The 100 Year Old Workbench

The 100 Year Old Workbench

Johnny Williams
Apr 19, 2010

In every woodworker's shop sits a trusty – often sawdusty – workbench. For my own shop, I sought a used bench with sturdy legs and two functioning vices — I never thought I'd acquire an antique.

A woodworker's life revolves around their workbench. It's here where furniture's intricate details are crafted — the dovetail joinery, the hand-planed surfaces, the perfect-fitting drawer. The bench is also an escape from the loud machinery of the modern workshop, a place to measure your next cut (twice) and, in my case, a countertop for my coffee mug.

Many woodworkers build their own workbench from scratch, something I chose to circumvent. Call me an impatient Gen Y'er, but I needed instant bench-ification! (Plus, it's quite difficult to build a workbench without, well, a workbench.) So I summoned my inner-Scavenger and began searching for used — excuse me, certified pre-owned — benches on Craigslist. After a month of patiently scouring, I came across an intriguing add for a cabinetmaker's bench in Boerum Hill. The pictures looked perfect but there was a catch: it was 100 years old.

The next day, I headed to Brooklyn to see if the old bench would hold up to rigors of a busy shop. Built in about 1910 by Hammacher Schlemmer — then a reputable mail-order manufacturer — it certainly had the soulful character of a centenarian. The well-worn cherry wood had a radiant patina, its scratches and stains the result of countless hours of craft. The base was cleverly constructed with heavy-duty hex bolts that allowed for easy disassembly. The two vices (the clamping devices used to keep a workpiece still while sawing, planing, chiseling, etc) were a bit slow to open and close, but otherwise their wooden threads were in excellent shape. Most importantly, the bench was solid as a rock, with very little wobble in the legs. And how many hundred-year-olds do you know without at least one wobbly leg?

The following day, I sent in a low-ball (read: borderline insulting) offer and much to my surprise, the seller accepted. Disassembly and reassembly was a cinch and within a matter of hours the antique bench stood proudly in my workshop. The moral of the story? Be patient, drive a hard bargain and always respect your elders...even if they are a bit wobbly.

Images: Johnny Williams

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