from the top. This, as you might know, is the same place the old French benches get their strength.

But to my modern eye, the top looks too thin. The legs look like pipe cleaners. I can’t imagine working on a bench that is about knee-high.

house_book1_IMG_1068

But this week I am in Venice, Italy, with my family. Yeah, it’s totally clogged with tourists. It’s crazy expensive. And the smell can be quite ripe. But there is little doubt that this city, its houses and its furniture were built with the help of Roman workbenches. (And if you don’t believe that Roman woodworking was sophisticated, you need to read Robert Ulrich’s book “Roman Woodworking,” which is filled with some very sophisticated joinery.

I have recently become convinced that I need to build some of these Roman benches and try them out. This could be a total dead end. Or I might learn something. Either way, I get to do some woodworking in a toga.

— Christopher Schwarz

34 thoughts on “The First Recorded Workbench

  1. Duster

    At least the Estonian benches appear to be made from the outer slabs from the tree as it was split or sawn with curved outer surface stripped of bark and drilled for the legs. That would very likely simplify getting the legs splayed properly for stability. The bench in the Pompeiian fresco also looks that way too, though the detail is weak. The two Medieval German benches are not.

  2. muzhik

    Venice, wow! Love that place! I have not had the misfortune to be there during the hot/smelly months. I realize you’re long gone from there by now (telling me I need to read your blog more often). I hope you got a chance to check out Livio De Marchi’s shop and studio while there.

  3. dwchat

    It always amazes me that they could build ANYTHING that was worth a darn, when they could NOT draw a simple isometric diagram of the project. Shouldn’t all the furniture be skewed and obtuse or something?
    Dave

    1. Duster

      He’s posing, or maybe that chisel is dull. He had to sit still long enough for the fresco painter to make a useable working sketch, and the painter wasn’t interested in precisely real-appearing action. However, the master painter could probably say exactly who the apprentice is.

  4. GeorgeC42

    In all three images, the legs are tapered, much wider at the bottom. Still, to do the planing shown in the last image, the bench would need to be rock solid and steady. I just can’t see those legs managing it.

    I’m intrigued by the box next to the bench, though . . .

  5. woodctr51

    Speaking of old Roman style benches, does anyone know what a Jew from Nazareth might have used as a carpenter? Of course I’m speaking of Jesus Christ, who was known as a carpenter.

    1. Clay Dowling

      While I’m no biblical scholar, I suspect that since he was born after the Roman conquest the chances are very high that he would have used a roman style bench. Since advanced technology was a major factor in Roman conquest and sustaining the empire, it’s likely that any lesser bench would have been replaced.

      1. jamierodg

        The Romans were the kings of copying military technology in conquered lands. Conversely, they ignored “civil” advances, like the moldboard plow. In many cases the conquered people were ahead of the Romans, so don’t think for a minute that the conqueror’s bench was any better than the conquered. The Romans didn’t need labor saving advances as their labor pool was inexhaustible.

  6. WoodguyCo

    I am currently building a workbench that has taken 2 yrs to research, I find it interesting to see the simple Roman bench. De Vince had it right the “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

    Chris you have to quit putting those scary images of you in a toga in you writings. That is just too much for my mind to picture.

    1. bbrown

      …….. and furthermore, where are these, his safety glasses?
      And where in the world are these, his feet protection?
      And is it really safe to be taking such a big swing with that mallet?
      :)

  7. bsrlee

    There is a plank floating around a museum that is supposed to be the top of a Roman carpenter’s bench – 4 broken off legs and several angled notches in the edges as well as what we would call ‘dog holes’ IIRC. Can’t remember exactly where it is referenced either.

  8. shannonlove

    One thing I’ve learned in the study of technological history is that our ancestors used with muscle power controlled by skills developed over tens of thousands of hours of training as a means of performing task we build special purpose technology fore. They would routinely perform physical acts that we would put in a circus if we saw them today.

    A good example would be the working of sails in great ships in the age of sail. Going a 100+ feet in the air to move around really heavy sails while having nothing but a rope to stand on would be a circus trick today but generations of sailors did it every day in all kinds of weather with very few accidents. They used a knowledge of hundreds or even thousands of types of knots to perform a wide array of task we wouldn’t even associate with rope at all. The technology of the rope was simple, the skill of knot tying vast and expensively learned.

    It probable that the Roman workbench evolved in parallel with a system of training woodworkers from the age of 7 such that the woodworkers body and skill were as much a part of the operation of the bench as the wood and joints. The actual way the bench was used is lost to time.

  9. griffithpark

    In Bardstown KY, there’s a complex of small museums with an interpretive area – several log buildings along a creek. One of those buildings has a very similar bench that has a wood screw end vise incorporated into it.

    It’s been eighth on my ‘to be built’ list for some time. Perhaps it’s time to order the wood screw and get it built.

  10. Steve_Dallas

    I’ve always just assumed that the Roman style bench was set against a post or wall to resist movement of the bench when planing.

    If so, I can understand why artists chose not show benches in this position because it could make an awkward image – and besides artists at the time were having difficulty with perspective. But on the other hand, you would expect at least a few artists to attempt to show it this way if this was how benches were actually used.

    Steve

  11. jdhill

    A while back I watched a travel program about Venice. There is a section of town were the gondolas are built. They showed a shop were parts for the boats were being made. The workers were using large free standing leg vices to hold the work pieces. They were doing rough shaping with draw knives. The leg vices allowed them to attack the work from all sides. Kinda cool.

    Might be something interesting to check out during your stay. Enjoy your vacation.

  12. emcgee

    I believe Jenny Alexander has worked at a bench very similar to these for years. Seems to work for her. I believe she used it mostly for boring and mortising. This design has some distinct advantages, especially when paired with a shaving horse. I realize these monks are using planes instead of shaves, but you won’t find any high benches in a traditional Japanese workshop either. There is something to be said for not having to stand all the time. And your weight can be a great stabilizer for the bench.

      1. xjjb4x4

        They look an awful lot like your saw benches,or visa versa, in which case the body is also used to hold the work.

        I found it interesting that the perspective of the worker was not the same as that of the rest of the room. I imagine that at that time it was very difficult to draw someone bending over a bench accurate to the scale and perspective of what the room show. In which case a more representative image was shown.

        I would suppose that the legs were very short to allow the weight of the person to bear down on the work more, also causing the bench to be much sturdier than may appear in the drawings.

        Maybe?

        jb

  13. bbrown

    I wonder how much accurate detail we can discern from these pictorial representations. Clearly they were meant to convey the general idea of the woodworker and his world, but not so sure that the artist intended to give proportion, thickness, and other details with much accuracy.
    The two drawings are wonderful and appear to be medieval clerics or monks at work. The box on dovetailed frame is sweet. What is the provenance of these drawings?
    As an aside…….I’m reading a book on the history of time, and it’s unbelievable how brilliant some of the medieval monks were. Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St. Alban’s in the 1200′s pretty much developed a clock, including metal gears, calculating the proper wheel diameters, ratios, etc., etc. He made all the parts himself!

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      While that is always a concern, the near-universal chorus of form for Roman workbenches leads me to believe they really looks like they were drawn (thin-ish top, stick legs). And the archeological record (Roman benches via Estonia) convinces me completely.

      The two drawings are from the Mendel “Book of the Dead” in Nurmburg. It was an old home for craftsmen for hundreds of years. When you died, they painted your portrait. A Google search will give you the link to the archive.

      1. shannonlove

        Prior to photography paintings were powerful status symbols and often used as form of individual advertising. Therefore, the most common distortion in historical depiction both written and graphical is that they tend to upscale or upbrand all the material items. All the houses are a little bigger and better than they were, people are dressed in their best clothes of the clothes of those on the next step up the ladder etc.

        The benches depicted are probably those used by the highest status craftsmen of the era which would probably be some equivalent of a finish carpenter. It’s pretty obvious no one was making roof joist or ship timbers on the depicted benches.

    2. hammettt

      As a general rule, old (even ancient) pictures tend to be very good as far as accurate detail, as evidenced by the inclusion of dovetails. Perspective, however, is lacking in many of the pictures that we woodworkers would find interesting. Perspective comes through good instruction and practice. In ancient and medieval times, the artist with enough experience to have mastered perspective would likely be painting pictures of things other than workshops. Those things were probably done by budding artists. As they got better, they started painting less “mundane” things.

    1. wmickley

      About the hook. This Roman picture is a small part of a large fresco. In the complete picture you can see the things on the floor a little better. The hook is the handle of a small adze that they used for smoothing. Also to the left of the hook appears to be a bow drill with string. There may be another tool on the floor as well

  14. Bowyerboy

    The low height and the representation of workers sitting at them (or on them) must be the reason why we call them workbenches instead of work tables. The Italian word “banco” is where we get the English word bank from. Money changers in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance would sit on their benches in open market areas and count out money for exchange. They became so wealthy they were able to move indoors and start loaning at interest.

    Sitting on the work while you work on it can have advantages; easier on the feet, perhaps make mortising a tad easier, etc. I read Ulrich’s book a few years ago. If I remember correctly, he says Roman planes were set at a higher angle (63 degrees, I think, as opposed to our modern day 45). The higher angle may have been more difficult to move over the wood and perhaps the lower bench height would enable you to to put more of your body weight above and behind the plane as you push it, but that is just a wild, wild guess on my part with nothing to support it.

    Look forward to reading more on this subject.

  15. Chauncy

    “many times artisans are pictured sitting while working at the bench” . . . perhaps the user employed his thighs as the foundation of the bench top and the bench legs simply provided convenient access to get ones human legs under the bench.

  16. bstjohn

    I would not recommend woodworking in a toga. They were made of wool, and were quite voluminous–not to mention, when worn correctly, they would be draped over your arm. So, hot, uncomfortable, and in the way. A linen tunic would be much more conducive to work, and probably more historically appropriate, plus it will let your nether regions breathe quite a bit more easily. And it would have been worn under the toga anyway, so just lose the top layer.

    1. shannonlove

      Nobody did manual labor in a toga period. They were analogous to a Tuxedo today. In fact, the draping of the togo over the left arm was intended to immobilize the arm so that it could not be used at all. (Romans had an intense sinister aversion.) Depending on the era under question, togas were either reserved to the upper classes by sumptuary laws or only worn on religious or state occasions.

      The depiction of a togo in the print above is intended to make the woodworker look have a higher status and not to depict how he actually worked. Most likely he worked in a tunic or, given the Mediterranean clime, just a large loin clothe/kilt sort of arraignment.

      1. bstjohn

        I was joking–I knew Chris wasn’t serious, so I responded in kind. Guess it didn’t go over too well. By the way, I believe you’re thinking of the Toga Praetexta as opposed to the regular toga (Toga Virilis). I don’t know that it was ever reserved for anyone except non-citizens.

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