In Shop Blog

We may receive a commission when you use our affiliate links. However, this does not impact our recommendations.

One of the interesting characteristics of the Moravian workbenches at Old Salem
is how the bench forms evolved. The more ancient benches were made using oak. The newer benches have poplar components and lots of maple, a more traditional bench-building material.

Also, the more recent benches tended to take on more American characteristics. The shoulder vises on the older benches disappeared and are replaced by leg vises.

But what struck me was how the undercarriage changed. Tusk tenons got smaller and then practically disappeared. And the makers started to incorporate more storage into the base – to a fault in one example.

So let’s take a look at a few more of the benches and some of their characteristics.

The Top Shelf Bench, Circa 1820
This bench is on the top shelf of the Old Salem warehouse (hence its nickname), so it was the hardest to examine without climbing all primate-style up the racks. This bench is oak – the top is quite quartersawn – and features the traditional European shoulder vise and
tail vise.

The base is what is curious on this one. The legs are angled. And the base stretchers join the legs with lap dovetails that are now secured with nails.

Middle Shelf Bench (1790-1810)
This bench is my favorite of all the ones that I saw at Old Salem and is the one I would reproduce if I had to make another bench (and I don’t). The base is made from poplar. The leg vise and top are made from oak. By the way the top isn’t really that thick. There’s a skirt board on the front that gives the illusion of thickness. And the top has a tool tray.

If you’ve read either of my books or other dronings on benches, then you probably would pick this bench out as the one I like the least. After all, the legs aren’t flush to the front of the benchtop, the toolbox below would impede clamping, and I dislike skirts and tool trays.

While all those things are true,  I like this bench because I think the person who designed it had a nice eye for line and proportion.

The shape of the leg vise chop is quite nice. And notice that the board behind it, which carries the vise’s parallel guide, also has the same shape as the chop.

I think the drawer arrangement is attractive and I like the drawer to the left of the leg vise – that’s a detail I’ve always wanted to add to a bench.

The Tool Chest – With Bench Attachment (1860)
The most unusual bench in the collection is this 1860 example. It’s like a tool chest and a German workbench ran off to the Americas and had a love child. Those three drawers are massive, and contain all the racks and tills you would find in a traditional tool chest. When fully loaded with tools, I imagine the drawers would be quite heavy and difficult to
slide in and out.

This bench has wimpy tusk tenons – one had blown out – which I suspect were more for show than strength.

Portable Workbench
This bench, which has been reproduced by the joiners at Old Salem, is interesting because of its small size and the fact that it knocks down for transport to a job site. Brian Coe at Old Salem said they have done just that and found the bench handy.

The only difference between the original and the reproduction, Coe said, is the addition of a holdfast hole in the copy. The original bench has no tail vise – just single-point planing stops.

I’ve uploaded 16 high-resolution photos to Flickr that you can view in a slideshow. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

— Christopher Schwarz

Other Workbench Resources: 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.

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

Recent Posts
Showing 8 comments
  • Fitzhugh

    Thanks for all this info, somehow I didn’t see this until now.

    Any chance you recall how the leg vise is attached on the knock down bench? It isn’t attached to the leg, after all! Plus it has to knock down yet still handle the forces involved.

    Thank you!

  • Matthew McMillan


    I love your blog – I’ve been a long time reader, but just registered so I could ask this question. I hope it finds you even though this is an older posting…

    Do you by chance have any additional photos of the Middle Shelf Bench (1790-1810)? I too, really like the proportions and lines of it and hope to incorporate some of those design elements into my bench. My email is:

    I have your book on request from the library and am anxious to work through it. I would love to include some additional handtool storage under the bench, but don’t want to impede clamping…I’m hoping you might offer some thoughts in the text…

    Take care!


  • "The benches don’t look very tall. People in the 1700’s and 1800’s were generally shorter but I didn’t realize how much"

    The planes were thicker, too.

  • I agree with Chris. While having some practical limitations, the middle shelf bench is a gorgeous example of applied arts.

    Rick H.

  • ebook reader

    The benches don’t look very tall. People in the 1700’s and 1800’s were generally shorter but I didn’t realize how much.

    If you have the time…
    What was the average bench height and top thickness?


  • Bruce Jackson

    The last bench, the portable, looks a bit like the Nicholson, and is my favorite.

Start typing and press Enter to search