A 16th Century Dutch workbench

I first noticed this interesting bench in a picture on the cover of Four Centuries of Dutch Planes and Planemakers by Gerrit van der Sterre (2001). A little Googling found very little in the way of information, apart from a brief article by Peter Follansbee. But where did the picture come from? More research found that the image also appeared on another book, Guilds, Innovation and the European Economy, 1400โ€“1800 edited by S.R.Epstein, and Maarten Prak. It took a while, and some Googling in Dutch to get this far. Then I emailed Maarten Prak to get some more insight on the picture.

The picture comes from a series of four panels comprising “De vier ambachten van het gilde der timmerlieden“, or “The four trades of the carpenters’ guild” – the ship’s carpenter, the carpenter, the joiner and the chair turner. The four panels are done in oil paint, and possibly by the artist Michiel Claesz in the period 1560-1570. It is housed in the Museum Gouda (Gouda), and was originally intended for the Goudse Jozefsgilde, the carpenters’ guild, which maintained an altar in the choir of the Sint-Janskerk (St. John’s Church).

The four trades of the carpenters’ guild – the joiner

The picture above shows a joiner planing a piece of lumber using a planing stop to hold the work in place. There are two similar benches in the picture. The front bench has three pairs of legs, all with holes to accommodate holdfasts of the type seen hanging on the rear wall. It appears only the leftmost end pair of legs have a stretcher, the others could of course have been omitted by the artist. The legs seem to be attached to the top by means of dovetails, which would certainly allow for a robust connection, possibly enhanced by the legs appearing to be slightly splayed. Having said that, there are stretcherless Shaker benches that are based on a similar structure, and many historical benches were indeed stretcherless.

(Edit: Eventually maybe I’ll make some scale models of these workbenches)

2 thoughts on “A 16th Century Dutch workbench

  1. Brian Ward says:

    Are you sure that there are not six legs instead of eight on the front bench? The one you surmise to be at the inner right seems to be for the bench in the rear; it’s a continuation of what’s above. There’s also the clash of where the joiner dude’s right leg is. There’s also no corresponding leg on the other side. Given the attention to perspective in this painting, I don’t think the artist was being terribly sloppy about the depth of stuff.

    The rear leg also seems to have six legs. Look above the joiner dude’s left hand, below (what I suppose is) the marking gauge on the rear bench.

    • spqr says:

      Yep, you’re right, don’t know how I missed that… probably looking at too many workbenches… or wasn’t wearing my glasses.
      I blame the pandemic ๐Ÿ™‚ Will edit accordingly. thanks!

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