Coming in 2011: Andre Roubo's 'L'Art du Menusier'

“To Make As Perfectly As Possible” by Donald C. Williams and Michele P. Pagan

Andre Roubo’s 1769 “L’Art du Menusier” is one of the most important Western works on woodworking. Roubo, a learned man and a Master Cabinetmaker, chronicled the craft and its tools from the unique perspective of a practicing menusier (woodworker). Yet until now his five-volume masterwork has never been translated into English.

Lost Art Press is pleased to announce that we will publish the first of two volumes of Roubo in 2011 (the second in 2013) that have been translated into English and annotated by a special three-person team that possesses unique knowledge of the history of woodworking and the language, history, craft and skills of 18th-century France. Our title for these volumes, “To Make as Perfectly as Possible,” is taken from a phrase Roubo used repeatedly in his exhortations to excellence.

As a result, these two volumes – one on marquetry and the other on furniture making – will be more than a simple transliteration of the text. These books aim to capture the spirit and intent of Roubo, explain the processes in language that a modern woodworker can understand and (in some cases) fill in the gaps of knowledge that Roubo assumed his readers would have.

Work on this project is well underway. And after reading more than 80 pages of the team’s initial work, I can tell you that it is mind-blowing and is easily the most important publishing project I have ever been involved in.

The Team and its Work

The translation process begins with Michele P. Pagan, a Washington, D.C.,-based textiles conservator with more than 20 years experience in preservation of historic materials. Ms. Pagan has previously translated conservation and other historical and technical materials privately for colleagues.

Pagan translates Roubo as verbatim as possible, making no alterations to the original syntax unless that renders it incomprehensible. This is the best way to capture both the information and the flavor of the original.

Then the text goes to Donald C. Williams, an internationally recognized furniture conservator, educator, writer and scholar who has been employed for more than two decades by the nation’s largest cultural institution in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of the highly successful “Saving Stuff” (Fireside: Simon & Schuster, 2005), and is an expert furniture-maker, marqueter and finisher (his specialty is shellac).

Williams edits the text, reconfiguring it as much as necessary to make it readable to an artisan of the 21st century. He is not rewriting Roubo, but merely modifying it enough to make it comprehensible and read smoothly. He also inserts explanations of some of Roubo’s processes. Readers of this blog may be most familiar with his writings on historic finishes (especially shellac) and historical tool marks.

After a couple rounds of editing, the manuscript then goes to his colleague Philippe Lafargue who trained as a traditional chair maker at the Ecole Boulle in Paris. He is well-versed in the arcane jargon of ancient French cabinetmaking, which is fortunate since some of the phrases Roubo used are simply untranslatable otherwise. Lafargue reviews the result from the perspective of a native Frenchman and historical craftsman to make sure the new English version would meet with Roubo’s approval.

In addition to this, Williams is constructing tools and exercises contained in Roubo, combining photos with new essays on the making and using of the tools, and explaining processes that Roubo glosses over.

The Result Lost Art Press will publish two large-format hardbound volumes (the exact size has not been established), on acid-free paper with Smyth-sewn signatures. Like all Lost Art Press books, these will be produced entirely in the United States, from production to printing to binding. We have not yet determined the price.

The volumes will feature replicas of the artful original plates, plus the translated text with details of the plates inserted into the text at the appropriate place.

As this project advances we will keep you posted here on this blog. I’ve already received two extensive chapters for review and am practically sick that I cannot tell you everything I’ve learned so far. But I guarantee this: It will be worth the wait.

When we first spoke of this project, Williams stated the team’s goal as, “… to let the reader practically experience the sounds of the saws and fragrance of the wood shavings and glue pot in the shops where Roubo worked.”

They have succeeded.

— Christopher Schwarz

About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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21 Responses to Coming in 2011: Andre Roubo's 'L'Art du Menusier'

  1. I’ve been waiting for this announcement for some time. Kudos to LAP for bringing this project to fruition.

  2. Bjenk says:

    This is absolutely fantastic and very exciting.
    At last!

    Any plans for volume 1? It is the most important volume for tools, techniques and ways common to all "metiers" of woodworking.

  3. Gary Roberts says:

    Astounding and long needed. My hat (or baseball cap) off to all those who labor at this endeavor.

    Gary

  4. Charles says:

    Wow, exciting news! Maybe you can go with mushrooms since your not putting any acid into the paper. The reader really should be rewarded for licking the book in my opinion.

    Can’t wait to get a copy even if it does not induce hallucinations when licked.
    -Charles

  5. I presume the translators are familiar with Old French, which like Old Spanish doesn’t translate exactly like modern usage. Will be interesting to see how they do. I think the Diderot translation wasn’t very good.

    Stephen

  6. Mark Harrison says:

    What a worthy project! I can hardly wait. It’s like bringing the man back to life; which is, of course, the greatness of books.

    Exciting is a word I don’t use much due to its debased currency in our times, but this truly is exciting!

  7. Dennis says:

    I can’t wait to read it, but can everything you publish be the most important work?

  8. Christopher Schwarz says:

    I don’t know if I’ve used those words. If I have, please let me know.

    In any case, even if I have, this is hands down the most important thing I’ve worked on to date. No doubt. No qualification. No bullshit.

    Chris

  9. naomi weiss says:

    You guys have done it again! Just as it was a natural progression to work with traditional tools and methods on a traditional bench, you’ve taken the next step and delved deeper into that lost art. Another thing that makes this project stand out is its cross-cultural nature, yet for American woodworkers, it’s probably going to help them understand people like Thomas Jefferson in greater detail; it’s a wonderful historical context. Due to this factor (the work being in French), this project was obviously no small undertaking. So thanks for taking this on–thanks for having the balls to decide that this project, with all the hard work and time it entailed was worth pursuing. This work is poised to be a remarkable contribution to not only the history of our craft, but it offers tremendous insight into the 18th century. Thanks for enriching both!

  10. Jeremy Kriewaldt says:

    I thought I posted this thought about 12 hours ago, but I must have made a mistake.

    This is an important project which I will support (as a woodworker, a reader, an historian who specialises in medieval and Renaissance France and as a French speaker married to a French and German teacher, interpreter and translator) in whatever way I can.

    All I can urge is that LAP and the gallant team doing the translation and editing set as a goal the reproduction of all three volumes in their entirety. This will be a fitting recognition to AJR and a worthwhile mounument for the work of the translators, editors and publishers.

  11. Chris Vesper says:

    This is fantastic and significant news for anyone into the study and tools of traditional woodworking. I have no doubt that these volumes when complete will go down in history as a master work to be studied in centuries from now as they are in a more populous language than the originals and re-written by historians and woodworkers. Can’t wait to get my copies.

  12. Nate says:

    I just wish there were a pre-order button!

  13. Rick Yochim says:

    Well Chris, this is good news.

    Your translation team looks like all stars. And in case you weren’t aware, we just voted in Don Williams to the Executive Council of Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM).

    We had some good and qualified candidates to select from but Don’s choice was a no-brainer. To underscore this, let me share a quote from his nominating letter which I think speaks volumes about his passion for scholarship and the need to pass on to others what we learn: "Let SAPFM strive to become not only a remarkable repository of expertise and facilitators of scholarship but also recruiters and teachers for the wonders of a creative world alongside but different from robotic mass production."

    That’s the part where he got my vote.

    Keep up the good work.

  14. J. Watriss says:

    3 Volumes?

    I have 5.

    In any event, mine are still in archaic French. But the plates alone are incredibly informative, since some tools explain themselves when they make their appearance, so I do hope that they’re reproduced in something close to original size, to be properly drool-worthy.

    This is possibly the best news I’ve read since I was accepted at North Bennet in 2004.

  15. Christopher Schwarz says:

    James,

    The 1976 edition was printed in three volumes, which spanned the original work.

    Our volumes will focus on marquetry and furniture making. We’ll leave the garden furniture, house carpentry and carriage making for another day or another team.

    Chris

  16. Rick says:

    Why did you have to tell us? Now I have to sit and wait and stare at the presents under the tree for what will seem like FOREVER.

  17. Ray Schwanenberger says:

    This is indeed very exciting news. I look forward to the time in which I may place my order. Bravo!

  18. Antoine Gautier says:

    Salut Chris,

    Just two remarks on french typography :

    Ecole Boulle should be « École Boulle » (u.c. "É" — even the school’s site gets is wrong at times)

    "L’Art du Menusier" should be « L’Art du menuisier » (l.c. "m" and spelling)

    If you need proofreaders I will be glad to help.

    I am looking forward to reading the book and the original side by side!

  19. Andre says:

    Hi Chris,

    Absolutely great to read about this project!

    So, if the ‘ translation team’ and LAP are doing ‘only’ the marquetry and furniture making volumes are Bjenk and you still carrying on with translating and posting the translations of Volume 1 (Carpentry & Construction)? I found the part you posted on this Blog in june 2008 very informative and a great read in historical perspective.

    I think Vol. 1 covers most of the basics, not only on Carpentry & Construction, but on general woodworking (so including marquetry and furniture making). It would be great to have that information available in English as well.

  20. Badger says:

    Best. News. EVER.

  21. Chuck Nickerson says:

    Chris – please consider also having a leather-bound version of this also.

Comments are closed.