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. 


Traditional French marquetry

I am back from another productive trip to Marc Adams School of Woodworking. Thank you to everyone for making my stay pleasant, and comfortable, as usual. On this trip, I had the opportunity to make some new friends, and become reacquainted with many old ones. My only regret is that we couldn’t spend more time together. These trips are always so hectic!

As I mentioned previously, I spent a week with Patrick Edwards learning French marquetry technique. We focused on the Boulle process, also known as tarsia a incastro. In it, the various colored veneers are bound together in a packet and cut according to the design. The packet is opened, and the picture assembled by placing the veneer pieces of one species into another. Any voids between pieces are filled with a wood dust and hide glue mastic, nearly imperceptible to the casual observer. This fundamental technique offers the marquetry craftsman the ability to generate multiple copies of a design rapidly.

A marquetry triptych

A marquetry triptych

Cutting takes place using the chevalet de marqueterie, or marquetry “easel”. This uniquely French tool allows the operator to hold the veneer packet vertically at eye-level while guiding a saw along a steel rod adjusted perfectly perpendicular to it. The accuracy is such that a piece taken from the front of the packet fits within the corresponding “hole” in the veneer on the back of the packet. The manually operated saw also offers a greater degree of control than a typical powered scroll saw. Small delicate pieces can be produced which might otherwise be lost in the machine’s vibration.

Once I’ve gotten back on schedule, one of the higher priorities on my to do list will be to tune up my mini-chevalet. My experience this week gives me a better idea of how it should work!

Studying up…


Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve found that very few people know what marquetry is. Marquetry isn’t as prevalent an art form in North America, as say carving. Everybody knows what carving is, but most are unfamiliar with marquetry.

I am preparing for my class with Patrick Edwards in October. Although not a requirement, I am reading the works of Pierre Ramond: Marquetry, and the Masterpieces of Marquetry series. Dr. Ramond is considered to be the living authority on marquetry, and these are two of the most trusted resources on the subject. Unfortunately, one is out of print, and the latter isn’t…

How do I put this?

…economically priced.
Suffice it to say, it’s unlikely you’ll find them on the shelves at your local bookstore.

But if you do, please let me know where your bookstore is located. I’d like to visit it!

While it is possible for a beginner to learn the subject from these books, I’d recommend a few other resources:

• Paul Schürch has an excellent two DVD set with pamphlets that walk you through your first project, while
• Silas Kopf offers a DVD which demonstrates the various marquetry techniques. It’s a great accompaniment to his book which provides a historical basis for the craft.

Of course if you’d prefer, Silas, Paul, and Patrick all offer classes!

What’s this all about?

It started Summer 2011 with this video

Like most, I was impressed. Then I stopped to consider…
This table was made around 1750, that’s 260 years ago! There weren’t any power tools then!
Mayra and I watched it several more times. Each time, we were able to pick out more details about its construction and operation. The third or fourth time around, I started to think, “wouldn’t this make a great Fellowship project?”

I was one class away from completing the course work requirement for the Michael Fortune Fellowship at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, and it was time to start thinking about my jury project. The project needed to be challenging – more challenging than anything that I had encountered before. I also wanted it to be special, like no other project that had come before it. With this in mind, I forwarded the video link onto Marc, Michael, Paul Schürch, Donna Hill, and a few more friends. “Wouldn’t this make a great Fellowship project?”, I joked. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

The program guidelines contained no prohibition on re-creation of an historic piece. I studied the video again; stopping, rewinding, and starting repeatedly. Breaking it into its components there was a carcass covered in marquetry, mechanisms, and ormolu mounts. I had some experience with marquetry, and the casework joinery seemed straightforward, that left the metal bits. Off the top of my head, I know two metal workers, and the school had a milling machine, so at worst these aspects could be subcontracted out. Again, I recalled that this piece was made 260 years ago with nothing but hand tools. I became more confident. Maybe it was possible for me to re-create this piece! All that I had to do now, was to come up with drawings!