Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 156, August 2018
Ingenious Mechanicks
by Christopher Schwarz

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

A recent release from Lost Art Press, this book is an homage to Christopher Schwarz's love for workbenches and his dedication to understanding them in all their manifestations. On the surface, Ingenious Mechanicks is a beautifully-illustrated treatise on ancient workbenches. But while it does illuminate our understanding of how woodworkers from Roman times forward did their work, it contributes much more than that. Readers will find here guidelines for crafting several styles of low workbenches that are both beautiful (they can serve as furniture!) and surprisingly functional. In doing so, it turns our heads toward new directions for approaching hand tool woodworking that may well shake up practices well-enshrined in Western tradition since before Joseph Moxon and André Roubo came on the scene.

Following a brief introduction to the three workbenches he builds, Schwarz states his goal: to show that simple workbenches work perfectly well to craft fine furniture. He then offers some general guidelines for low benches. Any species will work. A simple, solid slab, while not essential, is nice to have. Single slabs are likely to have higher than normal moisture levels and require special care, which he describes. Overbuild your bench using through tenons and through dovetails; wedge your joints rather than use glue. Make it as long as possible; nine feet is good if you have the space, six feet if you're more cramped. Make it narrow, especially if it will be straddled. Low benches should come just below the knee cap.

Considerable historical research went into the creation of this book. Pictures—principally from frescos and paintings—were the source of information about the styles and dimensions of the benches. A problem arises in interpreting pictorial evidence, though. Artwork tends to show workbenches, tools and other equipment as they were known at the time the art was created and not necessarily as they existed in the time period illustrated. Few original pieces remain, the Saalburg Roman bench being a notable exception. Using the pictorial evidence gleaned from thousands of images and countless sources, Schwarz explores workbench design and features for workholding as they evolved over time. Because the record is spotty and inconsistent, the history of workbenches and workholding is necessarily incomplete. Still, this book greatly enhances our understanding of historical practices while giving us new models to apply to our own work.

Although the principal theme of the book is the design of workbenches from antiquity, methods of workholding comprise an important subtheme. Early workbenches, though developed with knowledge of screw vises, were generally built without them, the reason for which is not known. As Schwarz describes, numerous alternatives for workholding were employed. These include a planing stop, doe's foot, Chinese palm, moving palm, side stops, and a crochet, among others. He shows how to make and use them successfully.

Then comes a discussion of working on a low workbench. Typical tasks are described—crosscutting, ripping, planing, mortising, cutting dados, tenoning—all off which can be readily performed, though with changes from familiar ways of working.

Schwarz proceeds to describe the three workbenches that comprise the objects of the book. First is the Herculaneum workbench, essentially a solid slab with either eight or four staked legs. After testing, Schwarz concludes that the number of legs does not affect the performance of the bench. He details how to build the bench, with important instruction on how to drill the compound angled mortises for the legs without resorting to math and an easy way to level the legs after the bench has been completed.

The Saalburg workbench, patterned after a genuine Roman bench dating from before 200 CE, is next. A simple bench, Schwarz built his example of red oak. Along the way, he puzzles out the purpose of the dovetail-shaped notches in the side of the bench, concluding by experiment that their intended purpose is workholding.

The Holy Roman workbench is third. Schwarz built his with wet wood, which posed special challenges that he details for its instructive value. This bench incorporates an end vise and a twin screw face vise.

While the book is practical in its content—there's plenty of detail to enable woodworkers to duplicate any of the benches, it's also a fascinating exploration of the history of woodworking. Along the way, we also learn about the trying circumstances of studying long-lost devices and practices and how, through replication and experimentation, we can learn much that's both fascinating and functional.

This book has much to comment it. Beautifully illustrated with color photographs and reproductions of original art, it is printed on high quality paper and cloth-bound with a slip cover. As expected, Schwarz writes beautifully, injecting subtle humor at numerous points to keep the technical subject flowing delightfully.

This book is important. Not only does it greatly amplify the historical record of woodworking practices from a little-understood era, but it makes those practices accessible to modern woodworkers. This book is a keeper. If only for the history and the beautifully-presented art, it is well worth enjoying. But the practical woodworking instruction commends it to hand tool woodworkers as well. If you fall into one of these groupings, your money will be well spent on this book. Highly recommended.

Find out more and purchase Ingenious Mechanicks

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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