The Artistry of Tools

Le maître du trait, Abbaye de la Trinité, Vendôme, France.

The trades of the carpenter, joiner, cabinetmaker and turner, and their tools, have long been an inspiration for artists. Woodworkers and tool historians have, in turn, studied artwork to learn how tools were used in the past and how they have evolved. Some artwork centers around a celebration of just the tools and in some cases tools are arranged as amusements.

Note: If you are a long-time reader of this blog you will see some familiar images.

‘Life of the Infant’ by Hieronymus Wierix (1553-1619), Antwerp. Rijiksmuseum.

This title page for a portfolio of 12 plates about the childhood of Jesus is one of the iconic images in the woodworking world. Wierix used a square cartouche for the title with a surround of tools. The clutter can be overwhelming, however, when all the plates are assembled and each page studied the title page gets easier to figure out.

All of the tools used by Jesus, Joseph and the helper angels, as well as the implements used by Mary, are “summarized” on the title page. Wierix essentially made a tantalizing opening sequence of just the tools, perhaps not surprising as his father was a painter and cabinetmaker.

The construction of Noah’s Ark has been a rich source of information on early woodworking tools and methods.

From ‘Physica Sacra, Volume I’ by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733), Swiss. Internet Archive.

The four volumes of Scheuchzer’s ‘Physica Sacra’ contain numerous engravings illustrating  the Old Testament and its natural life. Each engraving is augmented with a tableau which provides a frame for the image. At the top, the spool of the line marker (to the left of center) unwinds, the line wends it way to the right, drops over the side and draws the eye to the bottom set of tools.

Of course, the top and bottom tableaux let us look at the tools in use at the time of Scheuchzer, but not necessarily available to Noah.

Tool Trophies

How better to honor a woodworker than to surround his portrait with his tools?

Hans Bach, 1617, carpenter and fiddler, BnF. Adam Billaut (1602-1662), cabinetmaker and poet, Château Versailles.

Hans Bach is portrayed with his carpentry tools, his fiddle and his favorite beverage (?). The placement of his tools is similar to a trade card. As can be seen in Billaut’s portrait a more formal arrangement is to form the tools into trophies.

A trophy is a celebration of victory and achievment. The items in a trophy are tied in bundles with a line or ribbon and the bundles hang vertically. Trophies often feature weapons and armor (spoils of war) or tools of a trade. Other than a plaque or maybe a mythical being the trophy is all tools. In the Wierix engraving two small trophies hang on either side of the title cartouche. And on the title page to Plumier’s opus on turning (above) two very neat trophies help introduce the tools used in turning.

Jean-Charles Delafosse (1734-1789), dated 1770, Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, New York.

Delafosse crammed in so many extras into his trophies for ‘La charpente et la Menuisier’ that it is hard to see the tools for the flourishes. These trophies are more a tribute to the professions than an attempt to fully display the tools.

Johannes of Lucas van Doetechuk, 1572, Rijksmuseum.

Completed two hundred years before Delafosses’s work, this trophy (one of four on the same paper) gives a clearer view of the tools. It has the surprise of including a workbench with a holdfast. I am convinced the most appropriate method of viewing a trophy is to first drink a glass or two of beer or wine. A relaxed mind is crucial.

A 19th century cabinetmaker’s sign with a spectacular asking price of $18,000.

Two modern versions of a trophy from the delightful ‘Grandpa’s Workshop’ by Maurice Pommier. Maurice fills his book with creative depictions of tools and I urge you to get this book (from Lost Art Press).


There are many books illustrating trades with a small engraving and a short paragraph. The lighter side of this category is the Costumes Grotesques, or Costumes of the Trades in which the tradesman is dressed with the tools of his profession.

Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), Wellcome Library. Nicolas de Larmessin (1632-1694), BnF.

While both versions of the menuisier are fascinating, de Larmessin’s is the more creative  rendition. He “clothed” his menuisier in finely worked wooden panels. Engelbrecht, on the other hand, provided a legend for the tools and a corresponding female, or wife, of the tradesman. Unfortunately, the wife of the menuisier is not yet available in the public domain.

Martin Engelbrecht, Wellcome Library.

We do have the charming carpenter and the carpenter’s wife with actual hats on their heads instead of glue pots.

Imagerie Dembour et Gangel, 19th century, Bibliothèques-Médiathèques de Metz, France.

Cross a tool trophy with a cariacture of a tradesman and you get a blacksmith and a woodworker composed entirely of tools. If you have visited the Lost Art Press storefront and made a trip to the men’s room (the one with the urinal) you probably have seen the black and white version of this image.

Tool Storage

How tools are stored can also be a work of art.

Portion of the H.O. Studley tool cabinet, private collection. Photo by Narayan Nayar.

Studley used exotic woods and incorporated architectural elements to display his many tools. His artistry is such that the tools and the design elements are in harmony; the gothic arches and chisel handles sit comfortably together and the hand plane is not lost in the arched niche.

Photo by Narayan Nayar.

In the photographer’s own workshop his eye for composition and balance offers another way to store tools in his ‘Tool Triptych.’

The Tool Chest Lid

The woodworker’s tool chest is another canvas for artistic displays of tools.

Joiner’s tool chest, 1790s, Building of Bath Collection.

The Bath joiner, with beer in hand, gives us a warm wecome to his shop and a gander at his most important tools.

Top of the F.W. Ballack tool chest, 1845.

Finch & Co. Auctions in London had a Prussian cabinetmaker’s tool chest up for sale a few years ago. The chest was made in Mewes, now known as Gniew in northern Poland.

Interior lid of the Ballack tool chest with the cabinetmaker and apprentice.

No lock is visible on the front of the chest and how it opens it is a puzzle (see the gallery for the solution).

In 2015 there was a collaboration on this traveling tool chest. Chistopher Schwarz built the chest with bomb-proof joinery. The fancy-pants lid was created by Jameel Abraham.

As long as there have been woodworkers artists have been beside them documenting their tools and work. From orderly arrangements to dizzying aggregations, the artwork of tools gives recognition to the hands that make and use them.

Suzanne Ellison

In the gallery: 1. the full page of four trophies by van Doetechum (Rijksmuseum); 2. ‘Implements Animated’ by Charles Williams, active 1797-1830 (Met Museum); 3-5. the front, top compartment and hidden lock of the F.W. Ballack chest (Finch & Co.); 6. arranged for sale: French gimlets (Objects of Use) and antique breast augers (Robert Young Antiques); 7. tools from the ‘Book of Plates’.

This entry was posted in Grandpa's Workshop, Historical Images, Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Artistry of Tools

  1. Joseph Newman says:

    I think the Kentucky Shop needs a hanging set of “three dimensional” trophies by the door. Real tools.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Maurice says:

    Bravo Suzanne ! Iconographie formidable. Merci.

  3. tsstahl says:

    “Unfortunately, the wife of the menuisier is not yet available in the public domain.”

    Must be a Disney character. 😉

    • saucyindexer says:

      Ha! Either that, or she is indisposed due to the headache from her beanie cap with the chisel plume. 😫

  4. brendangaffney says:

    What a wonderful survey! I love the idea of hanging some “trophies” around the LAP storefront, as long as they aren’t over my bench. And – I’m still dying to know what that funny ratcheting house-jack kind of thing is in the Physica Sacra, Volume I motif! It’s unlike any tool I know of.

  5. gregla2 says:

    I like the blacksmith and woodworker made from tools. I need to find a print to hang in the shop. It reminds me of the Giuseppe Arcimboldo prints Sommer and Wasser that my family members have.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I have only seen the print in black and white. A color print would be great.

  6. jenohdit says:

    Any thoughts on the animals in the Delafosse print? Beaver on the left? Looks like a serpent on the right.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Well, the beaver is a “carpenter” in the animal world: taking down trees, fashioning the pieces and building dams. The serpent is associated with Athena (or Minerva), goddess of the mechanical arts and architecture. Delafosse combines some of the symbols often used in allegories of architecture (design of classical orders, the dodecahedron) to differentiate the carpenter from the menuisier.

  7. schugn says:

    To bad the engravings and artwork of Renaissance artists of 1400th – 1700th century are used as bonified authorities of “interpretations” of tool craft 1000- 2000 years before these persons existed.
    Secular history (archaeology shows a much slower progression of tool development prior to 900 AD( approx.). Please correct me of time frame, I am trying to be generous.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Perhaps they were in the past, but now we look at the tools represented as those in use during the time of the artist. A Renaissance artist or engraver would not have known the tools used by Noah or Saint Joseph so they painted and drew what contemporaneous carpenters used. Even then, they got a lot of details wrong. Fortunately, we have more and more resources available to help us learn what was used in ancient times.

  8. simmonsjay1 says:

    Off topic


    I Have volunteered to generate an index for a no longer published woodturning magazine “Woodturning Designs”. Once complete it would be in the public domain. Would it be possible to point me to some references, On line or print, On how to construct an index?


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