Friday, September 23, 2011

Stop Trying To Improve

The 18th century was a magical time. One gets the impression that although everything was mostly accomplished without the use of post-industrial-revolution machines, people still cranked out work at an impressive rate. Engravings from Roubo show vast lumber yards with great stacks of sawn timber, large workshops where men are making furniture at a steady pace.

Yes, the world was a small place then, but this work was common enough that Roubo and Diderot (both Frenchmen) set out to compose gargantuan volumes lavishly illustrated on broad subjects, not just woodworking related.

If you follow the Lost Art Press blog you know that the publishing house is translating Roubo. We are big supporters of this immense project. For us, Roubo's work is the pinnacle of woodworking texts. It may never be surpassed for its richness, detail, presentation and content. In our opinion, the techniques and tools in Roubo have not been improved on.

Modern machinery has drastically changed the way wood is taken from tree to board. The grunt work provided by these machines is an advancement in our opinion. But technique and joinery has decidedly gone the opposite direction. As woodworkers we've become trained by the modern world to accept so-called improved joinery techniques. Trees haven't changed. So why should joinery? The modern toolmakers would have you build chairs with biscuits and pocket screws, or dowels. These are factory methods designed for hobbyists. Are you interested in making real furniture, or recreating the Sauder factory in your garage? As Roy Underhill says, "stop trying to improve the 18th century".

To get inspired by these more enlightened times, where people's motivations had not yet centered entirely on the superficial and materialistic (and while LAP's Roubo translation is in the works), we like to browse through the pages of Diderot's Encyclopedia. And lots of it is available online.

The University of Michigan Library is in the process of translating Diderot's Encyclopedia. It's a huge task, maybe even larger than Roubo since it covers so many fields. You can access the webpage for the translation project here: 

The Library has translated many of the plate captions and some text.

The Library is using the Diderot texts provided by the University of Chicago's ARTFL Encyclopèdie Project which catalogs the Encyclopedia in digital form, available for free online here:

Browsing the Encyclopedia at the ARTFL website is a bit more user friendly than the Library's interface. Use the search page to get going. It helps to know some of the French terms you're interested in.

Here are a couple to get you started. I accessed these through "Browse Plates Alphabetically"

This is the section on marquetry, which also covers the special tools used therein.

This section covers the work of what nowadays we'd call a trim carpenter.

If you have Google Translate installed on your Google bar, a single click will translate the entire page, albeit roughly.


  1. "Stop Trying To Improve"

    Let's be clear here, Jameel. You're talking about Facebook, aren't you?

  2. Jameel, it's actually quite similar in metal working, the techniques and tools for a hobby metal shop are not really changed for 100 years or so.


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