Sharpening my Besaigue. Or, a Trip to the Moon on the Cheap

Pitting on the back of the blade. Not going to come out.

A couple of years back, as a big flea market was winding down in a village near where we lived in the Poitou region, I stumbled across my dealer.

“Keep walking,” I ordered myself. “You donʼt want to go there; youʼve kicked the habit. Besides, you have to save for your daughtersʼ education. No, you cannot free up the cash by selling one of your angelic daughters to the gypsies. Yes, it’s true that you made money on the last deal when the Gypsy King came, on his knees, weeping, gnashing his teeth and rending his hair, begging to pay you to take her back after two hours. But they are unlikely to make the same mistake again. After all, the last time she rode by the camp on her bike, they upped and moved to a swampy malarial sand spit in the Camargue. Be reasonable. Keep walking. Look, there is a late medieval torso of St. Sebastian in local stone that suffered greatly, again, during the Revolution, on sale for a kingʼs ransom. Your loving wife will be so pleased.”

So I stopped.

The tool dealer, a mangy, scrofulous, grumpy old bear of a man, glanced up, flashed an evil, avaricious grin, and immediately got on the phone to his real estate agent and put in a bid on a 10,000-square-foot mansion in the chi-chiest part of Paris.

I couldnʼt help myself. There it was: a strange tool, one that I had never seen before. It was a flat bar, maybe a yard long, with a steel handle sticking out from the middle. There was a big chisel at one end, and a mortise chisel at the other. Wow.

As I picked it up, my dealer was saying something like, “Sure, Iʼll buy it, but only if they throw in the Picassos… OK, they need to toss in the Titian altarpiece housing a relic of the True Cross, too… Yes, heʼs back again.”

Then he hung up the phone. “How can I be of service to you today?”

“Whatʼs this tool called?”

“Besaigue,” he said.

Ever solicitous, I offered him a Kleenex.

“No, my sagacious friend, it is a besaigue. The emblematic tool of French Charpentiers. The one end is a big ciseau that they use to sharpen their pencils and their reparté, and the other is a bedane, which they use to chop mortises. No collector of your brilliant acuity could possibly be without one.”

Walking shirtless to the hotel he had found for me on his new 5G iPhone (he was also kind enough to call my wife to inform her of our change of domicile), I was a happy man. It was only 20 kilometers after all, but I had my beautiful besaigue. After all you could build a house, and an ox cart, with a besaigue. All you had to do was sharpen it!

OK…

Actually, the tool dealer was a knowledgeable man, and the price of the besaigue reflected the fact that it had sat, rusting, in a damp barn for donkeyʼs years, and it was really suited only for decoration. But these tools are not easy to find, and they are expensive when you do find them.

Today I wondered if, despite the pitting on the flat of the blade, it might be possible to tune it up and make it work again. So I went out to the shop and took it down from its place on a rafter.

The besaigue.

Cross-peen hammer marks from the forging process, and pitting on the tempered blade. I expected to find a laid blade, with a carbon steel cutting edge, and a mild steel or iron shaft. But there was no weld – the whole thing is tool steel, so it’s not all that old.

Filing the flat back of the blade to get the worst of the crap off.Here one might be tempted to find a coarser file, a cheap one, that turns out to be not at all flat and so gouge a valley in middle of the blade that takes a long time to work out. Bad idea.

Reworking the bevel

This is as good as it is going to get, I guess, short of grinding blade down and welding on a wedge of tool steel. The pits are too deep to file out without taking more material off the relatively thin blade than I would like to.

The mortise chisel end was in much better shape, and the back could be filed more aggressively to get rid of the pits and still remain plenty strong.

Shaping a peg. It worked just fine. Some illustrations show people working with the bar over the shoulder, but I found the tool difficult to control when used that way.

Author and illustrator, Maurice Pommier shapes a peg in a photo he sent me.

It’s a useable tool, though it obviously needs some major surgery to make it work as it should.

The funny thing about the restoration was that the same morning, I’d gone into the dark, cobwebby corner of my barn and dragged out a stone grinding wheel. It is a good wheel, with a relatively fine white stone that just needs a bit of dressing. But it’s just the wheel and the crank, the frame is long gone. I considered finally getting around to building a bench/frame and water trough for the beast and use it to rough out the besaigue.

“Naw,” I thought, “that’ll take too long. Just use the files and stones.”

Might easily have been quicker…

— Brian Anderson

Editor’s Note: Brian is the translator of “Grandpa’s Workshop,” the forthcoming book from Lost Art Press.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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15 Responses to Sharpening my Besaigue. Or, a Trip to the Moon on the Cheap

  1. Jonas Jensen says:

    Great story.
    How is it used as a mortising chisel? Only by pushing, or do you strike it with a mallet on the handle.
    Jonas

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    • François Pernod says:

      Hello, No you never strike a bisaigue with any thing! you first drill the mortice with an auger bit, typically 30 mm, then you break the walls between the holes with the mortice chisel and pare down the side with the large chisel. The tool you bought seems to be pretty small on the chisel side, there were many sizes, mine is 50mm on the chisel side. François

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      • bawrytr says:

        My thinking is that they were sized to the carpenter, both in terms of the bar’s length for obvious reasons, and the sizes of the chisels. Because the force you can exert to push the bisaigue is limited by your weight, then the lighter the carpenter, the smaller the chisels.

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      • Jonas Jensen says:

        Thank you for the explanation.
        I saw the mallet on the picture of Maurice Pommier, so I thought it was for that purpose.
        In Denmark the equivalent of a bisaigue is called a stikøkse (“stabaxe”, but it only features the chisel end.

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    • bawrytr says:

      On thing is that they mostly worked wood more or less green, and so relatively soft.

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  2. John Switzer says:

    Now this is just one more tool I’ll have to add to my list of tools to make in the shop.

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  3. lew60 says:

    Weighty tool. Would be very effective.

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  4. David Cassidy says:

    Great Stuff. Good writing

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  5. Brett says:

    How much do those tools weight? A few kilos, or tens of kilos?

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  6. Paul says:

    I have a torsion bar from a Chrysler Imperial been saving. 68″ long 1 1/8″ dia. with 3″x 3″ hex on each end, Hmmmmm!

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  7. Brett says:

    I guess it’s important that the tool be longer than the distance from the ground to your armpit. It won’t be fun if you slipped and and got your wing clipped on that thing.

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  8. Dan says:

    No more guessing required. The Companions de Riguer (forgive the spelling) still exist in France. It is an ancient group still trained in the old ways in many of the old crafts; plastering, masonry, timberframing, cabinetmaking, etc, They know that tool well and have stories/ Look them up and learn from them. I’ve met some of their journeymen timberframers and they have been eager to teach. I would be happy to help LAP contact the right people. You might get one to demo at WWIA. Or just learn more of Roubo.

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    • Brad says:

      I think you’re referring to the Compagnons du Devoir. As a timber framer, I’ve a met a few here and there. In the timber framing world they are generally considered to extremely bad a**.

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