The following is excerpted from “Grandpa’s Workshop,” by Maurice Pommier. This 48-page book was translated by Brian Anderson, an American-born writer and woodworker who lives and works in France. It is ostensibly a book for children, though the stories, lessons and drawing style will appeal to anyone who has an appreciation for the natural and the fantastical.
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.
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.
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.
How better to honor a woodworker than to surround his portrait with his tools?
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.
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.
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.
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.
We do have the charming carpenter and the carpenter’s wife with actual hats on their heads instead of glue pots.
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.
How tools are stored can also be a work of art.
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.
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.
The Bath joiner, with beer in hand, gives us a warm wecome to his shop and a gander at his most important tools.
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.
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.
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’.
You know that this post is going to be about André-Jacob Roubo. But not entirely.
For me, woodworking books in the French tradition begin with a title we haven’t been able to publish from the “other André” – André Félibien’s “Des Principes de L’Architecture…” (1676). Félibien’s book, which includes sections on woodworking, was published before Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick’s Exercises.” And Joseph, the naughty Englishman, ripped off many of Félibien’s images for his book.
We have attempted to translate this book on a couple occasions, but the effort has always drifted off track for one reason or another. I’d like to get it published because Félibien’s book illustrates the first instances of the double-screw vise (what we call a Moxon vise), the goberge clamping bars, a sliding deadman and a marquetry donkey (among other innovations).
Another Book We Don’t Publish Also important in the French canon is M. Duhamel’s “De L’Exploitation Des Bois” (1764). This is, as far as I can tell, the first book devoted to what we now call “green woodworking.” It deals with the seasoning of wood and explains wood movement using the same charts we use today. It covers making all sorts of things from green wood, from shoes to the frames for saddles. It covers wood bending and a wide variety of techniques.
We’ve started on this project a few times and it has proved to be a challenge. Someday.
And Another… You can’t really discuss French technical books without mentioning Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s “Encyclopédie,” a 32-volume work that covered, well, everything. It was an encyclopedia after all. There are sections on woodworking and the allied trades. But I find the “Encyclopédie” too general for me to own a set.
OK, Now Roubo A group of us have devoted a ridiculous amount of time and money to translate large chunks of Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier,” which is an enormous multi-volume set on woodworking, joinery, furniture-making, marquetry, carriage making, garden woodworking, turning, finishing and many other topics of interest to the contemporary woodworker.
Unlike the other authors above, Roubo was a practicing joiner who studied architectural drawing at night (he drew the illustrations for his books) and interviewed fellow craftsmen to create his masterwork, which earned him a promotion from journeyman to master.
At times I think I am too close to this work and cannot adequately explain how completely intoxicating and challenging it is. Many woodworking books (even the ones I write personally) are fairly tame stuff, intellectually. While modern books help you grow a bit, Roubo is more like diving in headfirst to Thomas Pynchon right after mastering “Dick & Jane.” If you are willing to pay attention, you will be rewarded with nuggets of knowledge you can’t find elsewhere. Roubo has helped me directly with my finishing, the way I prepare glue, my understanding of campaign furniture, how I make brick moulding, designing galleries and on and on.
And I seriously doubt I’ll ever build a high-style French furniture. It’s not a book of projects.
We have two translated volumes that reflect a decade of work by Donald C. Williams, Michele Pietryka-Pagán, Philippe Lafargue and a team of editors and designers.
The second volume, “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture,” covers all of Roubo’s writing on making furniture, plus the workshop, workshop appliances, tools and turning. This book is massive, and even though I’ve read it many times over, I refer to it regularly and consider it one of the foundations of my work.
Because we are insane, we also published a deluxe version of this book. It is $550. It is the nicest thing in the world that has my name in it. Carrying this book around is like lugging two giant pizzas to your car. Sitting down and reading it with a glass of bourbon is one of the greatest pleasures I know of.
I do love it. But still, it was a nutty thing to publish.
Slightly less nutty (but still up there) is “The Book of Plates.” This book reproduces all of the plates from Roubo’s books in full-size. This is a great companion if you buy a pdf of one of the two translations or happen to read ancient French.
And Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Grandpa’s Workshop” by Maurice Pommier, perhaps our most charming book. Ostensibly a children’s tale, it’s a delightful collection of illustrated stories about woodworking, craftsman and slaying dragons with a mortise chisel.
It’s a bit scary for overprotective parents (there’s a murder). But the rest of you will be delighted because Pommier is a devoted hand-tool woodworker. And so all the woodworking bits are perfectly rendered by someone who knows how to handle the tools. It is, to me, a pure delight to read.
Pépère watched me with a strange expression. He ran his fingers through my hair, and he said, in the softest voice :
— That’s the story…
— But I woke up just afterward! Tell me, nobody ever tried to make a new handle for the hammer?
— Ah, you know little rabbit, I don’t think so. That DAMMED HAMMER has always skulked around in the tool chest of some member of our family. But understand, really, that it is the men who decide how tools are to be used. And always remember, that drunkenness and anger never give birth to good things
— But you, Pépère, how did you know what happened to Abel?
— When I was a little boy, I asked Pépé Clothaire why this hammer’s handle had never been replaced.
— And you, did you also ask Pépé Clothaire how he knew the story?
— Pépé Clothaire told me that the elves in his shop taught him the story. So the hammer stayed in Pépé Clothaire’s tool chest, and after he died, nobody used his tools, except for the American carpenter’s big saw. It was your mother’s brother who used these tools.
— It wasn’t Uncle Gaspard, he has all modern tools in his joinery shop. What was his name , my uncle you never want to talk about?
— Étienne… He was our first boy. We had three children, Gaspard and your mother were his brother and sister. He had a tragic accident. He was a carpenter, and fell from the top of a church while rebuilding the roof beams . He braced his foot on the ANGEL’S HEAD in the chest. The piece broke out from under him, an angel that didn’t do his job . Since the accident, his chest has never been opened. Tools sleep and die if nobody uses them. You have woken them up a little.
Pépère told me that story without looking at me
Tomorrow it is back to school. I am going to see my friends again, but I will not see Pépère as much. I have to hurry. I need to finish my BOAT before vacation ends.
— You are well on the way to becoming a boatbuilder!
— No, Pépère, later, I want to be a joiner, like you, and I will work with your tools!
— Rabbit, I am really happy to hear you tell me that. If you want to become a joiner, I will show you how to use the tools little by little. But you also have to learn to work with the MACHINES like those in your Uncle Gaspard’s shop. You will not work alone, like us, and not in the same way.
In the meantime, tomorrow, there is school, and that is also very important to become a good woodworker.
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?!?
— 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:
— 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:
— 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.