A Stitch in Time: France’s last rasp making dynasty

The following is based on my profile of Auriou Tool Works from issue 249 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

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Forge de Saint Juey, home to Auriou Tool Works

Of the many artisan tool manufacturers currently making high quality hand tools few can claim the heritage of Michel Auriou – the 4th generation rasp maker of Forge de Saint Juery. Most commonly known for their hand stitched rasps, the craftsmen at Forge de Saint Juery also make highly acclaimed stone carving tools, plaster sculpting tools, and most recently a range of wood carving tools in collaboration with master carver Chris Pye.

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This mural on Michel’s office wall was carved by customer’s using the Auriou range of plaster carving tools

A Family Affair

The Auriou tool business dates back much to 1856, when Michel’s great-uncle Paulin Causse moved from Saint Juery in the south of France to Paris, to work as a rifler stitcher for a business making plaster and clay sculpture tools. Paulin was subsequently joined by Louis Auriou, Michel’s grandfather. In 1933 Louis returned to Saint Juery having bought the tool business from Paulin, with his son (Michel’s father) joining the family trade in 1960. In 2007 Auriou closed for business but re-opened in 2008 under the Forge de Saint Juery moniker. Today Auriou is the only rasp manufacturer in France with its own forge, and continues to trade out of the forge the family first opened in 1967. “We are making to survive. But also we are making for the customers, for the tools” says Michel, reflecting on their practice. Tools are made in sets of 7 or 11, as well as individually, all from steel produced locally in Saint Juery by what Michel believes is the best file steel foundry in the world.

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One of the historic ledgers containing the designs and methods developed by successive generations of Auriou craftsmen

 

When I arrived at the forge on a warm April morning I found a hive of activity – Michel is training a new rasp stitcher, and has also taken on additional blacksmiths. If this was not enough, a couple of weeks after my visit the Discovery Channel were arriving to film a documentary about Auriou. Today, Forge de Saint Juery has increased from 7 to 13 workers, split between the blacksmith room where tool blanks are forged and cutting edges ground, and the stitching room where rasps are toothed.

Meet Michel Auriou

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Michel Auriou, 4th generation blacksmith

Michel joined the family business in 1980 at the age of 18, and has trained as both a blacksmith and a rasp stitcher. However following the rebirth of the Auriou brand in 2008 he has had little opportunity outside of trade shows to stitch rasps. These days his focus is split between preserving the knowledge and patterns developed over four generations of tool manufacture, improving workflow efficiency at the forge, and research and design for new tools.

It is when talking about the preservation of knowledge that Michel shows the greatest enthusiasm, and he unveiled to me the handwritten ledgers in which previous generations of Auriou craftsmen described their working practices and tool designs. Unsurprisingly, these records occasionally contain incomplete descriptions or conflicting designs of the same tools, and one of the biggest problems Michel experienced when restarting the company in 2008 was in extracting working methods and information from the historical records. This knowledge preservation process has resulted in detailed drawings, heat treatment techniques, and specifications, for each stage of production for each tool. In this way, Michel explains, that the preservation of knowledge also becomes a means by which efficiency is improved and tool quality is standardised.

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Chris Pye carving tools, in the grinding room

When it comes to tool design, Michel explains that his focus is always on the experience of the end user and “never about tools”. He continues, “if you are working with our tools, and you forget about the tools at your fingers, we have reached our aim”. So, for carving and sculpture tools Michel considers the shape of the tool to be the most important factor, followed by steel hardness and bevel angle. He also maintains that focusing on the technical specification of a tool at the expense of the user’s experience is missing the point. This applies, he suggests, particularly to technical aspects such as Rockwell hardness, for which he considers 53-55 Rockwell to be sufficient, and for the tools made at Auriou there is no need to achieve Rockwell 60. This focus on the user’s experience has paid off, and in France Michel tells me that stone carvers describe Auriou tools as not being “dry”; stone carvers report that the vibration passes into the work piece rather than the user’s hands.

Surprisingly for someone whose family name has become synonymous with hand tool excellent, Michel looks distinctly uncomfortable when asked what he considers to be his individual contribution to rasp making. He explains, “I don’t like to see my name on the tools. Until the 1980’s we put our customer’s names on the tools, then my father changed to using the family name”. More important to Michel is to preserve the knowledge and keep the company going, even if it is under a different name. “If I had to decide now” he says “I would choose another company name”.

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Carving handles, waiting for their tools

A stitch in time

He Auriou name is probably most associated with the hand stitching of their rasps, for which the forge is most renowned. Rather than using a machine to cut rows of teeth, each tooth on an Auriou rasp is individually cut using a “barleycorn” pick and hammer at an anvil. The small variations inherent in hand-cut teeth result in a smoother finish and reduced chatter when compared to the perfectly uniform rows of a machine-produced rasp.

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A stitcher uses the barley corn pick and hammer to cut each tooth individually

Talk about anvils and hammers and you will inevitably think of burley blacksmiths beating metal into shape. The stitching room at Auriou is a far cry from this preconception however. The emphasis is on good lighting and absolute precision, and the stitchers sit at their anvils wielding their hammers using just fore finger and thumb. The need for precision is obvious from anyone who has taken a close look at an Auriou rasp – the stitcher must hold the barleycorn in a constant orientation to the rasp blank they progress across rows of teeth. To aid in this precision, the curved side of the rasp is divided across the width into quarters, and each quarter is toothed along the full length of the rasp before reseating the blank on the anvil to cut the next quarter. Although repositioning the rasp blank makes for a slower process, it ensures that the barleycorn is held at a consistent angle to the surface, and results in the precise stitching for which Auriou are celebrated.

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The handle of this stitching hammer has been worn away by the forefinger and thumb grip used by Auriou rasp stitchers

Stitchers are trained for 14 weeks, but it takes as much as two years before they are stitching to the correct standard at a production pace. Watching an experienced stitcher, the barleycorn flies across the surface of the rasp blank in a succession of sharp taps, and a small rasp can be completed in 90 minutes. In contrast, an inexperienced stitcher can take several days to tooth a single rasp.

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The curved face of a rasp is divided into quarters along it’s width, and each quarter is toothed before reseating the rasp on the anvil for the next quarter.

Even if stitching is not physically demanding in terms of the force with which the work is struck, Michel explains that there is a steep learning curve. Most difficult is the concentration and focus needed to maintain the correct posture in relation to the work piece.

Universal problems

Over lunch at local favourite Restaurant Flambee, Michel bemoans the decline of both industry and education in hand tool skills – universal complaints which will be familiar to readers in the UK and American (and no doubt many other countries too!).

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A macro view of the stitched teeth on a rasp

Saint Juery was a little Sheffield”, Michel tells me, “in every house was a file or rasp maker”, and at the height of the rasp industry there were over 3,000 rasp and file makers in the city. Often these makers would work out of their own homes, although there were also larger businesses. Stitchers would be freelance and paid on the basis of each tool they stitched. As with Sheffield, this industry has declined and according to Michel, Auriou are now the only company in France (let alone San Juery) making rasps with their own forge. The decline of traditional industry has had an inevitable impact on Auriou’s supply chain, Michel believes that it is only a matter of time before Auriou will have to produce their own steel if they are to maintain current quality standards.

Similarly, the decline in hand-tool education means that there are now only a handful of places in France where it is possible to learn a hand tool focused approach to furniture building. As a result, Auriou export 80% of their current production run.

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Tool blanks waiting to be worked

The future

The re-opening of Forge de Saint Juery represents a remarkable recovery. However Michel is more focused on the future of Auriou tools than he is the past. Constantly throughout our time together he refers to improving efficiency at the forge, of which the knowledge preservation and standardisation exercise forms part. He also wants to continue to develop new heat treatment techniques, and expand the workforce at the forge in addition to the three new members of staff he employed in early April of this year. When asked how he goes about finding apprentices Michel explains that at first he thought it was important to find people with diplomas and training in related areas. He considers that to be a mistake – now he looks for “people who are very calm to be stitchers, and for blacksmiths I try to find a genius DIY person”. With so many forward looking plans, now is an exciting time for all at Forge de Saint Juery, and Michel’s intention to preserve the tool making knowledge accumulated by his family looks certain to succeed.

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Heating tool blanks prior to hammering them to shape

4 thoughts on “A Stitch in Time: France’s last rasp making dynasty

  1. I’m fairly sure I saw the discovery channel episode on this. Very interesting process. It’s hard to believe they can turn a profit working this way. I’m glad to see there is hope for tool makers like this.

    • Thanks Jim, I’m glad you enjoyed it! One of the things I’m increasingly interested in is shortening the distance between tool makers and woodworkers – I think it is really valuable for woodworkers to understand the skill, and the design processes, that tool makers need in order to give us the means of producing our work. And the rasp stitchers are Auriou are just incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it.

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