“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.