The deluxe edition of “Roubo on Furniture” is currently at the bindery in New Mexico. There, in addition to binding the pages, employees are making the custom slipcases for the books.
The latest word we have from the bindery is that the job will be complete in early or middle August. When we get more exact information, including a shipping date, we will post it here.
We are as excited and anxious about this book as you are. While we love the standard edition of “Roubo on Furniture” (shipping now for $57) and enjoy the ability to search the pdf version, we want the deluxe version. We want its huge 11” x 17” pages (the same size as the original l’Art du menuisier”). We want the incredibly crisp printing. Heck, we just want a book that is worthy of all the years of labor that have gone into this project from everyone from the translators to the designer to the indexer.
One of the joys of researching the old ways of doing things is that every so often you encounter an amazing “new” way of accomplishing some task. Such is the case with the shoulder knife, an indispensable tool in the ateliers of Roubo’s world. The tool’s utility is remarkable, and I am still discovering new uses for it.
We all have our favorite shop knives; mine is a Swiss chip-carving tip that gets used in many ways. And – like you – I have tuned it exactly to my preferences. Yet, more and more I find myself reaching for the shoulder knife that I made at about the time this book project began.
One of the issues of knife work is balancing the power and control integral to its use. Typically one of the limitations is the amount of force you can bring to the cutting tip, and the precise control you can exert on it. The determining factor is often the amount of handle you can grab comfortably. In fact, that is why my favorite knife has a small blade but a comparatively large handle. Still, I am limited to having only one hand on the handle. A shoulder knife overcomes that because the handle extends all the way from the knife tip to, well, your shoulder. You can obtain great power and control because it allows you to grab its handle firmly with both hands and leverage it off your shoulder.
The shoulder knife has practically disappeared from the woodworker’s tool kit, and to my knowledge only one company supplies them commercially. Making one is fairly straightforward. Although it is a simple tool, mastering it is not so.
The first step in making a shoulder knife is to make a pattern so it fits exactly your upper body’s dimensions and posture relative to the work surface. You can make a template from something as simple and disposable as heavy cardboard. A good starting point is to simply grab a yardstick tip in your hands, drape the stick over your shoulder and make note of the measurement from the work surface to your shoulder. Mark this out on the cardboard, then draw an arc to mimic the curve of your shoulder. Cut this out and compare it to your own body. Revise it until the match is the one you want. I made perhaps a half-dozen patterns until I got what I wanted, and then I cut that pattern out of three or four layers of cardboard and bonded them together to make it sturdy enough so I could get a good feel for its shape and fit. Just to make sure, I made a final pattern out of a piece of 6/4 softwood.
I selected a piece of scrap walnut to make my first knife, and a slab of ancient oak for the second, which is a few inches longer than the first. I used disparate methods for building each.
I made the walnut knife from two pieces of 3/4″ stock laminated together to make setting the blade much easier – even though the final thickness was 1–1/8″. I traced my pattern on both pieces and cut out the shape of the handle. Using a knife and chisel, I excavated a void matching the shaft of a Swiss blade purchased at a woodworking store on the two inner faces that were to be glued together in the final assembly. When the fit was perfect, I glued the whole package together with hide glue, with the knife blade embedded in and protruding about 1″ from the long handle.
For the oak-handled knife, I started with a 6/4 slab, then traced and cut out the shape I wanted. When I was satisfied with the overall shape, I sliced it lengthwise on the band saw. Recycling an old chip-carving blade, I excavated a pocket for the knife haft, then temporarily tack-glued the two pieces back together to shape the handle. (This is unlike the first knife when I assembled the knife and then shaped it.)
With spokeshaves and files I shaped the handle to my preference, inserted the blade and glued the whole thing back together with hot hide glue. After shaping the business ends and adding compression-fitting brass ferrules, I coated both handles with shellac and wax, made the leather blade guards and called them complete.
My skill at using the shoulder knife is growing, but it is not yet to the degree where it is second-nature. But classical marqueteurs probably used it about the way we would use a scalpel for cutting filigree in paper.
One of the main differences between the manner of creating marquetry between the way I did it for decades and the way that Roubo practiced the art has to do with the assembling the compositional elements into the background. I had previously always sawn them together in fairly typical tarsia a encastro technique, and frankly it is still the practice where I feel the most comfort. But for Roubo and his contemporaries, the elements were often set into the background by scribing the element’s outline into the background with a shoulder knife after the background had been glued to the substrate.
This is in great measure the definition of David Pye’s “workmanship of risk.” Careful examination of enough old pieces of marquetry will indeed reveal instances where the knife got away from the marqueter.
Are you a little bit obsessed with the workshop in Roubo’s Plate 11? Do you need a new poster for your shop or new wallpaper for your computer screen or tablet? Do you really, really want to see the wood shavings in the foreground and all the stuff leaning against the back wall?
Here’s a higher resolution scan of the workshop for your viewing pleasure: Atelier Roubo
P.S. My test rabbit (thanks, KP) used the scan for wallpaper on his PC and was very happy.
When translating Andre Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” we debated converting all of his dimensions to U.S. Customary Units or metric. After some discussion, we decided to leave them as-is for the same reason that we tried to maintain Roubo’s writing voice. This is a work of the 18th century, and so we sought to keep it there.
Translating French inches from that period isn’t difficult. Roubo uses the units of “thumbs” and “lines.” A thumb is just slightly more than our modern inch — 1.066″. The thumb is further divided into 12 “lines.” Each line is equivalent to .088″ today. The French foot is 12.792″.
It was never supposed to happen like this, but I’m a believer in fate.
During the last seven days we have closed the books – so to speak – on two of the projects that have dogged us every day since we started this publishing company in 2007. Those projects – reviving the works of A.J. Roubo and Charles H. Hayward – have consumed the lives of more than a dozen people for almost as many years.
The Charles H. Hayward project began before we even incorporated Lost Art Press in 2007. John and I wanted everyone to encounter the pure genius of Hayward and The Woodworker magazine during its heyday. And likewise, our efforts at translating Roubo’s “l’art du Menuisier” predate this company by many years.
I am not one for navel-gazing, but I can tell you this: These projects have transformed me as a craftsman, writer and designer. The books are so woven into the fiber of my being that it’s impossible to overstate their influence on how I work at the bench every day.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say that I can see the world through the eyes of these great men. Both of them did something that few woodworkers do: They investigated the craft around them with open hearts and open minds. Both interviewed woodworkers of all stripes in order to communicate how to make things. They refused to accept the narrow, rote training that can easily make you an effective soldier, but a poor thinker.
If anything, these men have taught me how to evaluate the advice, admonitions, rules and exhortations of other craftsmen. To spot the closed mind. To refuse to embrace dogma.
Will you find the same things in these books? I don’t know. But the lessons are there for the taking.