Pépé Clothaire’s Tool Chest

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This is an excerpt from “Grandpa’s Workshop” by Maurice Pommier.

The darkest corner of Pépère’s shop both fascinates and frightens me. It is full of spiderwebs and dust. It is there that Pépère keeps the tools he doesn’t use anymore.

It’s also the place he keeps the odds and ends of things he calls his “couldcomeinhandy’s.”

He says it would be a terrible idea to clean the corner, because the elves would be furious. Grandma says he should be ashamed it is such a mess, and that he could easily clean up that shambles. Pépère just chuckles.

Today I came in earlier than usual. I brought a flashlight to look through the jumble of things in the corner while Pépère had gone to break his bread. I discovered a big blue chest. When Pépère came back into the shop, I tugged on his sleeve and asked him what it was.

— It’s Pépé Clothaire’s tool chest, he said, tapping his finger on the chest.

— Tool Chest?!?

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— Pépé Clothaire’s chest was handed down from his grandfather, and certainly from the grandfather of his grandfather!

Pépère wrinkles his nose a bit, and he tugs on his mustache.

— Wow! It must be incredibly old! Open it! Show me what is inside!

Pépère goes to the keyboard on the wall and picks up a little key among the many hanging on nails there, and he makes a little space around the chest. He turns on the light and with a broom sweeps the dust off the top of the chest. The key goes cric-crac in the lock.

When he opens the chest, Pépère’s eyes shine. He shows me the underside of the top where the big English saw had been stored. Then he pulls out the tools and arranges them on the floor of the shop, and he teaches me the names of them all:

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— Wow, Pépère, they are a little rusty…

— Yes, and they are covered with dust that tickles your nose. You see, here are almost all of your Pépé Clothaire’s tools, all that he needed to build the roof structures of churches, of castles, and of houses. But there is one missing…Wait a second, I think that it is over here, it was too long to fit in the chest.

He wipes his nose and rummages around in the corner of the woodshop. He returns, peeling oily rags off a long, strange tool.

— Is is the besaiguë of Pépé Clothaire, Pépère tells me before I can ask him what it is. The ends of the tool are protected by leather sheaths. He takes them off to show me:

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— On one end you have a big chisel, like a slick, and on the other a mortise chisel. To cut a mortise, the carpenter would drill a series of holes into a beam , and then use the besaiguë to finish the square hole in the wood. He also used it to shape the pegs used to pin the joints, and when he wanted to show off, he would even use it to sharpen his pencil!

Pépère shows me how he can use the besaiguë to shape a peg from a scrap of oak.

— Pépère, who did the besaiguë belong to, before Pépé Clothaire?

Pépère’s face falls a little, and he says he will tell me about that later. Because he needs to put the tools away, because he has some work to do, and he isn’t going to do it alone. I help him put Clothaire’s tools back away in the chest. Pépère takes the angel’s head and looks at it, frowning, and stuffs it down deep into the chest.

Meghan Bates

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11 Responses to Pépé Clothaire’s Tool Chest

  1. mallasch says:

    Cool, never heard of such a tool so went looking and found this French website… it has one called out in stone! http://compagnonnage.info/blog/blogs/blog1.php/2009/09/23/tombe-charpentier-gentioux

    • Richard Mahler says:

      Imagine many people today recording pride in their trades as masons and woodworkers on their gravestones! Hardly anyone even makes mention of their vocations on gravemarkers – even when they think their life labors have been more than a means of making a living. How little it seems to matter now what we do; how little it defines who we are in our brief sojourn on this tiny planet.

  2. Olivier Aubert says:

    besaigüe is the old French writing. The actual/current name of the tool in french is “bisaigüe”, which seems to be translated in “twybil” in english. You can still buy (and use, of course) them.

  3. Richard Mahler says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this book. As a book collector and antique tool collector, how did I miss that one?! A cabinetmaker from the mid-to-late 18th century could walk into my house and get right down to work with the tools I have, many of them made by his toolmaker contemporaries and passed on generation to generation unti the era of factory-made furniture made them obsolete as a means of making a living. No one who used and cared for them ever dreamed they would be objects of curiosity, antiques prized for their workmanship and signs of long use. Who can look at them and not wish they knew what objects they made and whether they have survived their makers?

  4. SSteve says:

    Compass? I thought those were dividers. Is it a language difference?

    • joopson says:

      Compass and dividers both work, and I think it depends mostly on what you’re using it for. In school, we called the ones used for drawing circles a “compass”; especially if one of the legs had a pencil attached. But I’ve seen dividers called compasses almost interchangeably.

  5. Michael Tebalt says:

    My daughters both love this book. It beautiful. A perfect children’s book.

  6. Richard Mahler says:

    I have found the bisaigue – mostly antiques (outil ancien) – with the central metal handle, but also with the socket for a sizable handle, but since these examples do not have the handle attached I have no idea whether it would be a short or long handle. They vary greatly in shape, more in mass than in length, the ones with handle sockets being much more massive which is likely a clue to how they are to be used – perhaps more like the English Twibill. I have read some speculation as to whether any such tools came to Jamestown or other early colonial American settlements, but I am not aware that any such have been found by archaeologists and I see none quite like them in my library of books on early tools.

  7. Jeremy says:

    After the first time I read this with my kids, my eyes too shine like Pépère’s during this part.

  8. tsstahl says:

    I really enjoyed this book for the time I got to spend with my daughter. The first time through we ended just turning pages and looking at pictures.

  9. I can’t say enough good things about this book. I love reading it to my daughters.

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