Similar tables by Oeben

According to J. Paul Getty’s diaries, the are 15 mechanical tables similar to this one in existence. I know of nine. Four in North America: 

In Europe, I’ve read about five more:

This leaves six more for me to locate. Please contact me if you know of any others as I would very much like to add them here (not to mention potentially see them for myself)!

What is interesting about these is that they were made in an approximately thirteen year span, from 1750 until Oeben’s death in 1763. Each slightly different from its sisters. The table that is the focus of this re-creation is, as near as I have seen, the only one with a full-length drawer beneath the moveable portions. Also, from what I can discern from the dates attributed by each museum, it is also one of the earliest made. It appears that the later tables’ mechanisms were integrated into a cartridge rather than having to install individual components: guides, drives, etc. My guess is that as his career progressed and more of these tables were produced, he attempted to increase efficiency during the construction process. 

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. 

References:

    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.

    image

    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!