“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