I haven’t been writing much as of late. But I have used my spare time to do a little investigating into the realm of traditional French carpentry and joinery. It seems like U.S. woodworkers are very much oriented to the woodworking traditions of England, Germany and (to some extent) Sweden. But for some reason, most of us have seemed to overlook the French tradition. During our Colonial period, we opted for styles that were more straightforward than their highly decorated European counterparts and the fact that French Settlement in North America happened in Canada may have decreased the opportunity for sharing “secrets du metier” between U.S. and French practitioners. Whatever the reason, most of us have missed out on a substantial legacy of history and knowledge.
One notable exception is Roy Underhill. He has demonstrated an interest in the French tradition for many years and most of us can thank Roy for introducing us to what has become known as the Roubo workbench. It’s name derives from being featured in the work of Andre Jacob Roubo, an eighteenth century French furniture maker (Menuisier or Ebeniste) of renown.
I was somewhat surprised to find that this particular style has been the standard design for centuries in France and that it has continued in use to today. It is a strong design, without frills or unnecessary ornament – a bench with effective work-holding devices. In short, the traditional French menuisier’s bench is built for work.
While staying true to the design, the French bench can be seen in many sizes from the diminutive benches of the primary training schools in the early twentieth century to the very large benches seen in the work of French Encyclopedists, Diderot and D’Alembert.
It’s with good reason that this French style workbench has been gaining popularity in the U.S. It can built quickly, inexpensively and can be made to be very portable while providing a stable work platform. You can’t ask for much more than that.
I’m going to continue with my exploration of the French woodworking tradition. There’s a lot more there than good wine and pomme frites.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day