I have posted previously here about how and when I first saw a real chevalet. I call that discovery "pre industrial espionage" in my lectures. In short, when I saw the saw frame support, I immediately understood how important that part of the tool was to keep the blade perpendicular to the work. I built that tool, which is called a chevalet, and used it for nearly 15 years before I was accepted at ecole Boulle.
When I asked Pierre Ramond about the history of the tool, his response was not precise, either because of my poor understanding of French at that time, or because the actual facts of the development of the tool are "secret." One thing is certain: the knowledge and use of this tool is not wide spread, and seems to be limited to workers in Paris and those who learned the trade there.
I am fortunate today to have the internet and a partner, Patrice Lejeune, who is really a talented researcher, among other things. His wife, Agnes, shares this talent, and has just received her PhD in Art History from the Sorbonne, in Paris. Patrice was able to search through early French books online and found some important facts about this tool.
The only reference I have found to the chevalet in English publications is in the book, "The Gentle Art of Faking Furniture," by Herbert Cescinsky. He was a noted furniture historian, and published this work in 1931, with a second edition published in 1969. I treasure this book, and many others which I have collected on the subject of fakes, not only for its unique first hand perspective on the trade, but also since it includes photos and information about French marquetry.
On page 89, he 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." If you believe this statement, then the tool was used as early as 1680, suggesting that Mr. Boulle and Mr. Gole and all the rest of the late 17th century ebenistes could have used it.
Here I need to make an important distinction. Roubo, writing in 1769, illustrates an "Ane" in his famous "L'Art Du Menuisier," Volume IV, Plate 291 and 292. This illustration shows a tool without the saw frame support, and the translation of the noun, "ane," is "donkey." When the tool is shown with the additional saw support, it is called a "chevalet." We are talking about two different tools, which do the same job, and are often called the same name, incorrectly.
The term "chevalet" is interesting by itself. Pierre Ramond specifically asked me to find a better translation for the tool than "donkey" when he retired from teaching. I looked up the term "chevalet" in a French dictionary, and found the answer. "Chevalet" is a "stand, support, trestle, frame. "Chevalet de scieur" is a sawbench, sawhorse. "Chevalet de peintre" is an easel. All of these terms have a common function: something to hold the work in place while it is being worked on.
Patrice made an important and significant discovery during this search for the origin of the tool. He found a book online, "Des Principes de l'Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture, et des Autres Arts qui en Dependent. Aved un Dictionnaire des Termes propres a chacun de ces Arts." This book was published in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Coignard, in 1676, and reprinted in 1690. The first edition published in 1676 has a full page illustration in Volume III, page 457, that shows clearly two important things: a two man veneer saw and the wood clamp holding the veneer log, which rises from a hole in the floor, and a pair of "anes" or "donkeys" with slight differences. These donkeys each have a foot operated clamp, and are shown holding the packets of veneer in the jaws. There is a tray to catch the parts, and the "bocfil" or fretsaw is resting on the floor.
This proves conclusively that the donkey existed during the time of Boulle and Louis XIV, and that the illustration in Roubo, some 70 years later is essentially the same tool.
At the same time, you will note in the above illustration that the tool is referred to simply as "appareil special pour decouper la marqueterie." Translated that means "apparatus (or tool) special for cutting marquetry." This is from a catalogue of tools for sale by La Forge Royale, published during the first decades of the 20th century. It is interesting they did not use the term "chevalet" so I wonder when that term became associated with the tool.
The donkey and chevalet were not the only tools used to make marquetry of course. In addition to the hand held fretsaw, there was a foot operated frame saw, like I used in making the AIC video. I was trying to be conservative in deciding to use that saw, instead of the chevalet. One reason I suspect that Boulle would have also used that saw is the sheer weight of the packet when using brass, pewter and shell, as Boulle did. It is very hard to hold it in a vertical position without breaking blades, as would be required if it were cut on a donkey. Therefore, I suspect that these large and heavy packets were cut on a table, horizontal, using a foot powered frame saw with a vertical blade.
It is interesting when you view all three videos on the last post (The Art Institute of Chicago Project) to see each of us using different tools. I am cutting with a foot powered frame saw, Patrice is using a hand held fret saw, and Yannick is using a chevalet. I suspect that workers in the period used a wide range of methods to achieve the amazing results we see in museums today. The great tragedy of that time is that Mr. Boulle's workshop burned to the ground at the end of his career, and all the work, tools, materials and designs were lost forever. It is left to the historians to speculate and the researchers to discover the secrets of the past.
POSTSCRIPT: I just received an email from Filip in Belgium adding confirmation to my decision to demonstrate the Boulle method using the foot powered frame saw instead of the chevalet. I haven't had the money yet to purchase Pierre Ramond's latest book, "Andre-Charles Boulle, ebeniste, ciseleur et marqueteur ordinaire du Roy," published by Vial in 2010. However, my friend Filip has a copy and sent me images from page 24 and 25 where Pierre concludes that Boulle used a foot saw. Here is the image with the text:
Those of you who read French will note that on both illustrations Pierre concludes that Boulle probably used a tool like this. We had made this decision based on the size and weight of the packets that were cut, and the technology available at that time. It is always rewarding to have my independent research supported by my professor, and the person I believe knows more about French marquetry than anyone else alive.