Workbench Designs — The History Of Wood Workbench
The workbench is the cornerstone of the wood shop, with a history almost as old as woodworking itself. Examples of primitive workbenches have been found dating back more than 2,000 years. Woodworkers in ancient Rome advanced the basic design, devising benches with simple stops that allowed them to secure pieces of wood. Until that time, craftsmen were forced to hold their work, cutting or shaping it with one hand while chopping or planing with the other. Further improvements came slowly, however, and vises were only added centuries later.
With each refinement the workbench has assumed an increasingly indispensable role in the workshop. It is little surprise that many call the workbench the most important tool a woodworker can own.
A good workbench does not take an active role in the woodworking process-it does not cut wood or shape it-but the bench and its accoutrements perform another essential task: They free your hands and position the work so you can cut, drill, shape, and finish efficiently. In the past, even the mostused benches have fallen short of the ideal. With its massive, single-plank top, the Roubo Bench of the 18th Century was popular throughout Europe, yet it had no tail vise or bench dogs to hold a workpiece; instead, the task was done by a system of iron holdfasts and an optional leg vise. One hundred years later, the American Shakers improved on the Roubo. Their bench was a large affair that sported a laminated top, a system of bench dog holes, an L-shaped tail vise, and a leg vise. The Shaker bench was not too different from the modern cabinetmaker’s bench.
The design of the workbench has changed little since the early 19th Century; only its accessories and manner of assembly have been altered. In fact, some claim that the only true innovation has been inventor Ron Hickman’s ubiquitous Workmate. Developed in the 1960s, the Workmate revolutionized the way many people look at work surfaces, because it provided some of the clamping abilities of a standard workbench with a collapsible, portable design.
Although the Workmater has found a niche in workshops around the world, many woodworkers-both amateur and professional-still opt for nothing less than a solid maple or beech bench. Often they choose to build their own, believing that the care and attention paid in crafting such a bench will be reflected in their later work.