Friday 10 January 2020

Medieval workbench book

Christopher Schwartz is a famous editor of one of the woodworking and furniture making magazines, a historical woodworker who featured in the Woodwright show of Roy Underhill. He has his own publishing house 'Lost Art Press' which produces books that are most interesting for those into historic woodworking. In 2017 he published a book on Roman workbenches (no ISBN). I bought this book and planned to do a review on it, but never took the time to do it. Then I found out that the book had become unavailable; however, it was superseded by an expanded version of it, called  Ingenious Mechanicks - Early Workbenches & Workholding (ISBN: 978-0-9978702-7-5), which actually also resolved some of the critical comments I had in mind.

The 2017 original book and its 2018 successor with a different title.

If one takes a closer look at the contents of the books, most of the content actually applies to medieval workbenches as well, which makes it a very interesting for us. The book describes the origin and re-construction of three workbenches, including construction plans. First, two low workbenches are discussed: an eight-legged workbench from a fresco in Herculaneum, Italy dating from 79 AD and an archaeological example from Saalburg, Germany dating from 179 AD. The third workbench is a high workbench with a tail and end vise designed by Martin Loffelholz in 1505 AD (see this blogpost).

The original Saalburg low workbench, a bit warped after drying out for several centuries (left) and the reconstructed one by Christopher Schwartz (right). Photos from the book 'Ingenious mechanicks - Early workbenches & workholding' by Christopher Schwartz.

Christopher also describes how you work with these low workbenches - discovered by trying out (i.e. experimental archaeology) - which is actually how we have been working with our medieval workbench for years. Furthermore, he describes all kinds of the handy appliances (the ingenious mechanicks) that can be used with them, such as the holdfast, screw vises, crochets, side stops, doe's feet, bitey bits, palms, pegs, side stops and notches and wedges.

The story is being told in the usual anecdotal Christopher Schwarz style also found in the Woodwright television series, but despite that is highly informational. The updated book is profusely illustrated with colour photos and drawings (which were lacking in the first instalment of the book). the book is available in two versions: as a 160 page hardback book - which is expensive to be shipped abroad; and a cheap downloadable pdf version (19.50 USD). It is worth every penny. 

Sitting on a workpiece on a low workbench at castle Hernen.

The 8-legged Herculaneum and the Loffelhoz workbench also feature in one of Roy Underhills woodwright shows (season 36 episode 10).