The Holtzapffel Bench (1846)

The Holtzapffel’s were a family of tool and lathe makers located in London. It was established by Strasbourg born Jean-Jacques Holtzapffel (1768-1835) in 1794, initially as a partnership with Francis Rousset. He anglicized his name to John Jacob Holtzapffel, selling his first lathe in 1795. In “Geschichte Der Technologie” written in 1810, Johann Heinrich Moritz wrote that John Holtzapffel was “the most highly skilled turner in London”. His son Charles Holtzapffel (1806-1847) joined the business in 1827. Charles is best known for his epic work Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, which focused on almost everything mechanical which existed. The processes included the manufacture of files, saws, and turning of anything including egg shells, and jewels. It was first published in 1843, however only two volumes would be published before his death. (The remaining three volumes were completed by his widow and son). Holtzapffel & Co. sold its last lathe in 1928.

Charles Holtzapffel passed away in 1847, and an obituary notice observed of him: “Mr. Holtzapffel probably never put his hand to a machine which he did not improve…”. However today the Holtzapffel name is more closely associated with a bench than with mechanical devices.

On page 494 of Vol.II [1] can be found his illustration of the bench (from the 1875 version, but there is very little to suggest the bench changed since 1846). Holtzapffel really just remarked on the bench in passing – a bench was just a device to hold work. The picture “represents one of the most complete kind of cabinet makers benches, carefully connected by screw bolts and buts, its surface is a thick plank planed very flat and true, with a trough to receive small tools, without interfering with the surface of the bench.

  • a – bench hook (with teeth)
  • b – square wooden stop
  • c, d – two side screws with the chop, e, constitute “a kind of vice”
  • f – vice garter
  • g – end vice screw
  • h – sliding piece
  • i, j – stops for end vice (roughened face)
  • k – holdfast (l is place to tap to release holdfast)
  • m – leg pin (to support long boards)

There is little doubt that the bench that lends itself to Holtzapffel’s name was possibly derived from one that existed in the Holtzapffel workshop, and likely built in the model of French-German benches that his father had grown up with in Strasbourg. The bench is a hodgepodge of differing ideas from continental Europe, somewhat mirroring the flip-flop status of Strasbourg itself. The city became part of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire in 1262, was annexed by France in 1681, and in 1871 by the newly formed German Empire. Sitting at the crossroads of two cultures it is no wonder it is a somewhat Frankenstein-ish bench. From the Germanic side, the bench adopted a tail-vise at a time when these were likely not used on English benches. The base of the bench is somewhat robust, suggesting French origins, although it seems that the stretchers are attached to the legs using knockdown bolts (German). The tool tray is German. The hold-fasts are French, the menagerie of planing stops both English and French, and the leg attachment with holes for supporting work European. Likely the only real non-European contrivance is the twin-screw vise, a manifestation of Moxon.

In fact the bench may be best characterized by the twin-screw vise. There is very little to suggest it was marked as a bench of Holtzapffel’s construction until recently. It is rare to find photographs of such benches being using in British workshops in the 19th century.

      1. Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Vol. II – The Principles of Construction Action and Application of Cutting Tools used by Hand and also of Machines Derived from the Hand Tools. (1846)

      Portable tool kits of the early 1900s


      In the early 20th century it was quite common for tool manufacturers to sell tool sets, such as the No.700 from Goodell-Pratt. These sets were made for the household, office or workshop, and had the tools needed to perform basic tasks. This set contained:

      • No.2 Rosewood handle Automatic Drill (8 drill points, 3/16″ to 11/64″)
      • No.13 Universal Tool Handle for holding: 2 chisels, 2 gouges, 1 reamer, 1 gimlet, 1 screwdriver, 1 saw.
      • No.66 Ratchet Screwdriver, 1 1/2″
      • No.66 Ratchet Screwdriver, 6″
      • No.997 Saddler’s Drive Punch
      • No.998 Prick Punch
      • No.999 Nail Set

      All is a hardwood case, weighing just over 3 pounds. The cost? About $8.80 in 1926. That’s roughly $137 in 2022 purchasing power equivalent. Apart from the two screwdrivers, the core tools here are the Universal Tool and Automatic Drill.

      Sadly it seems that few such tool sets have survived.

      The Nicholson Bench (1812)

      The British Nicholson bench derives its name from the author of a book published in 1812 – “Mechanical Exercises“. Peter Nicholson (1765-1844) was a Scottish architect, mathematician, and engineer. He apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, then worked as a journeyman in Edinburgh before becoming an author. In 1831 the book was republished as “The Mechanics Companion“.

      The bench consists of a top (ABCD) supported by four legs (E,F,G,H). Near the left end of the bench is a bench hook (a) which can be adjusted up and down using a hammer or mallet. A vertical board or apron (DI) is fixed to the front legs of the bench. A wooden vise is found on the left-front end of the bench used to “fasten boards between the cheeks, in order to plane their edges”. The leg H contains a series of holes to hold pins to support the end of long boards. The height of the bench is circa 32”, it is 10-12 feet in length, and 30” wide. The legs are not less then 3½” square. The top near the front is 1½-2” thick, and the rear 1¼”.

      Each pair of legs is coupled together by two rails dovetailed into the legs. Between each pair of legs the bench is divided into 3-4 equal parts with transverse bearers fixed at the divisions to the side boards. There are a number of benefits to this design

      • There is a substantial bench top surface.
      • The large aprons permit the use of holdfasts on the vertical and horizontal surfaces.
      • The zig-zag pattern of bench dog holes on the front apron.

      The bench was not named by Nicholson, and very little appears in 19th century literature relating to this bench. Having said that, the bench often appears in pictures of English joiners workshops, e.g. English Joiners (1816). The influence of this bench can be seen in artwork as well. In “Christ in the House of His Parents” by artist John Everett Millais painted in 1849-1850, it is clear that the bench in Joseph’s workshop is a Nicholson style. Of course it is not unusual for artists to use artifacts which are contemporary to their time in the depiction of historical events.

      Husluck describes similar joiners benches in the early 1900s, but they are not named as such [1]. Touring places like open-air museums in the UK, these benches are quite common.

      Nicholson style workbenches at the the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland.

      Eventually with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, many of the things which were made by hand, e.g. architectural trim, were eventually made by machines in factories. This reduced the need for benches 10-12 feet in length, and as the nature of woodworking changed, so too did the style of bench. By the transition to Edwardian era, there is little reference to these benches in the likes of tool catalogs.

      Further reading:

      1. Cassell’s Carpentry and Joinery Paul N. Hasluck (ed.) David McKay Publisher (1908)

      What’s wrong with the way we build houses?

      I’ve always wondered why houses in North America are so poorly built. Partially I think it’s because there is little or no oversight in many industries related to home building. Another is likely the poor design of houses in general. Why are homes not required to meet some form of standards when it comes to sustainability, and longevity? Why are builders still using asphalt shingles? In Vancouver, a known earthquake zone, many houses would be unusable after an earthquake. In Japan, an estimated 75% of houses are earthquake proof. But it’s not just this, it’s actually the process of building or renovating a house here that seems lacklustre. I have been thinking more about this since watching the video below, produced by Paolo from Tokyo Zebra. It really is amazing how well managed the site is – safe, efficient, clean – with a zero-waste policy. Japanese home building might be in the top echelon of home building. Imagine if we all adopted better building techniques, how much better our houses would be prepared for adversity.

      A note on inches and feet

      When interpreting historical writings it is important to understand that not all measures are created equal. If a bench from 1790 is 10 feet long, is it really 10 feet long? Is a German 10 foot bench the same as an English 10 foot bench?

      The ancients took measures of lengths from the limbs of the human body. For example Vitruvius (born 80-70BC), a Roman architect and engineer described the foot corresponds to one-sixth of the total height of a human. The British foot remained the same since the 14th century, i.e. 304.8mm. Prior to the influx of the Anglo-Saxons, the English used the Roman foot, 11.65 inches (296mm). The Roman foot consisted of 12 unciae (twelfths), and was either called a pes (foot) or an as. An as was originally a copper bar, measuring 1 foot in length and weighing 1 as (an as was also called a libra, from which we get lb for a pound). A unciae was then an inch. The actual length of the Roman foot is up for discussion. It is normally considered to be 296mm, or 11.65 inches, however it has been recorded anywhere from 290-300mm. R.D. Connor in The Weights and Measures of England measured nine Roman folding foot rules found in southern England, and obtained an average measure of 292.9mm (290-294.5mm).

      Wherever the conquering Roman legions went, they took with them their systems of weights and measures. Since Roman conquests covered most regions in Europe and beyond, Roman units of measurement became almost universally used in the western world. During the Anglo-Saxon period it is likely that several differing lengths were being used, from the Roman foot, to the Rhineland foot at 314mm (eq. 12.3557 inches), to the North-German foot of 13.2 inches (335mm). The term unciae became ince, or ynce in Old English, which eventually evolved into inch.

      A barleycorn inch

      It was not the foot that became the standard measure, but rather the yard, with the foot a mere subdivision. The foot was defined in The Statute for the Measuring of Land, around the time of Edward I, AD 1305 – ‘It is ordained that three grains of barley, dry and round, make an inch; 12 inches make a foot; 3 feet make an ‘ulna’ (yard); 5½ ulne make a perch, and 40 perches in length, and 4 perches in breadth make an acre’. The length of a barleycorn likely didn’t change much over the millennium, at 8.47mm. An inch was legally defined as a fraction of a yard. The Scottish inch was different again. Scottish King David I (1084-1153) decreed that the Scottish inch was to be based on the average width of the thumbs of three men – a large, a medium and a small man. The Scottish inch was close, at 305.3mm.

      The same could not be said of European inches. German Fuß, or feet, varied somewhat in size from place to place in the German speaking world. For instance at the time of writing “Ökonomische Encyklopädie”, its author Dr. Johann Georg Krünitz (1728-1796) suggested that the Rhineland foot was commonly used in Germany (12.3557 inches). He also suggests the use of other measures such as the French ‘royal’ or Parisian foot (measured by a permanent iron measure in Paris). The Parisian foot is divided into 12 inches, an inch into 12 lines, and a line into 12 parts, giving a total of 1440 parts. A Parisian foot is equivalent to 1.06575 modern feet or 324.84mm. The second measure he mentioned is the English or London foot. The Rhineland foot was smaller than the Parisian, and larger than the English (27 Parisian feet = 28 Rhineland feet, and 69 English feet make about 67 Rhineland ones).

      The 120 parts of a Parisian inch

      The book also provides a list of comparisons to the Parisian foot, base on its 1440 constituent parts. For example Berlin (1373), Brussels (1290), Denmark (1391), Palermo (1073), ancient Roman (1306), Switzerland (1330), Vienna (1420). Measures were converted from one region to another using this convention. Another source from 1830 [1] shows the variation of feet in the German speaking world. It ranged from 236mm (9.29”) in Wesel (Prussia), to 480mm (18.90”) in Cremona (Austria).

      Further reading

      1. Johann Friedrich Krüger, “Vollständiges handbuch der münzen, masse und gewicht aller länder der erde” (1830)

      What did we loose with machines?

      “Machine-shop methods have never yet produced and will never produce craftsmen who are mechanically and artistically equal to those of the best periods of history. Of course this is an industrial age, and our material progress so far has depended largely on the harnessed power of steam, electricity, etc., but in a measure this has been at the expense of the individual. No system of education or progress can afford to miss the lessons of the great periods in craftsmanship, when the individual workers put their soul, feelings and emotions into the work of their hands in stone, metal and wood. We are far from equaling the buildings and masonry of the past, and our mechanics and common people scarcely realize what artistic excellence means in metal, stone and wood.”

      James Liberty Tadd in his book New Methods in Education (1899)

      The Vernier caliper – use

      A Vernier calliper is simply a calliper which uses a vernier scale. The popular record suggests that the first Vernier calliper was invented by J.R. Brown, founder of Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co. in 1851, with a resolution of 1/1000 inch. Below is an image of that calliper.

      Fig.1: The original vernier caliper, by J.R. Brown.

      A typical Vernier caliper has a movable jaw which slides linearly along the main scale. There are a few differing types of Vernier calliper. Here is an example with a Vernier calliper, “Tuna“, made by ABR Almkvist & Co, Eskilstuna, Sweden. This is quite a simple caliper, with both inner and outer measurements on the same scale. This caliper has both cm, and inches. The scale for the cm is 1/10 of 1/10, or 100ths, which is likely more than enough precision for most woodworking tasks (each mm is divided into tenths). The scale for inches is 1/8 of 1/16,or 1/128th inch. The “Tuna” also has a depth gauge, which is convenient.

      Fig.2: Measuring the thickness of a piece of plywood.

      The example in Fig.2 shows measuring the width of a piece of wood in both inches and cm, using the inside caliper. On the Tuna calliper, the reading for Fig.2 is 1.0cm+0.7cm+0.07cm=1.77cm. The reading in Fig.3 is cm is 3.0+0.8+0.0=3.8cm, or 1+8/16+0=1.5″.

      Fig.3: A simple vernier calliper in both cm and inches

      The classic caliper from Brown & Sharpe has a more complex vernier mechanism, with graduations for 1/1000th inch, and is likely more suited towards the machinist. It also has a much more precise measuring mechanism.

      Fig.4: The classic Brown & Sharpe caliper

      This vernier is the No.570, which takes both inside and outside measurements, graduated to read on one side for outside and the other for inside. The sliding jaw has two components: by locking the rightmost portion it is possible to finely adjust the main Vernier scale using the thumbscrew.

      The main bar scale is divided into inches, and tenths of inches, while each tenth of an inch is divided into four parts. The smallest divisions are therefore 1/40th of an inch, or 0.025″.

      Divisions of the main and Vernier scale

      On the sliding jaw is the vernier line of division. This vernier is divided into 25 parts numbered 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and the whole length of these 25 parts is equal to 24 divisions (40ths of an inch) on the bar. Since the 25 parts of the vernier only cover 24 parts of the bar, one of these 25 parts would be 1/25 of 1/40 or 1/1000 inch shorter than each division on the bar. If the 0 of the vernier is placed next to 0 on the bar, the first line on the vernier would be 1/1000″ behind the first line on the bar, the 5th line on the vernier would be 5/1000″ behind the 5th line on the bar etc. Each line on the vernier when opposite a line on the bare therefore adds as many thousandths as the mark on that particular line of the vernier.

      To read the vernier, look along the line until you find a line that is exactly opposite a line on the bar, then read the line on the vernier (not the bar). To read a vernier calliper with 1/1000 inch precision:

      1. Read the whole inches on the bar.
      2. Read the 10ths of inches.
      3. Read the thousands of inches to the 0 of the vernier.
      4. Add the reading of the vernier where it exactly matches a line of the bar.

      For anyone interested in an extensive history of calipers, I direct you to The Origin and Evolution of Calipers.

      Drawing – a lost art?

      James Liberty Tadd in his book New Methods in Education (1899), insisted on the egalitarian worth of art education. He believed drawing to be the primary instrument in education.

      “Drawing is an universal tongue. It compels observation, reflection, perception and conception. It opens the mental eye, the eye of the understanding, that looks all around, up and down. It enables one to understand the message that is printed in every natural, normal thing, that is stamped with everlasting lines on each side of every leaf and blade of grass, that is twisted into the architecture of every shell, and that shines in the hues of every crystal — a message of beauty, of proportion, of grace and of fitness. Drawing makes mind.”

      Workbenches in art (iv) – late Victorian

      The older renditions of workbenches in art worked largely because staked workbenches were likely found in the first century AD. Art which appeared in the late 19th and into the 20th century is more problematic because many of them depict workbenches of the period. A case in point is the The Holy Family in the House of Nazareth (1889), a piece of artwork by Modesto Faustini (1839-1891). Faustini trained as a carpenter in the orphanage at Brescia, before becoming an artist, and it shows. The entire image is festooned with European tools of the period. It is a beautiful piece of art, making the workshop seem quite glamorous. The bench’s front vice sports an unusual handle, which seems more like one of the simple screw vices which first appeared in the late middle ages. Although the wooden screw seems too large for the vice itself. The remainder of the workbench is very simple, almost the older splayed-leg bench with stretchers, and tool storage beneath.

      Faustini, The Holy Family in the House of Nazareth (1889)

      On a side note, the plane that Joseph is using seems to be about half the length of the bench (which itself is ≈200-220cm long, and has a height of ≈80cm). Another painting is that of French artist Giacomo Grosso, Sacra Famiglia (1902). It portrays the carpenter shop in Nazareth, not only with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but also with some neighbours in the doorway present. While much of the scene seems quite authentic, the workbench is not.

      Giacomo Grosso, Sacra Famig (1902)

      Collectors in a throwaway society

      Buy one thing, and it is an artifact, buy a second and it’s a pair, buy a third, and it’s the beginning of a collection. Why do we collect things? Sometimes it’s because something takes our interest. Books, block planes, vintage Swiss Army knives, wooden biscuit springerle, copper pans, baking tins, vintage camera lenses, etc. Are we drawn to preserving some aspect of history that is meaningful to us? Collecting is sometimes the adventure of the find, the hunt – finding that unique items amongst many at a tool show, or an antique market. Of course collecting isn’t always easy. There is a point where finding rare or expensive items can become prohibitive. Or collections can be overwhelming. Sometimes there is little or no information about an item anywhere, it just exists. Not everything has an elaborate backstory. Some have a story but no physical entity, either because it is so rare, or because it never progressed beyond the design stage.

      Many people likely find the concept of collecting strange, but were it not for collectors, we would not have any notion of our past histories. The world has become a throwaway society, where very little is valued beyond its present use. Many of the tangible things we create today aren’t worth collecting. Is there a purpose in collecting things like computers? They are inanimate, and don’t really tell a story (except the story of their development). My vintage Exakta camera from 1954 tells a story, and still works. Old vintage things still work, and there is an inherent beauty within them. Maybe we collect old things because they were made by craftspeople, in a slower time. Not always more precise, not always with a more advanced materials.

      Collecting generally involves three sensations: instinct, opinion, and knowledge. Everyone is born with some level of instinct, and we can all develop opinions, and knowledge, well that develops over time as we explore and analyze the things we collect.