Early origins of the ubiquitous Black & Decker Workmate

Elite, Elan, Workmate: inventor Ron Hickman – photograph courtesy of www.vintageracecar.com

In numerous homes up and down the country and worldwide, the Black & Decker Workmate – the brainchild of designer and inventor Ron Hickman – has assumed legendary status. The idea for this multi-functional bench came to Hickman in 1961, when a mishap occurred while he was building a wardrobe. Using two Swedish chairs as a sawhorse and so intent on cutting a straight line, he ended up sawing straight through the wood and into one of the chairs.


Flyer for the Workmate 79-001 – Type 2 – photograph courtesy of Chris Wolf

Instead of bemoaning the situation, however, Hickman was inspired to come up with a simple, multi-functional bench, which would eventually combine the essential features of a sawhorse, vice and workbench, mounted on a foldable alloy frame. It’d prove to entail a long journey involving several prototypes, numerous manufacturers’ rebuffs and personal financial risk, until others eventually grasped its true potential.


WM125 Mk1 – front view... – photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray


... and folded for storage photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray

Elite & Elan
Hickman grew up in Greytown, Natal province, South Africa. On leaving school, he studied law for six years within the department of justice, but his ambition was always to style cars; a dream that couldn’t be realised in South Africa, so in 1954, he moved to London. Hickman soon found himself a job working as a clay modeller in the styling department of Ford Dagenham, London.


Data plate on the WM125, showing part number and manufacturer – photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray

After three years of employment, e went on to join Colin Chapman’s Lotus – a new company in north London – as a Production Engineer and General Manager, later being promoted to Director. Hickman worked on both the Elite and Elan, but also moonlighted designing furniture for a manufacturer. The Elite proved to be a beautiful car, but was too complicated to construct; however, the Elan that followed proved an instant hit.

It was Hickman who suggested the ingenious idea of using off-the-shelf commercial car parts to build it. Skilfully constructed with stylish finesse and verve and boasting pop up headlights, this tiny 1,600cc sports car proved a sure-fire success. It could accelerate as quickly as an E-type Jaguar and became the first choice of car for the cat-suited Emma Peel in the 1960s acclaimed TV series, The Avengers.


Excerpt from the Argos catalogue – spring-summer 1976

The ‘Minibench’
In 1967, Hickman left Lotus to pursue another heart-felt challenge – he wanted to work on and produce a workbench that was portable, compact and light weight, yet at the same time strong and rigid in construction. He produced three early prototypes, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that a collapsible workbench evolved. Unlike the Workmates we know today, the beams on top of these early prototypes didn’t move to form a vice; instead, a conventional ‘Record vice’ was attached to the bench.

This changed when a eureka moment hit. Hickman was wondering how other tools could be attached, and he realised that if the bench top’s two halves could function as a powerful screw vice, they’d not only be capable of clamping tapered items, but also standard boards. He fixed the top’s front beam, but allowed the rear one to move. Now that the twin-screw vice was working, this therefore did away with the need for a Record vice.


Advert in the Daily Mail – May 1976

These modifications not only lowered the bench’s cost and weight, but uniformly enabled its use by both left- and right-handed operators. Indeed this later development began to morph into the Workmates we recognise today. The early design’s classic hallmark – the ‘H’-frame aluminium casting – was already visible along with twin vice handles and collapsible frame. Hickman christened it the ‘Minibench’, which seemed to fit well with the mini skirt and mini car of the swinging ‘60s, and he felt this was the right time to introduce the new invention to prospective tool manufacturers.

From rebuffs to sky-rocketing sales
Hickman approached Black & Decker with his Minibench back in 1967, but was turned down. On leaving the interview, however, he told them: “One day you’re going to come back to me, and you’ll have to pay a lot more.” Similar rebuffs followed at Stanley Tools Ltd where he was told that the potential of his invention “could be measured in dozens rather than thousands.” Despite this, he continued to pursue other manufacturers such as Record, Spear & Jackson and Marples, but still found no success. So, with his wife’s backing, Hickman made the bold decision to go it alone, taking a huge financial risk.


Side view of WM325 – Type 2Sphotograph courtesy of eBay seller Harmonyblues


Side view of WM325 – Type 3... photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray

As such, he set up his own company in 1968 – Mate Tools Ltd – within the old brewery building, Brewery Lane, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. The first lucky break came that same year, having convinced a DIY magazine to let him exhibit the workbench – now called The Workmate – at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London. David Johnson, Editor of Do IT Yourself magazine, was so impressed by the invention that he predicted: “I have no doubt that within just a few years from now, Workmate will become as valuable as the electric drill,” and this indeed came to pass. 120 orders were taken in the first two weeks; sales reached 1,500 units within a year, and production sky-rocketed, doubling each year for the next three.

Mk1 & Mk2: new beginnings
The Workmate constructed at the Mate Tool factory had very thick and large vice jaws, which could grip both regular and irregular objects. It was single height, standing at some 23in, with a lightweight ‘H’ aluminium alloy and blue steel frame. A large footboard at the base ensured extra stability and rigidity when someone stood on it. It was portable and could be easily collapsed by unscrewing large knobs located on either side of a square base.


... and showing underside of top’s platform – photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray


... folded...photograph courtesy of eBay seller Harmonyblues

From 1968–1972, Mate Tools sold 25,000 Workmates by mail order until 1971, when Black & Decker sent a request to reopen negotiations regarding granting a licence. After six months, Hickman finally agreed to 3% royalties. Development proceeded on the iconic Mk2 with his direction. A complete make-over proceeded whereby the Workmate was transformed into an innovative and classical design. Gone was the large, cumbersome base platform, which was replaced by a single step in front. The Workmate now had two adjustable ideal heights, allowing it to be used as a sawhorse – 23 1/4in – or higher – 32 1/4in – as an operative bench.

Four flip out legs now ensured exceptional rigidity and stability, while dog holes and four swivel plastic dogs on the top’s birch laminate platform now provided a whole new range of clamping positions. Black & Decker named their Mk2 version the WM325, which was produced at the Spennymoor plant in County Durham, and cost £24.95 in 1972. Its awe-inspiring design has been compared to that of the NASA lunar module, and was certainly breathtaking when it first appeared on the market.


Back view of WM325 – Type 4 photograph courtesy of Andrew D Mc Gillivray


WM525 – Type 6 – with new handles – Photograph courtesy of eBay seller Harmonyblues

Early models up to the 1980s
If you have an early-model Black & Decker Workmate in your ownership, you may be able to determine the model number, which can be found on a data label, data plate or printed on the top’s underside. Models also have variations or types. For instance, my early WM625 has the additional lettering and number ‘E05’, which denotes the type. Models WM225 and WM325 – four types – were manufactured in Durham between 1972 and 1976. The WM325 was a dual-height model, whereas the WM225 wasn’t.

Both are identical with the entire frame made of aluminium, except that the WM225 doesn’t have fold up legs. In 1974, a new, cheaper model was introduced – the WM525 – which was referred to by The Guardian newspaper as “Son of Workmate.” The WM525 was also dual-height and featured an entirely steel construction. It didn’t have the characteristic H-frame in its construction, but instead used what might be referred to as an ‘N’ frame.


Rear view of WM525 – Type 6photograph courtesy of eBay seller Harmonyblues


WM625 E05 standing – recognisable owing to its blue steel frame and cast aluminium H-framephotograph courtesy of Robert Scheepers


WM625 E05 Workmate’s stampphotograph courtesy of John Greeves

In 1974, Workmate production began in a new plant in Kildare, Ireland, which was solely dedicated to manufacture of these for the UK and European markets. In fact, half a million Workmates were produced there each year. Although Black & Decker struggled to keep up with demand, the company still remained unconvinced as to how well the Workmate would perform in the United States. In a bid to test the water, the UK-manufactured Workmate WM325 was introduced to the US market in 1974, for a very short period, as Model 79-001 Type E. The response was instantaneous, with American consumers snapping them up, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Black & Decker USA designed and built a new Workmate – Model 79-001 – at their Canadian factory in Brockville, Ontario, exclusively for the North American market, which shared no parts with UK models. The 79-001 would go on to undergo frequent revisions from 1974–1982.


Front view of WM625... photograph courtesy of Dave Allsop


... and underside showing birch dog holes – Photograph courtesy of Dave Allsop

H-frame’ website
Aimed at Workmate owners and fans, Chris Wolf’s ‘H-frame’ website gives a very detailed, compelling insight into various models and early types of Workmate in the USA during this period, along with some coverage of UK models. It’s well worth a read.

With the addition of US and Canadian markets, during the late ‘70s, worldwide sales volumes for the Workmate increased exponentially. In the UK, Workmate Model 625 combined vice and workbench and was easily recognised due to its combination of cast-aluminium ‘H’ frame with blue painted steel frame and legs. In 1976, the WM625 replaced the WM325, and went on to be manufactured until 1980. By 1981, a remarkable 10 million Workmates had been produced worldwide.


Front view of WM525 – Type 6 – photograph courtesy of eBay seller Harmonyblues


WM625 E05, folded  photograph courtesy of Robert Scheepers

Legendary kudos
Ron Hickman made DIY possible for millions of people and the impact of this single invention is immeasurable. In 2011, 30 million Workmates had been sold worldwide. Some writers estimate sales to now be in the region of 60 to 70 million units. Sadly, the ‘H’ frame’s aluminium casting – the iconic hallmark of early Workmates – disappeared after just a few years of production. The early Workmates may have cost more to produce and were possibly more fragile if dropped from a great height, but who’s to say that modern equivalents will endure the same test of time 40 or 50 years from now?


Side view of WM625 – photograph courtesy of Dave Allsop


WM625 E05 half nut – bottom – right-side part number photograph courtesy of Robert Scheepers

Regardless of lineage, Workmates have an ancestry that’s both indispensable and unique. I remember one cookery writer recommending the Workmate for sawing coconuts in half. Its uses remain incalculable – they’re certainly versatile, light weight, portable and combine sawhorse, workbench and vice with adjustable heights. They can grip standard board, tapering items and the most unlikely, irregular shapes imaginable. The jaws are wide enough to hold most bench-top tools, including a drill press, planer and mitre saw.


WM536 dual-height workbench


WM550 dual-height workbench With vertical clamping

In addition, the Workmate can be approached from all sides and positioned in a way that proves most advantageous to the operator, and when not in use, can be folded away, hung up or placed in the boot of a car. They still remain the inspiration for many and provide creative opportunities and outlets, for both the professional and man in the street. Had it not been for the Workmate I purchased in the late ‘70s once married, I wouldn’t have built my first table, alcove cupboards, or shelves in that initial matrimonial year. My early Workmate inspired me – an absolute novice – to take up woodworking and has assisted ever since, all the way through to present day.

With thanks to Andrew D Mc Gillivray; Dave Allsop; Robert Scheepers, and eBay seller Harmonyblues, for the kind use of their photos. A special thanks goes to Chris Wolf for his helpful input into this article
A definite reference: The Workbench, Scott Landis, Taunton Press, 1987, chapter 16