A Workbench from Pompeii

Daedalus and Pasiphae discussing the pantomime cow. Wall mural from Pompeii, 1st century A.D.

The art and artifacts from Pompeii have been much on my mind since the major new excavations have been published the past couple years.  I was looking at this wall mural and noticed the very Roman workbench in the lower left, complete with bench dogs while the young carpenter whacks away with hammer and chisel.

Detail from Daedalus and Pasiphae.

At his feet lies his bow drill and what may be a small adze of some sort.  I have no idea what he’s working on here but it might be germane to the larger legend of Queen Pasiphae of Greek myth (here meeting with Daedalus the artificer who is constructing special hobby cow for her to ride in for special activities).

Of course, I wish there were more details of the carpenter but this looks very much like one of my benches or one of a million others built since Pompeii was buried; a heavy plank, four friction-fitted legs, and placed at a comfortable sitting height.  Standing all day is for suckers.

If you don’t know this story it is a Roman interpretation of a Greek literal interpretation of a Minoan myth about the daughter of the Sun and Ocean who became queen of Minos and did some very weird things.  I suggest you look for it elsewhere in order to keep this page PG-13.

Home Carpentry

As usual, an interesting old find posted on the Lost Arts Press. It’s worth a read.

“It is doubtless the timidity of woman which restrains her mending instincts. She dreads the saw and the chisel as treacherous tools that inevitably inflict wounds on the user… Moreover, she can never grasp the difference between a nail and a screw, and regards the latter as an absurd variety of nail which can not be driven with a hammer unless the wielder of the hammer has the muscles of a man.”

Lost Art Press

parrs_gentlemans_tool_chestThe woman who indulges in carpenter-work seldom does much harm. She contents herself with trying to drive nails into the wall, and with experiments with mucilage. She drives her nails with great caution, and when she has loosened an inch or two of plaster she becomes alarmed, and resolves to let her husband assume the responsibility of inflicting further injury on the wall.

She has a profound faith in the value of mucilage as a substitute for glue, and hopefully attempts to mend china and furniture with it; but mucilage is as harmless as it is inefficient, and it is only on the rare occasions when it is used to mend the wheels of the clock that it does any permanent injury to anything.

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Carpenter, 15th-16th Century

Prior to power sawmills and corporate lumber production, much of the carpenter’s project time was filled with simply making trees into boards. Most illustrations I have found of preindustrial carpenters feature someone hewing, planing, or chiseling with the occasional scene of sawing a board to length or width.

An image is just as much about what is chosen for inclusion as that is left out.

I love to ponder the details of old illustrations and paintings to really see what the artist was trying to show us. These images are no doubt biased in what they choose to show; and for good reason. There is a semiotic tradition in Medieval illustration to choose certain symbols to denote specific trades or historical characters and it should be remembered that the illustrators are not necessarily experts with the trade they are depicting.


If I were to let my hair and beard grow out a bit, I think I could pass for this guy.

Here we have the same carpenter from a previous post dated to around 1414.

The foreground holds a familiar skirted six-board chest with iron hinges and an escutcheon plate around the presumed locking mechanism. Either he is building these or perhaps it holds his tools. Beside it is a nice little cabinet of similar construction. He is working on a simple European bench with through-tenon legs, popular since the later Iron Age. His board is secured simply by four bench dogs.

Only four hand tools are shown. The frame saw, plane, chisel, and mallet. No doubt his dividers, straight edge, and winding sticks are in the box.


Just for fun, here’s another carpenter from about a hundred years later hewing a board to size with a bearded broad-axe. The work sits on a pair of saw horses with the typical tenon legs. Also, note the iron dogs used to secure the board to the horses. Living in the era of screw clamps, we don’t use these as much but they are still occasionally found holding boards while being glued like so:

clamping dogs

And finally, a late 16th century carpenter cross-cutting a plank. I like this image as it depicts more tools, though in less detail. Chisels, hammers, and a square hang on the wall, a plane sits in the background, and the broad-axe sits on the floor next to the hewing stump. The frame saw hasn’t changed at all. I don’t know if the supprt under the board is unique but it appears to be stepped to hold planks at graduated levels. Pretty nifty if you ask me. And finally, a couple of details about the clothes; I love the sagging stockings and the patched elbow of his shirt. Definitely dressed for work.