We are not alone.
No, I’m not talking about aliens. Even stranger: woodworkers!
If you’ve been keeping up with the World of Guy you’ll know that I’ve been doing a ton of woodworking lately, and it shows no sign of slowing down. This has lead me to look up all sorts of things on t’internet, like better ways of cutting dovetails (everyone does it differently), and drooling over incredibly unaffordable handsaws. Seriously beautiful, and I can totally see where the money is going, but dayum, I can get a sword for that!
Sharp steel is magical, and the high-priest of sharp is Ron Hock, author of the stunningly good The Perfect Edge (affiliate link) which tells you everything you need to know about sharpening anything made of steel. I’ve bought several of his blades and am on his mailing list which sent me spiralling helplessly down a rabbit-hole you might find interesting… because it leads to historically-obsessed recreationists, just like us sword folk. I clicked on the link to the Handworks 2020 event, and that lead me to their vendor list… oh shit. I could spend so much money. Fortunately I am a highly disciplined martial arts instructor, with immaculate self-control. Really.
Anyway, from there, I got to Kieran Binnie’s Over the Wireless blog, which is absolutely fascinating (and he has kindly replied to this blog post with his own). Among other things, he is recreating a woodworking bench from André-Jacob Roubo’s L’Art Du Menuisier, published in 1774, available in translation from Lost Art Press. Just as we are recreating martial arts from historical sources, there are people out there recreating woodworking from historical sources. There are so many parallels it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few off the top of my head:
1. Working from written sources, and all the problems that come with them, from translation issues, cultural changes altering meaning, and frames of reference changing over time (more on that below).
2. The existence of a current living craft, that is related but different. Ikea make furniture! How is that different? In some ways modern furniture can be considered better than the traditional stuff, especially from an economic standpoint, just as modern martial arts (such as pistol shooting) are unarguably better at killing people than medieval swordsmanship, especially when you look at the training time required to become competent.
3. Technological changes change everything. A lot of modern furniture is made the way it is because it fits the machine, not the other way round. Machine-cut dovetails have an absolute minimum pin-size determined by the shank of the router bit- usually ¼ inch (6.35mm). But we can cut them by hand with a minimum size determined by the thickness of a saw blade: perhaps 1/50th of an inch or a shade under 0.5mm. And what is the history of martial arts if not the history of weapons technology?
4. Fashion changes everything. A perfectly excellent and functional style of furniture may be superseded by something empirically less good, if the fashion changes. A perfectly excellent sword may be superseded by something empirically less good at killing people, if the fashion changes.
Another element we have in common is the astonishing levels of nerdery that historical swordsmanship/woodwork entails. Mr Binnie is such a good historian that he is recreating Roubo’s bench using Roubo’s units of measurement. “So what?” you might ask (but no true historical martial artist would). So Roubo’s pouce (thumb or inch) is slightly bigger than the modern standard: one pouce is 1.066 modern inches. At least according to the awesome Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney. Mr Binnie is using one of Mr Gaffney’s Pied de Roi (King’s foot) rules, which is marked out as close as research can establish to the same standard that Roubo would have used. His bench will therefore be ever so slightly bigger than it would otherwise have been. This led me on to an absolute must have new tool: the cabinetmaker’s sector, which sadly Mr Gaffney is not making any more, so I’ve made one myself. It's crap, compared to his. Mr Gaffney, if you're reading this- please make me a sector?
There is a renaissance afoot in recreating Roubo’s benches, which I think may have begun with the work of Christopher Schwarz, author of many excellent woodworking books, including Workbenches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use (affiliate link), which explains how he built a Roubo bench. The bench is detailed in Plate 11 of Roubo’s book, and indeed we find a website at the url www.plate11.com that is all about one man’s obsession with recreating the bench commercially (I.e. You can buy his benches. I wish! No, actually I’d rather build one…). Can't you just imagine that link going to a plate from Capoferro?
Even up-to-the-minute young woodworkers like Matt Estlea have built a version of the Roubo. This video is a summary of his process- note the digitally controlled machinery etc. Mr Estlea is also using modern hardware on the bench such as the vice screws (as does Mr Binnie).
These Roubos are so popular even Barbie has one!
(The only good reason to join Instagram I’ve ever seen. Seriously amazing pictures.)
This rabbit hole goes on and on… going back further, Mr Schwarz has a book on the Roman workbench (Ingenious Mechanicks) which I ordered the moment I saw it on Rex Krueger’s video about building a super-cheap version of the bench, here:
But I first found Rex Krueger when Steve Chalkey of the Ipswich Makerspace sent me a link to his video about recreating a whole other kind of historical woodworking bench, the so-called “English Bench”. Here:
Which in turn led to this incredible video of Mike Siemsen showing how you can do literally every hand-tool woodworking operation on a bench with no vice. Because a lot of historical benches didn’t have a vice, and apparently these woodworking geniuses didn’t need one.
Which reminds me oh so very much of how our martial forebears solved every kind of martial problem without computers, knowledge of biology, etc. etc. They had perfectly effective solutions that did not require the more technologically sophisticated solutions that we have come to take for granted to the point that we are helpless without them.
When it comes to swordsmanship training, I have all the gear. Of course I do. This is my job. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a professional cabinetmaker with a really good toolkit. So I’ve got sharp swords of all shapes and sizes, blunt training sword-like-objects of the best quality, I even own a salle. But, and it’s a big but (like yours will be if you don’t get some training done!) it can be very liberating and encouraging of creativity to leave all that fancy stuff aside, and see what can be done with just a stick. Or a pair of wine bottles covered in tape. I've shot a video of clubs training for my Solo Training Course, you can see the first ten minutes (out of 29) in this sample video here:
As the unplugged woodworking community (and more pertinently the historical record) has shown, there is nothing in woodwork you can’t do with just hand tools. It just will take more time and skill. The same is true of swordsmanship.