Monday, 7 May 2012

Moxon, Roubo and Schwarz...

Benches and vices are all the rage today. Who would have thought that one man, Christopher Schwarz, could have such an impact on the sawdust producers of the world? It is astonishing, and more power to him. Sadly, it is quite possible that history might not give Chris the credit he deserves.

When historians, two hundred years from now, take a look back at the history of the cabinetmaker’s bench, they will see a proliferation of styles and unique designs dating back to the 17th century. They won’t find a standard design until they move forward 400-years or so, and then wham – no more individuality. What they will find by the time their research brings them to the early 21st century is that one man’s design becomes king. Cabinetmakers throughout the world, amateur and professional alike, suddenly started to build workbenches very similar to a design conceived by an 18th century, French cabinetmaker and book publisher, AndrĂ©-Jacob Roubo. It will be a shocking discovery.

Their research will also discover that just about every Roubo bench built in the 21st century will have a common accessory; a detachable, twin screw device known at that time as a “Moxon Bench Vice”. Again, they might miss Chris’ involvement in making this fixture such a popular shop accessory, and instead, give the credit to its original promoter, the 17th century book printer, mathematician and publisher, Joseph Moxon.

Returning to the present, we have to take a look at these two mechanical geniuses that we try to emulate.

The oldest is Joseph Moxon, the son of a printer who was born in 1627. This guy probably never picked up a chisel or plane in his entire life. He had three interests; printing, mathematics and religion. He is, however, credited with printing the first English language book on cabinetmaking, “Mechanic’s Exercises”, publish 6-years after his death in 1691. For this, the sawdust makers of the 21st century will forever hold him dear. Without Moxon, those that reverted back to the tools of yore would have had to start all over again, forced to use their own ingenuity to figure out the best way to use these difficult and confusing devices. Huzzah, huzzah, Joseph Moxon.

Following in Moxon’s footsteps was Roubo, an author who actually used the tools he wrote about. He was the third generation in his family to become a carpenter. Building was in his blood, it would appear, as he took his carpentry skills further by studying architecture and cabinetmaking. His most noted work today, however, is not the architectural splendors of France’s past, as all that he was involved with are long gone. Moxon’s claim to fame is a simple book he wrote called “The Carpenter’s Art”, which he had published in 1769.

Through Chris Schwarz and his own publishing company, Lost Art Press, Moxon and Roubo have been reborn. Here is a reality that I doubt even Chris realizes; Chris’ commercial endeavors with these two publications has resulted in more people having read these two works over the past five years than both Moxon and Roubo combined could ever dream of reaching in their lifetime.

Thankfully, original copies of these two works exist, but I have to ask the question, why the hell were they written in the first place?

In 17th century England, literacy was tied, no – welded, to wealth. During this century, it is estimated that London’s literacy rate was 70 to 80% while in the rest of the county, only 20% could read, and far less than that could write. This is easy to understand as London was England’s centre for the gentry; those with the means to send their children to school, and if they didn’t have the cash, the assets to borrow against to pay the tuition fees.

Given that Moxon wrote a book on a trade, you have to wonder who the hell would read it? Somehow I don’t think the gentry were interested in frame saws and the like, and they were the only ones who could read. It wasn’t like a kid from a poor family could go off to the library and pick out a book on his chosen career, because there wasn’t any. While invoices written by carpenters and cabinetmakers exist from that time, they are few and far between. The gentry chose their tradesmen by their ability to perform, both in their trade, as well as in their communication skills. It was a class society beyond class societies, and moneybags didn’t deal with commoners, so to win their business, a cabinetmaker had to fall within the gray area between gentry and commoner, a very small group indeed. The average village carpenter or cabinetmaker could neither read nor write, and didn’t miss it throughout their lifetimes.

France, in the 18th century, wasn’t much better than England in the 17th. Their class society was slower to decipitate, so illiteracy, while no more or less than it was in England, stayed constant for longer and was more difficult to overcome. This meant that Roubo had the same problem finding an audience for his book in France that Moxon faced in England. Great books, but who the hell could read them, let alone wanted to?

So here we are, three to four hundred years later, religiously following two geniuses that wrote books for audiences that probably didn't exist at the time. Go figure.

…and no, this isn’t a trashing of Moxon, Roubo or Schwarz. It is just an observation of mine developed from my own followings of Christopher Schwarz and my own interest in the history of England. I, like the vast majority of you, am in the midst of creating…

This is my interpretation of a Moxon Bench Vice. I made it from two honking slabs of hard maple, each 1¾” thick and two walnut screws. I got a great deal on these two screws from Evans Toolworks on eBay. Matthew was a lot of help to me, accommodating as all hell and a real pro to work with. We have a little something in the works right now that you might find interesting which I’ll post about when it gets done and, of course, if it actually works. I do know that he will be the supplier of the multiple screws I will need for the short-leg and tail vices I plan to build in the near future.

I built this to use while building my new bench/tool cabinet, so it is sized to accommodate panels up to 28” wide. As I think having a steel clamp-head sticking up higher than the top level of the vice is crazy, I cutout the tops of the rear panel’s ends so the clamps can be brought down lower. I have the handles to deal with, along with a couple of braces for the stabilizer that is attached to the bottom of the rear panel, another hunk of maple, this one 1” x 5”. I plan to use these braces to not only strengthen that right-angled joint, but to enlarge the surface area for the heads of the clamps that hold it to the bench. I’ll do a proper post about it all when I get it finished.




  1. The woodworking portion of Mechanic Exercises was originally published in 1678.

    The first section on Blacksmithing sold out (500 copies). The section on woodworking didn't but that might have more to do with the general turmoil in England at the time than basic demand. The customers were educated gentry such as Samual Pepys - see my blog entry on the subject:

    Moxon BTW probably did a little woodworking on the side because he made his own type, and I think built his own presses.

  2. On the so called 'Roubo book stand' this is really an old Islamic Quran book stand. I read an discussion on the web that Bugatti also had such a drawing in his book and who copied from whom. Elsewhere it is mentioned that the origin of the design was immaterial to the woodworking design therefore the translator decided not to write about it. Perhaps he felt bringing in the Qur'an would upset American sensibility.*&deptids=14&what=Furniture&pos=50

    Dated 1360AD

    Some more old examples of the book stand.

    I think it was sloppy of Underhill to attribute it to Roubo(though he did say it was not invented by him). Writing about it in a book should not be a reason that an object is attributed to a person.

    This is a common article which most Muslims will receive at least once in his lifetime as a gift. From South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, most of Africa, and many countries in Far East are familiar with this kind of book stand. It can be safely said that 2 billion plus people will know it as a Qur'an/religious book stand.

    These are still made by hand mostly. Available even in US every major city has an Islamic books store which will have one. Else you can find online in US based Islamic book stores or even on ebay and Amazon.