Chinese Workbenches – a Little Bit Roman?
When you start studying ancient woodworking tools, it’s the similarities that are most striking – not the differences. Saws, chisels and planes – the core tools of the furniture maker – are only mildly different in the East and West.
While some people amplify those differences – pushing a saw vs. pulling it is one example – these are largely artificial. All cultures both push and pull tools. And using a Japanese saw takes no more than a few minutes of training and the Western hand will adapt. (Try it before you scoff.)
But then there is the question of workbenches. Many benches in the East are low, lack vises and the worker uses his or her body to secure the work. That’s weird for Westerners, right?
Not at all. The first workbenches in the West – Roman ones – are low, have no vises and feature the worker using the bench in surprising ways. These benches survived in some Western cultures up through the 20th century.
Check out these Estonian workbenches from the mid-20th century. And Estonia isn’t one lone example. If you take a close look at any Germanic culture you will find these benches throughout the historical record. They are a simple plank with legs staked into it. And little more.
Even in America. Check out this workbench made by Jonathan Fisher, an 18th-century savant, preacher and woodworker in 18th-century New England.
So again, we are more similar than we suspect.
— Christopher Schwarz