Roubo Joinery Bowsaw Prototype – Frame

With the stirrup system finalized for anchoring the saw plate it was time to move on to the frame.  Armed with some extra-dense 5/4 white oak I dove in.   I wanted to make sure the frame was both simple in construction and beefy enough to withstand the stresses of tensioning such a robust plate.

The overall structure couldn’t be much simpler — two vertical arms connected by a crossbar that was inserted as an unpinned mortise-and-tenon into the arms.  Once I had the dimensions and proportions where I wanted them I used my mortiser to cut the pockets in the arms and sawed the tenons on the crossbar.


Then I moved on to the housings for the stirrups.  It was a simple matter of laying them out against the base of the arm, removing the material so that the stirrup fit neatly, then sawing a slot for the plate to go through.

With the arms and crossbar cut to length and fitted together, and the stirrup housing made, I sawed the curved shape of the arms on the bandsaw.

I assembled everything together just to make sure the parts all worked together before moving on.  I really was pleased with the manner in which it all fit together.  It seemed a little beefy, but I had not put it to work yet.  Besides, it is considerably easier to make elements smaller ex poste than to make them larger.  It made me recall on of my Dad’s favorite quips in the shop, “I just don’t understand this.  I’ve cut it twice and it is still too short.”

With rasps and spokeshaves I shaped the arms to be more congenial to being hand held.  Once it was far enough along to give it a test drive I assembled it completely and strung the top with multiple strands of linen cord for tensioning, found scrap stick (a practice spindle from the writing desk) to act as the windlass paddle, and it was ready for the race track.  I’d added a small vanity flourish at the top of the arm so I just knew it would saw like a banshee.  I cranked up the tension until the plate twanged like one of Stevie Ray’s guitar strings (before he broke it) and lit into a scrap of wood.


And it did saw like a banshee.  Made from concrete.  It was so heavy I actually grunted when picking it up to use the first time.  Somehow I had to hog off a gob of mass or otherwise it was a two-handed-only tool, and I wanted something that could be used with one hand.

Roubo Joinery Bowsaw Prototype – Plate Anchors

Before I got too deep into making the “bow” of the bowsaw I realized I needed to work out the details of how exactly the saw plate was to be anchored to the bow frame.  Given the robustness of the saw plate from Bad Axe and the illustrations and commentary from Roubo I knew this was not a casual thing.  The amount of tension required to make the saw plate perform well was considerable given the dimensions of the plate, so the anchors for the plate had to be able to withstand the force requisite for making it function well.  And, given the likelihood that any user of such a saw as this might well want to swap out the plate from one utility to another, taking advantage of varying plates that could be available.  So, the fitting of the plate to the frame needed to be not only exceedingly stout but also easily reversed or swapped-out.

The clue to the preferred manner of fixing the plate within the bow frame was pretty clearly described by Roubo in his commentary to Plate 12.  While the simplest method would be to simply drive a pin through the foot of the bow frame and the end of the plate, there was and is a better way.  And he tells us how to do it.

There is still another way to attach the blade in the saw, which is to use stirrups, which are pieces of sheet or flat iron that you fold into the form of a “t”, and that you attach to the two ends [of the blade into the stirrup] with a single nail the same way as above. These are then inserted into grooves in each of the arms, which you take care to fasten tight enough to hold them. This method is very good because the stirrups holding the arms from their back sides make full use of the arms’ strength, without which they might split, and you only use one nail to hold the blade at each end because if there were two it would prevent even blade tension, figures 11 & 12.

I took this information/description and started running with a couple of changes.  First, the folding of bar stock into the “T” was not possible with the material I had on hand, although it might be fine with lighter steel flat stock like 1/32″ or 1/16″.  I didn’t have that (nor did the local fabrication shop) and I was too impatient to wait for some to be shipped to me.  Second, the plates supplied by Bad Axe have two bolt holes, which I believe are necessary to house fittings strong enough to tension the plate.  Still, I really liked the concept of a “T” shaped stirrup to affix the plate in the frame.

So instead of folding thin flat stock for this purpose (although I am certainly likely to try it in the future with either thin soft steel flat stock or brass, although I like the solution I came up with for other reasons) I sawed some 1/8″ x 1″ x 1″ angle stock I had on hand.  I cut the length such that the body of the plate would be fully housed but the teeth were exposed and unfettered.

Then I cut off most of one side of the angle stock to reduce the arm of the stock from 1″ to 1/2″ so that when two pieces of the cut angle stock were placed together the configuration would be a “T”.  I used the finished plate itself to provide the layout holes into the stirrup “T” plates.  One half of each pair of the plates was drilled and tapped, the other was drilled and countersunk to fit machine bolts I had in my hardware stash.

Placing the two halves of the “T” stirrup over the pair of bolt holes in the plates, and screwing in the machine bolts, the task of mounting the plate to a stirrup was finished and it was time to move on to the bow frame (this picture is a bit out of sequence and was intended for another purpose but you get the idea).

Roubo Joinery Bowsaw Prototype


One of the many peculiarities of mid-18th Century Parisian workshops and their accouterments as documented by Roubo revolves around the absence of backsaws and panel saws in the tool kit.   These were bow saw and frame saw folks, and they used bow saws for any number of functions at the bench including stock prep and dimensioning to delicate dovetail work.  As for the panel saw, it was only mentioned in one brief sentence and then only in the context of building carpentry.  For whatever reason the French furniture and joinery shops were committed to open frame saws, whether bow saws or sash saws, as their workhorse tools.

Subsequent to my visit to Bad Axe Tools in November and the conversation it sparked about saws in mid-18th Century Parisian workshops, both Mark Harrell and I were noodling the concept of interpreting those saws for contemporary craftsmen.  I think we arrived at the same point more-or-less simultaneously, and I suggested the need for exploring bow saw prototypes based on the saw plate for the Bad Axe one-man Roubo-esque frame saws.  Mark bit and expressed immediate support.  By “support” I mean that he would provide me with some saw plates for me to try out the concept, and would fabricate custom specified plates for me to experiment with.

***A note about such a collaboration: I gladly share my knowledge and curiosities with anyone interested in pursuing the same paths I am on.  I’ve made available all the observations, opinions, and documentation I have, including detailed photographs of my own vintage saws, to anyone who asked.  In that regard I am not showing any preference for Bad Axe, they were simply the folks who asked me to engage in this exploration.***

Since I already had a Bad Axe frame saw and thus the dimensions of their standard saw plate I was able to begin fabricating a bow saw as close to Roubo’s as possible, or at least as close as I could guess.  I grabbed the saw plate, some of the ultra dense 5/4 white oak from my stash (left over from making the Studley bench top replica for the exhibit), and got to work.

The results were instructive.

Gluing Curved Panels With Roubo’s Coopering Cradles

When constructing a bowed or undulating panal or structure, one of the challenges is to decide the manner of achieving the shape.  Commonly there are main four methods employed: sculpting/carving from solid slabs, a la bombe’ chests; glued laminations (home made curved plywood); contour- sawn layers or segments glued together in a stack, sometimes called “brickwork”; or coopering, which involves the assembling of long sticks or boards that are isosceles trapezoids in cross-section (“staves”) with the legs of the trapezoid angled such that the assemblage follows a desired curve.

If you consider the forms of furniture common in Roubo’s time, it is clear that there was a need to produce large numbers of curved panels reliably and quickly.  This calls for coopering.  And, for each individual curvature/radius a unique set-up was required.  Roubo presents two distinct solutions to the problem.   The first, marked “a” in his drawing, shows a pincer/bar clamp and a group of spacer shims to align the individual staves to assure the proper configuration while the glue sets.  This approach strikes me as very finicky, and thus time consuming, to achieve standardized results.

Roubo’s preference was stated unequivocally in his commentary on Plate 102.

Before speaking of gluing curved wood, it is good to enter into the details of gluing those pieces which, although straight along their length, are only curved on their width, like panels that are curved in plane, columns, etc.

For curved panels [in plane], they hardly differ from straight ones. As to the manner of joining them and gluing them, it is only a matter of using a clamp to bring together the joints because when these same panels are a bit curved, the clamps always make them a bit more or less curved than is necessary. You remedy this by putting cauls between the panel and the clamps [bar], which is always placed at the side of the bulge, as you can see in figure 5, side a. No matter what precautions you take, the cauls that you are required to tighten or loosen twist the joints and prevent the glue from working properly. Even when the panels are thin, the clamps bend them and even break them. That is why it is much better to make cradles that you [cut] hollow in the same shape as the panel, which you join and hold in the cradle by means of a wedge, see figure 5, side b.

There must always be at least two of these cradles for gluing a panel and even three for one a bit larger. One should also observe that the angle of the hook “holding the wedges” of these cradles be a bit sharp [acute] so that the panel cannot shift when closing it, see figure 6.

I do not know how to conceal the fact that this method takes much longer and consequently is more costly than the first one because it is necessary to make as many cradles as one has of panels of different curves. These considerations should diminish the advantages that result from using these cradles. These same cradles also serve to fasten [peg] the curved work, which is always better than the clamps, which distort the joints and sometimes break curved crosspieces.


The second approach, marked “b” in the top drawing and important enough to make another detail drawing to communicate the essence of it, makes more sense to me.  In fact I have used this approach countless times beginning back in the pattern shop where we produced dozens/hundreds(?) of core boxes for creating cores for casting pipes.  Although our patterns were permanently assembled, the process is conceptually identical to using a coopering cradle.

The general process is pretty fool proof.  First, lay out the curve with a compass or trammel on a pair (or more) of wooden timbers.  Cut out the concave form.  Since these would be used for gluing it is almost certainly true that these would be slathered with wax or tallow to prevent the curved panel from being glued to the form as it is being built.

Saw as many staves as are needed for the panel being built.  On the edges of the staves plane or saw a slight chamfer so that the staves fit nicely into the curved form, with intimate gluing surfaces aligning between each stave.  This angle can be determined during the layout of the panel, and transferred with a bevel gauge.

Place the beveled staves into the form to confirm the fit.  Make sure the forms are square to each other.

Fill any extra space with loose boards, and pinch the curved panel staves together with individual or compound wedges.    If there is glue between the coopered staves, once that dries the task is finished and after knocking out the wedges the curved panel can be removed to work further.



Jumping in The Deep End

Acknowledging three truths, namely that 1) folks have been generally resistant to coming to The Barn for workshops (I cancelled three workshops last summer due to lack of interest but am more optimistic for this year), 2) I think I have something to offer to an interested audience based on my 45 years of experience in woodworking and furniture preservation, and 3) I am comfortable and can work very efficiently when making presentations/demonstrations without a lot of wasted time.  Given these three things I’ve decided to jump into the deep end of a pool already crowded with other swimmers.

I’ve made a great many videos before with Popular Woodworking, Lost Art Press, C-SPAN, cable networks, and dozens of live interviews and such for broadcast television.  I am fairly familiar with the process and recently have begun what I hope is a long-term collaboration with Chris Swecker, a gifted young videographer who has returned to the Virginia Highlands after college and some time served as a commercial videographer out in Realville, to create a number of videos ranging from 30-45 minutes to several hours.  Obviously the longer videos can and probably will be cut into episodes.

In concert with this endeavor has been the ongoing rebuilding of the web site architecture to handle the demands of streaming video (and finally get The Store functional).  I believe webmeister Tim is in the home stretch to get that completed.

Beginning last autumn I turned the fourth floor of the barn into a big (mostly) empty room suitable for use as a filming studio.  It is cleaned up, cleaned out, and painted with some new wiring to accommodate the needs but I have no desire to make it appear anything other than what it is, the attic of a late 19th century timber frame dairy barn.  It is plenty big enough for almost anything I want to do.

The only shortcoming is that the space is completely unheated and generally un-heatable, limiting somewhat our access to it.  This issue came into play very much in our initial effort as our competing and complex calendars pushed the sessions back from early November into early December and the weather turned very cold during the scheduled filming.  We had been hoping for temperatures in the mid-40s, which would have been just fine especially if the sun was warming the roof above us and that heat could radiate down toward us.   It turned out to be cloudy and almost twenty degrees colder once the day arrived and we set up and got to work.  We had to do our best to disguise the fog coming out of my mouth with every breath and I had to warm my hands frequently on a kerosene heater just to make sure they worked well so we could make the video.  Yup, this will be a three-season working space for sure.

The first topic I am addressing via video is complex veneer repair.  Based on my experience and observations this is a problem that flummoxes many, if not most, practitioners of the restoration arts.  It was a challenge to demonstrate the techniques I use (many of which I developed or improved) in that this requires fairly exacting hand dexterity and use of hot hide glue, and the temperatures were in the 20s when were were shooting.   It was brisk and oh so glamorous.

The electrons are all in the can and Chris is wrapping up the editing and post-production, so I am hoping to review the rough product in the next fortnight or so.

Paying for this undertaking remains a mystery and leap of faith.  I will probably make this first video viewable for free with a “Donate” button nearby, but am still wrestling with the means to make this at least a break-even proposition.  I do not necessarily need to derive substantial income from the undertaking  (that would be great, however) but I cannot move forward at the pace I would like (5-10 videos a year) with it being a revenue-negative “hobby” either.  I want to produce a first-class professional product, and that requires someone beside me to make it happen, and that someone has to be paid.  As much as I am captivated by Maki Fushimori’s (probably) I-pad videos – I can and have watched them for hours at a time, learning immensely as I do – this is a different dynamic.

I continue to wrestle with the avenues for monetizing this just enough to pay for Chris’ time and expertise.  I’ve thought about “subscriptions” to the video series but have set that aside as I have no interest in fielding daily emails from subscribers wanting to know where today’s video is.  Based on my conversations with those in that particular lion’s den, subscription video is a beast that cannot be sated without working 80-100 hours a week.  Maybe not even then.

Modestly priced pay-per-view downloads is another option that works for some viewers who are mature enough to comprehend the fact that nothing is free.  For other viewers who have come to expect free stuff it does not work so well.  I am ball-parking each complete “full-length”video at $10-ish, with individual segments within a completed video a $1.  Just spitballing here, folks.

A third option is underwriting/advertising, but I find this unappealing as a consumer and thus unappealing as a provider.  I have no quarrel with companies and providers who follow this path but it is not one I want for myself.

Finally there is always the direct sales  of physical DVDs, which remains a viable consideration.

If none of these strategies work for me I will make videos only as often as I can scrape together enough money to pay for Chris.

At this point I have about 25 videos in mind, ranging from 30 minutes to several hours long.  Our next one will require some “location” filming as I harvest some lumber up on the mountain.

Here is a potential list of topics for videos.

Making a Gragg Chair – this will no doubt be a series of several 30-45 minute episodes in the completed video as the project will take several months to complete, beginning with the harvesting of timber up on the mountain and ending with my dear friend Daniela demonstrating the creation of the gold and paint peacock feather on the center splat.

Roubo’s Workshop – L’art du Menuisier is in great part a treatise on guiding the craftsman toward creating beauty, beginning with the shop and accouterments to make it happen.  I envision at least three or four threads to this undertaking, each of them with the potential of up to a dozen ~30(?) minute videos: the shop itself and its tools; individual parquetry treatments; running friezes, etc.

Making a Ripple Molding Cutter – A growing passion of mine is the creation of ripple moldings a la 17th century Netherlandish picture frames, and building the machine to make them.  This topic is garnering a fair bit of interest everywhere I go and speak.  I want this video (probably about two or three hours) to be compete and detailed enough in its content to allow you to literally follow along and build your own.

Building an Early 1800s Writing Desk – One of the most noteworthy pieces of public furniture is the last “original” c.1819 desk on the floor of the US Senate (home to a great many sanctimonious nitwits and unconvicted felons).  All the remaining desks of this vintage have been extensively modified.  This video will walk you through a step-by-step process of making one of these mahogany beauties using primarily period appropriate technology based on publicly available images and descriptions.

Oriental Lacquerwork (Without the Poison Sumac) – To me the absolute pinnacle of the finisher’s art is Oriental lacquerwork.  It is created, unfortunately for me, from the refined polymer that makes poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, well, poison.  Driven by my love for the art form I am creating alternative materials employed in nearly identical work techniques.  Tune in to see a step-by-step demonstration what can be done.

Boullework with Mastic Tordonshell – Very early in my career I loved to carve and gild, but that passion was re-directed more than thirty years ago to the techniques of Andre-Charles Boulle and his magnificent tarsia a encastro marquetry with tortoiseshell, brass, and pewter.  Once I had invented a persuasive substitute for the now-forbidden tortoiseshell, a process demonstrated in exacting detail in the video, the sky was the limit.

Metalcasting/working for the Woodworker – This is the video topic I am most “iffy” about as many/most folks will be trepidatious of working with white-hot molten metal.  But I just might give it a try to show creating furniture hardware and tool-making.  It’s possible/probable I might make this  a series of specific projects to make the topic more consumable.

Ten Exercises for Developing Skills in Traditional Furniture Making – Based on my banquet presentation at the 2017 Colonial Williamsburg Working Wood in the 18th Century conference this series of very approachable tasks for the shop will de-mystify a lot of historic furniture making for the novice in a very non-intimidating manner.

The Compleat Polissoir – starting at the point where Creating Historic Furniture Finishes left off this would be an in-depth exploration of the ancient finisher’s tool kit and will be expanded over the Popular Woodworking video (about which I am still very pleased) with a boatload of information gleaned from my in-the-home-stretch Period Finisher’s Manual for Lost Art Press.

I’m sure there will be more ideas popping into my fertile brain, or maybe that’s fertilizer brain.

As always, you can contact me with ideas here and once we get the new web site architecture in place, through the “Comments” feature that was disabled a lifetime ago to deal with the thousands of Russian and Chinese web bots offering to enhance my body or my wardrobe.

Stay tuned.

2018 Barn Workshops Reminder

The complete 2018 Barn workshop schedule, which I will post every couple of weeks to help folks remember the schedule.


Historic Finishing  April 26-28, $375

Making A Petite Dovetail Saw June 8-10, $400

Boullework Marquetry  July 13-15, $375

Knotwork Banding Inlay  August 10-12, $375

Build A Classic Workbench  September 3-7, $950

contact me here if you are interested in any of these workshops.

WW18thC 2018 – Rediscovering Roubo

The first of my two WW18thC presentations was “Roubo Rediscovered – Merging 1760s Paris with the 21st Century” in which I recounted the nuggets gleaned from The Roubo Translation Project and how I have incorporated them into my current work practices.  Not too surprisingly this is a topic on which I could speak and demonstrate literally for days, but I packed as much as I could in 90 minutes.

I began as almost always within this framework by giving my benches-and-holdfast sermon,

followed by demonstrations of Roubo’s veneer sawing bench with some audience participation,


the coopering cradle, a vital clamping component in the world of serpentine and bombe’ furniture,

panel clamping jigs,

mobile bench-top press, this one made by Oldwolf (can you say Moxon vise?),

and finally ripple molding cutter my friend and collaborator JohnH.

Each of these items will be addressed individually in coming blog posts.  The overal; topic of Roubo’s Workshop is a huge one and I am outlining an extensive video series to explore it in depth (more about that later this week).

My thanks to JohnR for pictures of this presentation.  I would have taken them myself but I was busy at the time.

Barn Workshop – Build A Classic Workbench

And speaking of workbenches, you’ll have the opportunity to work with me at The Barn building your own version of either a basic Roubo or Nicholson bench in Southern Yellow Pine.  Thanks to my adapting David Barron’s innovative system for building laminated Roubo benches, and the elegant simplicity of the Nicholson bench, you can arrive empty handed (except for your tools) on Monday and depart at the end of the week with a bench fully ready to go.  The only likely hindrance to this outcome is if you spend too much time simply looking at the mountain vista on the horizon.

The finished bench does not include holdfasts or vise mechanisms; if you want those you can supply your own or I can order them for you separately.  And if you prefer a 5-1/2″ slab for the Roubo bench rather than the 3-3/4″ slab, there will be an additional $100 materials fee.


The complete 2018 Barn workshop schedule:

Historic Finishing  April 26-28, $375

Making A Petite Dovetail Saw June 8-10, $400

Boullework Marquetry  July 13-15, $375

Knotwork Banding Inlay  August 10-12, $375

Build A Classic Workbench  September 3-7, $950

contact me here if you are interested in any of these workshops.

Building Bench #18 – III

With the bench “assembled” I turned it over halfway and rough trimmed the bottoms of the legs. Even though I was handling it by myself, wrestling with a 350-pound behemoth is fairly straightforward if I am careful and make sure I am actually handling half or less of the total weight, which is the case if I am rolling or spinning it.  With the legs cut to rough length I rolled it the rest of the way over so I could work on flattening the top for a couple of hours.

With the bench on its feet, but on a rolling cart so I could move it easily,  I set about to installing the planing stop I had already glued up.  I planed it such that the fit was very tight, counting on a few humidity cycles to induce ccompression fit on both the stop and the mortise in which it resides in the hopes of establishing a nice firm fit in the end.  I’d wanted to put a full width (of the block) toothed tip on the stop but I did not have the piece of scrap steel in the drawer that could suffice so I just used what I had.  I filed the teeth, drilled and countersunk the holes for some honkin’ big screws and assembled the stop.  I also excavated the top of the bench so the entire assembly is flush.

photo courtesy of J. Rowe

photo courtesy of J. Hurn

With that I cut and affixed temporary(?) stretchers to the legs to support the shelf, Kreg screw style (without the Kreg jig), which on a decently built Roubo or Nicholson bench is the only functional purpose for stretchers.  If mortised stretchers are needed to stabilize the bench structure, it wasn’t built well enough.  Using scraps from the pile I cut and laid the shelf boards and attached the vise and for now, it was done.  Come summer I will flatten the top again and call it quits.  As it was the bench served my needs perfectly in Williamsburg to give me both a perfectly functioning work station and a focus for my sermon on workbenches and holdfasts,

Building Bench #18 – II

While the glue for the laminated slab was setting I turned my attention to the legs and their integral tenons.  As in previous efforts the three laminae of the leg are glued up with the center lamina off-set from the outer two by a distance equal to the thickness of the slab plus a smidge, using decking screws and fender washers as the clamping mechanism.  These are removed after they have done their duty.

If I did my layout and glue-up of the top slab correctly, and cut the dovetail pins accurately on the tops of the legs,  the double tenons are a perfect fit for the mortises already created in the top slab so all that is needed to put them together is a gentle tap to drive them home.  Since the bottoms of the legs need to be trimmed to matching lengths ex poste the protruding excess is no bother to me.

Before I do that, however, I de-clamp the slab after letting it sit overnight and spend an hour or so getting the underside flat enough to seat the legs evenly.  I do not care about the underside being smooth, merely flat.  A sharp scrub plane and fore plane make short work of it, as I said it was a little over an hour to get it to an acceptable point.

For this bench I did something I had not done before and remain unsure as to whether I would do it again.  Since I was installing a vintage screw and nut from my stash I decided to inset the nut into the back side of the front left leg, where the leg vise would be installed since I am right handed (if you are left handed it goes at the other end).  Doing this was no particular bother but I am unconvinced of its efficacy or necessity.  I also cut the through-mortise on the lower leg for the pin bar of the movable chop/jaw.

Before long I was assembling the bench and as you can see the space was ridiculously tight with not only this bench but two ripple molding machines being tuned up for the conference.  Since this is the only heated working space I have, everything that needed to be worked on for WW18thC was there.  It got to be pretty chaotic for a while.  I am not particularly tidy as a workman and that shortcoming becomes really evident at times like this.

At this point the bench was assembled and I was at the 12-hour mark for the project.