Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Roubo Redux

Patrice and Agnes Reading Roubo in French
I first met Mr. Roubo at the Getty Museum Conservation Lab around 1975 or so.  There was a French conservator there who had a copy and used it for his reference.  I was interested in it, since it was full of amazing drawings of various tools and woodworking methods I had never seen before.  As I did not speak or read French, I began asking him questions hoping he would translate.

His response was rather cold.  He seemed to think that it was only possible to understand the mysteries of Roubo by understanding both the French language of the 18th century and the specific French history of the woodworking methods shown.

I was left with a feeling of frustration, knowing that a book of knowledge about a trade I cared very much about was not accessible to me.

20 years later, when I was attending school in Paris, I would divide my spending money between veneers at Patrick George and books at the Librairie d'Ameublement, which specialized in books about woodworking and the trades.  I bought books in French, German, Italian and English, and my bags were always at the limit.  Of course, Air France back then allowed me two checked bags (30kg each) and a carry on (no weight limit!).  And they provided a great meal inflight.  Those were the days...

Anyway, each time I returned to Paris, I would rush over to the bookstore and ask what was new.  The owner remembered me and my tastes, and would direct me to exactly the books I needed.  In one section of the store was the Roubo, which was very large and very expensive.  And in French.

Each visit, I would ask the same question:  "When will it be available in English?"  Always the same answer, "Probably never, since there is no demand for it by English speaking people."

I eventually was able to acquire a wonderful full size edition (in French) which was printed in 1975.  That date is ironic, since it was the same time I first heard of Roubo.  However, I only received this edition, which included all four volumes, just last year.  My partner, Patrice, was much more helpful in translating the work, and my understanding of French has improved over the years.

Nearly 20 years after I finished my studies in Paris a team lead by Don Williams and Christopher Schwartz managed to complete the project.  Last Saturday, after I finished teaching a class in French Polishing at MASW, I got into my car and drove (at a high rate of speed) down 74 from Indianapolis to Cincinnati.  I was in a rush to get to the last hours of the Woodworking In America trade show to visit Christopher and Don, as well as many other friends and professionals in the wood industry.

I was also there to pick up my copy of Roubo in English.  For the first time in over two centuries people who don't read French can now enjoy the wonderful insight and information which Roubo captured in this important work.  Lost Art Press had printed a limited edition of large format books which sold out immediately and will not be reprinted.  However, for the rest of us, where the book may end up on the workbench as a "working" copy, Chris has printed a smaller hardcover edition.

That edition is very reasonably priced and available here:  Lost Art Press: Roubo

You cannot imagine my excitement to finally be able to read, in English, the information which had so long eluded me.  Chris and Don and the team deserve the MacArthur award for genius for their efforts.

I was also honored to be able to contribute the Preface to this historic edition, along with my friend and business partner, Patrice Lejeune.

Life is full of amazing surprises!


Renewable Community Power said...

I know the feeling - back in 2000 I purchased a copy of Chanson's Traité d'Ebénisterie despite knowing no French - at least now there's Google translate. Good thing too as everytime I look at the H.Vial website there's always something I want to buy!

W. Patrick Edwards said...

For those who haven't heard of Vial and their publications, here is the contact information:

Editions H. Vial
B.P. 87
91416 Dourdan CEDEX
Tele: 01 64 59 70 48
Fax: 01 64 59 52 96

Vial is responsible for publishing books by many of the professors at ecole Boulle, including Dr. Pierre Ramond (marquetry), Gilles Perrault (carving), Lucien Chanson (cabinetmaking), Claude Ossut (upholstery), and one of my favorites, "Anatomie du meuble" by Rene Maubert. This last one is mostly drawings of furniture and exploded views of traditional construction methods, so you don't need to understand the French to appreciate it.

There are also books on Straw Marquetry, Sharkskin, Tortoiseshell, Lutherie, Marble, Bronzes, Locks, etc.

In fact, Vial translated and published a wonderful book on Japanese tools by our own Toshio Odate!

I encourage those of you who appreciate the arts to support Vial and buy their books.