THE NEANDERTHAL BENCH
This century-old carpenter's bench finds work in a new home.
SHOP OWNER: George Dart
LOCATION: Havertown, PA
I got a call from a client in the early to mid '90's asking me to look at a bench she had stored in her basement. She wanted to get rid of it and do some much-needed housecleaning. I envisioned a parson's bench and figured she wanted to find out if the item was still suitable for furniture. At the time, I was working for several antique dealers as well as myself, and felt I could find a place for it. I agreed to come over and look at it. What a surprise!
Although I had done several items for this lady, I had never descended into the bowls of her dank and dark basement. It was spooky, replete with musty smells, cobwebs, acrobatic spiders, and stacks of old yellow newspapers. Over in the corner buried in old newspapers and stacked wooden crates of empty 7-ounce Coke bottles sat a carpenter's bench, which I examined by flashlight. It looked sound and she said I could have it if it was any good.
I learned it had belonged to her grandfather who had worked as a cabinetmaker. She related that the bench had been in her basement her entire life (75 years at that time). She also told me her grandfather, whose name was Henry Blankmeyer, had died the same day she was born, in the same house but on different floors. Mr. Blankmeyer was 80 when he passed away. He was an immigrant and his granddaughter showed me his papers from Ellis Island as well as his marriage license. Each document reflected his occupation as a carpenter. The bench is very well made and I felt that Henry very likely made the bench to use in his work. We don't know the year he made the bench but it’s obviously seen a lot of use. When I had completed my initial cleanup, my #1 son spotted Henry's maker's mark inside one of the drawers.
It took only a minute or two to knock out the wedges and disassemble the mortise and tenon joinery. After all that time, the only missing parts were one wedge and the wooden bar for the leg vise. I replaced those items with some ash, and cleaned up the bench, getting rid of decades worth of grime and dirt. Then I applied several coats of linseed oil to the top. The picture shows the bench a minute before #1 and #3 sons carried it into the shop. Note its height. People were a lot shorter back then. I have it sitting on blocks. Also note I am carrying extra linseed oil in my beer mug, just in case the bench gets scratched up in the move.
The top is a solid maple plank, 70 inches long, 16 1/2 inches deep, and 2 3/4 inches thick. The top sits upon a 1/2-inch thick board foundation, making the total top thickness 3 1/4 inches. It is solid. A full spanning tool tray increases its overall depth to 26". The tool tray has a solid poplar bottom, and all structural members are poplar. The legs are full dimension 4x4 lumber, supporting the 23 1/2 by 48-inch frame. The tail vise is all maple with a capacity of 10 inches. Both vises use hickory for the hubs, screws, and handles. I installed the lower shelf as an improvement. The bench employs steel square bench dogs, which I found in one of the drawers. In addition, the bench also has rotating dog plates on either end to exploit its full capacity. The drawers may be extended to support work trapped in the leg vise.
Another remarkable find was what was preventing one of the drawers from opening. After a week or so of fiddling with it, I finally got it opened and found one of Mr. Blankmeyer’s wooden planes. He had replaced the sole and the glue had failed. The sole had wedged itself between the drawer/bench and frame/plane body and kept the drawer locked in place. I jointed the plane body and old sole and glued them back together. I treasure the Blankmeyer bench.
. . . George Dart