A Visit to Grandpa’s Workshop

“Look, it’s Jean-le-Vert!”

Grandpa’s Workshop is real, and we visited it last weekend in Normandy.

My wife and I and two girls spent a long weekend in Normandy. It is a beautiful region, known for its timber-framed longhouses with reed roofs, D-Day, the unforgiving sea, seafood, hard cider, calvados, and crepes and gallets (paper thin pancakes in wheat or buckwheat flour with sweet or savory sauces spread on them). We touched on all those things, but for me, it was a must to meet Maurice Pommier, the author and illustrator of “Grandpa’s Workshop,” who lives there.

He and his wife, Francine, live in a charming old farmhouse with a small yard and his shop in a slate-roofed old brick-and-stone outbuilding across the garden.

Coming into his warm kitchen out of the misty Norman rain, I was still wiping the fog off my glasses when Maia started jumping up and down and pointed out Maurice’s carving of Jean-le-Vert. I guess I should have expected it, but it was all there. The girls spent the afternoon pointing out things they’d seen in “Grandpa’s Workshop.” When Maurice needed an image for the book, all he had to do was walk into the next room. Or maybe, he had them already in his head, and the book flowed out of his pen as it took form from his chisels and gouges, his planes and saws. A formidable woodworker and carver, I was tempted to ask to take some photos, but figured, why bother? He had already gone to the trouble of drawing them all better than one could show in a photo.


“There’s the angel, but his wing is not broken.”

An armoire, identical in style down to the wonderful carvings in oak, to the cupboard in “Grandpa’s Workshop” was built by Pommier for his wife soon after they were married.

Maurice in his other workshop.

So we spent a beautiful afternoon eating roast chicken and talking and rummaging through his extensive collection of books on woodworking, house carpentry and the sea. Then, after a last glass of wine, went out to his shop.

Maurice has an amazing collection of antique and handmade tools, axes, adzes, planes, chisels, you name it. They are all users, sharpened and ready to go. Tool geek’s paradise. My wife ventured out through the rain after an hour or so, listened for a moment to Maurice and I discussing the forge marks on a very old German broad axe, said something like “OK, I understand,” and headed back into the house.

Toward the end of the day, he pulled out an old Disston saw, its teeth gleaming in the light from a lamp over the workbench. Sure enough, there was an anchor carved on the tote.

“Was the anchor on the saw when you got it?” I asked.

“Ah, that, I’ll never tell,” Maurice said, laughing.

So, some woody bits from the rest of the vacation. The Bayeux Tapestry. Embroidery on linen cloth, 900 years old.

“Build me an invasion fleet,” said William the Bastard, who would soon be known as William the Conqueror. Note the Scandinavian-style broad axe.

Cutting trees and hewing riven planks.

The man, top left, is sighting down the boat to make sure all has been faired out properly. Some things don’t change.

Drilling holes with a spoon bit to take iron rivets or treenails to join the planks in the lapstrake hull. “Modern” spoon bits here have an iron tang fitting into a wooden cross piece. This one looks as though the bit fits into a turned wooden head through which a dowel is fitted to provide the torque. I think the difference was that with this style, you could put the head against your chest clad in a lanolin-lubricated lambswool sweater, or a wooden or leather pad, while turning, to provide extra force and control.

At the sea at Port-en-Bessin, some carpenters were replacing some planks and decking on a Chalutier, a local type of fishing boat, this one built in 1947. The bizarre assemblage in the foreground is a spiling batten: you tack it in place of a plank that needs replaced and then use a compass to mark the contours of the hole on the batten. Then you tack it to the new plank and reverse the process, cut and plane to fit.

A carpenter works on the wonky shape you get on a plank that has to curve in three dimensions after spiling.

Couldn’t go to Normandy without taking the girls to learn a bit about D-Day. Near dark, Gold Beach, Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy, seen from a Nazi bunker. The day before Veterans’ Day, too.

— Brian Anderson, who translated “Grandpa’s Workshop” into English for our edition of this delightful book.

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to A Visit to Grandpa’s Workshop

  1. billlattpa says:

    Very nice. I’ve always wanted to visit Normandy to see the historical sites and the cemetery for American soldiers. Knowing now the woodworking history taking place in Normandy as we speak makes me want to visit more.
    Your visit to the landing sites brought to mind a favorite quotation of mine. When Charles DeGaulle pulled France from the UN in protest, he angrily demanded that all American soldiers be removed from French soil. The American ambassador, under orders from LBJ I believe, asked DeGaulle if that included all of the soldiers buried in Normandy. Degaulle said nothing in reply.

  2. David Cassidy says:

    Thanks for the tour!

  3. pfollansbee says:

    Brian – fabulous! thanks for bringing us along, and for your work on the book. PF

  4. Dave from IN says:

    Off topic, but this has been bugging me since I don’t speak French: how do you pronounce “besaigue?”

    Also, while trying to figure that out, I noticed that it was frequently spelled “bisaigue.” Can you provide any insight as to the different spellings? Is it a regional thing akin to “color” vs ” colour?” I’m quickly becoming fascinated with this tool even though I have zero use for one. I may have to find a blacksmith to make me one. . .

      • Dave from IN says:

        THANK YOU!!! I’ve had to squirm quite a bit try to explain to my five year old son why I can’t read some words, even if I do try and sound them out. Over, and over, and over again!

        The silver lining is that I get to show him that you are never done learning new stuff!

    • bawrytr says:

      Dave, you find it written both ways. I just figured Maurice knew what he was talking about and used bes as opposed to bis. I think it is just one of those words that is so obscure and off the radar of language mavens and the French Academy, that it was never standardized.

  5. Now I really can’t wait for that book to get here. I’m supposed to save it until Christmas and then give it to my kids, but I’m going to have a hard time keeping it tucked away for a whole month…

  6. Gordon Corlette says:

    Pine smell…floats in air
    Takes me back, when I was young
    All this work – worthwhile

  7. Kevin Wilkinson says:

    The book is beautiful. I have no grandchildren so I’ll donate my copy to the local library’s children’s collection if they’ll have it. After I put some creases in the binding and air out the pages for a little while.

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