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January 11, 2010

Coming in 2011: Andre Roubo’s ‘L’Art du Menusier’

January 10, 2010

Coming in 2011: Andre Roubo’s ‘L’Art du Menusier’

‘To Make As Perfectly As Possible’ by Donald C. Williams and Michele P. Pagan

Andre Roubo’s 1769 ‘L’Art du Menusier’ is one of the most important Western works
on woodworking. Roubo, a learned man and a Master Cabinetmaker, chronicled the craft
and its tools from the unique perspective of a practicing menusier (woodworker). Yet
until now his five-volume masterwork has never been translated into English.

Lost Art Press is pleased to announce that we will publish the first of two volumes
of Roubo in 2011 (the second in 2013) that have been translated into English and annotated
by a special three-person team that possesses unique knowledge of the history of woodworking
and the language, history, craft and skills of 18th-century France. Our title for
these volumes, ‘To Make as Perfectly as Possible,’ is taken from a phrase Roubo used
repeatedly in his exhortations to excellence.

As a result, these two volumes – one on marquetry and the other on furniture making
– will be more than a simple transliteration of the text. These books aim to capture
the spirit and intent of Roubo, explain the processes in language that a modern woodworker
can understand and (in some cases) fill in the gaps of knowledge that Roubo assumed
his readers would have.

Work on this project is well underway. And after reading more than 80 pages of the
team’s initial work, I can tell you that it is mind-blowing and is easily the most
important publishing project I have ever been involved in.

The Team and its Work

The translation process begins with Michele P. Pagan, a Washington, D.C.,-based textiles
conservator with more than 20 years experience in preservation of historic materials.
Ms. Pagan has previously translated conservation and other historical and technical
materials privately for colleagues.

Pagan translates Roubo as verbatim as possible, making no alterations to the original
syntax unless that renders it incomprehensible. This is the best way to capture both
the information and the flavor of the original.

Then the text goes to Donald C. Williams, an internationally recognized furniture
conservator, educator, writer and scholar who has been employed for more than two
decades by the nation’s largest cultural institution in Washington, D.C. He is the
co-author of the highly successful ‘Saving Stuff’ (Fireside: Simon & Schuster,
2005), and is an expert furniture-maker, marqueter and finisher (his specialty is

Williams edits the text, reconfiguring it as much as necessary to make it readable
to an artisan of the 21st century. He is not rewriting Roubo, but merely modifying
it enough to make it comprehensible and read smoothly. He also inserts explanations
of some of Roubo’s processes. Readers of this blog may be most familiar with his writings
on historic finishes (especially shellac) and historical tool marks.

After a couple rounds of editing, the manuscript then goes to his colleague Philippe
Lafargue who trained as a traditional chair maker at the Ecole Boulle in Paris. He
is well-versed in the arcane jargon of ancient French cabinetmaking, which is fortunate
since some of the phrases Roubo used are simply untranslatable otherwise. Lafargue
reviews the result from the perspective of a native Frenchman and historical craftsman
to make sure the new English version would meet with Roubo’s approval.

In addition to this, Williams is constructing tools and exercises contained in Roubo,
combining photos with new essays on the making and using of the tools, and explaining
processes that Roubo glosses over.

The Result

Lost Art Press will publish two large-format hardbound volumes (the exact size has
not been established), on acid-free paper with Smyth-sewn signatures. Like all Lost
Art Press books, these will be produced entirely in the United States, from production
to printing to binding. We have not yet determined the price.

The volumes will feature replicas of the artful original plates, plus the translated
text with details of the plates inserted into the text at the appropriate place.

As this project advances we will keep you posted here on this blog. I’ve already received
two extensive chapters for review and am practically sick that I cannot tell you everything
I’ve learned so far. But I guarantee this: It will be worth the wait.

When we first spoke of this project, Williams stated the team’s goal as, ‘… to let
the reader practically experience the sounds of the saws and fragrance of the wood
shavings and glue pot in the shops where Roubo worked.’

They have succeeded.

— Christopher Schwarz

(Via Lost Art Press Blog.)

Patience, Efficiency, Perfection

January 4, 2010

Patience, Efficiency, Perfection:

I’m a fairly good instructor, but there are some things I just cannot teach.

When I work with a student who keeps saying: ‘That’s good enough’ as they put a project
together, I despair. When they say: ‘This is just a classroom experience,’ I freak
out (inside).

The way I look at woodworking is that we get only one chance to get things right.
Not close enough. Right. With most things in life I’m an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ kind
of person, but not with woodworking. Either it’s sharp or it’s dull. Either the joint
is tight or it’s trash. Either the toolmarks are gone or they aren’t.

How can you teach that? I point out problems, gaps, toolmarks, but either they can
see it or they cannot at that point in their lives. (Be assured that I think that
sometimes people have to be ready to receive the message. And people change.)

So today, my daughter Katy and I started building a version of the Packing Box from ‘The
Joiner and Cabinet Maker.’
This was Katy’s idea. She volunteered to build a box
for her third-grade class that would hold the class’s craft supplies. And she picked
out the Packing Box as the ideal form (with hinges, a hasp and chains).

So today we trekked to my office to pick over the pine in the racks and get a good

I decided to introduce her to the machines today, including the jointer and planer.
She wasn’t going to operate them, but she was going to understand how they worked.
So we picked our wood, cut it to rough length and started milling it on the machines.
I pushed. She caught.

Immediately chips started flying in my face. The dust collector was clogged.

So we stopped what we were doing and flushed the sucker out. I took the 55-gallon
bin out to the dumpster. When I returned, Katy had swept up the entire area and deposited
things in the garbage. It was at that moment I knew this was going to be a good day.

We milled all her stock, and she would settle for nothing less than correct. She adjusted
the rip fence on the table saw to exactly 5′ (I did the ripping). When we milled the
joints for the top and bottom panel, she could spy every gap and send me back to the
jointer to fix the error.

When the panels went together, she adjusted all four boards in the glue-up. They were
as flush as a veteran cabinetmaker’s. I didn’t even have to tell her what to do. She
pushed the boards around until they were dead flush.

She pre-drilled, glued and nailed the entire carcase together by herself. I was only
there to hold the boards. She became frustrated when one of the 16 cut nails split
the end grain a bit.

‘We have to start over,’ she said.

‘No, I’ll show you how to fix it,’ I replied.

She wanted it done right. She didn’t want to cut corners. She wanted to do it herself.
I can’t teach that. After four hours of hard work (she was drifting off to sleep over
dinner), she asked: ‘Can we attach the bottom tonight?’ I told her it would be better
to wait 24 hours for the glue to cure. She replied: ‘I can clean the shop.’

I’m sorry to gloat here about my daughter, but this day was the best Christmas present
I got.
— Christopher Schwarz

(Via Lost Art Press Blog.)