The Shaker Workbench

This 12-ft.-long, 19th-century workbench is located in the Tan House at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The following is excerpted from “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis.

As in a lot of other Shaker furniture, the distinctive features of a Shaker workbench are not always immediately obvious. As a utilitarian piece of equipment, the Shaker bench has to meet many of the same requirements as a worldly workbench. There is only so much room for variation and development be­fore such a basic tool becomes over-specialized. Though the Shakers, like their contemporaries, distinguished between joiners or carpenters, who made architectural elements, and cabinetmakers, who made furniture and small goods, the workbenches of these craftsmen were probably quite similar. Chairmaking and boxmaking were separate industries with different workholding requirements. Shaker chairs were a pro­duction item, mainly comprised of interchangeable turned parts. Thus the lathe was the primary tool and workholding device. Chairs were clamped in a vise like the one shown be­low while their seats were woven. Shaker boxes were also mass-produced, and they were assembled on benches that were much smaller and less refined than the workbenches used for furnituremaking or joinery.

The Shaker workbench, like others in the world, has many standard components: a tail vise and dogholes, a front vise, and room for tool storage beneath the top. Likewise, most of the same materials, hand tools and machinery available to the Shakers for workbench making were the same as those used by their worldly counterparts. As a result, similar woods may be found in both Shaker and non-Shaker benches, joined with the same mortise-and-tenon or dovetail joints.

It is unclear exactly when the Shakers began building work­benches. Perhaps a few were brought along when woodwork­ers joined the fold. (Gideon Turner, an early convert, became a member of New Lebanon in 1788 with “1 Set Carpenters tools & 1 Set Joiners Tools” valued at eight pounds.) Or, more likely, makeshift arrangements may have been employed until per­manent workshops could be built and proper benches installed. In any case, journal entries and a couple of dated benches indi­cate that Shakers were building benches by the first or second quarter of the 19th century. This coincides with the period during which most Shaker furniture was built and the stylistic features that distinguish it today were firmly entrenched. Although Shaker life and work became increasingly codified at the same time, no precise description of the ‘proper’ work­bench or its appropriate usage has yet been discovered. (The idea that such a description might exist is not as farfetched as it sounds, considering that the Millennial Laws mandated: “Floors in dwelling houses, if stained at all, should be of a red­dish yellow, and shop floors should be of a yellowish red.”)

Since my first introduction to those two Shaker benches, I have looked at a dozen benches in other Shaker museums – Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, and the Shaker Musemn in Old Chatham, New York – as well as a few in private collec­tions. While these represent only a fraction of the total number of Shaker workbenches that must have been made (every Shaker family had a woodworking shop, and the large families, such as the New Lebanon Church Family, had both a joiner’s and a cabinetmaker’s shop), certain patterns begin to emerge.

I chose to focus my attention on the Shaker workbench at Hancock Shaker Village, shown on p. 32 [and on the cover, above], for several reasons. It is well made and in good condition and does not appear to have been materially altered. In its dimensions and construc­tion, it is as fine an example of a Shaker bench as any I have seen. And it is the only such bench I am aware of that remains in everyday use in a working, Shaker-style cabinet shop, albeit in an interpretive museum. I will describe details of other Shaker benches I have seen as they differ from the Hancock bench or further an understanding of it.

As my first impression suggested, Shaker benches tend to be massive. The Hancock benchtop is 11 ft. 9 in. long and 38 in. wide. The main body of the top is 3-3/4 in. thick. The smallest Shaker bench I found (at Fruitlands) is only 8 ft. 1 in. long. The largest (at Old Chatham) is 16 ft. 7 in. Most of the others are between 12 ft. and 15 ft. long. Indeed, it would seem that a small Shaker bench would be anything under 10 ft. long-several feet longer than what would be considered a large workbench today. (This may not have been unusual at the time, given the 18th-century Dominy workbenches [p. 13] and the French workbenches described by Roubo [p. 21].)

The top of the Hancock bench is comprised of three separate sections (as shown in the drawing on the facing page), built stoutly and purposefully. The front section is 16 in. wide and laminated from four pieces of 3-3/4-in.-wide maple or birch and a 1-in. strip of pine, glued and bolted together with four hand­forged bolts. (The 3-3/4-in.-square laminates would have been convenient to work with.) This area houses the dogholes and vises, and functions as the primary worksurface; maple or birch was used on this part of the bench, as it was on all the others I’ve seen. (Due to the age and patina of the bench, it is often difficult to determine the exact species of wood used; the woods I describe should be considered ‘educated guesses.’)

The midsection of the top is a single chunk of 9-1/4-in.-wide chestnut or oak. Although hard and dense, the open-grained wood provides a rougher benchtop texture than that of the front portion, and was presumably acceptable for a secondary worksurface. The 12-3/4-in.-wide back section of the top is made of knotty, hard pine. Both the middle and back sections are 1-3/4 in. thick, supported by spacers that rest on the base frame. Both ends are covered by simple, bolt-on end caps with cap­tured nuts fed from the underside of the top. No tongue-and-­groove or splined joints were used to attach the end caps. They were merely intended to conceal the end grain on the benchtop and, in the case of the end cap on the right end of the bench, to serve as the nut for the tail-vise benchscrew.

The very size of the enormous top offers some interesting clues to Shaker woodworking. “It’s never big enough,” accord­ing to Joel Seaman, the cabinetmaker who has been making restoration Shaker furniture on the Hancock bench for over ten years. Seaman could lay out all the parts of a cabinet on the top and still have room to use the vises.

The order and cleanliness of the Shakers is legendary, how­ever, and it’s unlikely that the benches were built large to ac­commodate such expansive work habits. (Even the woodshed and tool room of a Shaker brother in Union Village, Ohio, was impeccably organized: ” … every stick of wood was exact in its place …. His little work shop exhibited the same care.”) In part, bench size may be explained by the institutional nature of the Shaker dwellings and the size of the joinery and fur­nishings required for them. In every community these build­ings are imposing structures, with high ceilings and wide hall­ways. As shown in the photo below, some of the most remarkable case pieces stand over 8 ft. tall; built-in cupboards, housing dozens of drawers and cabinets, may run floor-to-ceiling and the length of a long hallway. All this work, plus the miles of pegboard circumnavigating the rooms, would have been more easily hand-planed and joined on a long bench. While there was some specialization among Shaker woodwork­ers, records indicate that a typical woodworker’s week would have been spent in a wide variety of pursuits. As the communi­ties stabilized and eventually began to shrink, there would have been less new furniture (apart from chairs for sale) to build. At the same time, fewer craftsmen would have had to perform an even more varied range of tasks.

There is also reason to believe that more than one person worked at the bench at a time. Entries from the journals of Freegift Wells, an Elder and woodworker of considerable stat­ure from Watervliet, New Yorrk, depict what was probably a typical relationship between a cabinetmaker and his appren­tice. In these notes…Wells tells us that he in­stalled a vise at the opposite end of his own workbench for his apprentice, Thomas Almond. There are also frequent refer­ences in other Shaker letters and journals to projects under­taken by two or more craftsmen working together.

Without exception, all the Shaker benches I’ve seen have an enclosed base, which contributes substantial mass and storage space, while it restricts any clamping to the ends or the narrow overhang along the front edge of the top. One thing I have never seen on a Shaker bench, but which is common on other benches out in the world, is an open tool tray. This tray, whether built into the top or between the stretchers of the base, collects debris and allows tools to knock about, damaging their edges. To an early Shaker, an open tray would have seemed like an open sewer-seductively convenient, perhaps, but unsanitary and hazardous.

Mother Ann could have been lecturing her woodworking fol­lowers when she said: ” … take good care of what you have. Provide places for your things, so that you may know where to find them at any time, day or by night …. “,Just as the walls of the Shakers’ dormitories are lined with built-in cupboards, so their workbenches are equipped with substantial cabinets that fully occupy the area between the legs and beneath the top. They are also unique in that the drawers and cabinets are usu­ally built into the base framework, a tedious and exacting pro­cess. It would have been much easier to support the top with a basic four-leg structure and to install an independent tool­-cabinet carcase between them. … In the case of the Shaker workbenches I have seen, the members of the carcase itself-posts, drawer dividers and the frame-and-panel ends-generally function as the legs and stretchers of the workbench. This may have been preferred for aesthetic reasons, or simply to lend continuous support to such a large worksurface.

On the Hancock bench, like most of the others, the base is divided into a succession of drawers that progress in size from the smallest on the top to the largest on the bottom. A portion of the base consists of open shelves, which are reserved for storage of items that won’t fit in the drawers (large tools or specially prepared stock, perhaps). These areas are always en­closed by doors. The insides of the door panels on the Hancock bench display remnants of different-color paint, indicating that they were borrowed from some other project and reincar­nated in the workbench.

The order and cleanliness provided by the enclosed base cabinet had many practical dividends for the workbench. The problems of racking and sliding, which are inherent in an open-frame base, are automatically resolved by the rigidity of the casework and the sheer weight of the structure. Loaded with tools, as it presumably was, the cabinet anchored the whole bench to the floor and to move it would have taken a small army. Workbench storage would have made it easier to keep track of tools in a large community. “No one should take tools, belonging in charge of others, without obtaining liberty for the same … ,” the Millennial Laws decreed. “The wicked borrow and never return.”

The following is excerpted from “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis. As in a lot of other Shaker furniture, the distinctive features of a Shaker workbench are not always immediately obvious. As a utilitarian piece of equipment, the Shaker bench has to meet many of the same requirements as a worldly workbench. There is only…Read MoreThe Workbench Book by Scott LandisLost Art PressRead More

Leave a Reply