Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Surviving The Test Of Time

The last two posts have focused on the new Colombo jig saws in use at the school. I can only imagine how smooth the operation of these expensive and specialized saws is. I can also imagine the younger students who might prefer the new system to the old ways.

However, I would like to point out an important difference between the most expensive modern jig saw and the traditional chevalet de marqueterie, as it has existed, according to Herbert Cescinsky, since 1680.

The French have the distinction of being the only country in the history of marquetry who use a horizontal blade to cut material. As far as I can determine, every other country uses a vertical blade alignment. Whether you are using a hand held fret saw, or a foot powered frame saw or a jig saw, the blade moves up and down. The chevalet is the only tool which has been designed to operate with a blade in the back and forth direction.

This may seem like a small detail, but the differences are dramatic.

When the blade moves up and down, it is easy for small elements to fall down into the throat of the machine. The sawdust remains on the surface which hides the design. The worker must use his hands to hold down the work, or it will bounce up and down. It is nearly impossible to see exactly along the length of the blade, and the worker needs to adjust his sight to cut while viewing from an angle.

The chevalet is unique in holding the saw frame horizontal and cutting with a horizontal blade. The dust falls away naturally, the blade is directly in front of the eyes of the worker. The saw, which is controlled by hand, is very sensitive to pressure and speed, and can be manipulated very easily. The small elements which are cut out are held in the packet, since the packet is vertical, and it is possible to cut the smallest pieces imaginable. The feet operate the clamps, which frees up the left hand to control the material.

It is not known exactly when the chevalet was created, but I note that Herbert Cescinsky, in his 1931 classic, "The Gentle Art of Faking Furniture," states: "The marqueterie-cutter's saw, in its guides, with the 'chops,' which open and close by foot pressure, to hold the veneers while being cut, and his seat at the end (the 'donkey,) as it is called), have hardly varied at all in two hundred and fifty years." 1969 edition, page 89.

The pictures illustrate one of the antique chevalets at the school, which I probably used. Also shown is the newest chevalet, which is adjustable in height and can be converted from left to right handed use. Note the fancy carved face.

There is no other tool quite like it!


Chuck said...

Patrick, your recent posts have helped to give me a much better perspective on the use of saws available to the marqueteur today. The timing could not be better. I will be doing another lecture at the Northeastern Woodworkers Showcase 2011 in Saratoga Springs in March. Through a minimum communication with the talk organizer, the title of the talk is "Marquetry - French Technique". The arguments and material from your blog will add considerable substance. Thank you!

There will be a special exhibit of workbenches as part of the show this year. The portable chevalet that you designed some years ago was built by a good friend and I. It has been used with some success and will be on display there. I have been asked to demonstrate its use during the two day show so that will tie in nicely to the lectures. I will give you more information and photos of this tool in due time. (Our definition of workbench is something that can hold wood so it can be worked on.)

Chuck Walker
Northeastern Woodworkers Association

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Perhaps you can give me something to post about your talk. Photos? Feedback? How did it go?