Roubo the Transformer

Immersion is a transforming experience. Whether you drown or learn to swim, you are transformed.  Such has been the process of bringing “L’Art du Menuisier” to the English-speaking world. At times I feel overwhelmed, like when it takes six or eight hours to edit and revise a single page of transliteration. It is not Michele’s fault; she is doing simply brilliant work. It’s just that moving arcane descriptions from one language into another 250 years after the fact is a challenge. (By the way, Michele is about two-thirds finished with the initial transliteration for “To Make As Perfectly As Possible – Volume II”!  Not that I get to enjoy it much, yet….)

Occasionally I reflect on my evolution as a craftsman over the past four years of swimming with the French sharks. For almost 40 years I have made my living salvaging damaged furniture. At first I was called a restorer and refinisher. Lately the description has been “furniture conservator.” (When you are working on furniture more valuable than your lifetime’s earning potential, they no longer refer to you as “the handyman.”) Whichever label was accurate, I have worked on hundreds, probably thousands, of pieces of furniture but have made precious little furniture from start to finish. A dozen pieces, none important, and that’s about it. Jake Roubo is changing all that.

These days I am actually building things in those three hours a month when I am not working at my job, editing and creating content for “To Make As Perfectly As Possible,” maintaining the house and yard, enjoying the company of loved ones, prepping for the end of Western Civilization, etc. Not just my gigantazoid barn studio (40’ x 36’ x 4-1/2 stories) in the mountains, although that is a pretty substantial project, but furniture and wooden decorative objects. A pie safe of salvaged old-growth 11/4 cypress from a circa 1840 water tank. A pair of serpentine mahogany veneer knife boxes (to hold my carving chisels, of course). Several replicas of Samuel Gragg’s chairs. Turning bowls from stumps I harvested myself.

I am building these things more by hand tools than I used to. In part because I find it therapeutic, and in part because it is often the most efficient way to get the particular tasks done. I find my machines in the way more now than in the past. Useful in their moment (hand planing several thousand linear feet of Southern yellow pine flooring just might be the clinical definition of insanity, hence my little Ryobi 10-incher), but more often dust magnets or workbenches.

Speaking of which, did I mention that I have contracted Stage 4 Schwarzaholism? (schwarzaholism – the unnatural and irresistible urge to build workbenches, especially of an ancient form).  Exposure to Chris has been a good/bad thing as you can all attest. His ability to inspire is beyond dispute, but the things to which we are inspired consumes all available resources and then some. Transformation can be a mixed bag.

I currently have several workbenches underway. There are about 20 big ol’ vises to build and the adventure of making them is exhilarating. To get there I am re-exploring Roubo’s recitation of thread cutting –  2-1/2” x 4 TPI threads don’t come from the local hardware store.

The first bench is a 4”-thick curly maple top German Roubo bench along the lines of Jameel Abraham’s from the video (download it as a wmv file here).  If you haven’t seen the video, folks, you gotta sit down, buckle in and be prepared to get blown away. Next is a Schwarzian Roubo Traditional in 6”-thick Southern yellow pine. And a Baltic birch torsion box folding portable bench. And Bob Lang’s 21st Century bench. And a Japanese planing beam. And I should do something with that 42” x 16” x 16’ slab of air dried white oak I bought last winter. And I’ve got another Emmert vise to put on something.  And, and and…  Hey, I’ve got a classroom to equip!

The Roubo Transformation has driven me in other directions as well. His exposition on Boullework marquetry has rekindled a fire that really had not abated much.  As an aside, you just have to chuckle when Roubo remarks something to the effect of, “I really don’t know much about X, Y, or Z” and then proceeds to write authoritatively for several dozen pages. I really should fire up the smelting furnace and make my own hardware.

On reflection I note the odd similarity between Hannah Arendt’s assertion about the banality of evil and Roubo’s simple assumption that magnificent craftsmanship is what we are all about.  Both proclamations are demystifying yet all the more powerful because of that. Skill should be routine. Or at least what we aspire to. For craftsmen the true transformation is the operating system I call Roubo 2.0.

May it be my desire to make routine the pursuit of excellence and exploration, indeed, the point of walking into the workshop.


That’s what Roubo the Transformer did to me.

— Don Williams

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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4 Responses to Roubo the Transformer

  1. Larry Fair says:

    Mr. Williams,
    Good morning Sir, Just happened to be on line when we received yours and all we can say is that we are so pleased for you that you are so happy in and with all your work abilites. Looking to hearing and seeing you in person soon. Our best regards and we are too, Most Respectfully Yours. Larry and his “Kids” MR. JR. and Ms. Sissy

  2. Helen C. H. S. says:

    You’ve come a long way from the hallowed halls of Winterthur and the miles of silver, my friend! I enjoyed reading your latest ruminations here and as always, am impressed by your vast knowledge and the ability to keep a thread of humor throughout…keep up the “pursuit of excellence and exploration”…
    Still your admirer, H.

  3. Adam Dixon says:

    Did I seriously just read 42″ x 16″ x 16′?Did they just peal off the bark and call it a slab?

  4. Andre says:

    Hi Don,

    Thanks for writing the update on “To Make As Perfectly As Possible”- good to see that things are well on their way!

    I just read your post as a first in the morning and to say it was inspiring would be an understatement… have some mighty nice projects on the way Mr. Williams!

    I hope all turns out the way you hope and you’ll be enjoying the journey to completion.

    Keep working on that routine…..

    Salute, André

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