During the last decade I’ve amassed hundreds of images of early workbenches as part of my research into pre-industrial woodworking. Inevitably, some of the images don’t make a lot of sense and now populate a folder named: X-Files.
These workbenches are from paintings and their features might be the result of a painter who doesn’t know much about woodworking. Or they could be a clue to a simple and neglected workholding device.
More times than not in the last decade, I’ve found that the painters weren’t idiots. What they depicted was accurate and – if you replicate the painting in your shop – you might just be amazed. A lot of these little discoveries will be in my forthcoming book “Roman Workbenches” and were dug up by researcher Suzanne Ellison.
This post, however, is about the X-Files. The benches I can’t quite decipher.
X-File 1: A Weird Notch
The image at the top of this bench shows the “Sacred Family” – Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Joseph’s low bench has a notch in the end that looks too regular to be a split or end check. But to me, it’s odd. It’s the correct length for a “ripping notch” on the end of a sawbench. But it’s the wrong shape – ripping notches usually have a V-shape to make them easier to use.
Another possibility is it’s a notch used for tenoning. You put the work in the notch and secure it with a wedge. But the notch is too narrow for this and driving a wedge in there would likely split the narrow benchtop.
X-File 2: A Ghostly Scrap
In this painting, again of the Sacred Family, Joseph is sawing stock that is likely clamped in a face vise (these are a common sight in these paintings). What is somewhat curious is the piece of wood on the bench. Is it part of the workholding? Or just a scrap?
X-File 3: Another Notch
This notch seems set up for tenoning as described above. It’s the right size and shape, but it’s in an odd position. Usually these notches are on the long edges of a workbench – not on the ends. I will replicate this notch on one of my benches and give it a try.
— Christopher Schwarz
If you like old-school workbenches, you might like my book: “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use, Revised Edition.”