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.

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Thoughts Provoked by a Sloyd Workbench Advertisement

A bit of personal history –

I never touched a tool in high school.  When I was there, kids were openly placed in two “tracks;” either Academic or General education.  I know I wasn’t the sharpest student and I generally disliked almost everything about being in school but I was placed among the Academics.  In lieu of shop classes (woodworking, metal shop, electricity, etc.) I learned a lot from a former engineer-cum-teacher who taught Drafting and Engineering Drawing.  This was the closest thing to shop class a kid on the Academic track could do.  Why? I have no idea.  We learned about house design, making scale plans, estimating materials, and other useful things.

Engineer drawing.

Fortunately, my grandfather was a handy guy who grew up on a farm and spent his early years in the building trade so I learned the basics of using a square, compass, saws, planes, and the like from him.  Also, being left as a somewhat feral child, I was able to use and abuse the family tools and learned many valuable lessons the slow and often frustrating way.  When I was sixteen, I began working part-time for a construction company as a laborer with the thought I might make that my profession.  I learned a lot, both good and bad, by observation and exposure, and continued to work as a carpenter in various capacities through graduate school a decade later.

Elementary school Sloyd.

Where am I going with this ramble? 

It was a long and meandering road for me with many side excursions and dead-ends, and although I feel grateful for all the lessons and training I received along the way, I sometimes lament the loss of craftsmanship and the values of creativity in schools.  In short, education isn’t an either/or proposition; that you are either on track for academic pursuits or you will be in the labor force.  I have met many geniuses with little formal education and many fine academics who excel in the manual arts.

Teach your children well.  Real life skills are too important to be left to others.

The Nuts of “Ingenious Mechanicks”

Okay dammit. Now I have to make some of these…

Lost Art Press

While researching “Ingenious Mechanicks” Chris Schwarz and I found many workbenches with face vises and some of them actually had vise nuts.

In the montage above there are selections from paintings from Spain, Italy and what is now present-day Ecuador. As you can see, they range from the basic steering wheel to the curvy hurricane. The nut on the lower left is the shape Chris chose for his Holy Roman/Löffelholz workbench (and he provides the pattern in the book).

My particular favorite is a form that may have originated in Spain and made its way to Spain’s New World colonies: the double-bunny ear. The double-bunny ear provides an easy grip for tighting or loosening the vise.

The top right image is from a 17th-century Spainish painting. The next two vice nuts on the right are late 19th-to-early 20th century from Guatemala and Mexico. The vise nut on the left is of…

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Saw Bench Update

I worked on the bench a little more last weekend and have already put it to work over the last few evenings for some small projects.  I have found it’s usefulness and it is a tool I know I won’t regret owning.

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Front side.

A second till shelf has been added to store saws, bench hook, etc. and a few holdfast holes have been bored through.

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The off-side.

I realize now I didn’t get any low angle shots.  I’ll take those when I get it oiled up a pretty.

bench3

View of the bottom till.

Sturdy and low-cost, this project allowed me an opportunity to employ some free-form joinery, use some rough-looking scraps and enjoy a bit of wabi-sabi* design.  It’s not perfect, but neither am I.

*Wabi-Sabi: an aesthetic based partly on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic of wabi-sabi can be described as a beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Cobbler’s Workbenches

7000910_1_lI have come across these little benches for quite some time and I find them fascinating. I even started a folder in my image library for them.  A quick search around the web finds many of these in auction houses, on Ebay, Craigslist, and elsewhere, generally at exorbitant prices.  It appears they generally end their long lives as side-tables in a middle class home, assisting in the creation of nothing; just a curiosity to a collector. cobblers-benchThey really are remarkable and interesting professional tools; clearly bespoke to the needs and means of the craftsman who used them.  You can almost see their ancestry written upon them; a Roman or Medieval bench with simple splayed legs, a cutaway for seat, a little rail to keep tools from rolling away.  Later some small tills might be created to segregate nails and needles, and knife slots added so that they might be handy but safe.Genuine-Cushman-Colonial-Creations-Cobblers-Bench-Coffee-Table-245-Dealer-5534Really, a simple slab of wood, but as “needs must” it becomes a little workshop, self-contained.

Drawers or cubbyholes became a natural addition to the workspace as the bench replaces tool caddies.  Some can be locked up for safe-keeping and fancy builders made more comfortable seats.

shakercobbler2The essential layout seems to always be the same.  We are, after all, given the same basic human shape and the need is the same.  Organization, convenience, and a solid place to work.cobblerI can see this type bench being useful for other crafts as well but it would definitely end up modified over time to suit the specifics.CBENCHEven the above humble specimen has found a home, holding more collected crafts.  Slowly dying as a curio for some of us to ponder as a useful holdover from an era when we made for ourselves.CLbenchThe designs seem varied as the places they originate and the ingenuity of the makers.  Cordwainers, cobblers, leather bag makers, can all find the beauty in this design.primitivecobblerMany a zapatero could still find great assistance with a shop setup like this.earlycobblerI could make great use of this as an itinerant craftsman.  And maybe I shall someday.
shakercobbler
Perhaps, by looking into the past, we are seeing a better, simpler future

Cobbler at work, no citation, no date. Click for "source".

Cobbler at work, no citation, no date. Click for “source”.

“Round and ’round the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel…”

Weekend Sawbench

A Saw horse or a full-size workbench, for Hobbits?

Baumeister_-_Holzschnitt_von_Jost_Amman_-_1536.svgLiving where I do, without a proper workshop, I have moved to a more portable setup.  Along with this, I have pared down by letting go a number of cumbersome tools.  However, a flat, solid surface is sorely missed.

shaving-horse

A less messy version of my current shop.

I find myself working on the seat of the shave-horse or on top of saw horses quite a bit with my small table-saw serving as a layout table (when the project is small enough).  And yes, I do miss the full-size table saw for ripping long boards.

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Here’s a recent photo of me in my make-shift workshop.

A little over a year ago I began scheming for a small, pre-industrial-style setup.  Something an itinerant carpenter or bodger would be likely to use.  It needed to be easy to move and store but provide a solid clamping and layout surface.  I wanted it at the same height as my shave-horse so that they will work in concert for large projects.  So, when my friend Mick gave me a thick, rough-sawn maple board last summer, I decided it was to become the top of a new saw bench.

First, before the mail comes flooding in;

there is no perfect formula for a saw bench!  For thoughts about height, look here: “A Proper Saw Horse.”

There are some wrong and right things to do, but all in all, there are as many combinations as there are woodworkers.  Much depends on what you make and how you work.  I am 6’1″ and after much changing and experimentation, I use 22″ tall benches for hand work.

“Off-side” of the saw bench under construction.

 

For what it’s worth, here is the bench I came up with last weekend.  It maybe grew a little too much, trying to more than a saw horse, but still not a Roubo.

roubogermanbench

Roubo’s bench.

Materials: All of the materials for this project, other than lag bolts and a few stainless steel screws, came from the scrap pile; all recycled lumber except the top which came from Mick.  Legs and bracing are constructed from oak while the till bottom is dimensional pine from an old shelf.  The legs are splayed at 12 degrees in both dimensions.  Dog holes for stops and holdfasts will be added soon.  The little vise was a last minute addition as it’s never a bad thing to have too many ways to hold things.  This increased the project price to just over $20 US.

DSC_0001

A work in progress, but coming together.

Had I considered the vise sooner I probably would have positioned the legs to place it closer to the left end but this will due.  The little hardware till on the top will hold those wily drill bits and pesky chisels looking for an escape as well as corralling screws, pencils, and marking knife.  More work will be done, and I’m considering a second till near the bottom of the legs to store the shooting board and bench hook as well as a safe place to set a saw while working outdoors.

Comments and criticisms are certainly welcome and more information about this project will be forthcoming in the near future.