bench hook, 17th-century style

bench hooks
bench hooks

When I first started working at joinery, I had a modern German workbench with an end vise and bench dogs to clamp the stock firmly to the bench. About 8 years ago I finally got around to making a bench more in keeping with the seventeenth-century joiners’ benches I was studying. For that bench I needed a “bench hook” – in essence, a stop for planing. In the 1680s, Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises illustrated a joiner’s bench, with its fittings. His hook is marked “b” and his paltry description is:

“b. The Hook in it, to lay Boards or other Stuff flat against, whilst they are Trying or Plaining.”

Later, to describe the use of the planes, Moxon again mentions the bench hook:

 

 

“to plane this Square, lay one of its broad Sides upon the Bench, with one of its ends shov’d pretty hard into the Teeth of the Bench-hook, that it may lie the steddier.”
joiner's bench, London 1680s
joiner's bench, London 1680s
bernch hook marks
bernch hook marks

 

Here is a close-up detail of the first photo, showing the characteristic marks the bench hook can leave on the end grain of the stock. I have sometimes seen this on seventeenth-century originals; a nice piece of evidence of shop practice.

 

planing against bench hook
planing against bench hook
Holme, joiners' bench & hook, etc
Holme, joiners' bench & hook, etc
Another seventeenth-century source that Alexander & I have consulted a lot over the years is Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory (1688).  Holme’s manuscript illustrations depict most of the tools and equipment used by many trades, including joiners. Here is his joiner’s bench, showing the hook before it’s mounted in a wooden block. There is no sense of scale in Holme’s drawings; a bench hook excavated in Virginia has a shank about 8″ long. Because my bench is only 4″ thick, I chose to have the smith make my bench hooks’ shanks shorter than that.
If I am reading them correctly, the eighteenth-century engravings illustrating Andre Jacob Roubo’s L’art du Mesuisier seem to show the bench hook bearing against the outside of the bench’s leg. The plane pushes the stock against the teeth of the hook, and the wooden block the hook is mounted in bears against the bench leg, resisting the stroke of the plane. This action reduces the chance of the bench hook working itself loose. Maybe the Virginia bench hook from the early seventeenth century used the same principle. But the eighteenth century is none of my business…
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19 thoughts on “bench hook, 17th-century style

  1. Thanks for the bench hook period diagrams. I recall you found and photographed a bench hook’s toothy marks on a piece of period joinery. Suggest you add this to the blog. Seeing real evidence trumps books. I mounted my hook so that none of the hook and the teeth extend beyond the support block’s perifery. The entire bench hook can be driven beneath the bench’s surface. This saves possible edge tool destruction but limits the height to which the hook can operate. I don’t feel the funky Moxon and Holme diagrams decide the question. Both orientations have merit. Possibly both werre used-who knows? If one wants to cobble up a bench hook, mount toothed tool steel to a suport block. If you are willing to desecrate your nifty period blog, you could include a picture of one. We all don’t have a blacksmith at our place of business. .

  2. JA: I knew what you were going to write before you did. For anyone reading along, Alexander & I have been backing & forthing for over 20 years on this subject; for the past 15+ with me generally resisting JA’s “suggestions” – as I will here. The photos of period furniture showing bench hook marks are not mine, thus I can’t put them up here. There’s 2 in Chipstone’s American Furniture, 2002; one in my article and one in Trent & Podmaniczky’s. As far as your home-made bench hook, do I have a picture of it?

  3. Some of the people who are commenting on your blog seem a bit ‘anorakky’ Peter – you’re Doing it, they’re just Thinking about it.

    Why not put up a blogroll directing them to the Bodgers and Green Woodworkers website or some “weak” links directing them to other websites where we will engage them in’robust’ arguement !

  4. Ha, too much fun!

    Thanks for the pictures and this entry, Peter–and thanks for the challenge JA.

    fwiw, I have a couple holding solutions I cut a bit of old saw blade and afixed it to them. One is a square dowel via a couple screws (sorry, it extends beyond the side [g]). The other is on a 10″ long batten that inserts on one end into a dog hole and is held at the front face vise. I use it for panels mainly.

    Great stuff all.

    Take care, Mike

  5. Robin,

    I would hope you are not commenting on “JA’s” post’s.

    Peter,

    I was making a new bench dog and I guess it is a hook instead! Thanks for the post.

    Don

  6. Don et al

    I had an email from JA the other day, touching on the bench hook and other issues:

    “…the ersatz JA bench hook. …[and]the fixed marking gauge. I recognize that some of my clever little thingees are a bit much. However we must remember. If we want folks to get to work, there are going to have to be some approximations. Tool availability and expense are problems. The bench hook is a good example. Few will have recourse to a smith.”

    Well, sometimes it pains me to say it, but I agree w/Alexander on this. I am just not a toolie-noodler. But, I hope to dig through JA’s slides today or tonight. then I will post the “ersatz bench hook” – but I hope for a world where we keep blacksmiths and other specialist crafts working. best way is to use their stuff.

  7. Peter, one thing that I use that I picked up while with you at the conference on 17th Woodwork at Wmsburg was just using a wood block for the bench hook. It is exactly like you are using, but without the metal hook. I think my block is something like 4″ wide and 2 1/2″ deep and 10″ long or longer. It works surprisingly well. I’m just now thinking of fitting a metal hook to some wood that will end up being in the same hole as the current one, but plan on still using both. The block just cost me a little time and was a good exercise in squaring it up by hand.

  8. Bill
    I’ve used mine turned around sometimes, when I don’t want teeth marks to show, like on a box lid or joined stool seat that’s already molded. Sometimes I need to take a few extra passes with a plane, so I just knock the bench hook up & out, & flip it around.

  9. Peter, more questions and comments. In plate 14 of Roubo,(illustrations of squares,marking gauges,chisels,smooth planes and a bench in lower corner) fig 17 illustates what looks like a board with a triangular notch taken out of one end. I understood it to be a device to keep wide boards from spinning around while planing against the bench hook. Holdfast it in place at the back corner and go to town. I made one from thin stock so it would’nt interfere with planing. It does keep panels from moving about. Do you use something like that for larger stock?

  10. Thanks for Steve Golden’s comment about using a notched board and holdfast to securethe the far end of stock held against a bench hook. I am not concerned that this is sugested by an 18th-Centutry text. With careful planing and planeing, this is not necessary that often. Minor problems may be solved by whacking the workpiece into the hook.
    Wood is Wonderful!

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