by Don Williams
Part One: I don’t speak or read French. Not a word. So how did I wind up involved in a project to bring the greatest French treatise on cabinetmaking to an Anglophone audience? ‘Tis a long a winding trail.
The seed was planted sometime around the year 1975. I was a kid working as a finisher and restorer at shop in Florida. The old man, “Pop” Schindler, had started the company on the cusp of our first “Great Depression” and had somehow managed to keep the doors open, in great part thanks to his incredible depth of knowledge and skill as a traditionally trained Swiss apprentice. Pop was a curmudgeonly soul, and he had devolved into near-crotchety-ness since his son Fred had taken over the business and freed Pop to putter and mutter (in French).
One day an old-money Palm Beach client (Ambassador Something-or-other) pulled up with boxes full of parts for what looked like just another old piece of junk to put back together. It was, in fact, a simple (for him) tulipwood parquetry secretaire by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), successor to ebeniste du roi Jean-Francois Oeben, and cabinetmaker to King Louis XVI, renowned for the Versailles Desk.
As I began working on the secretaire, Pop started hanging out with me. It made me nervous, given that I did not know him well and all the other guys in the shop told me he was a cranky old coot who always “knew a better way” to do whatever task was on the bench and would butt in whenever he wanted to because he was the owner of the shop.
The other guys were right.
Yes, he could be a cranky old coot, but I grew to hold him in great esteem and affection over time. And guess what; he really did know a better way to do almost anything being done in the shop (except spraying lacquer, which he viewed as a sin against nature and God). Fortunately I was the victim of a loving and excellent upbringing, so out of respect (at first) I let the old man blather on about old furniture and ways of doing things. What a treasure trove of knowledge was slung at me in rapid fire Frenglish! Once he realized that I actually was trying to pay attention and learn, his attitudes softened and he took me under his wing. I can state with certainty that the time with him working on that cabinet was among the most important learning periods of my almost-40-year career.
When the piece was finished and awaiting delivery, he made a remark that puzzled me.
“Roubo would be proud,” he said simply. With that remark he planted the Seed.
“Roubo? I thought this was Ambassador Something-or Other’s cabinet,” I said.
His look in reply could only be described as that glance from a man towards an idiot in-law or elected politician.
Then he told me about “L’Art du Menuisier.” Pop did not own a copy, but the shop’s most important patron (a renowned collector of French decorative arts) did, he said. A first edition from 1765 or some such time. Someday when we were over at the estate together he would ask to show it to me. That day never came, and I did not see Roubo with my own eyes until almost 10 years later. I devoured the images and plates, and wanted to know what the text said almost enough to learn French. Almost. — Don Williams
6 thoughts on “Planting and Nurturing the Seeds of 'To Make As Perfectly As Possible'”
What a great post, thank you for sharing your experience, it is priceless. As Chris is wont to say, I wonder how many of the old ways are lost to us, that could make us better woodworkers. We are in debt to you and the others for making Roubo soon to be available.
Thanks so much for sharing this. Reminds me so much of my days as an apprentice under the wing of a journeyman, in your case under the wing of a master. Wish I took more notes and listened closer. Thanks also for taking on the role of master and keeping the chain of knowledge intact. I look forward to reading Roubo in english.
Although I would love to learn French, I am very much looking forward to reading your translation. You have brought a great deal of scholarly vigor to this trade in your writings. I am sure this will be no exception. Thanks for undertaking this project and thanks to Christopher Schwarz for making all this happen.
You tell a good story. I learn much. I know now that I’m an Anglophone Norwegian.
I appreciate your desire to learn from others and pass it on.
Someday I fully expect to google "wordsmith" and see a photo of you.
Big Guns Gundy (My wrestling name)
I fully second the previous comments! I was an apprentice myself 2 times (a half year each) which thought me many valuable things.
As a result of these experiences I always pay close attention when ‘wise old men’ are telling or explaining me something. They know a lot gained through their own (long) experiences and most of the time do know an easier or better way. They hardly did something for no reason in the older days so there must be some good cause to the ways they did things:)
Thanks for all the hard work you and the team are putting into this translation project. This makes a lot of valuable information available to so many more people.
Thanks for sharing that wonderful story. And a good object lesson too about staying open to every learning experience no matter how innocuous they may initially seem.
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