Workbench Rhapsody

OK - I've lost my mind. Now I'm going to rave about my workbenches. I've spent thousands of hours with them and each has a story.

The Cemetery Bench

I started in 1974 by renting the downstairs of an old brick building which I now own. A friend, Guy Pernetti, rescued a large object from the cemetery dump which he stored in the chicken coop at a friend's farm (who was himself serving time in the state coop for excess herb cultivation). Imagine how we appeared on that misty but sunny late fall morning, sporting our flared jeans, combat boots, heavy flannel shirts, beards and long hair. Revolution! We were on a mission. We were young...and we were stupid.

It was the bench shown above: unrecognizeable, caked in gray stone dust, without legs or a base. In the face of such deterioration the two large wooden screw vises still worked. The left hand clamping vise opens 14 inches! We heard that the new management of the local monument company had discarded the bench. After several hours applying linseed oil and scraping, the scarred and weathered maple revealed itself. It was quite a chore to realign the boards with clamps and dowels but designing a new base happily finished the job. I have used this bench almost 28 years for the repair of thousands of musical instruments. How can something so old be so useful? With my present skills the restoration might have turned out better. But it's OK.

The Riddle Hearse & Coach Co. Benches

Carvers' Bench (2 5/8" x 34" x 9' with the forward work surface of solid quarter sawn yellow poplar 22" wide)

The huge vise has a very long throw (10") and indexes horizontally in 30º increments by lifting a spring-loaded piston on the base. The rear jaw is secured with a removable tapered drift pin which allows it to pivot for quick replacement or to facilitate changing stock without backing out the screw. The bench has also three large drawers. For decades it had been used by a surviving Riddle family member for general mechanical work at home so several hours of solvent cleaning were required to remove oil and grease staining from the surface. The Riddle Hearse and Coach Co. of Ravenna, Ohio purchased the Clark Carriage company (founded in 1831) in 1860. The company existed until the middle1920s and transitioned to the automotive era by building motorized hearses and funeral cars of the highest quality like the carriages before. No expense was spared in the design and construction of Riddle hearses, coaches and carriages. This bench is one of several built for the factory and judging from the style of construction it could date from the factory's founding in 1860.

This is the Riddle Hearse & Coach factory from the 19th century and some of the craftsmen who built the elaborately wrought hearse bodies which were mounted on Riddle carriage running gear. Note the carved curtain panel in the lower left foreground. This component was carved from solid cherry. Other woods used were yellow poplar. To the far right is a long bench with a vise. That is identical to the carvers' bench now in my shop and may be the very same because of  a similar damaged corner. It is made from a 22" wide by 9' long  board of  solid, perfectly quarter-sawn yellow poplar 2 5/8" thick. The three legs are also poplar timbers carefully fitted damp with mortise, tenon and pins. The shrinkage from drying made the leg assembly become very tight and firm without glue. The legs were dowel-pinned into the massive poplar bench surface. When acquired, the bench was somewhat wobbly but once the legs were secured to the masonry wall, like the original factory installation, the assembly became very strong and rigid.

Detail from the above photo showing a bench identical to one now in my shop. Note the iron braces which secured the front legs to the factory floor. In the first photo I have the same braces resting on the benchtop during re-installation.

The Riddle butcher block maple bench. This also came from the Riddle family and was used for general mechanical repair work on Indian motorcycles. Although not as old as the other bench it originally came from the factory and has a maple work surface 3" thick by 24" wide and 8' long. There are two large drawers in a very sturdy pine base that is built like a tavern table.

The factory pictures are from a CD-ROM, "The Riddle Archives," created by Thomas Riddle. This is an important documentation of the Riddle family and the Riddle Company, generously shared by the author. It is a fascinating glimpse of transportation history through the records, photographs and catalogs of a company which produced the highest quality vehicles.

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© Roger G. Thurman 1998-2008

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Thurman Guitar & Violin Repair, Inc.
900 Franklin Av.
Kent OH 44240