Andre Jacob Roubo Hackney London Practical techniques

On Workbenches, London, and space being relative…

There’s an interesting project going on over at Wyatt Childs Inc in Georgia, USA, which I think most people interested in woodworking would describe as the last word in workbench builds.
roubo 1
Roubo 4
Roubo 5
If you read many woodworking blogs, you’d find it hard to avoid the trend for making one’s own bench in ever-more expensive materials. Chris Schwarz in particular has done an excellent job of promoting the work of the French cabinet maker and author André Jacob Roubo, including editing a re-print of his seminal volume The Art of The Joiner. And given all the interest in traditional technique, Roubo and ‘slow woodworking‘, it was perhaps inevitable someone would raise the bar sooner or later. That workbench build has now arrived.

Six of the world’s best-known woodworkers have come together to create the French Oak Roubo Project. It certainly looks like the last word to me. With bench hardware from the excellent Benchcrafted, and French oak from Versailles, (possibly even from the same trees that Roubo himself would have walked past), it’s going to be epic.Click this link for the project description. I’m wondering when I can hijack the next shipment of this oak from France to the US. (A Benchcrafted video is now online showing the whole build).
Roubo build 1
Roubo build 2
Roubo build 3
When I look at the acres of space in the Wyatt Childs workshop, I have to admit my heart sinks a little. Never does space seem to be so freely available and cheap, as when you look at ‘Pics of the New Shop!!’ from the likes of US woodworkers such as The Wood Whisperer, Marc Spagnuolo!

In London however, space is at a premium, and Hackney in east London, is terribly fashionable right now, with what seems like every square inch rented out to another graphic designer/music producer. Any commercial space that might have been utilised for workshops is usually converted into something good enough to fill with a few desks, high-speed internet and let out as ‘deskspace’. Anyway, my search for a small, cheap space continues as I look further east.

Which brings me to the subject of ‘making do – how much space do you really need to make things anyway?’.

My friend Joe recently visited the beautifully restored Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London. Restored after the blaze that destroyed much of the vessel, (while it was already undergoing restoration), the finished ship is now housed in an amazing cocoon of glass and metal and open to the public.
Joe sent me a picture of a tiny room used by the ship’s carpenter, Henry Henderson (who incidentally would have also been a petty officer on the ship). He would have undertaken repairs to parts of the ship on what looks like a small shelf?! As much as I’d love to be making a French oak Roubo bench, I think I’m very much more impressed by Henry.

Henderson came from Kincardine in Firth and was a master shipwright on the construction of the Cutty Sark. It was he who selected the timbers that went into her construction. He then sailed in the ship as ship’s carpenter and served under the first three captains. He was a firm favourite of old John Willis. The jury rudder was made up of spare spars and iron stanchions in conditions which were severe. The gale was still blowing and heavy seas were still sweeping the decks but at the end of six days the job was completed but not without drama. On one occasion, while working the bellows on the brazier needed for forging the ironwork, the captain’s son was covered in embers when the brazier was overturned in the force of the gale. On another occasion the sailmaker narrowly missed having his face burned by a red hot bar when the blacksmith was swept off his feet. The rudder was worked by chains linked to the ship’s wheel and the whole operation was an amazing feat of seamanship. For his achievement Henry Henderson was awarded a testimonial and a cheque for £50 by the owner who recognised his genius. However, the owners had ample reason to reward Henderson’s achievement. It later transpired that both the ship and the freight were uninsured. When the ship arrived home Captain Moodie, who was still furious with the owner’s brother, resigned his command and transferred to steam.