A sturdy black patternmaker’s tool chest sits in the corner of my living room. It’s probably the largest heirloom that has made its way to me. Day to day, it doesn’t get any use – I’m not too handy in woodworking – yet I still get great pleasure from being its custodian. The tool chest embodies much about my Collis ancestors, many of whom worked as engineers’ patternmakers. Open up the lid and stories begin to emerge.
The tool chest, or many of the tools at least, originally belonged to my great great grandfather, Martin Collis (1853-1912); most of the chisels and planes inside are stamped ‘M COLLIS’. But it was his son – Martin Shipley Collis (1882-1951) – who probably made most use of it, working in the pattern shop at engineers AA Jones & Shipman and later as a self-employed patternmaker in partnership as Shipley & Collis. More of which shortly.
As a child, I remember the tool chest sitting in our garage – under cover and apparently under-used, even though my own father was a carpenter and joiner. A carpenter has need of hammers, screwdrivers and saws to make staircases, kitchens and cabinets. But inside a patternmaker’s chest you’ll find a very large number of specialised tools, particularly chisels and planes needed to shape and hone wooden models (or patterns) ready for casting in a foundry. So most of the tools in the chest – such as the spoon chisels shown above – have probably not been used since the 1920s.