One of the primary reasons I decided to expand the book “Roman Workbenches” into a larger text was an unexpected gift from Jennie Alexander that was courtesy of John and Eleanor Kebabian.
The story starts some months ago when Jennie sent me photocopies of some old drawings and asked if I saw anything of interest. After about two seconds I wrote her back with an emphatic “yes.” The photocopies had sent my head reeling.
A few weeks later Jennie sent me a box. I was in Italy at the time, and the delivery person was not too bright. So he left it on top of the air conditioning unit, where it was rained on for several days until I returned.
I found the box in tatters and took it inside the shop, expecting the worst. The box fell apart on the bench and inside was a no-worse-for-the-wear copy of “L’Art du Tourneur Mécanicien” by M. Hulot. It’s a 1775 book about turning and many other aspects of woodworking.
Written about the same time as A.J. Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” it’s in a similar format: giant pages of text followed by gorgeous plates. After browsing through the plates, many looked similar to Roubo’s, but others didn’t. I’ve spent several hours studying the plates and am convinced this book deserves my undivided attention.
Of particular interest are plates 13 and 31, which depict a low staked workbench that is outfitted with a variety of appliances for chairmaking.
So I started isolating all the text that relates to these two plates so I could translate it. (And here I thought my meager French skills would get a rest.) Unlike Roubo, Hulot discusses these two plates in more than a dozen places in the text. This is not going to be easy. But you have to start somewhere.
During one long evening, I translated the section that introduces the bench, which Hulot calls appropriately “a saddle.” Take a look:
IV Description of the Saddle for Planing & Boring & Assembling the Work
FIG. 4, Plate 13, shows a bench type which is called a Saddle for planing/flattening and assembly; That is a piece of oak wood 5 feet long, about 12 to 14 inches wide, and very thick, carried on four feet, R, Y, X, Z, which enter into as many Round holes which have been pierced in the whole of the Saddle AB. The workman has the face, turned towards the head, B, which is a large piece of soft wood, such as alder, and the tail of which forms a flat tenon which passes into a mortise through the saddle; The top [of the head] forms a kind of step, the steps of which are cut into different fences, some at right angles and shallow, to receive the ends of the flat workpieces for planing its sides/edges; The flat stage receives the pieces that are to be planed flat. Other stepped [heads] are horizontally and vertically notched with the shape of a teaspoon to receive the tip of a stick. There are small cuts [or kerfs] that are perpendicular to the round hole [in the head], as seen in the figure. Independent of the tenon which fixes the head H, it rests against the support K, which is also called the crossbar or buttress of the head, and which is a stop at the end and is across the saddle. [It is secured] by two strong wooden dowel pins, [made of a wood] such as ash or dogwood, which pass perpendicularly through the saddle.
When the wood that is to be worked is large and long, we do not rely on the saddle, but we stand it upright. Place the end of the wood in the recess HK formed by the crossbar and the side of the head of the saddle.
I see many long nights of (exciting) translating ahead. I’m fairly certain this bench is another important piece of the puzzle in understanding the low workbench and all the ways it can be used.
— Christopher Schwarz