Grandpa’s Workshop by Maurice Pommier, ($22, ISBN 978-0-9050777-2-3) published by Lost Art Press and translated from French into English, tells the story of a little boy, Sylvain, awakening tools that have long been asleep in an old chest in his grandfather’s shop. It is also the story of Sylvain awakening to his family’s long history and his own vocation as a woodworker. The book begins by introducing us to Pépère, Sylvain’s grandfather (which you already know if you read French), who welcomes his grandson into his shop and guides him as he tries out different tools. Pépère begins to tell Sylvain stories about the provenance of certain tools—or, more accurately, the tools themselves begin to tell their own stories. Each tool was owned and used (or misused) by one of Sylvain’s ancestors, some going back hundreds of years.
If you have much experience with old tools, you know that old tools do tell stories. Some are obvious, like the saw I have with a the name of a lumber company roughly inscribed in the tote with a nail. Others are less obvious, like the specks of green paint on a chisel I inherited from my own grandfather. Old tools connect us to the past, giving us a sense of continuity with the people who made and used them, and that’s what this book is really about.
That is why the characters in the book are not just figures stuck in because the tools needed a hand to hold them, but developed characters with personalities and quirks all their own. This is not a shop manual, but a storybook. Sylvain has bad dreams, and his grandmother nags Pépère about the junk pile in the corner of his shop. And she doesn’t believe for a minute that there are elves in the shop, as Pépère claims. All of Sylvain’s ancestors are also presented as developed characters. Some were noble and courageous, while others were quarrelsome drunkards. (Parental caution: the author is pretty frank about the grim realities of war and family violence. While the book isn’t graphic, it contains material that may be disturbing to younger children.) Family histories are usually colorful, and Sylvian’s family is no different.
Even if I didn’t have children, I would want to own this book for the quality of the illustrations alone, never mind the clever storyline. The details in each drawing are amazing. Just flipping through the book, I learned a few things about Continental tools and techniques I didn’t know before. I was aware of their preferences for frame saws, but I had no idea what a besaiguë was, or that some shaving horses used small spring poles to open the jaw. Each illustration has significant details that reveal a lot about workshop practices, tool use, and design. For example, hand planes under the workbench are always laid on their sides. Some boxes are joined by dovetails, and others by dovetail pins through miters. The holdfast is ever present in the workbench.
I am grateful to Lost Art Press for translating this book into English and publishing it as a large, high-quality volume. If you have children and would like to provoke an interest in woodworking, I can hardly think of a better place to start. (Actually, I can think of one better place to start: let your child watch you at your workbench, and let her or him try out each tool.) You should at least recommend the book to your local library, and maybe even offer to buy it for their collection if you are feeling generous.
Just make sure that, when the book comes in the mail, you sit down with it by yourself first so you can pore over each page. The kids will want you to keep reading at a steady pace. And one more piece of advice—if you’re going to read this book aloud to children, you might want to figure out how to pronounce the French names ahead of time.
“Tools sleep and die if nobody uses them,” Pépère tells Sylvain, “You have woken them up a little.”