When I started restoring marquetry on antique furniture in 1969, I looked at Diderot and Roubo for information on what kind of tool the French were using. What I found was called a donkey, and it had a seat, a foot pedal and jaws for holding the veneers in a packet. At that time I was traveling each month to the midwest to buy antiques for resale. During one trip I found a harness maker’s bench, which looked exactly like the donkey illustration in Roubo. The only difference was the jaws were perpendicular to the worker, not parallel. I paid $150 and brought it home, took it apart, made a new seat and remounted the jaws to work for veneer. I spent nearly 10 years riding that donkey, with a hand held fret saw, struggling to create marquetry like I saw on 18th century furniture in museums.
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.
What I am now researching is the precise time when the saw frame arm was added to this tool. Clearly, the size and complexity of marquetry which was produced during the third quarter of the 18th century would suggest this tool was used, but I haven’t yet found the “smoking gun.” It is evident that the “chevalet” with the arm existed during the 19th century, and I have many references for that. I will post any new discoveries on this site as soon as they appear.
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.
-- Patrice lejeune