During the last year I’ve heard a lot of smack talk about the traditional French-style workbench, which many people simply call a “Roubo” because it is featured in “L’Art du Menuisier.”
In fact, my first drubbing came in 2005 when I built my first French bench. A prominent woodworking writer delivered this salvo: “That bench in Roubo was intended for joiners, people who did house carpentry. Not for cabinetwork. You have chosen the wrong bench to build.”
This is bullcrap.
Not just because I call it bullcrap, but because the archaeological record and the written record say it’s crap.
Roubo’s five-volume work isn’t just about house carpentry and house joinery. It’s also about carriage making, fine furniture, marquetry, parquetry, veneering, finishing and garden furniture. While Roubo certainly knew about other benches (he illustrates a “German” one in one volume), he chose to illustrate the classic French bench in almost every instance throughout all his books.
So yup (sarcasm fully engaged), this bench is good only for heavy work like this.
Or coarse work like this.
You’d only make sash or wainscot on it, like this.
No fine cabinetry would be built on it, especially nothing dovetailed.
The beauty of the French form of bench is it’s a blank sheet of paper. You can easily adapt it for any work – heavy, light or in-between. It is easy to build – you need to know only one joint, really. Beginners don’t need to learn to dovetail a skirt around the top or install complex vises. Heck, I worked for a year on the French bench without anything you would call a vise – just a crochet and holdfasts.
If you process stock by hand, it’s heavy enough for fore-planing. If you’re a router wizard, it’s an expansive deck of places to clamp things to – completely unobstructed.
If you are somewhere in-between these extremes, you will be fully satisfied.
The French bench has downsides. It requires more wood than some other designs. The pieces can be too heavy for some woodworker who work alone. You might have to glue up a lot of boards to make the top or search for a thick slab (which really are not hard to find).
But the bench works like crazy, I prefer it over every form I’ve worked on or built.
I understand that some woodworkers see benches like a hemline. This one is in fashion. Now that one. Ooh, no one builds benches like Ian Kirby’s anymore. And that’s fine. You can run down the design because it’s so ubiquitous. Or because I like it.
But don’t look like a fool and say the bench is for crude work only. The ghost of A.J. Roubo is likely to pay you a visit one dark night.
— Christopher Schwarz