Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chevalet de Marqueterie II

Since I opened the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego, there has been increased interest in the cutting tool called the "chevalet." I opened the school with the primary goal of introducing this unique tool to woodworkers who previously were using hand held fret saws, jig saws or even knives. I have travelled all over Europe and the US visiting marquetry workshops and it is amazing that only in Paris is the chevalet used as the primary tool. The Dutch, German, Italian, English and American workers universally use cutting tools with a vertical blade action. The French are the only ones to use a horizontal blade action, as illustrated in Roubo and Diderot.

There are several advantages to using the chevalet. When the packet is held vertical and the blade is horizontal, the dust drops away from the design. Also, the blade is cutting directly in front of the face so it is easy to see and follow the line. The bench provides a comfortable place to rest while working, and the feet easily clamp the packet so the left hand is free to manipulate the work. The right hand simply pushes the saw back and forth, and the saw support keeps it exactly at 90 degrees to the work. There is even a place for the coffee cup and tool tray.

Most of these tools were made individually by the craftsman, and each tool is fitted to the size of the worker. In my school I have 8 different sizes for students, from 52cm to 61 cm in height. The size is measured from the seat top to the blade when it rests in the cutting "V". The tool illustrated in the back of Pierre Ramond's book, "Marquetry," is a 54cm tool, much too small for most American workers.

We use Pierre's book as a textbook in the school. It is out of print, but there is the original Vial edition in English, the 1989 Taunton Press edition, and the 2000 Getty edition available online, using normal book search engines. There are not a lot of these copies that were printed in the first place, so I recommend you get one while you still can.

When I studied with Pierre, he had a particular request relating to the book. He directed me to find another word for the tool, instead of the usual English term "donkey." I understand that the term "donkey" is not the most flattering term in the world. That fact was driven home to me when, during a national woodworking show in the East Coast, as I was demonstrating marquetry using my chevalet, the other woodworkers made a wood "donkey tail" and (as a joke) tried to blindfold me and make me play "pin the tail on the donkey." I was not amused.

It turns out that the term "chevalet" was translated into Dutch during the late 17th century as "eazel" which is translated into English as "ass." Eventually, the term was cleaned up to be "donkey" and most of the English references to the tool since that time use donkey.

I took another approach to solve the problem. I looked up the term "easel" in my Harrap's dictionary and found "chevalet." There was "chevalet de peintre etc." The "etc" indicates that there are different uses for the chevalet. One of these is the "chevalet de marqueterie." which is the proper French term for donkey.

I like this alternative. During the late 17th century, when I believe the chevalet was created, the most popular type of marquetry was called "painting in wood." It included vases of flowers and other naturalistic images, which were exactly like the fine art painters of the period, except executed in wood, tortoise shell, ivory and other materials. These were expensive and required a high degree of skill. So referring to the chevalet as an easel implies that the worker is an artist creating fine art with wood as a medium.

Much better than working on your donkey.

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