Is Nicholson the new Roubo? - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Is Nicholson the new Roubo?

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion”

With the exciting new publication of Nicholson’s 1850 text, I fully expect we will be hearing a great deal more about Nicholson, and very likely a great deal less about Roubo.  This is as it should be.  For those who feel these texts and our fascination with them are mere fads I offer my heartiest Roubo-esque Au Contraire!

These texts are veritable gold mines of woodworking wisdom. They are the work of professional woodworkers (excluding Moxon) who spent their life times working with hand tools. While no similar Anglo-American texts exist dating to the 18th century, Moxon and Nicholson serve as book ends, implying what did and did not take place between them.  I transcribed the sections on sharpening in my previous post.  They did indeed seem remarkably similar.  We can assume therefore, that 18th-century trade practice was similar to Nicholson’s 19th-century description.

I suspect this will be true of comparisons with Roubo as well.  As we collectively pour through this new (old) text, I suspect we will learn from the contradictions and similarities that emerge.  I urge you to take part in this process by buying this book and reading it carefully.

&                      &                          &                             &


“Smith’s Key”

“Smith’s Key to the Manufactories of Sheffield” is an excellent companion text.  Though not currently in print, individual plates of it may be available on the net.  I would seek them out.  It provides greater detail of the specific tool forms than Nicholson and is roughly contemporaneous.  It also has a very helpful list of what was and was not available.  Were there such things as one inch tanged mortise chisels?  The answer is no.  What about 1/8″ socket chisels?  No again.  What emerges is that these different sorts of chisels probably had specific uses. They weren’t simply different versions of the same tool (any more than a dovetail saw is a different version of a long rip saw).

Don’t cut up your Roubo bench for fire wood just yet. My article on my Nicholson bench was rejected. But it is inevitable that new or contradictory information is forthcoming and that Schwarz will likely be smitten by it. Understandably, this has annoyed some  searching for the one right way.  But you should know by now that there is no one right way.  Each of us must find our own way.  I intend to do so armed with as much information as I can get my hands on.

Recent Posts
Showing 6 comments
  • wmickley

    Nicholson’s 1850 text? I have some sad news. Peter Nicholson died in 1844 when he was almost 79 years old. He retired from cabinet making and moved back to Scotland from London before the end of the 18th century. The Mechanics Companion was originally published in 1812 in London as Mechanical Exercises. Since he was no longer an active craftsman, it would be easier to argue that the material was already a little dated in 1812. Certainly not state of the art in 1850.


  • Gary Roberts

    A. There exists an attempt to implore the EAIA to issue a new edition of the Smith’s Key reprint. Yes, a reprint of a reprint. With luck, this will come to pass.

    B. My thanks to Adam for both his excellent reviews of Nicholson and his place in the pantheon of craft and trade authors. I understand that Nicholson’s attorney’s have considered a suit in the British courts against the review of his work, as noted in the earlier post by Adam, but have reconsidered given the expiration of copyright and the length of time having passed since his passing.

    C. My opinion: Moxon, Nicholson, Martin, et. al., wrote for vastly different audiences. Moxon expressly for the intelligentsia, with a fair spinoff to both gentlepeople and tradesmen. Nicholson wrote for the student and practitioner of the arts of building. His books cover a wide and at times repetitious assemblage of the topics central to the making of buildings. As evidenced by the frequency of the occurrence of his titles in the libraries of period Architects, not to mention the multitude of copies yet extent, Nicholson was a change-agent extraordinary for his time. Martin (Circle of The Mechanical Arts), though less well known and apparently over-shadowed by Nicholson, and scheduled (blatant plug) to be reprinted sometime this year by yours truly, wrote THE most expansive single volume on the trades that exists to date. He too wrote for the practicing builder, a distinction that must be noted as there were authors who focused on theory rather than the application of standards to daily practice.

    D. Despite my assertions, in general we do not know what books the personal libraries of master tradesmen might have held. Thus we do not know for certain from whence their cumulative knowledge was birthed. I say ‘certain’ because without hard proof (not to be confused with Chris Schwarz’ preferred imbibement), of what said libraries contained, it’s all conjecture. All that said (the intellectual equivalent of a retraction or negation of what was written), I will end my Dickensonian (payment by the word) monolog with this thought: Paper lasts longer than does digital content.

    • Adam Cherubini
      Adam Cherubini

      Gary, I can’t wait to get my copy of this book. I first read this book in Winterthur’s rare manuscripts room while wearing white gloves. I think I would like an online version if I could click on hot links that would take me to further discussion, images, videos etc. I think Chris is on that road (in general). Until then, I’d rather have a hard copy. Please save me one.


  • joelm

    Roubo was a pretty young guy when he wrote his book. Nicholson spent his career writing lots and lots of books – he was a powerhouse of publication. The breath of material from both gentlemen way exceeds any practical training either had had. Both books are superb tomes but had little – actually nothing to do with training people in the trade.

    No apprentice would have been able to afford Roubo and the way they learned was to start early and do a lot of repetition. Apprenticed training was narrow in scope. Cabinetmakers did cabinetmaking, finishers and carvers did finishing and carving. Both men had excellent powers of observation and today their work is a great jumping off point for learning what was done in the 18th and early 19th century.
    Nicholson’s audience was people outside the trade trying to learn enough to practice (America didn’t have much of an apprenticeship system, there was huge demand for skill, and huge demand for understanding how work was done. By 1850 in the US the factory system of making furniture had already taken hold. What is interesting is looking at the higher end custom American furniture makers of the latter 19th century is how many were trained overseas.

    By 1850 the classic timber frame construction was on it’s way out (to be replaced by 2x4s) there was no need for large mortise chisels – and they don’t work well. Mortising machines and drills frames were used instead. However the reason Mortise chisels larger than 3/4″ are not listed in the 1816 Sheffield key is that the page is torn off. They are listed in other sources but are really really rare (ie not used even when available – so I don’t really disagree with you).

    Socket chisels were not used by cabinetmakers and became fashionable on in the US because in England where there was little machinery tanged chisels are easier to make but require more skill. In the US giant presses make it much easier to make sockets. Early socket chisels were made by welding the socket and were not used in general cabinetmaking.

    • Adam Cherubini
      Adam Cherubini

      Joel, Get your own blog! Sorry, just kidding. That’s interesting. I didn’t know that about these individuals. I’ve been fascinated to read more about these guys, what their lives were like. I think it helps to put them into better context. But at the same time, I think we must be careful not to judge them too harshly (not that you are). It seems to me it takes someone very interested in the analysis of doing things to write about it. Otherwise, there’s often much taken for granted. I’ve seen that with great woodworkers (I’m sure you have too).

      As I wrote to Gary, I don’t think 18th cabinetmakers had text books. They may have had pattern books they found helpful, what they called geometry books etc. But their apprenticeships informed their technique probably more than anything they read.


      • Gary Roberts

        Adam… i agree on the texts. I should have clearly said Pattern books. There has been much recent research into the libraries of architects. I’ld love to know what the cabinetmaker referred to.


Start typing and press Enter to search