When researching Roman workbenches, one of the things that leaped out at me was how low many of them were low, knee-high like a sawbench. After building a low bench based on drawings from Pompeii and Herculaneum, most visitors to my shop had one question: Were the Romans really short?
The answer is: no. These low benches are used differently. You sit on them to plane faces of boards. You kneel on them to plane edges and saw. (I’ll write a post that explores some of the clever workholding on this bench in the future.)
I admit I’ve been surprised by how many operations you can perform on them (even dovetails) once you adjust your thinking.
What also has been interesting is discovering that these low woodworking benches didn’t just disappear with the Roman Empire. Many woodworkers in rural areas in Europe, Russia and North America use these benches up until the 1950s. I suspect many are still in use today. (And the Chinese bench continues to be low.)
Ethnographer Ants Viires, the author of “Woodworking in Estonia,” shows these benches in use in the mid-20th century for a wide variety of rural woodland crafts, including cooperage, box-making and general furniture construction.
As I began finding low benches in paintings all through the last 2,000 years, I began to wonder: Was the low workbench the first workbench and later eclipsed with our familiar thigh-high workbench?
The more I look at old paintings and sculptures, I think the answer is: No, low benches and high benches have existed simultaneously for at least the last 2,000 years. One of the pieces of evidence is this Roman sculpture from the 1st century A.D. (residing in Metz, France) in which two Roman woodworkers are shown working at a high bench. One is planing with a Roman plane and the other is likely using an adze.
So if the Romans had both workbenches, the real question becomes: Why don’t we?
— Christopher Schwarz
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