One of the daunting tasks Michele, Philippe, and I face in bringing “To Make As Perfectly As Possible” – the furniture-making sections of Jacob Andre Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier” – to an Anglophone audience is probably similar to the problem of a modern Francophone reading it now in the original language – Roubo frequently (always?) assumes a depth of knowledge mostly lost to contemporary craftsmen. His offhand remarks about doing something this way or that way often leave gigantic holes of information, information he presumed the readers would possess. To write it down would either “dumb-down” his masterpiece or insult the reader’s intelligence and experience.
In a world of flakeboard furniture and polyurinate varnish, understanding Roubo without a little help may just be a futile gesture. Even Philippe has expressed frustration with these hurdles at times, once exclaiming, “I cannot tell which is more difficult, the English or the French!” Despite being an experienced patternmaker and metal caster I found myself scratching my head with his descriptions of fabricating furniture mounts (hardware).
My main grunt-level tasks in the production of “To Make As Perfectly As Possible” are two-fold, involving first the massaging of the transliterated text into language comprehensible to a modern woodworker, with a lot of informational back-filling; and second, to replicate some of the tools and processes presented on the pages of the original volumes. To that end I have built a number of tools, jigs, and mock-ups to assist me in presenting them to you as written and photographic essays. There is no point in perusing Roubo without getting the whole picture, or at least as whole of a picture as we can paint.
My latest exercise has been to use the frame saw Roubo illustrates for the re-sawing of lumber, or more precisely, the sawing of veneer from solid stock. I use the term “more precisely” self-consciously for reasons you will learn in a moment. Using the tool reiterates the level of hand skills required to do what Jacob Andre treated as being akin to breathing air, so natural as to not need a lot of explanation. Like much of Roubo, attempting to replicate the work is a challenging and humbling experience.
My first step was to replicate the saw illustrated in Plate 278. (I would say that this plate is “one of my favorites,” but in a book with 382 fantabulous plates the exclamation rings hollow.) Rather than jump into constructing – and hand cutting the teeth – a 4′-long x 4”-wide blade frame saw, I began with an uncharacteristically modest version. The first frame saw I built employs a 28” rip-tooth blade I bought at a mail order tool store. The frame itself is 8/4 rock maple with stout but unglued mortise and tenon joints. Wimpy it is not. The hardware used to affix the blade to the frame was made with 1/2″ carriage bolts from the hardware store. Using wrenches to tighten the retaining bolts I can get the blade so tight it sounds like a piano string if I pluck it.
The second step was to construct a suitable vise to hold the work piece. Attacking solid stock with a 3 TPI rip blade requires some pretty robust clampification. At first I tried my Emmert K1. Too wimpy for the big pieces (as a congregant in The United Fellowship of Emmert, it pains me to write this). Next up, the twin-screw face vise on my workbench. Even though it has 1” Acme-thread screws and a 3” x 6” jaw, it was not up to the task because the jaw flexed too much as the screws were over 3′ on center. I had no desire to build the saw bench Jake illustrates, so I adapted his design to built one and attach it to one end of my workbench. My base jaw is 6” x 6” x 26” bolted to the bench legs, and the moving jaw is 4” x 6” x 26”, all of vintage white oak. The screws are hand cut 1-1/2” x 6 TPI maple and are 22” on-center. Let me tell you, some clamping pressure can be achieved with this puppy.
Working alone, since I was too eager to wait for a second sawyer to be recruited, I tossed some old growth antique cypress lumber into the jaws and started sawing. Holy Cow! Re-sawing a 6” piece by myself, I averaged almost an inch and a half per minute. Effortlessly. Eight inch old growth mahogany? Like butter. With the weight of the 8/4 maple frame pulling the sharp teeth through the wood, all I had to do was keep it moving back and forth. And steer. Evidently I need some new driving lessons.
My only negative report is that the saw is so stinking precise that it has no forgiveness in its heart, it amplifies any errors on the part of the sawyer. Keep to the line and everything is glorious. Wander a little bit and you have nicely cut firewood. In a 24” cut I wandered off-line over 1/16”. Sigh. There is simply no recovering from a mis-direction, an unfortunate feature to this technique that I found disheartening, since almost every other technique of hand sawing allows for some recovery from a wandering saw. Not this bad boy.
To use this simple and powerful tool effectively requires a level of hand skill precision I do not yet possess. A second sawyer wouldn’t hurt, either. Admittedly, I am new to the tool and my skill with it can only increase with time. But it was definitely an exhilarating and humbling exercise. Check back in with me in a couple months.
And these old-timers cut 18” wide veneers less that 1/12 of an inch? Yikes.
“To Make As Perfectly As Possible” has much more detail including step-by-step construction. Stay tuned.
— Don Williams