How the Workbench Changed the Nature of Work
One explanation for the fact that slide rules can have a special quality that calculators may not have lies in the relationship between a person using a tool and the tool itself. Slide rules are tools that people must learn to use. They require that the user have skill and training, hand-eye coordination, judgment, and experience—and the user must directly control the mechanical movement at the heart of the operation. Electronic calculators are tools that people learn to manage. They require that the user follow directions, monitor his or her actions, and correctly record results. The machine itself does the actual work. Getting a correct answer on a slide rule is a matter of adept use of the tool. Getting the same correct answer on a calculator is a matter of pushing buttons.
The shaving horse is ideal for use with tools that are drawn or swung toward the worker. The relation between worker, tool, and the thing that is made is dynamic and very involving.
The distinction between tools that are used and tools that are managed is one worth considering as we move farther and farther into the technological era. The most significant appearance of tools that were managed instead of used came with the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The factories of the Industrial Revolution were filled with tools that were managed, and they were the tools that promoted greatly increased standardization and speed of output—they were the tools of rising capitalism. Cotton gins, power looms, screw-cutting lathes, milling machines, and combmaking machines were among the many devices that workers learned to manage during that critical time.
The new relationship between people and their tools was easily observed in the factories of industrial America, but the first changes could be seen in homes. Long before workers were managing complex industrial machines, they had learned the trick of managing rather than using. The change could be observed in everyday tool use during the eighteenth century. The emergence of the workbench as a common tool is a prime example.
Workbenches are ancient. Roman woodworkers are depicted with very simple workbenches, and by the Renaissance, books of trades frequently depict the joiner at his bench. In the seventeenth century, workbenches begin to be illustrated with the vises that are now one of their distinguishing features. But like the calculator or the computer, they took a while to catch on among the populace even after they were widely available.
A review of eighteenth-century household inventories shows very few workbenches in use in America outside of professionally established work-shops. Considering the value of space during the early years of our republic, the scarcity of workbenches is not surprising. The workbench is a tool that requires a dry, protected area, a solid floor, and plenty of light and work space. A dirt-floored barn would hardly serve the purpose, and the twentieth century’s choice of where to put the workbench—down in the basement—was hardly a good one for our forefathers. The absence of workbenches only becomes important when considered in light of the ways that Americans worked wood.
Carving tools were the simplest and most ancient woodworking tools. They included adzescurved or cupped blades set on handles to allow the worker to swing them like an ax or a hatchet—and twohandled drawknives and spokeshaves. These tools could be used to shape whole pieces of wood into useful items like dippers and trenchers and wooden shovels as well as handles and spokes and chair seats and slats. Of course, the hatchet, hewing ax, and broad ax are carving tools as well.
Somewhat more sophisticated were the tools that were used by the cooper to fashion barrels and kegs and firkins and hogsheads. These tools included adzes, hatchets, drawknives, and specialized items like long jointers for smoothing the sides of barrel staves, and bowels and crozes for cutting grooves in the slats to make places for the bottom and top of a barrel to fit.
The most sophisticated woodworking tools were those used by the joiner—the woodworker who made objects from pieces of wood that were joined together into geometric forms like chests or desks or tables. The joiner’s tools included planes, chisels, and gouges. Unlike the cooper, who borrowed many of his tool types from the carver, the joiner’s tools relied little on the other ways of working wood.
Anyone who has ever tried to use any of these cutting tools—adzes, drawknives, planes, or chisels—knows that they are not used alone. They are used with some kind of tool for holding the work that is being shaped. For the adz and the drawknife, that tool is the shaving horse; for the plane and the chisel, it is the workbench. It is important to realize the critical difference between the shaving horse and the workbench to understand the change that took place among workers at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The shaving horse usually has three legs, though it can have four. It is usually a rough kind of tool—something that might have been used outside and stored under the eaves of the barn if it was moved out of the weather at all. There are many kinds, but all are characterized by some kind of lever-action head that is pushed with the foot so as to squeeze a piece of work tightly enough for it to be held and worked on. Typically they have been nicked and cut repeatedly, and those that survive are hardly valued as antiques today.
The workbench is always a very sturdy table. It usually has places to hold pegs that help to steady the work, and often those pegs are supplemented by a vise that can clamp work in place. It is a finely made tool, with strong joints and smoothly joined parts, and it is not uncommon to find that it has been cared for by its owners.
The shaving horse is ideal for use with the carving tools of the rudimentary woodworker or the more sophisticated tools of the cooper. All these tools are drawn or swung toward the worker, who sits on the shaving horse and holds the work in place by the pressure of his foot. The relation between worker and tool and the thing that is made is dynamic and very involving, despite the fact that the worker is seated.
Planes, used with a workbench, require skill and experience, too, but if you manage them properly, they work correctly. The design for things made by such tools is a component of the tool, not of the worker.
The active pressure of the worker’s foot holds the work tightly in the jaw of the shaving horse. That pressure also provides the support for the movement of the tool—a movement that is always limited to the length of the worker’s forearm. Quite naturally, the harder the worker draws his tool toward himself, the harder he will push the foot piece of the shaving horse and so the more securely the work will be held in place.
The workbench, on the other hand, is ideal for use with the planes and chisels of the joiner. Planes and chisels are tools that are used with motions away from the worker’s body, and they depend on the work being held very firmly and passively while the standing worker uses the tools.
The static clamping of the workbench—the solid impediment offered by bench dogs and pegs and vises—is necessary to provide sufficient support for the long cuts made by planes. The harder the worker pushes the tool or the longer the work, the more substantial a workbench must be to withstand the pressure of worker and tool.
There is more involved in the change from shaving horse to workbench than simply learning to stand up and work with gestures that move away from the body. There is even more than the change from the active force exerted by the worker on the foot pedal to the passive force exerted by the workbench. The old tools commonly found in homes during the eighteenth century were those that were used with the shaving horse—the adz and drawknife, hatchet, ax, and spokeshave. These were tools that were used. The new tools that were used with the workbench were tools that were managed. When workers abandoned the drawknife for the plane, they took a significant step toward learning to feel comfortable managing the tools of the factories of the Industrial Revolution.
Adzes and drawknives require skill, judgment, and experience. Like the slide rule, they are tools that can be used well only by those who have practiced with them. And they are tools that require careful discrimination on the part of the worker. With an adz one can cut a little on one side, then a little on the other, then a bit in the middle, until whatever is being made looks just right. The carver of the trencher, for instance, carefully gauges the blows to cut a thin bottom and sides without going through the work. He trims a bit more when his experienced eye tells him there is a thick spot, and he does so with just the right kind of motion. When his sense of design tells him that he has cut enough, he stops. The design for things made by tools that are used rests in the imagination of the worker.
Planes require skill and experience also, but like the calculator, if you manage them properly they work correctly. Getting the blade arranged at just the proper cutting depth and making sure that it is wedged tightly in place and square to the tool is more important than any decision made about any single cut. If the plane is adjusted correctly and held just so, it will work. The most complex of moulding profiles can be readily made even by a novice woodworker by holding the tool correctly, clamping the work firmly in place, and adjusting the blade properly before making a cut. Indeed, most moulding and grooving planes stop cutting when they have reached the proper depth, so no judgment at all is needed to make the cuts beyond managing to start the tool in the right place. The design for things made by such tools is a component of the tool, not the worker.
Workbenches and the tools associated with them began to appear among the belongings of average households during the eighteenth century. The change brought about by the introduction of such tools helped to bridge the gap between the older world of tool users and the modern era of tool managers. The change came very gradually, though, and that is not surprising. The shift from working while sitting on some kind of wooden horse or stool and using your tools—something very common in many preindustrial trades—to standing up to manage a tool must have been profound. It must have involved debates about which was the best method. It certainly marked a change in the way people thought about their work and their tools and their lives.
The change in people’s lives was not confined to woodworking tools and workbenches. The development of the first stoves during the same time period brought another new tool that needed to be managed into people’s daily lives. The rapid development of simple tools that were operated by cranks—grain fans, meat grinders, apple peelers, and corn shellers—brought new kinds of tools that were managed into everyday use. The appearance of mechanized farm equipment—everything from dog-powered butter churns to automatic reaping machines—took people another step toward feeling comfortable with the tools that made our modern era. Changes in the home precipitated changes on the job and vice versa. At the root of all of this change a common element can be found: People were becoming familiar with tools that were managed instead of used. I echoed that change when I stopped using that beautiful slide rule and started using a calculator, when I set down the years of practiced use that had accumulated in that slide rule for the accuracy of the well-managed calculator.
James R. Blackaby is curator of the Mercer Museum, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.