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JOEL Joel's Blog

Workbench Madness


Workbench Madness 4Between Peter Follansbee and Chris Schwarz and comments from all over there has been a plethora of posts on early workbench design. Specifically Chris wants everyone to know about the Bench screw which Moxon shows on his workbench, and Peter wants everyone to know that while the bench screw is a good idea the double screw Moxon shows on the right hand side isn't necessarily the cat's pajamas.

It would go against my basic tendency to have an opinion on everything to not comment. So here goes:

1 - The bench screw, drawn in on the left of the bench as part of the crochet is clearly an afterthought. It is engraved OVER the shading of the workbench legs.

2 - The double screw Moxon shows on the right hand side, is clearly not an add- on - it was impractical to erase the original legs on the details on the left but there is no trace of erasure on the right - (which is hard but not impossible in copperplate to do). So it is pretty clear to me that the double screw was part of the original drawing. But it doesn't work mechanically. There is no visible way to attach it as drawn to the workbench, and if it was permanently in place the bench screw and crochet would be totally blocked. So you must reach the conclusion that the actual arrangement of the double screw is more of a creature of illustration than a copy of an existing bench.

3 - Other earlier illustrations sources exist which show a double screw detached and hanging from a hook in the shop.

My conclusions from all of this:

If you look at the engraving in Siddons (1837 or earlier) which I posted in a blog about hats a large double screw vise is used to clamp wood for jointing. I can't tell you that it's the best way of doing this sort of thing - but there it is.

In the earliest workbench illustrations that I know of that are on the web, (German 14th century) the woodworking workbenches look more like a saw bench with splayed legs with only a bunch of stops to keep the wood from moving in any direction during planing. I don't know if this is typical for Europe or just Germany or even just the town which the illustrations originate. And I am not sure of when the change over to a Moxon type bench occurred.

The crochet, for all that it's pretty handy as a quick clamp for planing dies out from illustrations as the centuries wear on. In the drawings from Diderot (mid 18th century) the crochet is less hook-like and more of a vertical stop to prevent work being held by holdfasts from slidng around. I have no factual idea why the change occurred but my guess is that as work changed, styles of work changed, and what was considered the best tool changed also.

Another thought is that workbench illustrations from before the mid-19th century are few and far between and really we don't have much of an idea if the crochet or the detachable double screw vise really were ubiquitous, just common to certain areas of the trade, or an attempt by Moxon and others to show all possible combinations of work-holding and not just a single sample.

This is what historic research is all about. We need more primary sources, more sharp observations, and maybe one day we will have a definitive answer.

Another thing to consider is the traditional tail vise which you don't see on these benches, although Roubo illustrates them as a cabinetmaker's bench, but tail vises were popular in Europe in at least starting in the 19th century. We also can't count out the effect of iron vises of the mid 19th century onward. For a patternmaker - one of the most technically demanding woodworking jobs there is, a cast patternamker's vise was a pretty ubiquitous bench fixture from the late nineteen hundreds onward. So while all these wooden vises might be kind of cool don't count out heavy cast iron for high performance.

Note: in a shameless product plug I proudly mention that Moxon, Felibien, Roubo, and most other early workbench illustrations all show holdfasts in use.

Join the conversation
08/12/2010 Larry
What did he say? In baseball I think that is called covering all bases!

Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

I can attest from personal practical experience that a moveable vise like that is theorized is actually very handy, and very practical. Which I consider to be a true test of the validity of the claim.

I picked up a book press, at least that was what the guy theorized it was. I was going to cannibalize it for parts, the twin screws were going to go to making a bench vise or a leg vise on a new bench to be built later.

It was two large blocks of Douglas Fir with two screws going through it. After reading the posts on this, I uncovered the "book press" and clamped it to my flimsy MDF workbench that came with the house.

Results with pictures here:

It works very very well. I had been struggling with cutting dovetails because of work holding issues, but this works perfectly. It was an extremely simple set up, merely pick it up, clamp it down, open the jaws and clamp your boards. When it came time to do something else, loosen clamps, and put it back under the bench.

I am convinced by how easy it was, that this idea has merit. A professional woodworker is not going to spend a lot of time fiddling with devices, he'll be most interested in quick and dirty, get it done. A dedicated vise would be better, but it can also get in the way of other parts of the work like planing long boards. This solution does appear to be workable.

It will be a while before I actually build a new bench, but this set up has allowed me to work easily on my dovetails without it.

08/14/2010 Eric
Seems to me that having an apron with dog holes and using holdfasts might be better than a removable vice. My bench has the Noden Adjust-a-Bench legs which also takes care of height issues.

Great research on the old woodworking benches. Adjustable
height woodworking benches have been around for a long time
and there are plans to make a bench like this. When doing vise
work, adjustable height is great for your back and improving
the quality of your work.
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