This is an excerpt from “With All the Precision Possible” by André-Jacob Roubo, translation by Donald C. Williams, Michele Pietryka-Pagán & Philippe Lafargue. The following text is part of an essay about Roubo’s workbenches written by Christopher Schwarz.
One of the biggest obstacles, downsides and joys to a French bench is the massive slabs used to construct it. Finding wood that is big enough to use without laminating thinner pieces together can be difficult. Laminating thin pieces together to make the thick pieces required for the top and legs is a lot of work without the help of machines.
If you do find stock that is 6″ thick and 22″ wide for your benchtop, it almost certainly will be wet in the middle and prone to distortion. The first French bench that I built used a 4-1/2″-thick cherry slab that had been seasoning in a lot for about five years. The first couple years with that bench were rough. The top shrank at least 1/16″, leaving the through-tenons and sliding dovetails proud of the benchtop.
After planing those flush, the top didn’t shrink much more, but it sagged a bit in the middle during the third year. And now the benchtop is quite stable – yearly humidity fluctuations have little effect on it. The tops of the legs and the benchtop are always in the same plane and the overall shape of the top is consistent.
The French oak that I used in 2013 was likely even wetter than the cherry. For starters, the oak was thicker. And thick material takes a lot longer to dry than thin material. When we first cut into the oak, we used a moisture meter on the wood and found its moisture content in a few places was off the charts. Most places on the bench were about 30 percent moisture content, which is quite wet by furniture standards.
Two months after completing the bench, the top was so wet that it would rust the surface of a holdfast left in a hole overnight.
Like the slab cherry workbench I’d built years before, the oak benchtop shrank around the tenons by more than 1/16″ during the first six months. And the middle of the benchtop began to sag. I flattened the oak top twice during the first nine months in order to be able to plane thin stock on my benchtop.
This begs the question: How flat does a bench need to be? The answer is: It depends on your work. If you plane woods that are less than 3/4″ thick, benchtop flatness is important. I shoot for getting the front 12″ of the benchtop so flat that I cannot get a .006″ feeler gauge under a straightedge anywhere in that area.
If you work with thick stuff or do mostly carpentry, you can be more cavalier.
So if thick slab workbenches are so difficult to find and fussy at first, why bother?
After they settle down, slab workbenches move very little. The same forces that make the top dry slowly also retard its ability to take on much moisture during the seasons (thanks to Steve Schafer for explaining this via Fick’s Second Law, a diffusion equation). After about five years in your shop, your benchtop should be well acclimated and monolithic.
During the last few weeks we’ve received some pushback about the price for the deluxe edition. It’s $550, which includes domestic shipping (international shipping is extra).
I know this seems a lot for a book on woodworking when birdhouse books can be had for $20. Here is our perspective on the price.
We wanted to offer the book, which represents thousands of hours of work during the last 10 years, in a variety of ways so everyone can benefit from it. You can buy a pdf of the book for $27.50. It has all of the information contained in the other editions of the book. The standard edition of the book is $57, which we think is a bargain for what you get. This standard edition is 472 pages, printed in the United States, the binding is sewn for long-term durability and the paper is bright and thick.
Finally, there is the deluxe edition. We are printing only 1,000 copies of this edition. It is offered in the original 11” x 17” size – same as the original Roubo books from 1774. This deluxe edition is printed to the absolute highest standards using the best materials we could find.
And yes, it’s $550.
For a book collector, that is a laughably low price. Vintage books (and high-end modern editions) that are $550 are at the low end of the spectrum. I gladly paid $2,000 for a vintage copy of Felebien (in French). And I routinely spend $500 to $1,000 for 19th-century books from England on carpentry and joinery for the Lost Art Press reference library.
What John and I sought to do with this book is give you a “period rush” – an inexpensive look at what high-end publishing is like. We both had that rush in 2013 when we received our copies of the first deluxe edition of “Roubo on Marquetry.”
When the truck dropped off the copies at John’s house in Fishers, Ind., we slashed open a box and each pulled out a copy. We each slid it out of the slipcase and then opened it. For the next 30 minutes we gaped at the copies in John’s garage. Honestly, unless you are a book collector, this book is unlike anything you’ve seen.
I know the above sounds like a hard sell. It’s not. We’ve sold only about 30 percent of the press run. So we’re going to have this book on hand for the next few years. If you can’t afford it now, maybe you can afford it after you sell that extra spleen you have hanging around.
But mostly, we’re just happy that we were able to offer this sort of book. Maybe it will take another year for us to break even on the project. That’s OK. But I know that everyone who buys this book will get more than they bargained for – from the authors, the publishers, the designer, the pre-production staff and the printers and binders on the front line.
The deadline to be listed as a subscriber in the deluxe version of “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture” is midnight on Wednesday, March 15. No exceptions. We need to send the list of subscribers to the printing plant to keep this project on track for a June release.
Also, a reminder: Subscribers’ names will be listed using the name on their order form unless they send a note to email@example.com with alternative instructions by March 15.
Several people have asked: Can I list my company or organization instead of my name? Yes, if you let us know by March 15. Other have asked: Can I list my business address and website? No, this is not an advertising section.
Other customers have inquired about how the book is selling. I just checked and we still need to sell 60 copies to break even on the project as a whole, including the press run, trucking charges, boxes, and editing and designing fees. So John and I are still holding our breath, but we haven’t started selling our plasma.
Don Williams says his love of learning was probably fostered by the fact that his father was going through seminary when he was a child. Don grew up in a household without television. Instead, his family listened to classical music and read.
“But much to my parents’ dismay, I veered off into jazz as my primary interest, so they were pretty much convinced in my teenage years that they had picked up the wrong kid in the hospital,” he says.
Don maintains a love of jazz.
Jazz can loosely be defined as a combination of polyphony, syncopation and improvisation — simultaneous but independent melodic lines playing at the same time with unexpected and off-beat rhythms achieved extemporaneously. For Williams, jazz is not only what he listens to, still to this day, but serves as an outline for how he lives his life.
A self-proclaimed conservator, educator, scholar and all-around inquisitive guy, Don was a curious child who delved deep into varying topics – some unexpected – and from a young age, found connections.
“I think that being interested in many things, not everything, but many things allowed me to gather a lot of information,” he says. “And since I didn’t necessarily accept the rubric of the classroom, I think I’m able to see connections between distinct bodies of knowledge that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent if you were stuck in the tyranny of specialized knowledge.”
Don believes that the whole notion of specialized knowledge is a modern thing. “In the past, our predecessors in much earlier generations saw knowledge as the continuum rather than a series of cubbyholes,” he says. He mentions Robert A. Heinlein, who famously wrote:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Don believes pluralism and knowledge to be good things. “That’s part of why I was able to study lots of different things, both formally and informally, and manage to synthesize them into some body of working knowledge,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily [make me] an expert at anything, but it does make adaptable I think.”
But expert, he is. In many things.
Williams spent his early years in southern Minnesota, and his adolescent and post-adolescent years in South Florida. His mother was an office worker, his father a pastor. Williams is the fourth child out of five.
At that time there was a program in Florida called the Faculty Scholars program that pinpointed high-achieving students on factors outside of grade point average. Williams had his high school guidance counselor convinced he was a solid “B” student.
“And then when the senior standardized placement test results came back, she literally left her office, came and dragged me out of class and read me the riot act,” Don says. He had received the second highest score in his very large high school.
This test result, through the Faculty Scholars program, allowed Don to begin college as a junior. He enrolled at Florida Atlantic University planning to double major in economics and political science. “This was 1972 and everybody was pre-law in 1972,” he says.
Around this time Don was working in the finishing room of the now-closed Schindler & Son, then a well-known restoration shop in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I found my attraction and interest at the workbench,” he says. “[The work there] was so much greater than the stuff I was studying in college that I dropped out of college around the beginning of my senior year. It just didn’t pull my fascination.”
Don began working full time for Schindler in 1974, and there met Nick Hlopoff, an internationally renowned decorative art conservator. “He was an exotic figure to me,” Don says. “Being a kid of the Midwest, Baptist parentage, here was this fellow who was an ethnic Russian, born and raised in Paris, trained by his father to care for artworks of exquisite importance.”
Nick, who lived outside of Detroit, would come into town and use shop space to care for the artworks of one of Schindler’s clients. “He was the guy who introduced me to the world of museum conservation as a livelihood,” Don says.
So Don decided to go back to college. “I still didn’t know precisely the path to art conservation as a career so I did the closest thing I could find which was to go to the University of Florida and major in architectural historic preservation.” But a year and a half in, the university changed its curriculum in a direction Don didn’t like. So he left school again.
Don worked in restoration and reproductions at Colonial Woodworking in Archer, Fla., and then in 1978 got a job at Maddox Foundry and Machine Works. “I worked as a patternmaker, which is ultra-precise woodworking,” he says. “I mean, ultra-precise.”
At Schindler’s, Don learned all about historical furniture, having worked on thousands of old-money European and French furniture pieces for wealthy clients in Palm Beach. At Maddox, he learned all about precision woodworking.
It’s the early 1980s now, and Don has married Carolyn, who he met on a blind date at his sister’s house. Carolyn wanted to pursue graduate work, and Don wanted to pursue art conservation. So they chose the southern most of the four colleges in North America that offered both — University of Delaware. Don enrolled in an undergraduate art conservation program, which was an interdisciplinary triple major of studio art, chemistry and art history. “Those are the very disparate disciplines that are the foundation for art conservation,” he says. “It’s fully left brain and right brain, both evolving simultaneously.”
There were 17 incoming students in Don’s program, but by the end of the first semester of the second year, Don was the only one left. “For most people either the hard science is going to weed you out or the fine art is going to weed you out,” he says.
A semester shy of graduating, he received three job offers in the museum field.
“I accepted the job offer from the Smithsonian with the promise that I would finish my studies and get my degree.” He did. It took him another year and a half of commuting one day a week to Delaware and back, but in 1985 he earned a B.A. in “Technology of Artistic and Historic Objects.” (The degree is now, more simply called “Art Conservation.”) Don was the program’s first graduate.
One of the ironies of the Smithsonian gig was that Don was hired in part to be on a team that was developing an art conservation graduate degree program, even though he hadn’t received a graduate degree himself. “So my time for the first couple of years was split between working on the curriculum for this new master’s degree program and doing hands-on caretaking and inquiries and research into the materials and artifacts that related to the Smithsonian.”
Don was 29 when the Smithsonian offered him a job. “You pinch yourself,” he says. “You just can’t believe it.” In his later years, when working alongside his best work friend, Melvin Wachowiak (“With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture” is dedicated to him), Don says they would often say to each other how unbelievable it was that they were being paid to do this type of work. “Because it was so much fun,” Don says.
Don describes the small group he worked with as semi-autonomous, with a think-tank-like culture. “We were given just extraordinary latitudes in pursuing the intersection of our interests and Smithsonian collection needs,” he says. His official job description, which he wrote, was 15 pages long. When asked to distill that down he says this: Be productively curious.
He was. And he was good at it.
“Part of my success in this poly-dimensional disciplinary world was that I could synthesize information from completely unconnected sources,” he says. “I hope I’m not bragging about it but it’s just a way, it’s a familiarity with the way I work. My wife has identified me as severely ADD so that’s perhaps worked out well there.”
A cabinet by the French-born 19th century New York cabinetmaker Alexander Roux.
Don’s restoration is on display in Washington DC.
Day to day, Don said he got to “literally intrude into the fabric of some of the most prominent artifacts in the history of the nation. And so some days I was working on irreplaceable treasures, and some days I was just sitting and reading. And still, the paycheck showed up at 12:01 a.m. every other Tuesday morning.”
The pieces that most interested Don during his time at the Smithsonian weren’t those with historical prominence but rather those that had “attractable degradation.” He talks about a 19th-century replica of a 17th-century French desk with spectacularly decorated marquetry but was run-of-the-mill in the 19th century.
“But it was in the Smithsonian collection,” he says. “And it was undergoing really catastrophic damage because the carcass underneath it – the veneer was coming apart. Working on that was really an amazing experience. But it wasn’t owned by anyone important. It wasn’t made by anyone important. It was a typical sort of French replica that an industrialist of the gilded age would have in their sitting room or library to kind of evoke a false nobility.”
Don also worked on a desk that was one of the earliest and largest examples of artificial tortoise shell. “I’m nuts about tortoise shell,” he says. “I’ve invented a really persuasive imitation tortoise shell for my own work so studying that piece was really great.”
During the second half of Don’s career he was very much involved in the caretaking of the Mace of the United States House of Representatives (look it up on Wikipedia). “Most people don’t know about it, but it is one of the biggies, it’s right up there with the Liberty Bell,” he says. “For me, that was a such a powerful, powerful artifact symbol for us as a nation. And that has touched me to this day.” For 20 minutes Don’s work on the Mace was featured in a C-SPAN documentary called “The Capitol.” (The next time you watch C-SPAN, and they offer a panoramic view of the House Chamber in the Capitol Building, you’ll see the Mace at the very left edge of your screen.)
After more than 25 years of service to the Smithsonian, Don left his job on the last day of the last pay period of 2012. “I was ready,” he says. Don describes the Smithsonian as a scientific arts bureaucracy wrapped inside an academic bureaucracy wrapped inside a federal bureaucracy. “For us, geological timeframes were not merely some abstract idea, that’s how things worked sometimes,” he says. “It was pretty clear that my own particular interests no longer coincided with the organization that I worked for. That’s not malevolence or anything else. People’s priorities change. My priorities stayed pretty much the same, my organization’s priorities changed. They offered me the chance to retire at the age of 57 with lots of years of woodworking left and I said, ‘Wow. That’s pretty good.’”
Michele and Don at work on Roubo.
Don studying the tool cabinet of Henry O. Studley.
By now Don and Michele Pietryka-Pagán had already begun working on “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry.” And Don had begun work on “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” The Smithsonian (which demands right of first refusal on all intellectual property relative to your job when employed) had no interest in either. So he already had two projects dialed in that he knew were of interest to Lost Art Press. “I already had a working relationship with Chris and he was very much interested in the kind of scholarship I was trying to pursue,” Don says. “So really, Lost Art Press was a big part of my decision-making for this fairly substantial lifestyle change because frankly, it was a really, really good job. It was way too much fun, part of it, and paid way too much, but somebody had to have that job and it might as well have been me.”
So Don and Carolyn left Washington for a new life on a secluded property in the mountains of Virginia, which they had purchased a dozen years before.
These days, Don follows his muse. On the day we spoke he had plans to finish formatting photos for an article he wrote for Popular Woodworking Magazine. Then, lunch. “One of the advantages of me being here is that there’s always a fresh, hot lunch – every day. I’ll come down the hill and my wife will have made us a wonderful, wonderful lunch.” In the afternoon he’ll continue work on replicating a desk for a client.
He does a lot of writing. In addition to his woodworking-related writing he says he also has a “fairly vigorous email circle of circumstantial and political and economic commentary that I carry on with my virtual community of observers.” He also writes fiction – thrillers, specifically. His latest is about a museum conservator who has withdrawn to the mountains and gets drawn into a mystery dealing with documents hidden in a piece of furniture. Those documents threaten the structure of Western civilization, and the bodies start piling up.
“My wife says I like to do it because I get to put words in everyone’s mouth,” he says, laughing.
Often, while drifting off to sleep, Don says he’ll compose things in his mind — an artistic design, an essay on the state of the civilization, theological apologetics.
“One of the things that I celebrate the most is that I do not have to regimen my life,” he says. “It’s fairly mercurial. To be utterly frank about it I’ve reach a position of status in the artifact world that you know clients are willing to wait for whatever it is that I do.” (A recent call with once such client resulted in a request to call back after Christmas 2018.) “And I never for a moment take for granted that blessing. I’ve been restoring furniture and decorative objects with some level of accomplishment now since 1971. So that’s a fair amount of time.”
While Don says certain kinds of problem-solving skills are innate to him, he says his success is due, in part, to some marginal native artistic talent. “And I do mean marginal,” he says. “But through skill you can overcome limitations and challenges. Because skill is about repetition. It’s like in writing. The more you understand the meaning, the power, the organization of the words, the greater facility you have using those words for their intended purpose. And when you’re talking about working with artifacts it helps to be interested in and able to comprehend the nature of the materials from whence they are fabricated, the technologies by which they are fabricated and then the trajectory of their degradation. And I guess the thing that I am every thankful for is that I, for reasons unknown to me, can sort of put those pieces together. I’m not sure if that’s a talent or a skill or something else, but it’s something that I just sort of get.”
And frankly, he says, he loves being intimately associated with beautiful things. And not just aesthetic beauty. “Sometimes just thinking skillfully or thinking clearly or thinking creatively is a beautiful thing,” he says. “I love a beautifully crafted concept.” He says his daily expenditure of resources, time and energy spent on restoration is diminishing, “in part because there are other new avenues of rediscovering historical craftsmanship. The related expression is much more prominent on my horizon than before.”
Don’s ideal week is not a whole lot different than what he’s doing now. He hopes to make more replicas of prominent, historic, smaller-scale furniture. He hopes to continue working for a very few number of clients whose collections he has a strong affection for (think: caring for tortoise shell). He has a series of sketchbooks, and the drawings in them are a car wreck between James Krenov’s car and André-Jacob Roubo’s car (his words). “I’m trying to apply some of the technology and artistic vocabulary of Roubo with the technology and artistic vocabulary of Krenov with a dash or two of some 16th-century Chinese furniture in there.” He likes writing. He likes collecting. He likes communicating. He doesn’t like traveling. For Don, a 50-50 mix of studio time and time spent at the keyboard is a good mix.
“I would just like to continue what I’m doing both artistically and intellectually and stay healthy,” he says. “I’m going to be 62 coming up. I just returned from Florida where we celebrated my mom’s 100th birthday, so I figure I have about 40 good years of woodworking left so I want to be careful so I can do it.”
Don and Carolyn live in the least populous county east of the Mississippi. Folks keep up with him online at donsbarn.com. The Barn on White Run, a three-story 19th century barn he found on eBay, houses his studio, classroom, library and dorm space. It took several years to dismantle, move and rebuild the barn, but for Don, it’s a dream fulfilled, a dream he’s had since he was a teenager.
Don enjoys the solitude of rural living. Since he was a child he’s sought out remoteness and isolation. “If I have an mp3 player, that’s about all the human contact I need most days,” he says. “I love being out here. It is exceedingly remote.”
At least four times a year Don and Carolyn head over the mountains to Charlottesville, Va., where he visits University of Virgina’s ophthalmology department for some issues with his eyes. They make a day of it, eating a nice lunch and stocking up at Trader Joe’s and Costco. He also relies on online shopping, and says he’s learned to appreciate “the astounding sophistication of the economy and its distribution network.” Most items arrive in 48 hours.
“You know, I’m just at traditional guy pursuing my faith and my family out in the mountains here,” Don says. “I have daughters who I love to death and a wife who I’ve been married to for 35 years, hopefully we’re on our way to forever, but that’s pretty much it.”
Except, it’s not. His life is an eclectic mixture of conservation, restoration, woodworking, finishing, metal casting, collecting obscure books, tools and shellac (yes, really), writing, gardening, presenting, discussing politics and making connections between all of it while forever remaining curious. All while listening to podcast lectures. Or, of course, jazz.
The elongation of wood should also be put among the number of assemblages, its application being very useful, given the impossibility of always having wood of the necessary length, or supposing that it is, the defect being that they sometimes are
not of a perfect quality along the entire length, but being corrected by this method.
There are two ways to elongate wood: the first, by notching half of each piece with tongue and grooves at the ends of each piece of wood, which you hold together by means of glue and pegs, Figs. 1 & 4.
The second way to elongate the wood is with Jupiter’s thunderbolts (apparently named thus because the shape of the cuts is a bit similar to that which you give to the gap which you wish to represent). [This is a notched and pegged scarf joint, most likely named because the configuration of the joint looks somewhat like a lightning bolt.]
There are two types of Jupiter’s thunderbolts, one which you make by notching half of each piece and by forming a second notch to receive the [inserted tapered] key. One must note to make this second notch off-set toward the end of the piece, so that the key forced against it finds no resistance in the opposite side of the other notch, and consequently it better draws the joints together [so that it acts like a draw pin], Figs. 2 & 5.
The second way is to trace in the middle of the piece two parallel lines a–b, c–d, which give you the thickness of the notch. After having determined the length of the notch, and having traced the position of the key in the middle, you cut out all the wood from the front of the wood (assuming you are looking at the front of the notch) up to the first parallel line. From the position of the key up to distance e, you make a second notch a–e, such that in each piece, what there is more of takes the place of what there is less of in the depth of the notch, and makes space for the key. For the ends of these notches, they make tongue and grooves, or only an angle, but the little tongues are better, Figs. 3,6 & 7.
This second way is very strong, and is much better than the first because the key bears all the thickness, instead of the other way, which has only half as much. What’s more, a key bearing only half [the thickness] is subject to rolling, and consequently to open the joint. Even if the joint does not open up, the key can be eaten up [word down] and forced, bearing on the opposite side of the groove, which loses its desired effect, see the figures above.
This assembly is very useful and very strong, and is in use not only by Joiners, but also by carpenters, as much for buildings as for ships.
When the entire length of the wood which you wish to elongate is taken up by mouldings, and you cannot or do not wish to make Jupiter’s thunderbolts, for fear that the key and the grooves will not meet up in the mouldings, you use an assembly called a flute, or a scarf joint, which is made in this way.
After having divided the width of your piece into two equal parts, as indicated by line f–f–g, you make the length that you wish to give to your grooves by h–i–l–m. From this line to the end of your piece, you draw diagonals r–o–p–i, and f–q–m–n, some from one side of the line and the others from the other, such that these notches are made in two pieces with much precision, are at the same time a solid and very tight assembly. You must take care that these grooves be made going from right to left, so that when you wish to elaborate with mouldings, they will not be subject to splitting, Fig. 8.
Although I said that you must separate the piece into two pieces to make these types of notches, this rule is not however general.When you have many pieces of mouldings in the piece, you put the joint in the loosening of one from the other, if it is found in the middle, or in the middle of the groove, as you can see in Fig. 9.
When you elongate pieces ornamented with mouldings using Jupiter’s thunderbolts, you should take care to make notches according to the depth of the moulding, if there is not a groove, so that the key is not uncovered, Fig. 10.
You can also lengthen curved pieces, both on their face and on their edge, using Jupiter’s thunderbolts, as indicated in Figs. 11 & 12. For as many pieces as are curved on the face, and for as little as they are curved, you should never make any tenons, because they will become too sliced up, and consequently less solid. You should fit them together by making at the end of the piece a forking of little depth and of the thickness of the tenon. In this forking you make three or four holes for placing pegs or dowels from the tenon that you fit together. These types of tenons are called tenons a peignes [toothed tenons, doweled tenons], Fig. 12.
There you have it, all the different assemblies that are used for the construction of joinery. I have detailed them the best that was possible for me; this matter, lifeless by itself, not being able to be rendered with as much clarity as I would have wished. You will have recourse to the plates where I have illustrated all the different assemblies, either joined or separated, so that you can see their effect better. I have also indicated all those that are hidden by punctuated lines. I hope that for as little as you may wish to pay attention, the demonstration that I have made will supplement that which one could find obscure in this discussion.