Sawing the Roubo Way

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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to Sawing the Roubo Way

  1. Bob DeViney says:

    In the illustration, the sawyer on the right seems to have his head tilted to the right and/or his right arm raised. Both sawyers seem to be directing the saw with their fingertips rather than gripping the saw in their fists. Any chance they could be sawing with one side of the saw frame lower than the other?

  2. Bob: Figure 1 seems to suggest otherwise to me.

    Also, I would take figure 7 to suggest a saw with almost no kerf. I would think you might be able to start with a smaller, easier to handle saw and then place that monster 4″ wide blade in the cut and stay rather true. Does your re-creation have set to the teeth, and that much back to help it track more true?

    Either way, great writing Don. I laughed out loud and tried to explain parts of it to my wife. They just don’t seem to get it sometimes?

  3. Sharon Que says:

    When you do find someone to saw with it seems to suggest you have to be in unison like good dancers. They do seem to have a light touch and light on their feet, confirming the cutting like butter. Nice to hear your report on this saw.

  4. robert says:

    Look at the level of detail in the drawings. The artist is almost trying to be photographic in rendering the different scenes. Now check out the forearms on these gents. The raw physicality of carpenters and joiners of that era is captured nicely. Don’t believe I would want to tangle with one of them.

  5. Joshua Klein says:

    Sounds like an exhilarating experience. I’d love to see it! If you have it at Groopstock, I’ll be your second sawyer!

  6. Chuck Nickerson says:

    This is one of those skills we haven’t yet relearned to do well. Adam Cherubini has made some progress.

    May your experience and the book project lead us to another great rediscovery.

  7. I would love to build one of these saws. Maybe later this year…

    I really don’t see how a 4″ wide blade could work well without significant set or a hefty taper- or both. Anything over 2.5 or 3″ seems like it would be really hard to use.

    Of course if the sawyers were very careful, sawed only straight grained wood, and always had a perfectly sharpened saw, and cut dried wood, perhaps the heavy set wouldn’t be necessary.

    While we are talking about this, is it safe to assume that they would have cut veneer from green wood? It would cut much easier and the veneer would dry in a week instead of the decade it would take a massive timber.

    As far as steering, for a one man saw, rigidity of the frame seems paramount. For a two man saw, enough looseness to “torque” the saw for steering on one side or the other seems desirable.

  8. Daniel says:

    I’ve had building a frame saw for re-sawing on the back burner for a while now. A difficulty I had was sourcing a blade. Most would use a bandsaw blade but that has it’s own limitations. Thanks for an alternative to use a rip saw blade, will look into it.

    As for vices. Every time I use my roubo with a fixed and a sliding benchcrafted leg vice.. I smile.

  9. Daniel says:

    ps. we need more photos of your progress and trials…

  10. Ryan says:

    I use a frame saw for re-sawing solo, and it does work wonderfully up to a point. And that point is an 18″ wide piece of walnut.

    I’d love to use something other than a bandsaw blade but, to get beyond 28″, its the only thing I’ve found.

    And, to concur with Daniel, pictures would be awesome.

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