Chris Schwarz's Blog

Roy Underhill on the Bookstand

Perhaps the bookstand article called for more matter and less art. My director once joked about my PBS efforts as being a “woodworking show – and less!” And it’s true – I tend to overbalance the “what and how” with a lot of “who and why.”

In this case, I began the Roubo bookstand article with a lot more step-by-step, but as I progressed, I found myself asking “Who am I to rewrite Roubo? Who am I to stand between his instructions and the reader?” The more I wrote, the more concerned I became that I would be stealing the reader’s fun if I did much more than provide a clear translation of Roubo’s words. If he thought his words and drawings were enough, then who am I to say the modern reader needs more?

Of course, if I did not have what I thought was a good story to tell, you can be sure the entire article would have been a how-to in great detail! The coincidence of the bookstand being in the famous painting of what was perhaps Roubo’s last working day seemed a worthy hook for a brief biography. I knew it was a risk, and without the bold support of Chris and Megan, I would never have tried it. True, it’s not something you would usually expect in a how-to magazine, but thank goodness for that!

I hope you’ll have fun making the bookstand – and that you’ll find some extra enjoyment in retelling the story that goes with it!

— Roy Underhill

28 thoughts on “Roy Underhill on the Bookstand

  1. mvflaim

    I remember Roy making the book stand on his show about fifteen years ago. I decided to finally give it a shot after seeing what the fuss was all about. After making the book stand today I can honestly say that it looks much tougher than it really is. As long as you can cut a mortise with a 45 degree side and rip a piece of wood in half, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.

    Give it a shot, you might be surprised how easy it is.

  2. John Sisler

    Loved the article.Who and why ARE important. I enjoyed figuring out the process. For those who are wondering about Roubo calling to make two at once and how to cut it-Go back in the Popular Woodworking archives and find the video of Frank Klausz cutting dovetails in some unbelievable short time- like six nano-seconds or something. He has a saw blade for his bowsaw made in Europe that cuts corners-not shortcuts,but actual corners. Using this old-time technology would make the cut splitting the two bookstands just another cut.
    Underhill translates archaic French? This is the most impressive thing I’ve ever read about him- and I’ve been impressed with his skills for many years. I myself have been studying French for forty-five years and I’m still afraid to order in a French restaurant for fear of getting a stewed boot. My hat is definitely off to St. Roy. Maybe that should be Le Roi.

    John

  3. Jon

    I also enjoyed the article. If some readers thought there should be more step-by-step instruction, there are 3 or 4 other woodworking magazines out there that cater to that. Someone else above made a great point – what’s wrong with being forced to think a little now and again?

    I’d like to see a roubo topic translated every issue – if soemone like Roy Underhill is to include a background story, all the better.

    Do not change or stop stuff like this – PW can cover all levels of woodworking and not drop to solely beginner level like another magazine made the mistake of doing a few years ago.

  4. Eric Sandvik

    I’ll just pile on and say well done and add that your episode talking about the philosophy of woodworking is my favorite one.

  5. John Preber

    It is for articles like this that I buy the magazine. There is always time for a well written article. It gives us a sense of connection with our forebearers.

  6. James Ryan

    Hello – Yanted to say thank you and well done.
    There seems to be a lot of noise about this article – i for one enjoyed it, Thank you for making me think about what i was doing and not how i was doing it.
    Ryan

  7. Bob Rozaieski

    Agreed! I enjoyed the article just the way it was written. Step-by-step how-tos are nice for the ICDT column, but they don’t make you a better woodworker. Much of woodworking is about problem solving and using one’s brain. If I wanted to simply follow a step-by-step recipe, I think perhaps baking would be a better hobby. Monsieur Roubo gave enough detail about how to build the bookstand without solving all of the problems for us. A true master passing along valuable lessons to his apprentices ;)!

  8. Bill

    To make two out of one board, you’ve got to chisel away basically a dado across the board, wide enough to get a frame saw (or bandsaw) blade in there, then essentially resaw the board for the length needed.

    I’m fortunate enough to have seen Roy demonstrate making one of these live, in person, so maybe I’m not the best objective judge, but I liked the article and thought it was fine. Yes, it required a little thought, but what’s woodworking without some head-scratching and ciphering?

  9. Mark Singleton

    A big thank you to both gentlemen, Chris and Roy. While I do not think I am ready yet to tackle the bookstand ( my chisel skill is mediocre at best) the day will arrive eventually.

    Mark

  10. Greg B

    Without the "who and why", there would be no "what". Good and interesting writing is seldom associated with woodworking magazines, thanks for changing that.

  11. Tom Holloway

    It’s true that Roubo’s language, even well translated, does not come through as clearly and completely as the prose of (insert your favorite WW writer here). But some of the gaps were filed by the two photo insets in the article, particularly the side of the board in the pic labeled "Pare with care," where Roubo’s circle appears. The clue to solving mystery of sawing the boards apart is also in the piece: "The framed French rip saw that Roubo would have used hangs on the wall." Only a dado the width of that blade is needed to get the saw in place to make the inside cut.

    In all, a great article. Thanks for pushing readers to pay attention, and think on their own a little, beyond the usual 1-2-3-4.

    As for Roubo’s dome over the grain exchange, too bad it burned down in 1802, or we might be able to see it today in Paris.

  12. Jorge G

    I was thinking that it was a shame Chris closed the comments on the video. I thought it was one of the best videos he had made. For someone like me outside the US it was great to see someone knowledgeable see how they work to make something other than dovetails. I learnt about 3 things from the video.

    As to Roy, no apologizing needed, I have yet to read one of his articled that I did not enjoy.

  13. Patrick

    "I also noted the comment that Roubo would make these two at a time to conserve wood. I can’t see how to get the saw started in the middle unless he chiseled away half the board thickness for about six inches."

    Think of using a bow saw with a narrow blade, like extra-large coping saw, not a panel saw. Panel saws were not in general use on the continent, unlike in England at the time.

  14. newcanuckworkshop.blogspot.com

    Even as a neophyte that can use every iota of instruction available, I found the article fantastic. I think articles like this and columns by George Walker are what make the magazine so great. It’s good to have to stretch the brain every once in a while beyond the common follow steps 1-5 and then finish.

  15. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkQvhs3v5Iv4Z74Y6Xj7n1Evypfqq4DULI

    I enjoyed the article very much. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    One question I had…Roubo’s comment was that these stands are best made as a pair to minimize waste. I see how two blanks could form a lap joint, but I didn’t understand how you’d saw the two pieces apart. Seems like you’d essentially have to cut a half-lap out of a single piece of wood to accomplish the savings in material.

    You use a large handsaw to make the cut in the photo. The only way I can figure to cut that half-lap would be to use a coping saw for that long face…and you’d have to be a lot better with a coping saw than I am!

    (and I’m sure that absolutely every human who’s ever touched a coping saw is better than I am. That thing hates me!)

  16. Rob Young

    p.s. I am however somewhat concerned by the first photo in that it looks like Roy did not think through the problem and his box is too small to hold the body (Chris?). That is one peril of the 1/2 hour format, sometimes you need to rush through steps.

  17. Matt Cianci

    Bravo, Mr. Underhill….BRAVO!!!!

    You’re article was spot on…don’t let anyone else tell you different. Your instincts to simply deliver the authentic text were absolutely perfect.

    I say the more we deviate from the norm, the better!

  18. rab

    Just want to go on record as saying I appreciate BOTH the article and the video. I clipped the article and planned to make the bookstand at some point down the road. However, I must confess that the process mystified me until I saw the video. Watching the video was an "aha" moment for me. Might be mental laziness. Or just stupidity. But I found both article and video tremendously interesting and helpful!

  19. john c.

    I loved the article as well. Great writing. Most of us know only what we read about Roubo from you guys. The more you write about him, the more we know.

  20. DGrant

    Please assure Mr. Underhill that his style of presentation is precisely what woodworkers need these days – it seems with all the "how-to" magazines and books these days, woodworkers are left lacking in the "why-to" department.

    I think it’s great to use a particular woodworking project as a vehicle to tell a larger story, and it’s not a terrible thing if the reader needs to put a few things together in their own head before attempting it.

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