Father-and-son team share growing passion for wood

Becoming a cabinet maker is a calling – a vocation that takes many years of training.

23 January 2019
By Jane Hanks

Atelier Bretel is a father-and-son business in Borrèze, near Sarlat in the Dordogne.

Pierre started the business in 1983 and his son Xavier joined him in 2008.

They make staircases, kitchens, bathroom furniture, parquet and woodwork for windows and doors, in all styles from all periods up to contemporary design.

They work mostly for private individuals but also for the heritage body Monuments Historiques.

They are proud of being craftsmen who are skilled in a traditional savoir-faire.

They work with wood from sustainable forests in France and learn all they can about each tree their wood comes from by talking to the woodsman who has cut it down.

Every last inch is used – down to the wood shavings, which they have used to fuel their heating system for 12 years... long before this type of recycling became fashionable.

“Cutting down a tree is a serious act,” said Xavier. “It may have been growing for 120 years so it must be respected.

“I make sure that if I make a door, the wood is used in the same direction as that in which it grew, so the bottom corresponds to the part which was nearest the roots and the top nearest the sky.

“It means it will hang better and is less likely to warp.”

Both men studied hard before qualifying. Pierre did a CAP Ebéniste, which in his day lasted three years, and Xavier a CAP Ebéniste, a BMA (Bac equivalent) and a DMA (BTS equivalent), which took him six years in total. He went on to do as his father did after his CAP: what is called a Tour de France with Les Compagnons du Devoir, lasting four years.

This is an organisation of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages, where young men and women spend three to five years working for between six months and a year with different masters, learning various aspects of their trade in different towns.

As well as working in the workshop, they also have to study. Pierre now has a young compagnon working for him and twice a week he gives him lessons after work.

This type of apprenticeship results in dedicated, highly skilled, qualified craftsmen and women. In total, Xavier studied for 10 years before joining his father’s business.

The Bretel father-and-son team agree on the qualities needed to be a cabinetmaker – or ébéniste: “You have to be passionate about working with wood; you need to be able to use your hands with intelligence; have the desire to create excellence; be good at drawing, mathematics and geometry; and have a knowledge of the history of art, so, for example, you can differentiate between a Louis XIII and a Louis XV.” When they start on a project, they first talk it over with the client and that can include up to seven meetings. “It is important to get the detail right from the start,” said Xavier.

“I look at the room, how the light works and suggest the types of wood which would be most suitable, and make drawings.”

Then they create the project and are meticulous over measurements, so that 95% of time is spent in the workshop and just 5% in installation.

“When I was younger, I loved mastering the skills and techniques,” said Xavier. “Now I am older, I love the creative side and the part which brings the greatest satisfaction is seeing the pleasure in the client’s eyes when they discover their new kitchen or staircase.”

He is also keen to point out that he can create a made-to-last kitchen for the same price as a fairly upmarket industrial kitchen from a national chain.

He said: “People are worried that we are far more expensive, but if someone is going for a mid-to-top-of-the-range kitchen, around €12,000, we can match that with quality materials rather than chipboard and will give you a working surface which will resist hot pans.

“We do not have the commercial visibility of the big companies and one of my projects for 2019 is to open a showroom to show what we can provide for the public.”

The website (atelierbretel.com) has brought in business from far and wide for this small workshop hidden deep in the Périgord Noir, taking them as far as Barcelona.

An ébéniste is defined as someone who makes furniture to order or who creates his own style in unique pieces or in a small number.

They mostly work in wood, but can also use materials such as metal, glass and textiles.

An ébéniste usually has a greater range of skills than the more recognisable menuisier and is likely to work on single pieces in a small workshop.

There are nearly 37,000 cabinetmakers working in 16,600 artisanal businesses in France, ranging from one to 10 workers in each.

Three-quarters of their work is done for private buyers and most is in the creation of furniture (a small percentage is in restoration work).

Most cabinetmakers have a qualification, with 60% having a CAP, a two-to three-year qualification that can be taken after the college brevet.

At Bac level there is a Bac Pro artisanat et métiers d’art option ébéniste, a Brevet des Métiers d’Art, BMA ébéniste or a Brevet Technique des Métiers, BTM ébéniste and after that there is a Diplôme des Métiers d’Art, DMA, or a Brevet Technique des Métiers Supérieurs, BTMS.

A salaried worker earns around the minimum wage to start, and can earn up to €3,800 a month. Many of the qualifications can be carried out as sandwich courses and it is a sector with one of the highest apprentice numbers.

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