Category Archives: Heirlooms

Heirlooms: a patternmaker’s tool chest

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.

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Heirlooms: getting started

In recent days of self-isolation, with more time than ever spent at home, I’ve found myself reflecting upon what might broadly be called heirlooms – objects around the house that were once owned, or created, by an ancestor that have somehow worked their way into my possession. None of these objects is intrinsically valuable, yet each carries with it a story from the past.

Inspired by The Pulse Glass – a book by Gillian Tindall that was serialised recently on Radio 4 – I’ve decided to take a closer look at heirlooms in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks. “Most of the objects that surround us, no matter how important in their time, will eventually be lost and forgotten,” writes Tindall, “But a select few, for reasons of sentiment and chance, conservation and simple inaction, escape destruction and gain new meanings.”

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Martin Collis’ tool chest

Martin Collis toolchest collage

Lift the lid of the heavy tool chest and peer into the working life of Martin Collis. As an engineer’s pattern maker at a Leicester iron foundry, he fashions mahogany into models, ready for sand casting with molten metal. This is precise work, a task of fine tolerances and exacting standards: “measure twice, cut once”.

By scrimping his weekly wages, Martin populates the wooden chest with tools: dovetail and rip saws are inset into the lid, chisels, gouges and planes sit in the pull-out trays, with set squares and sharpening stones in the space below. As he hones his craft, his tools develop a familiar grasp – the turn of the gouge, the bite of the saw, the sweep of the plane.

He uses an odontograph to space the teeth on a gearwheel, juggling the geometry and jotting down his calculations in a battered notebook. He learns where to place the sprue and riser channels, so that the molten iron, bronze or aluminium flows freely. He develops an intuitive feel for shrinkage rates and machining allowances.

In the foundry they make a name stamp – and he wallops ‘M COLLIS’ into each boxwood handle. He’s in the pattern-making trade to stay.


Take a look at other examples of ‘Heirloom’ articles and suggestions for writing one yourself.