The “Nicholson” or “English” bench is a simple workbench, possibly made using 2 by construction lumber, that features a characteristic deep front apron drilled to enable to the use of holdfasts or pegs to support work vertically. It lacks any penetration through its top save a single planing stop. A simple and ineffectual face vise adorns the front left side of the bench. No tail vise or additional means of support are shown.
The bench gets its name by its depiction in Peter Nicholson’s early 19th c text “Mechanic’s Companion….” (the real title is a paragraph long, typical of the period). Nicholson’s text is much in the same form as Moxon’s late 17th c text “Mechanic’s Exercises…” and contains much of the same sort of information. Nicholson covered a variety of trades, and republished the manuscript over a period of years in various forms, very like Moxon. One of the biggest differences between the authors is that Nicholson was actually a workman whereas Joseph Moxon was a chronicler.
The image of Nicholson’s bench should be familiar to woodworkers. It appeared in Landis’ coffee table book “The Workbench Book” (Taunton Press) and Chris Schwarz included a reprint in his vastly superior text “Workbenches” (FW publications). This oft republished image also shows the surface plane trinity: fore, try, and smoother, as well as a plow, sash and moving fillester planes, all essential to the work of a house joiner.
The entire text of Nicholson is available on line, thanks to the good folks at Google Books. You are free to download a pdf copy to your hard drive (highly recommended). Google “Mechanic’s Companion” and choose the 1845 edition, as its a better scan and the pdf includes hyper links. The image of the bench is on page ii in the opening pages of the book. Don’t miss the description of the construction of this bench including its hidden “locker”, which I’ve never seen reproduced.
In addition to the engraving in Nicholson, similar benches are shown in contemporaneous paintings of English woodshops (see Landis’ or better yet, Gaynor’s (see below) book for reprints of these paintings). Slightly earlier texts by Frenchmen Roubo and Diderot depict benches that are similar to each other, yet contrast starkly with the Nicholson bench. These, now called “French” benches, feature thick, monolithic tops mounted to stout legs with no evidence of aprons. Roubo also showed a variant of these benches with an elaborate face and tail vise, and identified it as a “German” bench. Perhaps due to Roubo’s regionalized identification, combined with the corroborating English paintings and contrary French images, some have taken to referring to Nicholson’s bench as an “English” bench.
One problem with the use of the term “English Bench” is that it suggests that regionalism was the cause of the form as opposed to typical use, materials, or available technology etc. Thus obscured is the fact that the Nicholson bench is always depicted in association with joineries, not cabinetshops. Interestingly, the lid of an English joiner’s tool chest circa 1790 (he may have been a cabinetmaker) shown in Jay Gaynor’s fine must-have text “Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America” depicts a thick topped bench with no tail vise (so far similar to a “French” bench) with a twin screw vise applied to the front left. The Dominy bench is somewhat similar in form. What I like best about the tool chest lid (which I believe resides in Jane Rees’ personal collection) is that it shows the workman holding a tankard of what must be beer, thereby engaging in an apparently ancient woodworking tradition that I hold dear and sacred.
The advantages of the Nicholson bench appear to be its simple and inexpensive construction, light yet stiff design, and easily achievable extreme length. These features, along with its apron, suggest a particular superiority for the work of a house joiner, responsible for long runs of moldings, and the fabrication of household doors and windows.
I don’t personally consider the bench to be universally superior to any other style. It works for its intended use. But I appreciate the inexpensive materials required, simplicity of its joinery, and its light weight. All of which would certainly be attractive to joiners who required little else, may be called upon to transport or construct a bench on site, and who had access to wide, sawn, often softwood timbers.
I recall one woodcentral.com participant bemoaning the then fad quality of the Nicholson bench, suggesting we were a fickle bunch to switch from French bench devotees to English bench devotees and back again, possibly with a layover in Scandinavia in between. Though the thread died shortly thereafter, I think the poster had a good point. Workbenches do indeed seem to come in and out of style, seemingly for no good reason. In my opinion, the reason for bench fads is the lack of real and basic analysis. Schwarz has provided more and better analysis than anyone has to date. But he also left a fair bit up to the reader, and instead focused on more useful subjects like how to actually build the darn thing, what works and what doesn’t.
I think if you have a question about what a Nicholson bench and whether its right for you, you should do the following:
1) Read Landis’ book at the public library (or neighborhood Woodcraft!)
2) Read Nicholson on line
3) Buy a copy of Schwarz’ book (if for no other reason than to encourage the only guy giving serious thought to such subjects)
4) Add Gaynor’s book to your personal WW library
5) Consider that form probably more often reflects use than geography
6) But most importantly, consider what sort of work you do, intend or wish to do, whether you’ll ever need to transport your bench, and honestly assess your woodworking skill, budget, and time available for bench construction. And while you’re considering all of that, build a Nicholson bench next weekend using Schwarz’ book as a guide so you can get some woodworking done in the meantime.
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