Solve a Workbench Mystery - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Solve a Workbench Mystery

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

Wear and tear on an old workbench is
always interesting to me. Most of it is predictable and understandable –
French marks on the benchtop, the occasional saw kerf in the face vise
and always the ubiquitous white paint splatters.

Recently a
reader sent me a link to two workbenches for sale through antique
dealers – one on the West Coast and the other on the East – that made me
say “huh?”

Both of these benches are touted as 19th-century
French designs, and I think that’s a fair assessment based on the design
and the vise hardware. Let’s take a look first at the one from Suzanne Golden Antiques in New York.

86″ long, 23″ deep and 29″ high – all pretty standard dimensions. What
is unusual is the wear on the top. The benchtop is covered in saw kerfs.
But it’s the front edge that has me curious. I’ve not seen American
benches sliced up this way. I wonder if this is a result of using
bowsaws vertically at the workbench – perhaps short rips that end right
as the saw hits the benchtop.

While you’re over there, take a
look at some of the other interesting features of the joinery – the
sliding-dovetail/through-mortise joint is curious. On the front right
leg the dovetail joint has an extra shoulder.

Now go visit this page at Garden Court Antiques in California. That front edge is plumb wore out from saw kerfs and the like.

So I have to ask our woodworking friends in Europe: Is this common?

— Curious in Cincinnati

Other Workbench Resources in Our Store
“The Workbench Design Book” is now shipping and makes a great gift for a woodworking buddy or for yourself. Check out the review of it on

And if you like DVDs, we have a video of me building the French-style
bench on the cover of “The Workbench Design Book” entirely (except for
one band saw cut) by hand. “Build an 18th-century Workbench” is available in our store.

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Showing 22 comments
  • le_barrant

    Patrick is right. Wear in the front of the bench is due to many hits of frame saws used vertically for rip cuts in large boards, to divide them. French woodworkers used only frame saws for splitting large boards or turning shapes. I think it’s because they hadn’t panel saws. The workpiece was hold horizontally by a big holdfast. I could show you a photo of an old french woodworker using a frame saw vertically (like the woodworker in Roubo(s plate 11) in a beautiful book "le livre de l’outil", but I don’t know how I can post it.
    Thank you four investigations on Roubo Bench.
    Excuse me for my poor english.

  • Looking at Roubo’s Plate II, you’ll see that noone is using the crochet or a vise. Everything happens on top of the benches, and we can see croscutting and ripping being done right in front. That’s what I thought of the instant I saw those benches. Simple.

  • Kevin Thomas

    I’m just trying to get past the idea of a 7 foot Roubo workbench as a sofa table.

  • Scott Stahl

    The benches were dedicated stations judging by the uniformity of the wear. By applying the Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) logic, I’m going to guess that boards were pinned in the vise and sawn vertically in a range of uniform lengths.

    I saw a contraption once that featured a vertically hung bow saw attached to a lever with counter weight. One person could use the saw for long periods of time without tiring out. Also, the cuts were very easy to keep square by going with gravity. That image sprung into my mind immediately when I saw the first bench.

  • Dan Miller

    Looks too pretty. I vote distressed.

  • Tom

    A couple of observations:
    – To me, the cuts look more like saw kerfs than hatchet marks.
    – A few shallow auger holes on the front apron, and few or none on the top. You probably will get more consistent results with the augur’s axis horizontal – and you can apply more force (maybe with another apprentice pushing on your back).
    – Looks like an Acme thread on the vise screw, but you would have to measure the angle to be sure.

  • Kermit Huttar

    Look at the end of the bench top. The round of the logs is still evident. Apparently the maker was only concerned with the top of the bench and left the rest to nature.

  • Benchdog

    Possibly the bench was used in a butcher shop for cutting meat.

  • ROD-


  • obewan

    only $7500 for the california bench plus another thou to ship it to the midwest…what a deal !!!!!!!who cares about a few saw cuts………

  • Kirk

    I’m placing my bet on Patrick. Has Mr. Underhill had a chance to view the pictures? He would have a good idea of how the benches may have been used (abused?).

  • Dean


    I think Patrick is onto something. It would support what Chris said, and that’s some vertical bowsaw action. And, if you’re counting benches and not men it would be the 6th bench from the left.

  • Greg

    This bench has obviously been extensively cleaned and refinished, but I wouldn’t immediately assume it was artifically distressed. Remember that an old workbench may have been repurposed outside of the woodshop at some point in its life. Some of the wear and tear may be from activities other than woodworking.

    I once saw an old bench at an antiques fair that has countless auger holes on the fron apron. The front face of the bench seems to have been used as a support surface at lot more in times past than it is now – or maybe just a bored apprentice?

  • Ed

    I second Farms – they look antiqued. Dig that finish. Perhaps new made to look old – hence a heavy finish to hide new work on old wood – like repro antique Chinese furniture.

    Ahh but maybe I’m just a cynic when dealing with antique dealers.

  • Thomas J. Hamernik

    It’s amazing (to me) that these benches were both in service in the conditions just one kerf shy of their present conditions.

  • Bob DeViney

    Two guys, both right-handed, must have worked at the east coast bench, as it has planing stops at both ends. Doesn’t look like the previous owners were too worried about flat bench tops though.

  • Farms

    I’m wondering if they were "antiqued"

    That sort of wear is somethign Ive seen on a construction site saw horses, rather than a work bench.

  • Patrick

    Look at the 4th man from the left at the workbench from Roubo’s Plate 11. Could that be an answer

  • Jonas Jensen

    I’m at the job until Thursday, where I can go home and check the old workbenches that I have.
    Could both these benches have been in the shop of a cooper?
    That would explain why there is a lot of wear at the same spots. After all, a lot of the products from the coopers were rather uniform like small barrels (dritler in Danish) for butter.
    Maybe a wheelwright could have made the same marks. I suppose that wagon wheels are also sort of uniform in their size.

  • Ryan M

    Comparing pictures taken from two ends of the Garden Court bench, the majority of the cuts are vertical, but seem to be angled to the left.
    This, and the amount of material wasted from the underside of the top in the area where the cuts are concentrated, makes me wonder if the cuts are from some sort of trimming axe rather than a saw.

  • dh

    I bet the extra shoulder on the front right leg is to provide support for the holdfast hole that is unusually high on the leg.

  • Matt Cianci

    Dang! Those are two chewed up benches, man!

    What is remarkable to me is how similar they are…the Roubo form (if that’s what we will call them) must truly have been dominant in that age.

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