Wood: bench in progress

When I moved to Massachusetts from Connecticut in December 2016- January 2017, two of my basic tabletop “workbenches” came with me. But they rapidly turned into storage shelving in the basemen, which is really what they were designed for. It took me a long time to understand that a 3/4″ sheet of plywood made a great tabletop surface for doing work in paper or cardboard or wire, but that it was a terrible surface for shaping and managing wood, even something as soft as big-box-store pine. But it didn’t matter: the new house had only a basement for storage, and my work tables were the only thing that would keep our stored stuff off the basement floor.

Besides the basement was a cellar, really: a low-ceilinged, stone-walled pit in the ground that was not tall enough to stand upright in, and often damp if not with an active stream flowing through it (maybe Brad Pitt can make a movie about me and my basement, A River Runs Through It.).

But I still wanted a workbench. I haven’t been able to do any woodworking since we moved here. And then I found out about Rex Kreuger’s $30 bench, based on Chris Schwarz’s book, Ingenious Mechanicks.

The basic idea behind the Roman-style workbench (definitely in common use from the first century AD up into the 1600s) is that you sit while you’re working, or kneel, or rest one foot or knee on the board you’re working on, or you clamp it to the side of the board. Because you’re working on a flat and heavy surface and either seated or standing or kneeling on it, you can pull the plane toward you, or push it. You can work the sides of boards, or the edges, or the ends (I’m learning the lingo of woodworking — the sides of boards are the wide flat panels, such as the 4″ [really 3 1/2″] of a 2×4″; while the edges are the sides that have grain, and the ends are the part where the tubules that make up wood have been cut or broken).

In his book on Workbenches, Schwarz made the point that the purpose of a workbench is to provide work holding. Any piece of wood needs to be worked on its surfaces or sides, its edges, and its ends. The design of a workbench has to do those three things well: to stabilize a piece of wood no matter whether your working on a panel, a rail for a cabinet door, or the side of a carcase for a box or chest of drawers.

Practice makes masters, not initiation to the guild

Currently, this benchtop is resting on two 18th century-style saw benches that I built a while back in July 2016, to Chris Schwarz’s specifications. It’s built using Rex Kreuger’s method of gluing together softwood 2x4s (8′ long), but I have yet to make the legs. Schwarz wrote the article for Popular Woodworking in 2006, and I didn’t build my benches until 2016… and they’ve been sitting in a friend’s basement for four years. So it’s a good thing that I have a couple of saw benches to put it on for now.

The basic form of the bench, though, is the same one that Pamela Colman Smith immortalized in her now famous Tarot deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith Deck. Pixie, as she was sometimes called, must have seen the design for this bench in some museum or noble house in England, perhaps in a painting of St. Joseph the Carpenter, working at his bench in a decidedly un-English manner: seated on the bench with a plane-block or stop-block holding his work, while he works with hammer and chisel. I’ve always thought of the disks of the suit of pentacles as being metal, because of their golden yellow color. But it’s just as possible to understand them as some sort of yellow pine, and the workman in the black smock and red stockings as working with a hammer and chisel to produce the beautiful wares of his workshop. Far from the bustle of town and castle, he plies his trade and answers to no one but himself.

Kreuger’s point about the Roman-style, seated, low workbench (and his parallel construction, the English Joiner’s bench), is that a fancy bench requires skills to build, and tools. You can’t learn those skills without a bench, and you can’t build the bench without the skills acquired that go with that bench. It’s a catch-22 problem — the fancy benches of the 18th and 19th century are a by-product of the apprentice-artisan-master craftsman workshop, rather than the solo woodworker. A friend of mine built such a bench recently, and it’s magnificent — but he has a shop with thousands of dollars of tools, an enclosed and heated workspace, and a highly-systematic way of building things that please him tremendously and give him satisfaction.

On the other hand, these two bench-styles, the low bench I’m building, and the Joiner’s bench, bypass the requirements for fancy full-workshop development. I’m not about to build the English Joiner’s bench (I have no place to put it), but I can work on my front porch in sunny weather, move to the back yard later this summer (after I put legs on it, and it can be outside), and I can store it in the greenhouse in the winter. Call it a three-season workbench. Which is fine. I’m a three-season amateur, not a four-season professional.

So this Roman-style workbench lets me develop the skills that I would like to have as a (largely amateur) woodworker: to learn how to work panels, to plane side- and end-grain, to make staked and boarded furniture. I have no ambitions to make reproduction fancy Chippendale furniture, or even elaborately Arts and Crafts styles like Gustav Stickley. But I am interested in producing boxes and cabinets, drawers, shelves, stands, tables, stools, and maybe even chairs — simple, functional, reliable, useful and hopefully timeless. Appropriate goods for the slower, more civilized and elegant age about to begin.

All those things that I’d like to make, start with a bench — one that I made myself, that taught me even as I taught myself by building it — and which does the things that a bench does: hold the work, so the worker can learn the skills, to practice with the tools, and to learn the essentials of the craft.

Here we go. Let’s begin.

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