Greetings and Workbenches


Welcome to what we hope will be the first of many blogs about life as 18th century cabinetmakers in the 21st century.  We plan to use this site as a means of sharing our woodworking and research experiences with you through words, photographs, drawings, and videos.

In lieu of personal introductions, we thought a brief introduction to our humble – though hardy—workbenches might prove to be of more interest.  Often visitors to the shop ask if we have plans available for building a bench.  This is what we give them:

Our Version of the Nicholson Pattern Bench

Taken from Peter Nicholson’s Mechanical Exercises (London:  1812), this bench will be familiar to many of you as what is often termed an “English joiner’s bench.”   Indeed subtle variations of this design turn up in trade treatises and paintings through the 19th century.  In fact, George Ellis, in his 1902 book Modern Practical Joinery (a reprint is available through Linden Publishing), illustrates and recommends a bench very similar to Nicholson’s.   But to delve further into a search for precedent for our use of these benches would be a bit odd since we are American cabinetmakers of the 18th century, not English joiners of the 19th century.

Simply put, our use of this design is conjectural.  There is a dearth of written, iconographic, or material evidence about 18th century Anglo-American workbenches.  How different was an early 19th century English joiner from an American cabinetmaker of an earlier generation?  Quite different, though in terms of bench use, the differences are slight. The issue of nationality is really of little significance in this case.  The workmen of the Hay shop were either of British birth or trained by someone who was.  In essence we were a British cabinet shop an ocean’s breadth away from home – locating the places where colonial practices diverged from English norms will be a recurrent theme over the course of this blog.  We are comfortable with pulling these benches back into the 18th century because of the great continuity that existed in hand work over this period.  To be sure, there were many radical changes over this time, but the typical joiner or cabinetmaker was still starting his work from the same point: a rough sawn board that needed to be made flat and true with hand planes.  We essentially perform the same operations on our benches as joiners, albeit at a different scale.

So then, in terms of history, we are comfortable – though not overly confident – with our bench selection, but as workmen we all feel quite at home with this incredibly simple Nicholson-inspired design.  There are eight workbenches snugly fitted into our 24’ x 32’ shop space, one for each of us (our Harpsichord maker gets two and there’s one for our volunteer).  Most of them hover around 8’ in length, though our front display bench is an impressive 12’ (this is truly a joiner’s bench for long moldings etc.).  In truth, most of our work could be accomplished in 6’ of length as it’s not uncommon to find the tail end of the benches piled high with clutter.  They range in depth from 23 1/2″ to 30” and their heights vary according to the workers personal preference.  At 5’10”, I prefer my bench at 33” in height, which allows for a lot of power in planning, but is also tall enough to make detail work comfortable.  Were I a joiner I’d probably prefer something a bit lower.  As for the wood, they are made from a variety of species (oak, beech, maple, and long leaf yellow pine for the tops and skirts and oak or pine for the legs).  The key here is finding a good combination of durability, local availability, and low cost.

A pair of benches in the encroaching darkness of a winter afternoon

One of the most distinguishing features of our benches is their lack of a tail vise and its associated line of dog holes in the bench top.  Rather than viewing this as a limitation, we tend to find the benches quite flexible in terms of their use.  With only a face vise, a skirt riddled with hold fast holes, and a simple retractable planing stop, each of us can exercise a considerable amount of creativity in finding the best way to hold a given piece for a given operation.  In this way there is a very organic relationship between the user and the bench.  Unfortunately such organicism also applies to the bench’s relationship to the shop itself: they tend to grow together, so much so that most probate inventories for 18th century cabinetmakers don’t list workbenches at all – they were simply viewed as part of the shop structure itself (they were often built-in units).

There is one bench in the shop not based on Nicholson’s plate.  The bench below is modeled after one that belonged to the Dominy family of woodworkers and clockmakers from East Hampton, NY (currently on display at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware).   Our take on this design features a massive maple slab for the top (3 ¾” thick) and a sliding deadman takes the place of the wide skirt for use with holdfasts.  While the Dominy bench has a substantial twin screw vise, ours is furnished with a single screw.

Our bench inspired by the Dominy Shop

In future posts we’ll touch on the many ways we’ve come to employ these benches in our daily work as well as some thoughts on their maintenance.  Their versatility has given rise to great variety, with each of us finding our own particular ways of adapting them to our individual styles of work.


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40 Responses to Greetings and Workbenches

  1. Bill T. says:

    Great job at the conference, as always, guys!

    Looking forward to watching the new blog.

  2. john j says:

    I am glad you have started a blog! Great stuff, thanks! I hope you write about chair making soon.

  3. Fantastic start! I went to Williamsburg for the first time last May and had a hard time leaving the Hay Shop. Can’t wait for more!

  4. Adam Cherubini says:

    Great post Bill. I’m glad you guys are starting a blog. The Nicholson bench was a great idea for a first post. I’d like to see you write more about your shop and it’s tools. You guys have a lot of neat stuff. I’d also like to hear about the transition (not sure what to call it) between interpreting and actual woodworking. I’ve done a little of this and the two don’t always get along!

    Thanks again for this guys.


    • Thanks Adam! We’ll certainly try to share as much as we can about all we do here at the shop. Also, we’d like to express our gratitude for your continued support of the Hay Shop over the years through your blog and Popular Woodworking. Best wishes and hope you can make it back down here someday soon.
      Bill P.

  5. Dennis H says:

    Another excellent conference, gentlemen. As a handtool only woodworker I’m thrilled you’ve started this blog.

  6. pfollansbee says:

    I’m thrilled to find the crew at the Hay shop has started a blog – a great addition to this internet woodworking stuff. I know from experience that it takes a lot of time & effort to make these blogs work, and I look forward to seeing the ensuing discussions. keep ’em coming…

    • Thanks for the support (and the link) Peter! I’m sure our fixation with mahogany and walnut and our demotion of oak to the role of an occasional secondary wood will keep your readers from defecting!
      And thanks for showing us that its possible to successfully juggle woodworking by hand, working in a museum, and writing a blog. You’ve set the bar very high…
      Bill P.

  7. Josh Parker says:

    I was quite excited this morning to find a link to your blog by Peter Follensbee. It has always been a joy to talk to you in the shop and now having you publish information on the internet is even better. Welcome to the blogging world!

  8. Rob Gorrell says:

    Very excited about your blog. Looking forward to reading in the future.

  9. This is great! I’m so glad to see you guys have started a blog! I can’t wait to read more. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge & research!

  10. Thanks to everyone for your kind, welcoming words. We look forward to really getting this blog rolling…

  11. Shannon says:

    I’m thrilled that this blog exists! I think my wife will be even more so. That way I won’t spend our entire trips down to Williamsburg bugging you guys with questions and not wanting to leave the cabinetshop. Little does she know that I can talk woodworking forever.

  12. Jamie Bacon says:

    I was so excited to see this link posted on Peter’s site. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say how much I admire the work you guys do and the traditional methods you use to do it. Your shop has been a big reason for me transitioning into the hand tool world and for my love of 18th/19th century woodworking tools and methods. I look forward to reading this blog to keep me going in between visits down there. Great first two post by the way.

  13. Mark Maleski says:

    I’m late to the party as I’ve just noticed the announcement for this blog. I too pass along my thanks for this iniative, and have a question: It seems to me that no two benches are entirely alike because the builder inevitably modifies the design he/she copies in (usually) subtle ways to optimize it for his/her preferred way of work. How does the Anthony Hay shop approach this – do you stick rigidly with documented period designs (Nicholson, Dominy), or does each workman have freedom to modify as he sees fit?

    • Mark,
      While most of our benches are based on Nicholson’s, they are each a little different. These differences arose primarily from the decisions made by my colleagues and predecessors when they built these benches 20+ years ago. So, no, we don’t feel compelled to copy Nicholson down to the last detail and yes, each of us does have freedom to modify the benches as needed. We do try to keep the modifications limited since we anticipate that they’ll be used by the next generation(s) of Hay shop workers. We also want to make sure that all of our practices are founded on “reasonable historical conjecture” – whatever that means! The Dominy-style bench was not only adapted for a single screw face vise, but it was made for a lefty and is now used by a righty who has made some further modifications. We’ll post more details on our benches and their use in the coming weeks.
      Bill P.

      • Tom Dugan says:

        Mack and I had a similar conversation at one of the breaks this weekend, standing over the bench with the tailvise. Woodworkers seem to have been a pretty conservative lot, and more than a bit chauvinistic in resisting cross-pollination. Roubo described the leg vise, and how long did it take before it was adopted by English woodworkers?

  14. Kelly West says:

    A wonderful addition to the World Wide Wood Working Web, thank you very much! I have one question (for now 🙂 Is the left hand guide rail on the vise simply friction fitted to the chop, or does it have a tenon and possibly wedge/wedges? Thank you so much for all your hard work and sharing your knowledge and research.

  15. Steve Massie says:

    Thank You so much for yet another great Wood working Blog. I am rather new to Wood working with Hand Tools and am very intrigued. The Nicholson Bench is of great interest to me as that is the design I have chosen when I start to build mine. I will be making some slight modifications to the bench. After I saw Bob Rozaieski’s bench build on his blog I knew that was what I wanted.

    Thanks so much for sharing and looking forward to more of you blogs in the future.


  16. markschreiber says:

    Finding this site makes my day. When I lived in the Hampton Roads area, I bet the guys at the Hays Shop thought I was a stalker. Through the magic of the internet, I can continue to stay in touch. Thanks.

  17. Derek says:


    I just wanted to pile on to all the other comments welcoming you to the blogosphere….it’s great to be able to benefit from all your experiences and activities, especially for those of us who can’t camp out in the “real” shop down in VA. I still remember “losing” an afternoon in your shop a few years ago, just watching and taking it all in. Now I can do the same from up north!

    Thanks much, best of luck, and I look forward to your next entry(s)!


  18. Mike Hamilton says:

    Another late arriver here. Many thanks for the blog!
    On the bench plans the vice threads appear to be left-handed – accurate or my misinterpretation?


  19. Jerry says:

    Are both the hold fasts and bend dogs Blacksmith made?

  20. Eric says:

    First of all I want to thank you for the blog… For a “woodworker” like me, what you do can be described just by magic I and hope one of this days I’d be able to have just a little bit of it too!!!!
    I have been looking into building a Nicholson style bench, and I am sorry for my ignorance but I cannot understand how to keep both ends of the bench top flush with the skirt due to seasonal wood movement.
    Thank you so much!!!!

    • Eric, thanks for the comment and question. Our Nicholson-style benches have been constructed in an attempt to force most of the top’s movement towards the back. If the top overhangs the back skirt by a little bit, we’re not too concerned. We’ve added some glue blocks along the underside of the top where it meets the front skirt to help keep the front edge aligned. Unfortunately, this is a potential problem with this type of bench. Most of our tops have moved to the point where they are misaligned with the front skirt. The good news is that this doesn’t really create problems in use. The only potential problem area is at the vise-end, but this can usually be maintained with some light planing over time. I don’t know if Chris Schwarz discusses this issue at all in his book on workbenches, but that might be worth a look. So in sum: the tops do move, we try to force it out the back, but the wood movement creates less problems in actual use than you’d expect.

  21. Jim says:

    I feel a little stupid asking this question, given all the beautiful stuff you guys make, but I’m a beginner so here goes:

    Would you post some more photos of that terrific little stool? I’d like to make one. I love it! The more I look at it, though, the more perplexed I become. Are the legs triangular in cross section? how does one put the angle on the shoulder of (what I assume) is a round mortise & tenon at the top of the leg, so it is flush with the bottom of the seat? Or is it counter-bored? This looks so simple at first but then I find myself not knowing how to begin….

    Great blog, thank you!

  22. Kerry says:

    Can you guys comment on the design & operation of your face vises? I’ve seen many variables on the single screw with a guide rail on one side (like yours), two sides, or a box beam surrounding the screw as a guide. Your vises seem particularly long (24″) with the guide spaced quite aways from the screw. Is this a smooth operating vise without racking, or do you have to help it along with two hands until slack is taken up? Are there any modifications you would consider?

    Thanks for any information.

    • Kerry, sorry for the extreme delay in responding to your comment. I don’t know that I have a great answer for you. Some of our vises are actually 28″-29″ long with about a foot of holding space between the screw and the guide. They do tend to rack and require regular maintenance. I tend to do most of my clamping on the right side of the screw (the side closer to the tail end of the bench) and if needed will use a hold fast for extra clamping power. Each bench is a little different and each of us has found ways to work around some of the shortcomings. The wide skirt with all of its space for hold fasts really does make up for a lot though. Also, these benches/vises are over 20 years old and would probably benefit from some serious tune up work. That sounds like a gloomy description of our vises, but they actually do work very well despite their obvious shortcomings…

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  24. Regards for composing “Greetings and Workbenches | Anthony Hay’s, Cabinetmaker”. Imay certainly end up being back again for much more browsing and commenting soon enough. Thanks, Arnold

  25. Ryan says:

    Thanks for this blog – it’s a constant inspiration.
    Regarding “wagon wheel” vises (and where did that odd name come from?) I noticed one in use on the spinet, but the Nicholson benches don’t seem to have them. My bench is pretty much a dead-on Nicholson although I went with a regular “leg” vise style, and I use bench dogs, but I really can see the need for a wagon wheel vise for small parts that can’t be dogged easily. I assume they’re historically correct for your period (which is the period I try to stick to) or you wouldn’t use them. Can you discuss them briefly? Prevalence? Form? Utility? Many, many thanks!!

    • Ryan, I’m not sure what you’re referring to as a “wagon wheel” vise. I have always considered these 19th century (and later) things to be wagon wheel vises:
      Please let us know which picture you are referencing and we can try to clear things up…Thanks.

      • Ryan says:

        I have to apologize – the photo I was looking at was one from the Boston carving school, now that I pay more attention. “Wagon” or “wagon wheel” vises are those small, narrow tail vises that typically work with a single row of bench dogs. I don’t know how far back they go – I don’t think I’ve seen a Roubo or Nicholson bench woodcut that had one. They’re of course incredibly handy, but I want to stay as period as I can, given the chance.

        If you need to plane a small drawer front, say 3″ x 9″, they really come into their own for this small work. But is it bad planning to need to plane it at that size? Should not the larger board have been planed smooth when it was big enough to grab with a bench dog, then the smaller drawer fronts cut out of it? I think our modern shop practice backs us into corners lots of times that makes us “need” modern tools, when the problem is between our ears all along.

        Anyway, thanks for any input – sorry for the long post.

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