Historically, workbenches were remarkably simple affairs. Peter Nicholson’s 1812 bench featured just a simple planing stop in the benchtop – not even one hole for a holdfast. Other historic images of benches show workpieces secured with nails, by a rope held by the worker’s feet, and even by the worker’s weight as he sits on the board being planed or the table leg into which a mortise is chopped. The main distinction of this style of work is that the workpiece is restrained by the worker, rather than by some mechanical device. It is not as if more rigid workholding solutions weren’t available to period craftsmen (as we will see), but it’s clear that they consciously chose to work without them.
I often think of this kind of approach as “free-board” woodworking. Whether a plank on a bench or a spoon in hand, the wood being shaped is free to come and go when the craftsman releases the hold. For the period joiner or cabinetmaker, working at the trade six days per week, more securely fixed workholding offered no practical advantages for typical tasks, i.e. ripping, thicknessing, smoothing, and chopping joinery. With so much stock prep to be done, and the need to check the workpiece frequently as layout lines were approached, efficiency demanded that the board remain free to be manipulated.
Although the use of tail vises was documented as early as the beginning of the 16th century, they were not commonly available until several centuries later and would have been quite an expensive option. For the vernacular woodworker, the cost/benefit ratio of equipping the basic bench with novel workholding technology was not in their favor – these bells and whistles didn’t help the bottom line or expedite the work.
Besides the ubiquitous use of the planing stop, another example of free-board or bodyweight workholding in Western woodworking tradition is the use of the low sawbench. As the board to be sawn protrudes off the right-hand side of the bench (for a right-handed sawyer), the worker’s opposite knee pins the board to the bench. The height of this bench must split the difference between being low enough to comfortably get a “leg up” on the workpiece, but high enough to prevent the tip of the saw from making contact with the floor. The downward force of the saw also helps keep the board in place, while the worker’s free hand can reach over the top of the saw to catch smaller-sized offcuts rather than allowing them to fall away before the cut is completed (and potentially spelching out the backside of the board). Here, again, it is far more efficient to work with the board free than to use a clamp or fix it in a vise.
–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Freedom From Vises: Workholding Solutions from Three Traditions,” in Issue Seven