A Talk with François Asselin of Asselin Inc. March 9, 2015
A group of Asselin craftsmen on the frame of the Hermione frigate. Years in construction and now under full sail after sea trials, the Hermione will sail from Rochefort in early May 2015 for America on its triumphal tour. Photo Credit: Asselin & Co.
François Asselin is a fifth-generation member of a woodworking family; he is CEO of Asselin & Co., Thouars, which is located in the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. Asselin & Co. is world famous for its historic restorations on land and, now, sea, given its pivotal role in the construction of the Hermione frigate. Photo Credit: Le Courrier de l’Ouest
Carved and assembled by both Asselin & Co. craftsmen and regional woodworkers, more than 400,000 pieces of sturdy oak went into the construction of the historic, full-scale replica of the original Hermione frigate, which carried Lafayette to America in 1780. Photo Credit: Association Hermione-La Fayette
Editor’s Note: Based in Thouars in France’s Poitou-Charentes region, Asselin, Inc. manages the restoration of historic monuments in France and worldwide. Founded in 1957 by Gérard Asselin, a fifth-generation woodworker and craftsman, his son François has led the company and its international expansion since 1993; its U.S. offices are based in Atlanta, Georgia. Asselin’s involvement in Hermione’s reconstruction began in 1997 and the company’s artisanal expertise in reconstructing world famous buildings, châteaux and cathedrals was instrumental in crafting a full-scale replica of the original Hermione in Rochefort, France.
On February 22, Asselin Inc. was honored by The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), with the Schutze Award in the “craftsmanship” category for its role as a partner in the restoration of the Hermione frigate. The Institute is the leading nonprofit organization, represented by 15 chapters nationwide, dedicated to advancing the classical tradition in architecture, urbanism and their allied arts.
Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America’s Editorial Director David Lincoln Ross recently caught up with Asselin Inc. CEO François Asselin to discuss the Hermione project since its inception.
Question: What were the challenges in Asselin’s role to locate specific kinds of wood, unique shapes, and partnering in the Hermione reconstruction effort over the years?
Answer: First we had to find hundreds of French oak trees with just the right curves to fit specific shapes and sections for the ship. Next, we had to cut each branch (or trunk) without damaging it and bring it back safely to our workshop; and then transport the finished carved pieces to Rochefort. Thanks to our experience in many historic buildings—châteaux and cathedrals— our carpenters and timber framers are expert in traditional woodworking techniques inherited over five generations.
We even engaged French marine historian Jean Thomas to check and verify our restoration plans at every step. For our Asselin team, reconstructing Hermione involved similar woodworking techniques we have long employed in designing, assembling and restoring historic structures like a cathedral roof or intricate parts of a château.
Q: How did Asselin locate certain trees for Hermione?
A: We formed a special team to search for and identify the needed trees on either French government-owned lands or on a private estate and with individual’s property. We’ve done this many times, so we had some ideas we to search and locate trees across the entire country. Once we found this or that oak tree, we negotiated each sale; it was a complicated, lengthy undertaking, but we succeeded.
Q: How many different kinds of wood did Asselin use in this project for the Hermione.
A: We employed French oak for most of the structure, Douglas pine sourced from Europe for all its spars (the vertical portions extending from the masts), and Oregon pine for Hermione’s masts.
Q: Did your artisans refer to the original design documents that were found in the British archives of Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde?
A: Yes. This is thanks to a complete copy of the Concorde’s design that resides in the Royal Navy’s archives in Greenwich, England; and that is because the British captured Concorde and because of the French frigate’s superior design, the English made exact measurements of the entire vessel so as to improve their own vessels.
We also identified other useful historic documents in French archives that gave us further insight into the ship’s dimensions, into a host 18th century terms for a ship’s vessel’s structures, and into then-contemporary terms for weights and measures. Recall, there was no metric system in 1790! So, with all our partners in Rochefort, we needed to carefully convert all these weights and measures into metric terms in order to accurately and faithfully complete the full-scale Hermione replica, while also respecting modern French and international safety norms of the 21st century.
Q: How many Asselin team members were involved in the Hermione project over the years?
A: We had 12 artisanal craftsmen on a full-time basis from 1997 through 2014. There was real continuity in the team as well, with the chief present for the entire period, a fact which enabled us to work smoothly with all the other partners and volunteers over the years. And thanks to our long experience we were able to give full respect to interpreting these authentic plans. Together with our partners, we are extremely proud of our role in Hermione’s entire reconstruction effort.
For more information about the Hermione U.S. itinerary, please visit: http://www.hermione2015.com/history.html#map