8-Leg-Wkbench-art - 7/22/18
"Eight-Legged Roman Workbench" by Morgan Kynith.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Eight-Legged Roman Workbench
by Morgan Kynith
Canton of Hawk's Hollow, Barony of Caerthe
Kingdom of the Outlands
April 14, 2018
The eight-legged roman workbench is an interesting piece. The original fresco depicting this woodworking bench was discovered in Casa dei Cervi (the House of the Deer) in Herculaneum. Herculaneum was a town about 12 miles northwest of Pompeii and destroyed in A.D. 79 in the same volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum was rediscovered and excavated before Pompeii, however, due to poor archeological practices and improper preservation techniques many items and artwork from Herculaneum are lost to history.
The fresco this workbench is based off of is one such piece of artwork. However, even though the original fresco is lost, a copperplate engraving was made shortly after it was discovered and this engraving has survived. The fresco depicts two erotes using a frame saw to cut a board sitting on the bench. You can also see what appears to be a holdfast in the bench, which is the earliest depiction of one that I am aware of.
The fresco discovered in Herculaneum is the only known image of an eight-legged workbench. The bench is a low affair that is about knee high and has eight legs (four at each end) that are splayed. It also has a series of holes through the top most likely for holdfasts and pegs. All of the other images that I could find depicting benches of this style have four legs.
There is at least one surviving roman workbench. It was found at the bottom of a well in the fort at Saalburg just north of Frankfurt, along with what appears to be two more bench tops, though they lack the mortises for legs and holes for holdfasts. The bench is made of oak and measures 4" X 12 1/4" X 101 1/2", the other two tops measure 2 3/4" X 13 3/4" X 84 5/8" and 2 3/8" X 14 1/8" X 115". The surviving bench has four mortises for splayed legs and holes through the top for holdfasts.
Workbenches of this type, whether with four legs or eight, would be used by carpenters and jointers for the working of wood and creation of wooden objects. Everything from house frames to chairs, all could be created using a workbench like this. These benches are so versatile they have been used for at least the last 2,000 years.
The Saalburg Bench
This Roman bench (circa 187 C.E.) was pulled from a Roman well in Saalburg, Germany.
The Craftsmen of Teruel Cathedral
This set of images is painted on one of the horizontal supports in the Teruel Cathedral in Aragon, Spain, which was completed around 1571 C.E.
Daedalus and Pasiphae
This fresco was found in the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. It depicts Daedalus presenting a cow costume he had made to Pasiphae. In the extreme fore ground is Perdix sitting at a low workbench cutting a mortise.
When taken together the surviving bench and bench tops have an average size of 3" X 13 1/8" X 100 3/8". The bench I have made measures 1 1/2" X 13 X 66". I made the top thinner because finding a thick enough slab is difficult and cost prohibitive (a four-inch-thick slab of ash would have cost around $500). I shortened the bench length in order to make it more portable. This allows me to carry it in my car without having to use a trailer to bring it places. The difference in width is not really a difference at all. Each bench would have its width tailored by the jointer using it in order to make it comfortable to sit on. My bench is 17" tall, again the benches would have their height customized by the jointer for comfort.
In period, workbenches of this type would have been made of whatever wood was locally available. The surviving bench found in Saalburg was made of oak. I chose to make my bench out of ash for a few reasons. First, ash is nearly identical to oak in terms of strength and resiliency. Second, there is currently a lot of ash on the market due to the emerald ash beetle infestation. And third, the price of ash is lower than oak (a very large pro for someone who is broke).
The bench is easily constructed though it does require some technical skill. First the slab of wood is trued so that the faces are parallel and one edge is perpendicular to the faces. Once that is complete the other edge and both ends are cut to final width and length. In period this would have been done by hand using planes and saws. I used a hand-held power planer to bring the faces of the bench top to within an 1/4" of its final thickness then planed the last by hand (this was done to save time, and my shoulders). I used a circular saw and guide to cut the top to length and width.
The mortises and holes for the pegs and holdfasts would have been drilled by hand using an auger bit. Though auger bits in period would have looked more like sharpened spoons and not the large twist bits that they have evolved into in modern times. I opted to use a power drill to make the holes in my bench, this was mostly for expediency and time management.
The legs of the bench are round and taper from the bench to the floor. This would have been done with planes and chisels. Six of the eight legs were turned on a lathe and the last two were shaped by hand the way it would have been done in period. Using a lathe on six of the legs saved a lot of time. In the time it took me to shape the two hand done legs I was able to turn the other six on the lathe.
The legs are attached by friction and pressure. The legs are inserted into the mortises and wedged in place. This forms a very tight fit. I chose to also glue the legs and wedges in place. I am not sure if this would have been done in period or not, though I believe that on something like these workbenches it would not. Once the bench was made it was big and heavy enough that it would not move easily. Because my bench is designed to be portable and follow me to events the glue gives an extra layer of protection and sturdiness.
Well to be honest I have no idea what, if anything, would have been used as a finish on a workbench of this type. Any finish that was on the surviving examples has long since vanished. Because it was a workbench and not furniture or cabinetry I doubt much would have been done as a finish on the bench, most likely just a simple oil (like linseed) rubbed into the wood. I finished the bench with a couple applications of boiled linseed oil. I used commercially available linseed oil for to reasons, first I don't know how to make linseed oil and second, making linseed oil would be an A&S project in its own right.
The process of making this bench has knocked the rust off a lot of my woodworking skills that I have not used in a long time. In addition, I had to relearn the proper order for things like truing a board and shaping legs. There are a few changes that I will make when creating the next bench of this type.
First, I will make the next bench with a much thicker top, I'd like the next one to have at least a three-inch top and the closer to four inches the better. A thicker top adds to the bench's feeling of mass. In addition, a thicker top allows a bench to last longer. As a bench ages and is damaged by tools, you resurface it by planning the top layer off. The thicker the top the more times you can do this before having to remake the bench.
Second, the next bench will most likely be longer and wider to facilitate the making of larger projects. This bench started out 15" wide, and should have ended at 14" wide, however, due to constraints in my stationery planer I cut it down to 13". This ended up being a mistake, especially once I realized that my stationary planer was too small to handle such a large piece of wood.
Third, the next time I want to make my own glue and linseed oil. In addition, I will make the bench completely by hand, no power tools at all. Making the bench by hand only requires having more time. As for making my own glue and linseed oil, that requires learning completely new skills and learning the science behind them.
I have spent the last two months with the workbench top set up on cinder blocks which hold it at the perfect height for me. After spending two months using the bench I can understand why low benches like this lasted in the woodshop for as long as they did. It is wonderful to use, hours sitting on the bench are a breeze and at the end of the day my back and legs are not sore and tired. I will continue to use this bench not only in period woodworking, but in everyday projects as well. It is quite possibly the best workbench I have ever used.
Avinurme. Maetsma village, Estonia. Photographs by Ants Viires. 1949
Schwarz, Christopher. Roman Workbenches: Being A Short Treatise on Benches from Pompeii, Herculaneum & The Holy Roman Empire. Fort Mitchell: Lost Art Press, 2017.
The Woodwright's Shop with Roy Underhill. Season 36, Episode 12: Roman Work Bench. PBS, 2016.
Viires, Ants. Woodworking in Estonia. Fort Mitchell: Lost Art Press, 2016.
Copyright 2018 by John De Vilbiss. <morgan.kynith at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.