Chris Schwarz's Blog

Fancy French Footwork

One of the best things about building old-style workbenches (like Andre Roubo’s bench above) is that there are little lessons you learn by using them. At times, you learn the lesson unconsciously and it takes a couple years for you to even learn that you learned it.

This morning I was flattening the panels for the blanket chest I’m building for the Summer 2008 issue by planing them directly across the grain – what Joseph Moxon calls “traversing” in his book the “Mechanick Exercises.”

So I’m minding my own beeswax while traversing, and I notice something I’ve been doing for a while without really thinking. While traversing, I wedge my left foot under the stretcher, and I use that foot to help pull my body back on the return stroke.

So I paused and I pulled my left foot out from under the stretcher and tried planing with both feet planted on the floor instead. That felt a lot like working. So I wedged my foot back under the stretcher and returned to work.

Did Roubo design this workbench with this little detail in mind? Likely, no. But the stretcher’s location has always been curious to me , it’s only 5″ off the floor. Other benches I’ve worked on (and constructed) put the stretcher considerably higher off the floor. If you have a low stretcher, give this a try and let me know what you think.

– Christopher Schwarz

13 thoughts on “Fancy French Footwork

  1. Bikerdad

    Interesting….

    My only concern currently on the height of the lower stretcher is that it A) be high enough off the floor to give me a decent toe kick space and B) be low enough to maximize the storage space under the benchtop. Its nice to see that there’s a secondary benefit for me of my scheme.

    I plan on putting a rubber ‘door sweep’ type of critter to prevent things from dashing under the bench. I’m tired of chasing screws and other such down yonder.

  2. Marcela

    Hmmm. Interesting thought and thing to notice, Christopher. It does seem like it would be more comfortable that way than the workbenches with stretchers that are a little higher off the ground. That’s a great workbench in the picture, I might add. And that’s neat! Building your own workbench? I would just resort to buying the workbench online at Formaspace (www.formaspace.com) or something. But it definitely is something to think about…whether it was built like that on purpose or not?

  3. Gary Roberts

    Chris… I think that we have to ask two questions: Firstly, was Msr. Roubo left handed or right handed? The followup to that is which was his dominant foot? Secondly, what size shoe did he wear? I realize that in his time, footwear was not sized as we know it to be today. Did his footwear show scars and scrapes along the toe? Did he have a special set of shoes made up with extra thick cowhide laid in along the top? I think that you may be on to something here… a specialty line of footwear for users of Roubo Style workbenches.

    Now I’m wondering about Msrs. Moxon and Nicholson…

    Gary

  4. J.C. Collier

    The history of dancing with the French has always been problematic. Other than that I think a person should be able to stick his/her foot wherever they darn well please as long as… ahem, oops, wrong blog, my bad!

    But seriously, this aspect of woodworking is what makes the journey so fun and so personal. It’s not what came first; the tail or the pin, but how it becomes accomplished then refined and added to the personal canon of handwork.

    Footwork is part and parcel to the dance and woodwork is a dance. We touched on that fact a while back about sawing and the placement of the feet.

    A few weeks ago my son expressed interest in building guitars and I offhandedly commented that he’d have to learn to wear closed toe shoes and give up the flip-flops. Apparently that was a deal breaker as he hasn’t asked me any more about it.

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Andrew,

    In a traditional apron table, you would be exactly right. Stretchers prevent racking.

    But the Roubo stretchers are wimpy and narrow, and the strength of the bench comes from the connection between the top and the legs – it’s very unlike a modern dining table in structure.

    I’m not saying the stretchers don’t help prevent racking — I’m sure they do — but they are secondary. So they may have other purposes….

    Chris

  6. andrew rutz

    …i always thought the low-stretcher was to decrease its capability to rack. …but, like many things, the Cause and the Correlation can many times be transposed. 🙂

  7. dave brown

    Wow. After reading your post I remembered I’d caught myself doing the very same thing this weekend while using my shooting board.

    I wonder if this was a planned feature by Roubo or just a surprise benefit of his design? It does makes you think 😉

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Actually, I can’t do this on my European old bench where the stretcher was 13" off the floor. It does work with the other benches, such as the Holtzapffel from Issue 8, which is 6" off the floor.

    With my foot wedged below the stretcher, I’m actually quite balanced. My foot stays wedged there on both the thrust and return – though on the thrust my toe isn’t pushing very hard against the stretcher. It feels a bit like using a rowing machine.

    Chris

  9. Roderick Drumgoole

    Interesting! When I constructed my Roubo bench a few years ago, I followed the guidance in the mag article pretty close. Being a newby then, I didn’t questioned the stretcher height from the floor. After using the bench for a few years, I always find my foot underneath the stretcher. Fast forward, a little more experience, I am now in the middle of contructing a Roubo/Holtzaphel bench – big bench with a big twin screw vice. During the design (quick sketch on paper), I particularly paid attention to the stretcher height off the floor as that has become something I’ve grown accustomed to using.

    Roderick

  10. Tom Knighton

    Sometimes it’s amazing the little things we pick up and don’t even realize it.

    Perhaps your channeling hundreds of years worth of Roubo-style bench users and automatically learning the trick they themselves developed? 😉

  11. Alan

    Chris,

    Too strange, I just looked up bourr’ee on wikipedia, and it states in the text:

    "a bourrée starts on the last crochet of a bar, creating a quarter-bar anacrusis, whereas a gavotte has a half-bar anacrusis."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourr%C3%A9e

    Don’t you have a crochet on your bench? ROTFLMAO!

  12. Alan

    My lower stretcher is 6" from the floor, but I haven’t started dancing lessons yet, as I’m still getting it together…(LOL!)

    Say, isn’t there a french dance called the Bourr’ee, maybe this step shall be known as the RouBourr’ee..:-)

Comments are closed.