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The Accidental Workbench: A Fortunate Find

by Dick Rank
Atlanta, GA

This article first appeared in the December 2010 issue of Wood News Online

They say that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn. That was true one day last month when I was on one of many estate sales trips around Atlanta. In this way I have found a few really nice tools, and this sale was a really good one. The now deceased owner had been a serious woodworker who specialized in making fine violins. The family had lovingly displayed two of his violins in a case in their living room, and the violins were superb.

In the basement were some fine old delta power tools, hand tools, boxes of special violin making tools, and piles of lumber stacked everywhere. Most of the lumber had been salvaged from broken antique tables, chairs and beds. Next to one stack was a plastic bucket filled with 2 ¾” square walnut boards. I had them priced and bought them on the spot before anyone else saw them. In another stack across the room, I later found a big old 24x44” piece of wood which appeared to be a table top. It was also 2 ¾” thick walnut, and my heart began to pound. Another shopper already had his hands on it, but I was able to buy it from him at a price that provided him with a satisfying profit. He indicated that he was going to cut it up to make boxes. Ouch! I realized that the bucket-full of walnut and the table top were both from a workbench of some sort.

Incredibly, examination of the top’s wood grain showed that the top was one piece, with no joints. Some craftsman had hand-built his bench from a really big walnut tree. The legs and stretchers were all neatly joined with big mortises and tenons. At that time no other bench hardware was to be found. The top had an angular hole chiseled out to accept a vise of some unknown brand. The underside of the top showed spiral screw markings typical of more modern woodworking vises. The previous owner had refinished one leg to see how it would look. A violin maker would certainly appreciate fine wood.

I headed home with my new found treasure, and went on to other matters for the day. I went back to the estate sale the next day to see what was left and perhaps pick up some old hand tools. While snooping around at the sale, I opened the drawer to another utility bench, and in it was an old cigar box containing all the bench’s original hardware necessary to re-assemble it. What a run of good luck! Now I could bring together all the parts into a fine bench again.

It was originally held together with very old lag bolts and lag screws with star shaped nuts which allowed occasional tightening. With them, I was able to temporarily assemble the bench.

It might be a carver’s or violin maker’s bench because of its small size and the shape and location of the vise receptacle. After assembly, the bench rocked on its legs. Measurements showed that the legs were deliberately cut to different lengths, probably to accommodate an uneven shop floor.

I plan to restore it all to allow the old surface markings to survive, but still reveal the wonderful walnut grain patterns. The missing vise still remains a mystery, and I hope that someone out there can help identify the bench’s use and the vise type necessary to fit the hole in the top. Meanwhile, the bench rests safely in my shop where I can admire it every day. It is much too beautiful to use.

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