Roubo’s Winding Sticks

When the name Andre Roubo is mentioned, most people’s first thoughts are of a massive workbench.  However, when you delve into the myriad of plates that were published as part of Roubo’s series of volumes on the many different facets of woodcraft, you will immediately realize that these books are about so much more than a workbench.

Plate 14 from Roubo's Volume on Furniture Making
Plate 14 from Roubo’s Volume on Furniture Making

My first introduction to Roubo came a little over a decade or so ago, just a few years after I sold most of my power tools and machines.  At the time I was engrossed in Moxon and Nicholson, but I was looking for more than what those two books were providing.  Somehow, during an internet search of old books on woodworking, I came across a bunch of PDFs of plates from an old French woodworking book.  I couldn’t read French, so I couldn’t understand any of the text, but the engravings were so well done that I was able to infer a lot of information just from looking at the various plates.  It wasn’t until a year or so later that I found out that I had been studying plates from Roubo’s various volumes.

The plate above, Plate 14 from Roubo on Furniture Making, was one of the first ones I noticed, I think primarily because there were so many things that were familiar on it.  From the try square, to the marking gauges, to the winding sticks at the bottom of the page, this plate was really consistent with many of the things I had seen and learned from the historic English texts on the craft.  However, the engravings at the very top of the plate were quite interesting to me.  It was obvious from the engraving at the top right that he was referring to another type of winding sticks, but these were a bit different than the typical winding sticks I had always seen and used (he appears to picture these at the bottom left of the plate).  I tucked the odd winding stick engraving away for awhile and went on doing other things for the next several years.

I came back to this plate recently when I was writing an article for Popular Woodworking Magazine.  I was researching the different types of miter squares I had seen for the article, and Roubo’s Plate 14 had one that appeared to have several different angles, so I built a version for the article.  I was again reminded of those odd winding sticks, but I hadn’t the time to try them out at the time.  So again the image got tucked back into the memory banks to be recalled at a later date.

Recently, Don Williams wrote a short blog about his own version of Roubo’s odd winding sticks.  Of course Don is the driving force behind the English translations of several of Roubo’s works, currently available, and soon to be published by the folks over at Lost Art Press.  While the volume on marquetry is currently available, the volume on furniture making is still in the works, so don’t go trying to find the above plate in the volume on your book shelf.  Don’s recent post reminded me of these unusual winding sticks, so since I had been making a new pair of traditional English style winding sticks anyway, I thought I’d finally make a pair of Roubo’s as well, and try them out for myself.

Winding Sticks with Legs?

The first thing you notice about these winding sticks is that they aren’t just a pair of sticks.  Instead, each has a pair of “legs” that lift the stick off the surface of the board.  At first this seems to not make any sense.  How on earth can the sticks be used to assess a board’s flatness if they don’t even touch the board.  That’s when I realized that their primary purpose is not to assess flatness at all (though they can be used to do so, as I’ll discuss in a minute).  They’re winding sticks, they’re primarily used to assess wind.

Traditional "English" Winding Sticks
Traditional “English” winding sticks work fine across a cupped face…

Traditional winding sticks, while sometimes ornate like my new pair, can be nothing more than a pair of straight sticks with parallel edges.  When placed on the face of a board, they allow one to assess a board’s state of flatness and wind.  In the photo above, the gap underneath the bottom of the sticks indicates that there is a slight cup across the face of this board.  In addition, there is a very slight twist in the board as well, indicated by the left ebony inlay sitting slightly higher above the top of the front stick than the right ebony inlay.

But they don't work that well on the crowned face.
but they don’t work that well on the crowned face.

Traditional winding sticks have a drawback though.  They aren’t so reliable when assessing the crowned face of the board.  Sure, they’ll tell you if the board is crowned, but they really can’t be reliably used to assess wind on the crowned face because they have to be balanced on the crowned face.  This allows the sticks to rock on their centers, which can throw off the reading and make you chase wind that may not even exist.  Sure, you could just assess the cupped face, but if the board has enough cup and twist, trying to plane the cupped face can be quite a circus act as the board rocks on its crowned face.  Wedges under the high edges can help, but only so much.  Sometimes, it’s just easier to flip the board over and work on the crowned face rather than chase the board around the bench.

Winding sticks with "legs" span the crown and allow accurate assessment of wind on the crowned face.
Winding sticks with “legs” span the crown and allow accurate assessment of wind on the crowned face.

This is where Roubo’s winding sticks shine.  Because these winding sticks have “legs”, they are able to span over the crown in the board, and provide a precise assessment of the state of wind of the board.  The legs ensure contact with the board only at the outside edges, where it is most important for assessing wind.  But wait, there’s more…..

The "legs" also make correction of wind a breeze.
The “legs” also make correction of wind a breeze.

Closer examination of the engraving in Plate 14 reveals another interesting use of Roubo’s winding sticks on stilts.  Because the “legs” span over any irregularities in the face of the board, they make correcting any wind in the board almost as easy as detecting it.  Looking closely at the engraving, you can see that the legs of the winding sticks are actually reading off the bottom of a rabbet planed along the edge of the board.  This was the light bulb moment for me.  Using a simple rabbet plane, the wind in the board can be corrected by planing a rabbet that tapers from shallower at the low corner to deeper at the high corner.  When the sticks align, the wind is gone.  The resulting tapered rabbets then act as pseudo marking gauge lines.  Plane the remainder of the face of the board until the rabbets just disappear, and the face is free of wind.  By checking that the floor of the rabbet is flat from one end of the board to the other end, you are also ensured that the face of the board is flat.

Reading the board's condition from within the rabbets.
Reading the board’s condition from within the rabbets.

In the photo above, the rabbets were planed a bit deeper than they needed to be for illustration purposes.  This board actually did not have that much wind, but I made the rabbets a bit deeper than they needed to be just to show how I think these winding sticks would be used.

Winding sticks in the rabbets.
Winding sticks in the rabbets.

Above you can see how the rabbet is planed along the edge while the center of the board is left untouched.  The rabbets then become depth gauges for planing the board flat and free of wind.  As an additional benefit, the rabbets allow you to traverse the board (plane across the grain) without fear of blowing out the grain on the far edge.  When you get close to being finished, you can also slide the legs out of the way and use the sticks alone as a straight edge.  There’s a lot to like about this method, and these winding sticks.

So after building and using these winding sticks, I’m even more anxious to read Don’s detailed essay on them in the upcoming Roubo on Furniture volume that will hopefully be released later this year.  My observations are really based only on the engravings and my own experimentation.  I have no text to back any of this up.  So I’m interested to see how my experimental archaeology compares with what Roubo (and Don) actually wrote about these winding sticks.  I’m curious to see if there are any other uses for them that I haven’t yet discovered.

On the down side, the legs do make assessing minor wind a bit more difficult than traditional winding sticks without the legs.  The tops of the legs break up the straight line of the sticks, so when there is only a minor bit of wind, I find it easier to see with the traditional sticks.  However, I can see the legged versions being more useful for stock that is a little less flat to start out.  And using the rabbet as a marking gauge for planing is, in my eyes, just pure genius.  It allows you to more or less plane the entire surface of the board flat without constantly stopping to check for wind during the process, because you are simply planing to a line.

Can’t wait to see what other gems Don and crew have uncovered when the new volume comes out!


9 thoughts on “Roubo’s Winding Sticks

  1. Wow, this is really clever. Why do things like this get lost, when they seem so perfect for the task? Have you ever heard of anyone seeing these sorts of winings sticks in the wild? Have they ever turned up in some old tool collection? Very cool, thanks for sharing Rob.

    • I’ve never seen nor heard of anyone who has found them in the wild. But that doesn’t mean no one has found them. My guess is that once hand work was replaced by machines, the tool and the technique just became antiquated and unnecessary. So anyone who found them probably had no clue what they were for.

  2. I’ve used other quite a similar method maybe a bit simpler, couple of years (I invented this in the shower ;-). But I’m using only ordinary winding sticks (aluminium ones). This method is suitable for a guite short board. First I make rabbets (about 2 cm) in the both ends of the board (across the board’s end !) (providing a precise assessment of the state of wind of the board as well). Secondly I measure “winding”, re-plane across the board (rabbets) until w.sticks are aligned (I will color the rabbets by pencil) I plane rest of the board without touching “tapered”, colored ends . After that the board is absolutely flat.

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