A Visit with Don Williams at the Smithsonian

Last week, I had the inestimable pleasure of spending a few hours with Don Williams, senior furniture conservator for the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md. I got to see only a small part of the compound that in addition to many offices, microscopy, X-ray and other labs (when did scanning electron microscopes get so tiny?), a library and work space for various types of projects (among them painting restoration and textile restoration), houses five football-field-sized “pods” – massive storage rooms stacked to the 28’-ceilings with artifacts and specimens. (Overall, there is 435,000 square feet of collections storage space at the MSC.) I got to stick my head into Pod 4, part of which is dedicated to oversized artifacts, which are each stored on a stainless steel (I think it was stainless steel) crate/pallet with custom modifications for each to properly support the item inside. Each is covered in a protective shroud of what appeared to be canvas, and the entire space is temperature and humidity controlled. Although you can’t see what’s behind the shrouds, the sheer number of the stacked crates is awe inspiring.

Move out of the pod, and the experience becomes humbling. The people I met are among a rarified few in the entire world who can do what they do – and they’re the experts entrusted variously with identifying, arresting and at times repairing damage (among other things) to priceless and irreplaceable artifacts – those owned by the Smithsonian as well as other museums and collections that sometimes call on the expertise of the MCI conservators. I was truly afraid to touch anything (we couldn’t even walk into the textile studio because I was wearing a wool sweater; I was told wool carries too much stuff with it that could contaminate the space and the items therein).

I felt a little less like a rube in Don’s studio because much of the stuff in it is recognizable – there’s a wood rack in one corner, two workbenches with planes, clamps and saws atop them, a row of cabriole legs, a sharpening station, what appear to be half-finished projects, and large flat storage drawers with carefully sorted screws and other supplies (OK – that last one’s not familiar … but I wish it were).

The half-finished projects really aren’t – they’re teaching tools and examples of Don’s ingenuity. In the picture at right, for instance, Don is inserting into a visitor chair from the House chamber a plywood and polymer seat onto which material can be upholstered, thereby relieving the need to tack upholstery directly to the chair’s rails time and again over the years (which would be the typical procedure for attaching new fabric). He’s also developed a polymer chair back that uses cabinet roller clips to attach to the chair frame, again obviating the need to attach upholstery directly to the frame. “I’m a seat-of-pants engineer,” he says. “I do a lot of structural engineering in a coffee-shop size.”

Another example of Don’s clever mind is his custom swiveling jig for working on small pieces of material. It’s made out of a pink duckpin bowling ball, a couple toilet flanges, a carriage bolt and wingnut, and some plywood. By simply loosening the bolt, he can change the tilt or rotation of the ball, lock it back in place, and get back to work quickly.

Don’s studio is remarkably uncluttered, for he typically works on only one project at a time. He’s recently finished restoring an ornate picture frame, molding pieces from plaster and hot glue to replace broken areas, then re-gilting it. The painting that goes inside it is in the midst of restoration by his colleague Jia-sun Tsang, senior paintings conservator. Those in different specialties often work together on projects. “If someone has a really intriguing problem,” says Don, “I’ll figure out a way to become a part of it.”

Right now, Don is working on what he calls a “17th/18th/19th/20th century Italian/German/Spanish/English ivory marquetry cabinet” on which some of the thick ivory inlay pieces are lifting. It’s a piece from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York (part of the Smithsonian), and because it’s a design museum, the piece needs to look good rather than have the damage simply arrested. So, Don is working on a way to bend the ivory back in place. He’s experimenting with gun stock methods of scoring diamond hatches on the back of some sample ivory, in order to be able to bend it. Once he has the method perfected, he’ll remove each piece that’s lifting from the cabinet, score the back then glue it back in its original orientation. He’ll add new material where pieces are missing, and ink in the etched design to match, adding a metal to the inking material so that it shows up clearly under X-ray. He expects to be working on it for at least the whole of 2011, and likely longer.

One of Don’s favorite projects has been, as he calls it, the restoration of a silver stick. He’s talking about the Mace of the United States House of Representatives, the ceremonial symbol of the sergeant at arms. The current one has been in use since 1842, when it replaced the original one (from 1789) that was destroyed when the Capitol Building burned during the War of 1812 (there was a wooden mace in the interim). “For 50 years, this lab unit has been in charge of caring for the Mace,” says Don. “It’s truly one of the great artifacts of the Republic.” By acclamation, the House cannot convene without the presence of the Mace, “which made it an almost irresistible temptation to keep it,” he says.

Don’s office is stuffed to the girders with books, and while many of them are the woodworking and furniture history books you might expect to see, much of his book collection deals with chemistry, for his primary area of expertise is in furniture finishes and colorants. There’s also an overstuffed easy chair that had to be cleaned off before I was invited to sit down, Don’s desk (also covered with books) and his chair. The rest is books, for much of his job involves researching and writing. “I spend as much time putting together preservation strategies as restoring,” he says. “I literally get paid to read old finish manuals. I won’t deny, it’s a pretty good job.”

— Megan Fitzpatrick

• To see all the images at full size with descriptions click here

• Available at ShopWoodworking.com: “Building 18th-century American Furniture,” by Glen. D. Huey.

• Available at Amazon.com: “Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Herilooms, and Other Prized Possessions,” by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar.

8 thoughts on “A Visit with Don Williams at the Smithsonian

  1. megan

    Shannon,
    I know – it’s amazing. And a lot of the massive amounts of stuff isn’t even meant to be shown (which I’m told means it’s considered “inventory” rather than part of a “collection”) – its just for research and comparison.

    The facility is not open to the public.

  2. Shannon

    Great peek inside the Don’s world, thanks Megan. While I was doing some graduate study work I got a behind the scenes tour of the mineralogy collection at the Smithsonian. What struck me then and now with your article is just how much stuff museums have that is not on display. The geologists I spoke with back then told me that over 90% of the collection will never see the light of the exhibition halls. I remember a similar statistic from one of the curators in Williamsburg. Despite attempts to rotate things in and out of the collection, the sheer volume of artifacts a museum like the Smithsonian has prohibits them from showing it all off. The possibilities of what may be lurking in those pods makes one positively drool. Can anyone visit Don’s facility or do you have to "know somebody"?

  3. keith

    this is really great – thanks for showing us this inside look at the smithsonian. i mean think about it – it is our nations history – our basement or attic or closet. its *bleeping* awesome.

    i am lucky enough to work in a museum’s exhibit department. i don’t restore objects or artifacts – but i am lucky enough to get a gloved hand on some pretty cool items from time to time. mostly i build and install exhibits (plywood,mdo,mdf and paint!). every now and again, my co-workers and i get our hands on some real wood and it’s a joy (aside from the 5′ diameter end grain butcher block riser i just built – ugh).

    thanks again – really great post!

  4. Jeffrey

    The photo of all the crates in the "pod" reminds me of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where they store the crated Ark in some huge room with thousands of others just like it. ("We have top men working on it right now." Who? "Top. Men.")

    Sounds like it was an amazing visit! Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. megan

    Don has mentioned having looked at the Panavise and other similar tiltable vises before, but for some reason, nothing commercial suited his needs. I’ll try to get him to tell us more about it and report back in a few weeks.

  6. David

    Megan – While Don’s ingenuity is commendable, there is actually a commercial product that’s very popular with carvers that does pretty much what you describe as far as workholding: the Wilton #343 Junior Power Arm. Wilton is now owned by Jet – here’s the link to the specific product:

    http://www.cpojettools.com/wilton-16180-343–junior-no–343-pow-r-arm/wltnwmh16180,default,pd.html?start=26&cgid=jet-wilton-vises

    While these aren’t cheap, they are easily the best, most efficient 360 degree rotation workholding apparatus out there – all one needs to do is to loosen the one lever, reposition the work in any orientation, and lock it. It works beautifully, and most of us carvers would not be without it.

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