A single plank – a wide and steady stance
There are two types of workbenches. One is the pretty variety. I’m as guilty as anyone in getting caught up in trying to incorporate as much beauty as possible into what is really the most important tool in the workshop. But a workbench is a workbench and they’re intended to be used for work. It’s what you can do with it, not how it looks.
Several years ago I decided to build a small bench (6′ long) to be mainly used for hand planing. I tried to imagine the criteria for an ideal workbench that would have been used by a joiner or carpenter in the shop, but would be free standing and have a reasonable level of portability.
At that time Roy Underhill was using a replica of a small bench that he had seen in France. It was unique in that the rear legs were raked and the top was “loose fit”, held in place by gravity and some strategically placed rising dovetail joints. After being “taken” with how “cute” this bench was, I began to see the design as being incredibly practical and efficient.
Most of us never use more than the front 16″ (give or take) of our benches, for actual work, that is. Usually anything positioned past that 16″ mark is in a “resting” or storage position. So it dawned on me that you could use a single slab for the top. Just go down to you local sawyer and order up any specie you please. Now the only problem with a 16″ bench is that it wouldn’t be very stable, from front to back. Another epiphany took place. Rake the back legs, widen the fore and aft stance and, voila, eliminate the stability problem. The other beauty of this design is that by using a heavy top of equal thickness, upper stretchers need not be employed. In fact, the top becomes the “heart of the structure, much like the seat in a Windsor chair. The length of the bench is really only limited by the height of the tree that will donate the slab. If the length of the bench is such that “sag” becomes an issue, one only need incorporate additional legs to provide the support required. And if a tool tray is really a requirement, one can easily be attached to the bench by supports fastened to the ends or the bottom of the slab.
For a very brief period, I allowed myself to believe that I had stumbled onto something really revolutionary. But after a little investigation, I found that this design has been widely used for centuries, with varying modifications dictated by specific use or individual tastes.
In recent years, woodworkers (especially in North America) have become reacquainted with the workbench designs associated with Roubo and Nicholson. Unfortunately, this new found interest has led many of us to overlook a workbench that has been a standard in working shops throughout Europe and North American for, at least, 400 years.
I simply had to look in my book case. Right on the front of The Workbench Book by Scott Landis was a stunning example of a raked leg bench at Hancock Shaker Village.
Recently, Roald Renmaelmo and Tomas Karlsson ( University of Gothenburg Sweden) have been working on replicating raked leg benches from the area of Northern Europe. Tomas actually built a bench of this design for his own use. It is an impressive bench, by any standard.
Even more impressive is the replica of the joiner’s bench from the Swedish Man-o-War, Wasa, which sank nearly four hundred years ago. It was recovered and is now a famous tourist attraction and history laboratory. Roald and Tomas just finished this one and the efficiency of the design is instantly recognizable.
Roald and Tomas are both Journeyman Carpenters and PhD Candidates in the University of Gothenburg’s Cultural Conservation Program. Their work is incredibly interesting and informative. You can follow their investigations on their blogs: hyvelbenk.wordpress.com and skottbenk.wordpress.com
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