Books in the French Tradition

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You know that this post is going to be about André-Jacob Roubo. But not entirely.

For me, woodworking books in the French tradition begin with a title we haven’t been able to publish from the “other André” – André Félibien’s “Des Principes de L’Architecture…” (1676). Félibien’s book, which includes sections on woodworking, was published before Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick’s Exercises.” And Joseph, the naughty Englishman, ripped off many of Félibien’s images for his book.

We have attempted to translate this book on a couple occasions, but the effort has always drifted off track for one reason or another. I’d like to get it published because Félibien’s book illustrates the first instances of the double-screw vise (what we call a Moxon vise), the goberge clamping bars, a sliding deadman and a marquetry donkey (among other innovations).

Another Book We Don’t Publish
Also important in the French canon is M. Duhamel’s “De L’Exploitation Des Bois” (1764). This is, as far as I can tell, the first book devoted to what we now call “green woodworking.” It deals with the seasoning of wood and explains wood movement using the same charts we use today. It covers making all sorts of things from green wood, from shoes to the frames for saddles. It covers wood bending and a wide variety of techniques.

We’ve started on this project a few times and it has proved to be a challenge. Someday.

And Another…
You can’t really discuss French technical books without mentioning Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s “Encyclopédie,” a 32-volume work that covered, well, everything. It was an encyclopedia after all. There are sections on woodworking and the allied trades. But I find the “Encyclopédie” too general for me to own a set.

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OK, Now Roubo
A group of us have devoted a ridiculous amount of time and money to translate large chunks of Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” which is an enormous multi-volume set on woodworking, joinery, furniture-making, marquetry, carriage making, garden woodworking, turning, finishing and many other topics of interest to the contemporary woodworker.

Unlike the other authors above, Roubo was a practicing joiner who studied architectural drawing at night (he drew the illustrations for his books) and interviewed fellow craftsmen to create his masterwork, which earned him a promotion from journeyman to master.

At times I think I am too close to this work and cannot adequately explain how completely intoxicating and challenging it is. Many woodworking books (even the ones I write personally) are fairly tame stuff, intellectually. While modern books help you grow a bit, Roubo is more like diving in headfirst to Thomas Pynchon right after mastering “Dick & Jane.” If you are willing to pay attention, you will be rewarded with nuggets of knowledge you can’t find elsewhere. Roubo has helped me directly with my finishing, the way I prepare glue, my understanding of campaign furniture, how I make brick moulding, designing galleries and on and on.

And I seriously doubt I’ll ever build a high-style French furniture. It’s not a book of projects.

We have two translated volumes that reflect a decade of work by Donald C. Williams, Michele Pietryka-Pagán, Philippe Lafargue and a team of editors and designers.

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The first, “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry” covers wood selection, marquetry, glue, veneer and finishing.

The second volume, “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture,” covers all of Roubo’s writing on making furniture, plus the workshop, workshop appliances, tools and turning. This book is massive, and even though I’ve read it many times over, I refer to it regularly and consider it one of the foundations of my work.

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Because we are insane, we also published a deluxe version of this book. It is $550. It is the nicest thing in the world that has my name in it. Carrying this book around is like lugging two giant pizzas to your car. Sitting down and reading it with a glass of bourbon is one of the greatest pleasures I know of.

I do love it. But still, it was a nutty thing to publish.

Slightly less nutty (but still up there) is “The Book of Plates.” This book reproduces all of the plates from Roubo’s books in full-size. This is a great companion if you buy a pdf of one of the two translations or happen to read ancient French.

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And Finally
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Grandpa’s Workshop” by Maurice Pommier, perhaps our most charming book. Ostensibly a children’s tale, it’s a delightful collection of illustrated stories about woodworking, craftsman and slaying dragons with a mortise chisel.

It’s a bit scary for overprotective parents (there’s a murder). But the rest of you will be delighted because Pommier is a devoted hand-tool woodworker. And so all the woodworking bits are perfectly rendered by someone who knows how to handle the tools. It is, to me, a pure delight to read.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Felebien Translation, Grandpa's Workshop, Roubo Translation, To Make as Perfectly as Possible, To Make as Perfectly as Possible, Roubo Translation. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Books in the French Tradition

  1. Richard says:

    …as you may be insane for publishing a deluxe version, what does that make me who just purchased and am anxiously awaiting delivery of the hefty tome?

  2. trainman0978 says:

    The book of plates is absolutely one my most prized books in my collection. It’s worth the cost ownership, maybe double now that I have it. I even recommended it to a very prominent tattoo artist in Atlanta who was very excited about getting his hands on it. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration for many crafts.

  3. bloksav says:

    Grandpa’s workshop is the best of the books that you mention in my opinion, because it is aimed at the next generation.
    I can’t really tell how happy it makes me, when our youngest son once in a while selects it for a bed time story.
    His favourite part is the story of the panel saw that belonged to a timber framing carpenter and later to a ships carpenter.

    • Hi Jonas,

      All of our books are aimed at the next generation – that’s why we make them to last.

      But point taken that few people are trying to inspire the young ones….

  4. tpobrienjr says:

    As a toolbox-owning Grandpa, I have happily built, with grandkids, two Japanese-style toolboxes. A third grandchild, the youngest, has asked to build a box, but has not decided on a style. Thank you for all you do in support of woodworkers and grandparents.

  5. Maurice says:

    Merci à tous. Puis-je ajouter à cette liste de livres “L’enseignement professionnel du menuisier“ de Léon Jamin(1894)
    Le tome premier:
    https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k65762924/f9.planchecontact.r=leon%20jamin
    Le tome deuxième:
    https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6565447d/f9.planchecontact.r=leon%20jamin

    • Thank you, Maurice!

      I have seen Jamin’s books but have not read them. I still have lots to learn!

      • Michael says:

        Chris,

        you may also enjoy his largely autobiographic book “Petit-Pierre, histoire et souvenirs d’un apprenti” as it’s sort of the French take on “the Joiner and Cabinet Maker”… following a young guy through his apprenticeship, his Journey around France, and his social status change through the craft.

        Léon Jamin also happens to be a French anarchist.

        Regards,
        Michael

  6. Neil D Mosey says:

    “…….like diving in headfirst to Thomas Pynchon right after mastering “Dick and Jane”. ” Having slogged through about 75% of Pynchon’s published works I can only guess what I might find in Roubo. Not sure if that inspires me to pursue the challenge or run away in fear screaming DubbayewTeeEff !!…… Keep up the good work!

  7. The last two weeks I’ve had my son, when I go to tuck him into bed at night he has Grandpa’s Workshop laying there, waiting for me to read another passage to him. We take it one story at a time. Sometimes we’ll re-read a story, just so he can make sure he has all of the details.

    Right now in the evenings we also spend time in the shop restoring my great uncle’s tool chest, something he made using an old ammo box shortly after he was released from a German POW camp in WWII. Finley is excited to make it his own.

    I’m pretty sure there’s some connection there – a book about a boy nicknamed Rabbit that talks about the tools in an old tool chest and me working with my son (whose dad calls him Bunny) to restore an old tool chest for him to use.

    It takes away from some of my normal shop time and I’m behind on some other things because of all of this.

    And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  8. jenohdit says:

    I’m not holding my breath for Lost Art Press to do it, but I’d love to see some historic Spanish texts. From the online research I’ve done after seeing various Spanish and Spanish colonial paintings of workbenches there is a unique tradition there that’s virtually unknown here.

    Tall staked “Roman” benches still seem to be in regular use in Spain, especially among restoration carpenters and I’ve found loads of pictures of them in use in North Africa. Spain is where Arabic and Roman traditions fused and is arguably the source of the mathematics that Philibert-Delorme, Monge, and their students passed into the trades and down to us. Roubo was one of the conduits of that.

  9. Delphine says:

    Have you looked at Roubo’s other work : « L’Art du layetier » ? It is less “high end”, with its wire hinges and nail construction. But there are some slightly different tools worth looking at (you might like the drawing of the colombe used as a low bench)…
    https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1067202h/f1.image

  10. Richard Mahler says:

    I have managed to collect originals of most of the Diderot engraving plates of tools, cabinetry and some other woodworking trades because it is a comparison resource to antique tools in my collection, re: how little many have changed over several centuries. I was unaware of the Roubo plates book. I will look into that.

  11. A. K. says:

    “L’art du Facteur D’orgues” by Dom Bédos de Celles is one to look at as well.

    It is a massive work that includes various tools used in both woodwork and some metalwork, all in the interest of creating some of the most massive musical instruments known to mankind – pipe organs. Not a very practical goal for today, but there’s reference for so many interesting items involved. The need for repeatability in professional organ-building means that it also includes the ancestors of some power tools that have been forgotten today – a flywheel-driven treadle power hammer, a screw-adjusted thickness planer, and more elaborate things I can’t understand due to my inability to read French. There is also a large variety of hand tools that have oddball features or do specialized tasks – a circle cutter, a plane with both a squirrel tail and crosswise handles, and more. Not to mention of course the fantastically detailed prints of organs (some of which still exist) that just leave you in awe of the work spent both building them as well as the engraver.

    There’s a partially-transcribed (in French) online version, which can be read in English with some difficulty using the machine translation service of your choice. Unfortunately it is missing a significant amount of information still. The books (yes, it’s in multiple volumes) are thankfully scanned and freely available in for people who can read them in the usual internet archives of public domain pdfs.

    Some quick views of the interior plates are here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_B%C3%A9dos_de_Celles
    And the online partial transcription: http://dom-bedos.hydraule.org/

    P.S.: Of course, I know that Chris has already seen this book thanks to his inclusion of one of the illustrations of the 18th-century planer in his workbench book. Thanks to him for putting that there so I was spurned to dig this old thing up.

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