To Make as Perfectly as Possible – Roubo on Marquetry

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The good burghers of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky have brought another tasty woodworking feast to the table in the first English-language translation of what is probably the most important woodworking book of the 18th century:‘L’Art du Mensuisier’  (The Art of the Joiner). The first volume of this epic work has now been made available in English as “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry”.

In the Anglophone world Roubo is not as well known as contemporaries such as Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton or Duncan Phyfe but has long been recognised as a giant of the craft in France. He was the son and grandson of master cabinetmakers, earning the same distinction himself in 1774 through the publication of his epic treatise on woodworking. He was, for his time, a very rare bird in that he was a practicing woodworker whose craft was based on first-hand experience of the trade and at the same time, he was a literate artist: He shared the ideas and values of the Enlightenment and dedicated himself to writing technical treatises. Roubo was on the fringe of the guild system by virtue of his training and from the start, his connections with the circle of the learned elite were much more developed than with the world of the Parisian ‘maîtres menuisiers’. Yet Roubo considered himself to be a member of the community of woodworkers, and he addressed his treatise to his fellow workers, as if it were the masterpiece required to be received into the guild.  By training and status, he was certainly an artisan.  But at the same time, we can see him as a quasi member of the Republic of Letters, whose fame rested on his expertise in woodworking,  joinery and (in part) architecture. The multi-volume L’Art du Menuisier, published between 1769 and 1774 by the Academie des Sciences, contains sections and illustrations on: building carpentry, furniture making, and precious woodworking (ebenisterie), carriage making, and garden woodworking.

All of the three volumes of L’Art du Menuisier have been widely available in their original language for many years with the best facsimile copy being published in the mid 1970’s. Now, a hugely dedicated team of translators, writers, woodworkers, editors and artists have worked for more than six years to bring this first volume to an English audience. It has clearly been a mammoth undertaking.

Has the vast effort been worth it? For English-speaking woodworkers the answer has to be a resounding yes. Why? Because not only is its core subject covered exhaustively, this book is emphatically not about marquetry alone: “To Make as Perfectly as Possible” covers a broad range of techniques of interest to woodworkers who are interested in hand-tool woodworking and the history of our craft.

In addition to veneer and marquetry , this volume contains sections on grinding, sharpening, staining, finishing, wood selection, a German workbench (excellent!), clock-case construction, engraving and casting brasses. But it is also a window into the woodworking world of the 18th century. Let’s be honest here, the French were always more skilled at marquetry than their English and German counterparts. spend some time examining Le Bureau du Roi – something N.E.W.’s own marqueteur Yannick Chastang has intimate knowledge of and you will see that this is the case. Here, as far as possible in a book, the techniques practiced by the marqueteurs of Roubo’s time are laid out.

Despite being read in translation we have a clear sense of the voice of an individual. Roubo speaks to the reader as one equal to another. What also comes across is his frustration at the ‘standards’ employed by some of his contemporaries. Unlike many chroniclers of his time, Roubo had actually talked to his fellow tradesmen to produce his treatise. It should be understood this was no mean feat in his time as France was a country of harsh travel, political foment and disparate cultures in the 1770s.

In a welcome addition to the translated text, there are essays on the techniques Roubo discusses from lead author Donald C. Williams and commentary on all of the plates (black and white in the smaller edition, colour in the larger). These are a welcome addition as what Williams does with real authority is to bring the techniques of the late 18th century into the workshop of the early 21st.  If there is any criticism to be made it is that some of the more peripheral subject matter such as the commentary on casting techniques is a little brief. Any reader tempted to cast their own hardware (the black art…) would be well advised to read much more deeply into the subject and probably take a course in the art.

“To Make as Perfectly as Possible” is printed to high standards and two versions of the book are available from Lost Art Press. One, a hernia-inducing leather and cloth bound ‘deluxe’ edition, has been produced at  the same size as the original 12″ x 17″, hardbound. The other ‘standard’ copy is also hardback, cloth bound and 8-1/2” x 12”. Both are produced to a very high standard.  In both the plates are beautifully presented but the larger edition has the edge when it come to the many photographs which add so much to explain some of the techniques discussed.

For me the smaller volume works best. Because, in the words of Robert Wearing ,‘Its real place is propped up on the bench like a music score, and if it eventually falls to pieces there it will have achieved its purpose’. It remains, however, a beautiful book in both of its forms. More than that it is an important book and a landmark title every serious woodworker should hold as a reference.

– Paul Mayon

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