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.
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.
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
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