Who was Oeben?

Often when looking at an object that captures our attention, we become transfixed. I know with me, such is the case with this table. Until now, I have been so wrapped up in figuring out its complexities that only recently can I appreciate the person who brought this creation to life…

Jean-François Oeben (1721 to 1763), a German born French ébéniste, lived during the reign of Louis XV. As is typical for immigrants even today, he changed his name to blend into the community. Little is known about his training before he moved to Paris. To help establish himself within the trade, he married François-Marguerite Vandercruse, daughter of an ébéniste, and sister of Roger Vandercruse (R.V.L.C), another ébéniste.  

The guild system in which Oeben operated at the time was very strict, much worse than any modern trade union. Oeben worked as an independent artist in the workshop of Charles-Joseph Boulle, grandson of André Charles Boulle (for whom the marquetry technique is named) until Boulle’s death in 1754. During this early portion of his career, he sold pieces through dealers. Many makers were taken advantage of in this situation, since the dealer could dictate terms. Oeben, however worked with one of the most respected which helped raise his stature. Since Oeben was not a guild master, he was forced to vacate Boulle’s shop upon his death. Assisted by Madame de Pompadour, a devoted client, and her brother Marquis de Marigny, Director General of the King’s Buildings, Oeben was granted the title “ébéniste du roi” later that year, and moved his home and workshop to Gobelins where he could continue to work. 

Oeben ran a considerable operation employing, at the time of his death, approximately 12 men – a lot! For perspective, other successful workshops at the time employed only 7 or 8.

For the past few years, I have referred to this as Oeben’s table. While it is true that he is responsible for its design, he did not solely execute it. There was a team of craftsman supporting him including cabinetmakers, casters, bronziers, chasers, gilders, sculptors, and marqueteers. To satisfy demand, he even subcontracted completed pieces (just as we do today)!

Oeben is considered by many to be a master of marquetry, and “made” many pieces of mechanically complex furniture. During this lifetime, he sold pieces both directly to clients, and through dealers. He served a wealthy client base much as artisan furniture makers do today. In 1760 he received the commission of a lifetime: to build a highly complex mechanical cylinder desk for the king. This is interesting in light of the fact that a year later, he was admitted into the guild (a cart before horse situation?).

Sadly, just when things were going well for Oeben, he died in 1763. The workshop was declared bankrupt. The cylinder desk was eventually completed by Riesener in 1769, and several of the other pieces by other craftsmen in the shop; Leleu, R.V.L.C, etc. 

Oeben faced many of the same problems as woodworkers today: where do you get quality wood, for example (Aside: Thomas Chippendale operated an import export business for this purpose). The business was run on razor-thin margins. Artists still serve the styles and trends in fashion, just as they did in Oeben’s time, or any other time. People are driven by the same fundamental forces whether the year is 1750, 1950, or 2016. It appears that not much has changed. 


    Mounting the top

    With the mechanisms operating (somewhat) smoothly, it’s time to mount the table top. The process is fairly straightforward: place the carcass on the top, align the two, trace the racks onto the top, then mortise them.


    A commentary on (hand) tools

    When I began this re-creation, I already favored the use of hand tools. It has been my experience, however, that hand tools suffer a kind of discrimination in the modern world. To the at-large public they’re perceived as being slow, backward, or for the financially poor woodworker. In short, they’re second-class citizens. This is an unfortunate perception, which I hope to change.

    The usual rationale you will hear about hand tool use is:
    • hand tools produce less dust,
    • there is less noise with hand tools, and
    • hand tools are safe(r).

    While these are true, for the most part, they’re not entirely truthful. My “shop” still has plenty of dust accumulation, and I do have to vacuum the floor. However, many times I can get away with simply sweeping up the shavings rather than having a dust collection hose connected to the tool. I wear ear plugs when performing some operations, especially anything involving mallet work. More often though, I listen to the birds singing outside, or carry on a conversation with passers-by. I’ve met plenty of woodworkers who reluctantly admit that they should have been more careful with their hearing earlier on in their careers…
    Also for the most part, all of my tools have “flesh-sensing technology”…

    Hand tools are really for production. Yes, you read that right! Most hobbyists seldom make more than one piece at a time. So, it takes longer to set up a power tool, use it, and put it away then it does a hand tool. And let’s not even mention the time (and materials) required for jig building!

    Graham Blackburn once said (paraphrasing) that the point of power tools was to decrease the cost of the finished piece. Instead it cheapened the piece! In other words, power tools compromise the design. Jim Tolpin put it another way…power tools users design pieces to the capabilities of their tools. Hand tool users design first, then figure out how to build it. With hand tools, the skilled woodworker can cut any joint produced by a machine. However, the opposite is not the case!

    Hand tools require skills development. Anyone can use power tools – set a fence, or guide to a measurement, and pull the trigger…
    However, this mode of operating can be limiting. People are afraid of doing things free-hand since it might not come out “perfect”.

    Understanding the principles upon which hand work is based gives a woodworker a better knowledge of machine operation. To paraphrase Matthew Quigley… It’s not that I don’t know how to use power tools. I just don’t have much use for them.

    In the end, most woodworkers truly aspire to employ hand tools. After all, a common marketing phrase used by power tool manufacturers is that their tool will produce results just like it was hand made!

    Now comes the hard part…

    According to Helmuth von Moltke, a Prussian military strategist, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” When your plan meets the real world, the real world wins. Nothing goes as planned. Errors pile up. Mistaken suppositions come back to bite you. The most brilliant plan loses touch with reality (Lexician).

    The mechanisms, now installed in the carcass, are stiff. They don’t move freely which is a necessity. Otherwise, the table will bind and won’t open. I began the investigation by checking each rack/guide individually outside of the table to make sure it moves freely. Ideally, they should slide by gravity alone when held vertically although sometimes, they require a push. My first “discovery” during this process was that the drive barrel was making contact with the lower guide. It left a “rub ring” around the barrel very near the gear (as shown in the above photo), and a shiny spot on the lower guide brass. After a quick consultation with Jon the machinist, I addressed these areas with a file to relieve material, and while it did prevent further contact, it did not rectify the problem.

    Bright spot from contact with drive barrel

    Bright spot from contact with drive barrel

    Another thing to consider…

    Even slight differences between the aprons and legs can be enough to cause the mechanics to “hang”. If the legs protrude even less than 1/32 inch out from the side apron the lower rack gets caught. I gently used a chisel with a swiping motion to bring the two surfaces flush. Depending on the severity, however, it still leaves marks.

    My current thinking is that the rack is too closely fitted to the drive gear. That is, the rack and drive gear are so tightly positioned that it’s causing excessive friction in the mechanism. I’ll test this out by relocating the rack and guide slightly lower than it currently is, and report back.

    While contemplating this issue a thought occurred. It would seem that the position of the lower racks/guides with relation to one another is not critical. In other words, they don’t really need to be aligned at identical heights in the aprons. So long as the main box is mounted squarely to them the height shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll soon see how this turns out.

    Update (29 May): I adjusted the spacing between the drive gear and racks, in addition to relieving some “pinch points” in the guides, to get things moving. However, I think the change in temperature had the greatest effect on things.