Castles in France: Gaillon

by Mathieu

The second project realized by the Charpentiers sans Frontier is a fact. This organization is the brain child of Francois Calame ethnologist, historian and passionate supporter of Traditional Carpentry.

This year the aim of the event was the partial reconstruction of the roof on top of the Tour de la Sirène, the oldest part of the Chateau de Gaillon. This castle is considered one of the earliest and most significant achievements of the early French Renaissance. The castles history dates back to 1453 and true it’s life it has been reconstructed several times. It was a home to both principal political and diplomatic protagonists as to prisoners when it became a prison in 1815.

Below you see the tour de la Sirène and the open vaulted gallery that runs into it.

tour de la sirène Gaillon

Les Charpentiers sans Frontiers exists of an international team of about 40 skilled carpenters who work solemnly with hand tools during this project. Besides France, carpenters came from as far as Norway, England, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium and Germany to contribute to the unique opportunity to work on this monument and to make sure we got the job done in a week time.

Our main aim was the reconstruction of the lower wheel frame which had completely failed about 20 years ago. No pieces of the original tie frame remained and that made historic research challenging. A model was prepared based on the little clues that where left. Florian Carpentier was the head carpenter on this project and here you see him explaining the construction and the particular way of how the frame will be raised.

Florian Carpentier

All the Oak timbers used for this project where locally sourced. During the first days we where mainly occupied with hewing all the logs into square sections and since there are so many different nationalities present it was a good opportunity to learn other hewing methods.

Leo hewing

A hewn surface produced by Clement’s hand with a Norwegian broad axe.

Clement's axe

Together with Christophe Laurent I worked on the reconstruction of a jambette and blochet (a queen post and wall tie). When laying out the timber it became clear that the dimensions where less then ideal and some sapwood would inevitably remain on the piece. There was only enough material to make all the pieces required so we did not have the luxury to find another one and decided to just get on with and get something done. Christophe was kind enough to lend me one of his axes. A small french axe that he bought in Dordogne and worked really well on this difficult piece with spiral grain and quite some knots.

Christophe's axe

This drawing, made by the illustrator Maurice Pommier, clearly shows the structure of the tower and all its members and clarifies where the jambette and blochet is found.


Installing them into place was not all that easy. The principal rafter that needed to be supported by this queen post had been damaged by water and had sagged quite a lot over time. It needed to be lifted by at least 20 cm before the new piece could be inserted. A 10 ton jack helped us to accomplish this without much effort. During the process we remained aware of any sudden noises that might indicate that other parts where being forced to rapidly. All went well and the principal rafter dropped into place back to it’s original location 9 cm higher then before our operation.


Together with Florian I did some layout on the wheel frame and was able to practice the french scribing technique, called piquage. There where  many people working on this part of the frame already so I decided it would be better to move on to something else, plenty of other work needed to be done.

wheel frame joinery

One of the most interesting pieces on this construction are the compound curved purlins. Five needed to be made in total so I took one of them for my account.

First a curve in one plane is laid out and the piece is squared. The picture shows Jim notching the timber to the curved line in preparation for the hewing.

Jim notching

It is then squared on two sides and the first curve is established.

Jamie and Jim coop

More layout is done and the second curve in another plane is marked using the piquage method in combination with templates to establish the final cutlines.

compound curve layout

I chose to finish the purlin with an adze since it is fairly easy to leave a smooth and accurate finish with this tool on a curved surface. For the same reason an adze used to be one of the most important tools of a shipwright who deals with compound curves daily.

adzed purlin

Naturally a broad axe can do a very clean job as well. In the picture below you see Jamie creating a very fine finish with his self modified broad axe.

Jamie hewing

On this post, made by Dino and Highs, you can see some of the straps made by Ludovic Marsille. Ludovic is a locksmith in daily life so forging some straps was not really a challenge to him.

Dino and Highs post

Here you see him wailing away and shaping a carpenters axe with a laminated blade.

Ludovic forging

During all the work the tools need to be maintained and sharpened. Barbara, who has a lot of experience with pit sawing, made sure that the teeth of her saw would cut fast and straight.

Barbara sharpening

The terrain aided in establishing the pitsaw which kept going despite some Normandy rain.

Hendry on the pitsaw

During our work we where sometimes treated with the soft tunes of a local violists who made sure our spirit remained high. It is hard to describe the beautiful combination, the sound of the hand tools working the wood and the violin singing her song.

the violist

Some of the joints where entirely made by axe. Cutting a half lap joint is no challenge for Trond, his accuracy with an axe remains astonishing to me.


After four days of work the wheel frame was coming together and could be brought to north side of the tower. Two horses and a log cart where used to drive the parts true the town center to the base of the tower.

test fitting

It took quite some coordination to lift the main tie beam into place but everything went well without too much effort. A coin and a piece of paper with the names of the children of one of the carpenters where dropped in the mortice of the king post before it was assembled.

wheel frame installed

On saturday Christophe, Sylvain and Benoit helped me to install one of the purlins. After a small adjustment it fell into place. The mortices on the bottom have different dimensions to accommodate the original rafters which will be reinstalled. It is unclear form the picture but the purlin has a tenon on one side and a half lap with an oblique abutment on the other. This way the purlins can be installed after the principal rafters have been raised.


On sunday I would go home again and I spent my last hours on the job site talking to some of my new friends. It was a wonderful project and a lot of work was realized. I can’t wait to work with these people again and be part on the next project realized by the Charpentiers sans Frontiers.

Thank you Francois Calame.

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Brodbeck.