Eschew Complexity

The following is excerpted from “Ingenious Mechnicks,” by Christopher Schwarz.

I empathize with the early woodworker. My brain is wired to look for a simpler solution to a problem instead of creating complexity.

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Example: Earlier this year, I spent a couple hours in the dentist’s chair and was force-fed several episodes of a home-improvement show focused on carving out storage from oddball places in a home. Some of the examples I remember over the whirring of the dental Dremel include:

• Hinge your steps to create trap doors on the landings of your stairs to make small bins in the wasted space between your stringers.
• Find stud walls that are chases for utilities and turn them into built-in chests of drawers.
• In attic spaces, create sliding racks on the interior of a high-pitched roof. You slide giant plastic bins into the racks – it’s a bit like a top-hanging drawer.
Through the entire program I wanted to puke (that was mostly because I have a sensitive gag reflex). But it was also because these “storage solution” programs neglect to mention the easiest way to control clutter:

Get rid of your excess crap.

No one should have so much stuff that they have to slave excessively to make a place to stow it. In the same way, no workbench needs vises on all four corners (I’ve built these for students and customers) to build fine furniture. You just don’t.

With this book, I hope to expose you to early and simple ways of holding your work. While many of these devices were used on low workbenches, most of them work on high workbenches as well. I use both sorts of benches – high and low – in my work for building all manner of things, from stud walls to Welsh stick chairs, dovetailed chests to nailed-together coffins.

The workholding on these benches is truly ingenious and effective. Things change when you sit down to work. And I think you’ll be surprised what you can do on your bum: planing, chiseling, shaving and even dovetailing.

The low bench form might not be for everyone. But it might be right for you and you might not know it. Woodworkers with limited mobility use low benches because they can sit and work. Apartment woodworkers use low benches because they take up little space and do double-duty as seating or a coffee table. Curious woodworkers use them because – dammit – they are an interesting form to build and use. Many chairmakers already use a low bench (but they call it a shavehorse), as do many other specialty trades, including coopers and basketmakers. Oh, and a low bench is the best sawbench ever made – promise.

One more plug for these early benches: Using their lessons, you can make almost any surface into a worksurface. A couple drywall screws can turn a picnic table into an English-style workbench. A missing brick in a wall (and a pine wedge) can become a face vise. A shavehorse can be cobbled together with a rock and a scrap of wood strapped to your gut.

Even if you never build a low workbench and reject its appliances as “not whiz-bang-y” enough for your engineering mindset, you might enjoy the journey of discovery required to write this book. It involved trips to exotic Italy, Germany and Indianapolis. (And understanding the low bench might connect your work to Chinese benches.) In the process, we rescued oak slabs from a pallet factory. We flushed $1,000 down a metaphorical toilet to learn about the construction of the first modern workbench in 1505. We ate a ton of Neapolitan pizza.

Workbenches are at the heart of everything we do. So, let’s take a brief look at the history of Western workbenches and consider why it’s even worth looking at ancient benches.


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