Workbenches: The Missing Links in the Low Countries

The circa 1580 bench by Hieronymus Wierix (1553-1619). It’s important, but it’s not the earliest example of this form.

Each of my books about workbenches has been about missing links in the history of workbenches.

“Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use” (Penguin Random House) was about the benches that preceded the dominant style of bench in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Euro-Scandinavian-German-Ulmia-style bench.

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Ingenious Mechanicks” was about the first recorded workbenches in Italy up until the 15th century when modern vises began to appear.

“The Workbench Design Book” (Popular Woodworking Books) was about another kind of missing link. My boss at Popular Woodworking said our unit needed to come up with $30,000 to $40,000 in revenue to avert a layoff or two. Could I write a follow-up book on workbenches?

So what’s “The Anarchist’s Workbench” about? On the surface, it’s about the workbench form that I have come to prefer after more than 20 years of building benches. But for me, it’s also about an important change in the way workbenches were constructed between the end of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century.

During this period, workbenches went from being built like a chair – staked furniture with splayed legs – to being built like a rectilinear timber frame with square mortise-and-tenon joints and stretchers connecting the legs. This is a time period that researcher Suzanne Ellison and I have visited before, but for “The Anarchist’s Workbench” we dug deeper to try to discover evidence of the evolution.

I think we found it.

As always, I have to thank Jesus Christ for His help with this book. Not so much for being the Son of God, but for being the son of a carpenter. Because of the connection to woodworking, tools and workbenches show up in religious paintings and drawings in every century. 

When I started the book, the best evidence we had of this evolutionary change was a circa 1580 drawing by Hieronymus Wierix (1553-1619) of Antwerp. He was the son of a cabinetmaker and produced an influential folio of drawings about the early life of Jesus. These drawings are a gold mine of woodworking information from the period. 

The Wierix drawings and their proliferation across Europe could be the subject of a book in and of itself. Wierix and his brother, also an artist, were colorful characters. And Wierix spent time in prison for murder.

Have a look.

This carpentry drawing is my favorite in the series. It shows a low bench but it looks like it is built with square joints. And it might have a stretcher. There’s a holdfast and all manner of tools to ogle. I also love the ladder and its square through-tenons.

In the drawing of the infant Jesus sawing, we get so one of the “batwing” squares I’m so fond of. Plus dividers, a hammer, a mallet and some helpful angels.

The third drawing of a workshop is also awash in tools. Check out the marking gauge on the bench and all the tools on the back wall. Also fun: stacking lumber in the corner until it becomes hazardous is an ancient practice that hasn’t changed.

But after more digging, Suzane and I found that Wierix was not the earliest illustrator of this important bench. But that bench wasn’t far away.

— Christopher Schwarz

You can download a pdf of “The Anarchist’s Workbench” for free here. We are currently sold out of hardbound copies of the book, but we expect to restock as early as next week.

A copy of Wierix’s drawing from the Netherlands, 1617.
Another copy of Wierix. This one from Paris and dated 1646.


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