workbenches & lathe

sometimes the phone rings & it’s a good thing. Last week I answered and it was my friend Michael Burrey. He said “come look at this 18th-c cabinetmaker’s shop” – so off I went. Today I went back and got a few photos. I hope to get back some time and clear some room for proper shots…

It seems the room had a lot of use over the years, so some modifications took place. But essentially it’s benches on three walls, (I only photographed one bench & the lathe) – one is made into a treadle lathe. The iron wheel above is the second wheel, it seems. The ceiling framing shows signs of there having been a different sized wheel at one time. I think we determined that the lathe could handle a bout five feet between the (missing) headstock and the tailstock. 

treadle lathe

Here’s the tailstock taken out of the bed. 


The room has a  simple arrangement; with the benches at least partially fixed to the frame of the building itself…in one case, the end of one bench is tenoned into the adjacent bench/lathe. When this bench top got too worn, they added a plank on top of it and started over. I’ll show that to Chris Schwarz! 

the knee bone connects to the leg bone

Windows over each bench. Hearth/stove on the other wall, with a door on each side of the hearth.

door to the next room

There’s another room that looks like storage, and a partial basement. A loft above. 

It’s not everyday that you get to see a place like this. There is a long story to be told about this building, but not yet. There’s much work to be done studying and then figuring out what happens next. For now, the building is safe and sound. If I get a chance to get in there with some lights, & de-clutter it, I’ll post more photos. There’s a whole chronology of nails, wrought, cut and modern; the framing members of the building itself, sash, etc -all to be factored in figuring its age & history. There’s a lot of compass-work on the walls, some things scratched here & there, door hardware. Some bench framing is replaced, but some seems older than just old. The bench that has a new old top has a mortise in its original top for a planing stop/bench hook.

Good stuff.

here’s some other shots from today. 

the lathe again



tool hanging pegs above lathe

These shelves were added over an original “gunstock” post. 

added shelves



another benefit of a simple workbench

Give me ten years or so & I catch on all right. I was for some reason last week using my old German workbench, with its end vise and steel dogs. I forget why, and it doesn’t matter. I was planing some short-ish stock, under 2 feet long. And what I found was the shavings piled up in the midst of the bench’s length, and then got swept onto the floor right in front of the bench. In other words, in the way…

I built what I call my joiners’ bench just about 9 years ago, and within a year or so really settled into it.


planing at the bench

You can see in Moxon’s lousy engraving that the bench hook, (the planing stop w iron teeth) is set way back near the end of the bench.


Moxon's bench hook

(here is a recent re-take on the bench hook, with a link to an earlier post too )


In part this is so you can work the longest stock without any special arrangement, but also I think it’s so the shavings fly off the end of the bench, out of your way. And that is another benefit of the joiners’ style bench – less frequent sweeping.

17th-century bench hook…again

When I started this blog a few years back, one of the earliest posts was about the planing stop I use. In the 17th century, this tool was called a “bench hook”  – a term now confused with the wooden jig for sawing and other tasks.

Here is a bench hook I use most of the time, made for me by Mark Atchison. It fits in a wooden block, about 2” square and maybe 6” long. It is based on some archaeological examples, but adapted a bit. As I recall, the one found at Jamestown was quite long…

Alexander has a blacksmith-made version, but also concocted one from a scrap of a sawblade, fitted to a wooden block.

The toothed section is not screwed to the top of the block, but fits with a bolt and nut. Note the hole through the block, there is a captured nut inside there, and the bolt from above comes down to engage that nut. Screwing down through the end grain is not the strongest connection, so Alexander dreamt up this version instead.

The bench hook’s highest point is the teeth, the whole end of the block slopes down from there. To go even further, Alexander cuts a notch in the bench top, just in front of the bench hook’s spot, that was she can knock the hook all the way down, keeping it out of the way of edge tools.

JA ersatz bench hook


So there’s a handy, simple alternative to a custom-made version. The blocks in both these are about 2″ square. When mine wiggles in the mortise in the bench, I just shove a shaving in there with it. That keeps it from moving about.

here’s the earlier posts

workbench height

I know that I am a creature of habit, maybe most woodworkers are. Working alone in the shop, we develop patterns, methods and habits that through repetition become second nature. Then, off to a traveling demonstration and that’s when things become, well, different.

 What I noticed when I got back to my shop from the most recent foray is bench height. Mine’s mighty low, and I like it that way. We have sometimes read that older benches were low to account for the amount of planing that pre-industrial woodworkers did in such quantity.

planing at the bench


Looking at the Dominy workbenches at WinterthurMuseum, they are really low – the longest bench is 29” high, the others a fraction higher. Forget the notion that “they” were smaller back then, any difference in average height across the years is pretty negligible. Especially considering my height at about 5’9” which is as average as you can get. (here’s the main workbench from the Dominy shop – I copied this from Charles F. Hummel, With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York (University Press of Virginia for the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 1968)

Dominy bench

So for planing a low bench allows you to lean into the work and use your lower body in addition to your arms. Fine & dandy, but what about carving? Many carvers prefer a higher bench, feeling that they are not hunched over as much.

 As I have said before, I learned 17th-century carving from the objects, not from any craftsman. So it might be that my methods are bunk, but they get the work done, and I think the results bear a close resemblance to the originals. My recent “discovery” is that with such a low bench, I can lean all the way over the carving, and really get right on top of it. Working last week at a higher bench, I was sort of lost at sea; and couldn’t figure out what was happening until I got back to my bench.

carving at the workbench

My joiner’s workbench is 32” high, comes to about my knuckles when I stand at it with my arms dropped down at my side. My store-bought German workbench is just over 34” high.  I checked the specs on some modern woodworking benches offered these days, and 35″ seems to be almost a standard height now.

leaning over the carving

Another task that a the low height is helpful with is mortising, both with a mallet:


And with hand pressure. Well, it’s more than just hand pressure. I use my lower body to help drive the tool here, and that’s where the low bench height is a benefit. I rise up on the ball of my foot, and shift my weight to bring the tool downwards…

mortising w hand pressure

Anyway, low  bench height can be a good thing. For some people with weird habits. So if you want to experiment with a lower bench height, before you go cutting your bench’s feet off, you can try to lay a board to stand on, even prop it up on timbers if you need to come up more. It might be worth a shot.

Back when I first made this bench a friend of mine tried it & said it was the worst bench he’d ever used! But his legs are too long.

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?

walnut high chair & workbenches

next is arms & seat

The walnut high chair is finally settling down. The pieces I carved yesterday were quartered stock, so behaved better than the rest.

The faces of the stiles got shaped first, a sort of double-ogee, then gouge-cut decoration in this face. To cut the shape, I first cut a centerline with the V-tool (and mallet, its only appearance pretty much).

then I put the mallet down

Then using a nearly flat gouge upside down, shaped the convex portions down to the V-tool cut.


Next I took a deeply curved gouge and started nibbling away at shaping the outer limits of this pattern. This stuff cut very nicely at this point. Then it was just a matter of cutting straight into the faces with a shallow gouge, and relieving back to that incision.

shavings of the day

As I found out the other day, hand pressure is perfectly adequate to carve this wood, and mallet work is probably overkill.

here’s a detail of the chair’s back:

chair back

I fnally cut the rear stretcher, and this photo is for Alexander. It’s a sawn tenon, a rare thing in my shop. Fit right in the mortise as is.

sawn tenon


During this project I have discovered something about the workbenches in my shop. For a variety of reasons, (mostly fear) I have resorted to using my old Ulmia workbench for a lot of this project. I bought this bench back in the early 1980s, and for more than 15 years it was my everyday workbench. It got a lot of use, and about twice a year I would scrape its surface and treat it with linseed oil.

10 years ago I built my “joiners” bench, using a piece of white pine 4” thick by 17” wide x 8′ long as the main section of the bench top. The pine was chosen principally because it would dry in just a few years versus an oak top that size; and the stock was nice & clear. I built the frame from oak, and added a board along the top to increase the working depth of the top to about 24”.

joiner's bench

Using the joiner’s bench took some getting used to, but within a short time it became quite simple to work at. One un-planned benefit of this bench was the softwood top doesn’t get slick like a hardwood one. A few years ago I used a maple bench here in the shop for something or other and found it to be like a bowling alley – the boards kept sliding around on me. Never used to happen until I got used to the pine top.

But this walnut chair has shown me another feature – the Ulmia now is quite dark with its years of grungy finish, and after using the (bare) pine bench for so long, I found it was sometimes hard to see the tools on the bench – a matter of what you get used to I guess. I never had a hard time before. I think later this winter, I’ll scrape the Ulmia and not oil it. Just in case I use it again for something.

Further readings about the workbench here

There’s lots more, you can search from the main page of this blog for “workbench” and you’ll get inundated.

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