The Menuisier’s Workbench

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.

roubo bench

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.

The schoolboy's "Roubo"

The schoolboy’s “Roubo”

A menuisiere from Diderot and D'Alembert

A menuisiere from 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

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2 Comments on “The Menuisier’s Workbench”

  1. Royce Eaves Says:

    I am a new woodworking hobbyist, but I am over 60. I have made a frame saw and noticed in the last Roubo sketch that there are two techniques of frame saw use. One is the two-person technique where each can keep an eye on how the saw in drifting. The other is the one-person technique where the sawyer is at the workbench keeping a close eye on how straight the blade is aligned while sawing with a holdfast on the work piece. I have found through trial and error that the bench-one person technique is the best way to keep the frame saw from drifting off course. Back in Roubo’s day, I guess they knew that though.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      I’m continually amazed at the level of expertise in shops like Roubo’s. At best, they might have had equipment driven by a water wheel. But most work was done by hand. Modern woodworkers would be hard pressed to match the skill level (and trade knowledge) of the 17th and 18th century woodworkers. That’s why, I believe, it’s important to keep some of the old practices alive. Enjoy your new found avocation. But bear in mind that it can become all consuming. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


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