And the Choir Sings: Workbenches

By the 18th century, there were lots of people throughout Europe who were writing about the material world and how it worked. Thanks to people in the French Academy of Sciences in general and individuals such as Denis Diderot, A.J. Roubo and Henri-Louis Duhamel, people began documenting mechanical practices, such as woodworking. 

And so we have a wealth of information on how woodworking was practiced from the 1700s to the present. As we look further back in time, however, there are fewer and fewer sources.

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So when researcher Suzanne Ellison and I began looking for images of workbenches from the 1400s, there weren’t a lot of sources. There is no “Big Book of Woodworking During the Hundred Years War.” Though I wish there were.

I don’t know how, but Suzanne got the idea we should be looking at misericords. These small wooden seats in European cathedrals were many times intended for choir members to rest themselves. And they were sometimes carved with different scenes. Because the carvers were woodworkers, sometimes those scenes were of woodworking. And so we began searching the image files of every church’s website we could find. 

Suzanne hit gold with a misericord in the Chapel of St. Lucien de Beauvais in northern France that was carved circa 1492-1500 of a woodworker planing on a thigh-high workbench. Take a look at the photo above.

It is built with square legs that are vertical to the top (it’s not a staked bench with legs that rake and splay). The legs are pierced with holes for pegs or holdfasts. There is a planing stop. But what else is going on in this image?

Does the bench have stretchers? I think it’s difficult to say with any certainty. There is a big timber below the bench. Is that a stretcher that is joined to stretchers that we cannot see between the front legs and back legs? Or is it just a big board underneath the bench? It sticks out at the front of the bench quite a bit, but not much at the back. My guess is it’s a board that is unattached to the workbench.

What about the structure that is between the front leg and the benchtop that is angled at 45°? Does that prevent the bench from racking? Or is it a part of the carving left to strengthen the carving itself against damage?

My guess is this is a bench much like what is shown in the famous Stent Panel. No stretchers. But I could be wrong. In any case, stretchers for workbenches are definitely on the way. Soon.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. This blog entry is an expansion of my work in “The Anarchist’s Workbench.” You can download it for free here. We don’t have any physical copies of the book in stock as of now.


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