The Hôtel de Ville Tool Shop

BHV - Rivoli
The BHV is right besides Paris' Hôtel de Ville, on the rue de Rivoli.

Tool and Hardware Paradise at BHV's Rivoli Headquarters

eMail from Allan Pangborn, via the Internet

As the weather was too fine and rare to be crawling around the basement of the BHV when Allan wrote this, I asked him if he would mind if I 'held it' until the weather returned to normal. Allan agreed, and now, weather permitting, here is his letter:

Paris:- Thursday, 18. September 1997:- A friend from junior high school days bought a studio on the place du Marché Sainte-Catherine. I borrowed it for seven weeks last May-June for my longest stay in Paris.

I have a machine shop in my backyard, just for fun, and the BHV is just six blocks away so I spent a lot of time there studying the differences in tools and hardware. I always bring back a few tools that are not available in the United States.

The Origin of the Tools

The place of manufacture of tools is a study of the change in our international evolution. Precision, high quality, hand and power tools used to be made in England, Germany, Sweden and the US.

Now the country of origin is more likely to be China, Taiwan, India or Mexico and the quality has declined. Good tools from the first countries are available at premium prices. As the 'smokestack' industries are pushed out of the developed countries, the developing countries will produce more of the basic building blocks of our civilization.

There are two divisions in the items in the BHV's basement: tools and hardware. You use the tools to install the hardware. I'll go over these as I mentally walk around the BHV's basement.

Hammers: these are a good insight into how a country is put together. French hammers have a square face and long peen head. These 'Facom' tools are for masonry work as most of the structures involve bricks and mortar. The U.S. has claw hammers for pounding or removing nails in wooden houses. The hammers are made in France and Sweden. This is good as they are good quality, made to do good work.

From across the counter, you can see that FACOM tools are well-made.

Wrenches, Sockets, and Ratchets: Autos and machines need the basic tools. 'FACOM' is the expensive French brand. Their tools are more expensive than Sears-Craftsman, the U.S. standard. 'Snap-On' tools are the best in the world as they have a huge selection of specialty tools and they are made to last forever and designed to be a pleasure to use.

'Gedore' is a very good German brand if they are made in Germany. Some 'Gedore' tools, made in India, with the chrome plating starting to separate from the steel underneath - I saw these at the Marché aux Puces. 'FACOM' and 'Snap-On' are made for the professional mechanic as well as the person who likes using fine tools.

Screwdrivers: another basic. There is a good selection of hollow-ground blades rather than the wedge shape that dominates in U.S. stores. The hollow-ground type fits a screw exactly and doesn't try to push out of the groove when torque is applied as the wedgies do. Miniature and small sizes are available in a wide variety at BHV.

Ergometric handles for screwdrivers are the rage now and the manufacturers are adding dimples and bright colors to their lineups. I got a good set of 'FACOM' hollow-ground - and Phillips' insulated electrical screwdrivers on my last trip.

BHV has a selection of 'Torx,' 'Square-Drive,' and other new fastening systems that are used now in robotic manufacturing.

Air-driven wrenches, sanders, nailguns are on display and are made in the U.S. or are U.S. brands made under license in Europe.

Oh - upstairs in the knife department, they have the Henkels' diamond sharpening steel. Lightly stroke a blade on it to get a final razor edge. The price is 260 francs.

The automotive tools are for basic repairs. Engine assembly and tools for more exotic needs must be found elsewhere. I did get a supply of grommet rings and a neat little hand press with which to apply them.

Electrical: as France has 220 volts, bringing home a lamp or an electric drill isn't practical - unless you find something unique and you understand electricity.

I have several 220 outlets in my shop at home that are the French style but I have separate circuit-breakers for them, and I am still probably violating several building codes - so kids shouldn't try this. I bring back light bulbs from France, because the landing-light system at our local airport is all 220 volts, and the bulbs are US$10 each. (A 220-volt line can go for thousands of feet without dropping voltage the way a 110-volt line will).

Hardware

Bricks, mortar, tiles; lath and plaster are the major building materials - so many items are related to their use and installation.

Homes are smaller than in the U.S. Design is important so the appearance of the living space requires attractive finishing touches such as ceramic drawer pulls, fancy door knockers, well-made hinges, and wrought iron fittings.

Constant restoration of several-hundred year-old buildings means many antique styles of finishing items are still available. If three French hammers you want to hang a heavy painting on the wall you don't have a 2x4 stud in the wall for support - so metal masonry anchors are used.

These are inexpensive and ordinary French hammers; about 25 francs each. The good ones look like US models and cost much more.

Some old buildings have had water and electricity added many years after the original construction, so there is a selection of the materials for these retrofits. Ceramic fuses instead of circuit breakers are common in many homes.

Europe is of course 'Metric' so this is a great place to find metric tools and matching screws, nuts, and bolts.

Some plumbing items are still in English sizes such as 1/2 and 3/4 inch pipe and fittings. Also ratchets and sockets are designated 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2-inch drive. Beware if you buy a 'vernier' caliper because the English system graduations are often in 1/128ths of an inch for some reason instead of the 1/1000-inch divisions used by machinists.

Studying the goods available in the basement of the BHV is an insight into life in France and an intellectual exercise figuring out what unfamiliar items are used for.

Allan Pangborn©1997
There's More Than Just Tools and Hardware
Dear Allan,

Paris:- Friday, 10. October 1997:- I have never been a handyman and I doubt if I can become one. But, for some reason, each time I visit a country for the first time, I take a tour of a hardware department if I can find one and have the time.

The basement hardware department of the BHV - for Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville - is an Ali Baba's Cavern of tools and hardware - as you well know. The BHV is Paris' smallest department store in size with 33,000 square metres of floor space. About 15,000 metres of the available space is devoted to tools, hardware, and materials; much of it for home improvement.

Not in the basement, for example, is the wood and lumber department - it is up on the fourth floor. Here you can find fine and ordinary woods, pre-cut in standard sizes; plus kits of furniture for self-assembly, as well as wood antique knobs and handles in all grades for wall panelling. This floor also has all the paint, wallpaper and a lot of antique stuff - although the antique hardware is in the basement, as you noted.

Just the thing for your old château: a selection of 400 door handles, plus some knobs.

There are also several shops, outside the main BHV building - in the surrounding streets - which have additional specialties such as doors and cupboards, flooring, a shop with tiles only, a glass shop, and one specializing in foam cut to measure - for sofas and beds. The are also 60 specialized craftsmen ready to assemble and install the bits and pieces you may have selected.

In theory then, you could design a sofa - or a living room - buy all the pieces at the BHV, have it assembled and installed 'chez vous,' plus have your old junk hauled away - have a 30-day money back guarantee - and if you don't feel like paying cash, have it financed through the BHV as well.

I suppose everybody in Paris already knows all this. I only found out about it today.

On my tour of the hardware in the basement I was surprised to find sheet metal being sold by the metre; and iron, steel and aluminum rods, bars and angles - ready to be cut to measure. There are wood stoves and garden zwergs, and all sorts of chains, cables and wires. There are bird cages and dog houses, dog bones, and doggy toys, plus electric razors for dogs.

At the kiosk for wheels, I ask if there is some easy way to remove the swivel wheels from a chair - this one I got for 125 francs has only four and needs five. There is no trick, they say; only force will do it.

If I buy a set of five swivel-wheels, will BHV send somebody out to my place to install them? As long as I pay at least 1,500 francs for them, this department store probably will.

When it was opened by Xavier Ruel in 1856, it was called the Bazar Napoléon.

Regards, Ric
In Metropole Paris
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