the cat’s out of the bag: that old joiner’s shop you saw here this fall….

Once again, remember this place? I’ve posted it a couple of times, and and one more:


18th-century shop


Now you can read part of the story, from today’s Boston Globe:

(Ahhh…the link now only gives me a preview – says I need to subscribe. If the link fails you, do a search for “Luther Sampson Duxbury shop” or something like that. Might be that I reached the monthly limit on freebies at…)

I hope you can read it, it’s exciting stuff. Kudos to Michael Burrey for seeing it for what it is…and to the many who have worked thus far on documentation, research, etc.



some workshop layout thoughts

In 1999 Mack Headley wrote an article for American Furniture about the layout, organization and setup of an 18th-century cabinetmaker’s shop He used documentary evidence, engravings, and archaeology as the basis for his findings, as well as things like the photos of the Dominy workshop in East Hampton Long Island before its contents were moved to the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington DE. [see Mack Headley, “Eighteenth-Century Cabinet Shops and the Furniture-Making Trades in Newport, Rhode Island” in American Furniture edited by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1999), pp. 17-37.]

I found Headley’s article inspiring, and sought to do something similar for the 17th-century joiners’ works. My article “Manuscripts, Marks, and Material Culture: Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth-Century America” in American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 125-146 really concentrated on tools and tool evidence. The reason for this is that we know next to nothing about joiners’ shops – the physical space, the number of workmen, etc.

Nowadays, most woodworkers set up their shops in a pre-existing space, adapting it this way & that to fit the type of work they do. Like many, I started out in a basement workshop. Years later, I moved to the 2nd floor of an overgrown chicken coop. Then in 1994 I moved into the workshop I now use in the museum. Working in a living history museum means that my workspace is also a display space. 8 months out of the year, streams of visitors come through to see various craftspeople at work. This affects how I set up the shop. Unlike the cabinetmakers at colonial Williamsburg, I am not attempting to recreate a known workshop…. I work in a funny old carriage house, not in a recreated 17th-century wooden building.

Having my shop as a display space creates some challenges when setting up the benches, lathe and other fixtures. For instance, the windows are behind me, really a poor choice all around, but one that couldn’t be avoided.

overall view

 My bench is free-standing, running parallel to the railing from which museum visitors approach my workspace. I keep the bench back just far enough so that it’s out of reach,  but close enough for ease of viewing, and within reach of me handing them things to see up close. It also leaves space for me to scoot around and have closer contact with them…

 The building is brick, which makes hanging stuff tricky. Here and there are sections of boards that tools hang from; naturally the one right behind my bench holds stuff I use most often. Under this set is a workbench that I have used some this winter, but during the season it will really just be a place to pile things…tucked to the left is a rack for short boards (30″ and less) stored on edge.

hanging tools


Most of the work I do involves converting riven oak into boards. Lots of hatchet work and plane work, usually switching from one to the other again & again. I was taught to really keep track of the hatchet – at Country Workshops we always kept a leather guard on them when we put them down. There you have 8-12 students roaming around the workshop, and the chance for an errant bump against a hatchet left lying around was always a possibility. I have adapted that notion in my shop, and the hatchet is always either in my hand, or hanging on the wall behind me. Almost never anywhere else.

view of bench and hewing block

When I am done hewing and ready to plane this board, first thing is the hatchet goes back on the wall. Working in front of (sometimes thousands of) visitors each day, it’s easy to get distracted, so I have trained myself to always put the hatchet back. In these photos, I think you’ll be able to see the proximity of the workbench, the hewing stump/block and the spot on the wall where the hatchet hangs (see it right above my head in this photo) I think of the block, the bench and the wall rack like the “work triangle” of kitchen design…in my shop these are all within a step or two.

hatchet goes back

Other tools hang nearby as well.  

small gouges

And planes and marking tools are on a shelf under the bench. Yes, it collects dust and shavings. Every few months I pull them out & sweep under there. It’s not a big deal. The marking gauges and other small tools are stored in an open box; rulers, awls, chalklines – that sort of thing. then mallets and big stuff with no sharp edges.

under the bench


small tools storage

There’s really another whole section of my shop that has a lathe in it, and a whole lot of tool storage and projects hanging around. part storage, part display – other than turning it really isn’t part of my “work” space. But I’m glad I have it. Oh, and books too. and camera equipment. So I guess I use it, jut not actively. So that’s the bulk of how my shop is set up, essentially by default. I often think of my fantasy shop at home. First thing I’d add would be a framed ceiling to hang stuff from…that’s what I miss from the chicken coop, but not the cold and the mice.

If it’s eagles you came for, I don’t have them. Heather does – had them in her yard in southern Pennsylvania today. Go see

Heather's eagle

Another link I’ve been meaning to send is our friend Paula’s new site about baking in ovens she’s made herself, and who-knows-what-all. There’s oak in her pictures, but it’s on fire. I complained there were no birds, but she says there’s a turkey on the front page. I say that’s a technicality. It’s a website/blog combo, so take a look if you’re inclined. It’s good stuff.

is that oak in there?

workbench fittings, 17th-c style

"single bench screw" PF bench

Here’s my take on the bench screw(s) of Moxon & Holme. The “single bench screw” is the one fitted through the piece fixed to the front edge of the bench. For edge-planing and similar applications I found I need some way to support the other end of the stock & I opted for a “deadman” that slides on runners attached to the lower rail of my bench & the bench top’s underside. I have NO EVIDENCE for the deadman in the 17th-c reference material. So that is a case where I stole something from a later period… the deadman has a row of holes, not for holdfasts but for a peg on which to rest the nether end of the stock.

 The screw in this device can’t grab the way a vice can – it’s really just to pin the stock against the bench’s edge. If I have to really hold it tight I use a holdfast in the bench’s legs…

holdfast in bench leg
holdfast w stock vertical

For edge planing of stock that fits on the bench top – I use the “double bench screw” described by both Moxon & Holme. Instead of thinking of this as a precursor to a vice, I think of it like a clamp, in essence, it relates to the handscrew of the 19th & 20th centuries;  except in this case, both screws move in the same direction, and the action is quite slow.  But it holds.

 I have two. One made by me, one by Alexander. Mine is smaller, about a foot & a half long maybe. I use it to prop stock up on edge oin the bench top, for planing the edges of boards. Sometimes I set the back end of the stock up above the wooden screw, and tilt the forward end of the stock downwards against the bench hook. Other times, the double bench screw is just grabbing the end of the workpiece with the two inches or so beyond the screw. I use it a lot this way, for planing, to steady pieces under the holdfast for mortising. I also use the double bench screw to hold tenoned stock upright on the bench top for splitting the waste off tenons, after sawing the shoulders.

"double bench screw" on PF bench
Here is a slide of one of Jennie Alexander’s benches; its front edge is quite deep/high. This allows Alexander to bore a row of small-diameter holes for steel pins to catch the nether end of stock held in the single bench screw for edge planing. Eliminates the need for my deadman solution…
JA's bench w/ screw, holdfast & hook


Now back to Moxon. I think that Moxon’s illustration of the double bench screw is not reliable for scale – remember that he talks about planing stock that is 7 feet long – so if his bench is say 8 feet long, then the double  bench screw there is what, about 4 feet long? Seems awkward. But who knows? 

Moxon's joiner's bench


My take on the notion of attaching the double bench screw to the front edge of the bench top is that it’s hokum. I see no reason to try to do so, I can’t understand what operation would leave a joiner needing a device like that. Remember, joiners did not regularly dovetail stuff, rarely if at all. When I need to really hold stock upright, I blam it agsinst the bench legs/front edge of the bench with a holdfast in the leg.

 So that’s my view. I have used a bench like this for almost 10 years now. Almost never use a vise for anything; and certainly not for joined furniture. You just don’t need it. I started out using a modern Ulmia bench with two vises; and making the shift away from that was intimidating at first. But once I threw the switch in my head that told me it would be difficult, things went smoothly. The toughest stuff to hold is small-dimensioned thin stock. but there are ways…

Another fitting that Alexander & I both use, but have no period evidence for is the wooden bench hook – (not to be confused with the toothed planing stop that in the 17th century is called a bench hook) – this one’s the small board with cleats fastened at opposite ends of oppsite faces. It hangs against the edge of the bench for sawing tenon shoulders; and for paring tenons’ cheeks. Oh, yea, I shave pegs on mine too. I finally retired this one, & made a new edition. JA & I would love to hear the history of this bench accessory. 25 cents to anyone who can provide it with documentation.

wooden bench hook

bench screws in the shop

bench screw in use
bench screw in use

An earlier post discussed period illustrations of  “bench screws” – a fixture on the edge of the workbench to aid in planing the edge of boards. Here is the bench screw I mounted on my workbench. It is based on the one in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory (1688). Somehow mine needed more nails to hold it than Holme’s did. The one nail in his drawing is not plausible, it’s got to have at least 2, probably better to have 3.

 The other end of the board is propped up on a peg in a sliding board fitted between the benchtop and the stretcher. I have no seventeenth-century reference for such an arrangement. I have seen a Dutch painting from the 16th century that shows a 3rd leg on the bench front, with a row of holes bored in it. The extra leg is centered between the near & far legs. I’ll dig that picture out this week.

PF bench screw full view
PF bench screw full view










The next image is J. Alexander’s bench & screw; this one is lag-bolted to the edge of the bench. The bench has a wide apron, into which JA has bored holes for either pegs or a steel pin to support the other end of the stock.

JA's bench w/ screw, holdfast & hook
JA's bench w/ screw, holdfast & hook


There are other uses for the bench screw, and other means by which seventeenth-century joiners might have planed edges of their stock. But these two versions we did are a good starting point. The screws are about 7/8″ in diameter, if I recall correctly. The notches in the block can be made to fit any regularly-used stock dimensions; mine accomodate 1″ and 2″ thick stuff.

bench “screw”

Moxon's joiner's bench
Moxon’s joiner’s bench

While we’re looking at the workbench and its fittings, it’s worth thinking about Joseph Moxon’s book, Mechanick Exercises: or the Doctrine of Handyworks, published serially beginning in 1678. The first full edition was 1683. Chris Schwartz has just produced an excerpt of Moxon’s book, along with his explication of the material. When I first was learning seventeenth-century joinery along with (John) Jennie Alexander, Moxon was one of our mainstays in studying joinery practices of the period.



 However, we had the added bonus of some material that many tool historians either overlook, or miss altogether – Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory & Blazon. Holme’s work was begun in 1649, and published in 1688. Until recently it was only available as a very scarce reprint from the 1970s, but in 2000 the British Library produced a CD-rom of Holme’s manuscript illustrations. The book and its base material are not exclusively concerned with woodwork, but with all things that might or did appear on coats of arms. Thus most of material culture of England at the time. It’s well worth studying Holme alongside Moxon. They lean/borrow/overlap each other’s materials, but sometimes one has more or less detail than the other. Holme’s manuscript drawings are especially helpful.





 So here’s the example that made me think of all this. The bench screw on Moxon’s bench is a horrible illustration, and his description is not much better:

 Moxon's bench screw
   “c. The Bench-Screw (on its hither side) to Screw Boards in, whilst the Edges of them are Plaining or Shooting; and then the other edge of the Board is set upon a Pin or Pins (if the Board be so long as to reach the other Leg) put into the Holes marked aaaa down the Legs of the Bench; which Pin or Pins may be removed into the higher or lower holes, as the breadth of the Board shall require; So then, the Bench-Screw keeps the Board close to the edge of the Bench, and the Pins in the Legs keep it to its height, that it may stand steddy whilst the other edge is working upon: For in the Shooting of a Joint, if the Board keeps not its exact position, but shakes or trembles under the Plain, your Joint will very hardly be truly straight.”


 Moxon’s illustration left Chris Schwartz in the dark, but if he had Randle Holme’s drawing, the function of the bench screw would have been evident.

bench screw Randle Holme c 1688
bench screw, Randle Holme, c. 1688
the citation for the CD of Randle Holme is:

N. W. Alcock and Nancy Cox, Living and Working in Seventeenth-Century England: An Encyclopedia of Drawings and Descriptions from Randle Holme’s original manuscripts for The Academy of Armory (1688) (London: The British Library, 2000)



Felebien’s joiner’s bench

joiner's bench, Felebien
joiner's bench, Felebien

There will be more to come on bench hooks; but in the meantime, I realized that I have another 17th-century engraving showing a workbench. Here is the joiner’s bench from Andres Felebien’s 1676 book Des Principes de L’Architecture. Some readers will know this work, but it is not as commonly cited as Moxon, thus I thought worth a look.  Note the bench hook.

[the image is a little curled, the page was not flat enough. Folks who own these old books get a little snippy when you crack the spine to get a better photograph…Alexander shot this from a 2nd edition, 1690.]