Arnold and The Bench Knife

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Today I wanted to share another work holding method that’s as simple as it is effective (the best ones always are) and is suited only to those who’ve broken the fear of scathing their bench.
‘The Bench Knife’ is an old method certainly used for holding lengths at the sticking board, and it’s a method which was introduced to me by Richard Arnold.

Arnold is my kind of craftsman. He’s a professional joiner with a keen enthusiasm for old methods and old tools. He doesn’t know it yet but there’s a window that has pride of place in our main barn in dire need of replacement, and once we’re ready it’ll be Richard who we’ll be asking to re-make it.

If you’ve met Arnold or followed through his Facebook or Instagram then you may already be well familiar with the bench knife. He’s very keen to share for the benefit of others.

Since the best explanations come from those with the most experience I asked Richard Arnold a while ago if he’d like to write about this one in his own words, and what follows is his article.

Whatever Happened To The Humble Joiner’s Bench Knife?

Researching pre industrial woodworking techniques sometimes throws up more questions than answers, and while recently contemplating how to reproduce an authentic British joiner’s bench as used between a period from approximately 1750 to 1850, I realised that there was a lack of evidence to support the theory that the now popular forged iron bench holdfast was in common use during this period.

The iron holdfast that has become a common feature in modern workshops was widely used in France, and possibly elsewhere on the continent, but I could find no documented evidence of their use in Britain during this period. Joseph Moxon gives a good description of the holdfast in his Mechanical Exercises in 1678, but after this it appears to vanish from British workshops. It would appear from the limited amount of paintings and illustrations in the time scale we are looking in, that the common form of bench in use was probably what has become to be known as the Nicholson style bench. With its thinner bench top and deep aprons, the iron holdfast seems inappropriate, so this leads us to question what were joiners using to fix the work piece firmly to the bench top?

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It is at this point in our research that what may be a much used, but long forgotten tool enters this tale. The humble bench knife is a tool that seems to have got lost somewhere in our woodworking past.

What is a bench knife I hear you ask?
Well quite simply it is a thin piece of steel approximately ¾”x 1 ½” long, and was apparently often made out of the broken end of an old table knife, but I would imagine old pieces of hand saw blades would have been employed as well. The blade is sharpened at one end, and is simply driven into the edge of the work piece and the bench top to secure one end while the other is held against a bench stop or other fixed point.
Joiners Bench Knife
Documentary evidence of the use of this simple tool is sparse, but two examples known to me are ‘The Village Carpenter’ by Walter Rose, and ‘Doormaking and Window-Making’ recently republished by Lost Art Press.
In both examples the authors make mention of the bench knife in conjunction with another near forgotten tool, the sticking board. Walter Rose wrote of the sticking board, “It is still with me, bearing the marks of ancient usage- the scores left by countless bench knives- a relic of old time craft, to old-time joiners familiar, to the present generation a curiosity“. The anonymous author of ‘Doormaking and Window-Making’ wrote, “The back end being held tightly on the board with a “bench knife”. This is simply a small piece of an ordinary table knife, and is driven into the board and bar so that it is below the surface, and will not injure the planes“.

Having observed quite a number of surviving British benches, I am always struck by the amount of scars that appear on their well-worn tops. I have come to the conclusion that the bench knife was not only used in conjunction with the sticking board, but also directly into the bench top itself. We have to remember that back then bench tops were commonly made of soft redwood which would easily accept the bench knife, and that tradesmen of old viewed their bench in a different light to modern craftsmen who make their benches out of beautiful hardwoods and fear to leave the merest scratch upon their polished surfaces!

I do not expect there to be a great revival in the use of the bench knife, but hopefully it will not be completely lost in the mists of time, and I for one will be making my next bench with a softwood top, and will not shy away from using the humble bench knife. – Richard Arnold.


Richard Arnold photo


Article & photos by Richard Arnold.
Richard is on Facebook & Instagram.
He has a fantastic tool collection, some wonderful ideas and is definitely worth chatting to, so whichever of the above you use, go stalk him!

 

 

 

32 Responses

  1. Richard Maguire

    Being me, I’ve been pondering on this one ever since I first saw it from Richard.
    I’ve been giving it some practical usage and naturally I’ve a few thoughts and opinions of my own, so I’ll be coming back on to this subject some more shortly.

    Reply
    • Dave m

      I don’t thing anyone who bought a maguire bench would do this.

      Perhaps though as hobbyists (many of us) we consider our bench a once in a lifetime build, not a disposable tool.

      I know I expect my bench, with two lovely maguire vices to last beyond my children’s lifetime.

      We now consider benches wonderful icons of a bygone era and treasure them, whereas at the time they were possibly just a means to an end.

      Just like in the day no one treasured a penny black or a mac one or similar.

      So we’ve got ways to keep our benches as we built them, but as he says, let’s not forget technique that were part of the heritage of what we all do.

      Reply
      • Richard Maguire

        Thanks Dave,
        I think your points are very valid and perhaps form some of the reasons that Arnold doesn’t expect widespread revival. We do live in a very different world where hobbyists’ in particular can have the time to take pride, (and professional hand tool users are all but dead) and that includes developing and building benches that are exceptionally well equipped.
        The success of the tail vice is one of the reasons that things like this and the holdfast and batten are all but extinct, but as you say they can be an excellent means to an end and are from a time when that’s what it’d all be about. Also in the right application (which we’ll cover soon) they can still be some of the best solutions to those irritating, simple problems.

        Reply
  2. George

    Wow! I have just sat down to have lunch and think on how to better secure a piece of wood I’m having a devil of a time with and I see this. Thanks, Richard!

    By the way, I’m currently working on building a smaller version of your clinched nail tool chest, although with a few variations in mind. Love your site and your workmanship!

    Cheers, mate! 🙂

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Thanks George,
      I’m hoping that that sod of a bit of wood has now been well secured!

      It’s great to hear that you’re building the chest, we’d love to see pictures when it’s done.

      Reply
  3. eric mcrory

    Richard encourage my laziness what were the bar thingy/dogs that you hammered into the bench as a planing stop when building (i think) the clenched nail tool box? They looked easier to use than a bench knife and they only ‘damaged’ the work-piece.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Eric, My usual go to knock it in to the bench thing would be a pinch dog so it may have been that. Does that sound familiar?

      Reply
  4. Bernard Naish

    Dad and Grandad never hesitated to drive a nail into the bench and tip over the top to give a sharp catch edge. The wood dug into the head like a sticking board. They were carpenters and joiners so did not need the bench to be completely flat and smooth all the time. I try and be a cabinetmaker and I do. Hence I use a sticking board with an adjustable fence at the back.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      I have to admit, I do love the simplicity of a nail, but my old man’s terrible for it! An adjustable fenced sticking board, that’s a treat and on my list of things to build here. The bench knife would be a nice little accompaniment here.

      Reply
  5. Douglas Coates

    sorry Richards – I get it but not for me. I’ve been watching the glam bench trend go silly of late – you know the massive lumps dripping in shiny hardware and shot full of holes… thinking this marks the end-phase of that fashion cycle. It may be the next counter-cycle is basic, rough and beat-up (a bit like punk after glam-pop).
    But I can fix all the workpieces I need every which way with holdfasts and dogs, fast and good – so the knife works but it’s not actually better, is it?

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      I love your thoughts there; punk after glam-pop?!
      Is the knife better? Well, it’s different, and so can be a better solution in a given situation. The applications can go beyond what your holdfasts can offer – I’ll get my thoughts together in a post and see if you can warm to them. I think you could!

      Btw I still haven’t got to test one of your vices yet 😉

      Reply
      • douglas coates

        Just had a look at Gary’s pics Richard. RA using in a sticking board – i missed that bit, thought I had to wack them into my benchtop. I do appreciate they do things dogs etc don’t. I’m coming round, a bit 🙂 Re the other thing, I’ll be in touch. And keep your mails coming, they truly are a blast of healthy fresh air.

        Reply
  6. Mike

    I don’t mean to be dense, but this holding technique would require that the end that has been held with the knife be either hidden or trimmed to remove the marred are right?

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Mike, that’s not dense, just logical!
      Although it’s far less of a problem in the real world than in might sound. Of course it heavily depends on the application, but the mark is surprisingly discreet, it’s a thin and sharpened blade and so once taken out of open grained timbers it’s all but invisible. In most uses it would naturally be a cut off or would be hidden on the back underside anyway. I’ll be writing more about some of the applications I’ve found them to be useful in shortly.
      In fact I’ve actually found more visible damage from a bench dog used with a tail vice.

      Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Gary,
      You’ve got some excellent photos there of the bench knife in use, thanks for sharing, they’re well worth a look.
      Richard has a very engrossing way of sharing these tips with you, I’ve learnt that you’ve just got to make sure you have the camera about!

      Reply
  7. Graham Haydon

    Excellent Richard & Richard!

    I’ve been reflecting on this subject too and I’m pretty sure the bench knife was a useful addition to a joiners bench. Thanks for the great write up.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Graham,
      If I could get by head out my arse (the run up to Christmas rush!) and get this post done about some of the applications that I’ve found the knife to be particularly useful for, I’m hoping to show just how incredibly versatile this thing is, and that it’s not as brutish and rough as it might sound. For myself it’s really become one of those back pocket tools, knock one up, put it in your back pocket and keep it in mind for when you come stuck.
      I know that Arnold’s used one in his sticking board for years and I was very interested when he mentioned finding telling scars in bench tops as well – all of a sudden the scars seemed to be everywhere.
      It’s certainly not as versatile on the better equipped benches but for the far simpler English type bench it can easily become a new habit.

      Reply
  8. John

    My old workbench is covered in scars, (due for a new top) but I never used a bench knife. I’d heard about it, but the works-manager of my old joiners’ shop would have had a blue-fit if he’d seen us use the method. In my own shop, I have used a hot melt glue-gun, and even double sided tape as hold-downs, but then these things weren’t available in the 18th century were they? Cheers Richard. Keep up the good stuff.

    Reply
  9. Stefan Rusek

    I’ll be honest. I don’t quite get it. I have no problem with the idea of whacking a chunk of metal into my bench to hold a workpiece, but I am having a hard time visualizing how to use this. A video might be helpful.

    Reply
  10. Andy Tuckwell

    Hi Richard – and Richard – here’s another written source describing the use of the bench knife – it’s from “Amateur Work Illustrated”, a monthly magazine from 1883, available to all at the Internet Archive. It specifically recommends it for beading small pieces, a similar task to making sash mouldings.

    https://archive.org/stream/amateurworkillus21883lond

    Reply
  11. Jeremy Stoltzfus

    Hi Richard,
    You give out some priceless bits and pieces of information on here. I tried your suede trick in my old craftsman nine inch vise. The clamping grip is amazing with this simple fix! Plus I did not lose the three quaters of an inch to a wooden pad. Thank you.

    Reply
  12. Jock D.

    It is interesting that we have forgotten the self healing pine workbench surface. In schools and offices we use cork (or synthetic) boards for push pins and in drafting (until CAD took over) we used poplar and then linoleum work surfaces that healed from compass points.

    In the lumber business large “dogs” are (were) driven into the log and supporting surface to hold them while sawing. While these large 3/8″ to 1/2″ holes due not heal in their entirety they do close up significantly.

    My first work bench (a hand me down) was a rough thing made of scrap scaffolding lumber that appeared to have been something else prior to that due to its interrupted yellow paint. The many nail holes from its previous lives barely showed.

    Rough as it was that softwood bench served me many years and is now serving someone else. . . It sold me on pine bench tops.

    Reply
  13. Tone

    If you cut down an old bone handled knife like that to make a “bench knife” then I suggest that you re-use the remaining knife handle & blade too. Either to make a marking knife [ref. Paul Sellers] or as a leatherworkers paring knife [ref. youtube].

    Reply

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