Wmsburg Conference Wrap up

My coverage of the conference was hampered by CW’s policy of photography for “Personal Use Only.” I understand why they are doing this. They don’t want the presenters, who may be working on books or videos, to complain about having their content raided by the woodworking paparazzi. On the flip side (my side), attendance will eventually wane without a little press. Just a little. I’ve spoken with Jay Gaynor about this in the past. He knows how I feel about it. So I can’t post my pictures or even my notes. It’s a great event. I’ll talk more about why later. But this is my excuse for my lame coverage of the event.

I happened upon Asa Christiana, FWW’s editor, after lunch one day. We talked about his direction for FWW. Here’s what I took away from our conversation:
Asa prefers articles offering practical advice from master craftsmen. He looks for author/craftsmen who build beautiful stuff. And he focuses on the end product, “because that’s what matters.” While that sounds good from 10,000 ft, my opinion is this results in a magazine that feels flat and formulaic. And if you’ve read FWW lately, you may know what I mean. I’m not interested in bashing FWW. I like the magazine in general. But conceptually, I see the same problems with the Williamsburg conference as I do FWW. And if FWW isn’t careful, their version of WIA will be similarly problematic. Here’s why:

Let’s start with an example:
Dan Faia, an instructor from North Bennet Street School, demonstrated the build of a Pembroke table (google it). The legs are tapered mahogany. Satin wood is to be inlayed on the front legs (front and sides so four inlays total), set in about 1/8″ from the edges. Dan’s approach was clearly an industrial one. He cut a template on his table saw, then adjusted the template with a handplane presumably because cutting tapers on the table saw requires some sort of sled and the sled can be off. I’m assuming that it’s the same device that cut the leg stock. Once correct, he used the template to mark the excavation in the legs and used the same template to knife out the satin wood veneer. I wondered why he didn’t just glue the veneer to the leg with two drops of hide glue then cut through the veneer and mark the leg in a single operation with a cutting gauge. Wouldn’t that have been easier? Faster? His template assumed every face of the legs had identical tapers. Were those tapers cut by hand, that would be a remote possibility at best. It wasn’t clear to me that the template was an investment that paid dividends.

I’m not saying what Dan did was stupid or wrong. It was fine. He presented it clearly. And it turned out just beautifully. From Asa’s perspective, that was a win. He stepped through a process and did a wonderful job. Had Asa not told me beforehand that Dan was pragmatic and would use “the best approach, hand or power,” I may not have thought anything about it. But to me, Dan’s presentation represented the general arrogance of modern woodworkers who, despite very little knowledge of period work, feel they’ve found better ways (btw, Dan didn’t strike me as an arrogant person at all. Hopefully you understand what I’m trying to say here). Even this I can’t get excited about because this is where most people are. Maybe my expectations are too high. But just imagine that you are on stage in Colonial Williamsburg with a beautiful piece of furniture bought and paid for by George Washington. Leave aside that you are speaking to an audience of experienced period furniture makers. No consideration for how the original was built? No discussion? This is what was done, I’m going to do it this way? This is why? I brought the issue up with Asa and got the sense he just didn’t get it. He thought I was criticizing Dan. I wasn’t. I was just trying to make the point about the difference between pre-Industrial methods and Industrial methods, i.e. that there IS a difference. If you can’t discuss this in Colonial Williamsburg, you might as well pretend woodworking began with the Grizzly Company.

The Industrial v. Pre-industrial reared its head in other ways at the CW conferences. The CW craftsmen took the stage and got to work. Before your eyes, they had dressed stock, cut and fit joints and had something assembled. It’s a great show. The others show up with essentially finished parts and show us how to assemble and clamp them together. What else can they do? I learn stuff from both sorts of presenters. But the guys who work with machines are terribly disadvantaged in these sorts of forums, which is why FineWoodWorkinginAmerica (or whatever they are calling it) could be a total yawn. This is also the reason why I travel with essentially my entire shop. I do it because I can. And I think it’s a way better show. Which brings me full circle:

The CW conferences have covered tables, chairs, clocks and case furniture. What next? What else is there? Personally, I didn’t feel George Washington’s furniture was all that interesting. If you are going to look at a knee-hole desk, I’d rather look at a block front Goddard piece. Oh right, we’ve already covered that. Lately, the CW craftsmen have been apologizing for their “tedious” stock prep operations. What a mistake. One of the best parts of the CW conference is that you get to watch someone work wood in front of you. I think this is why I and many others enjoyed watching Norm’s “New Yankee Workshop,” or Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Shop” television shows. At the end of the day, probably none of us are going to build any of this stuff anyway. I’ll probably never build a Pembroke table or a Rococo candle stand (both presented this year). But I greatly appreciated seeing the tedious parts, the mistakes, the workholding, the tool holding, the approaches and the judgment of an experienced woodworker. This is the practical information I’m looking for and this year CW delivered. My recommendation is to attend the next conference regardless of the topic. To a large extent, I guess I feel the final product is irrelevant. The process is what is important and useful.

15 thoughts on “Wmsburg Conference Wrap up

  1. knothole

    Adam, thank you for all your research into the old ways of woodworking. It was your articles that first interested me in subscribing to PW. I notice some people think you are bashing and criticizing them when you ask questions. The same thing happens to me. I don’t ask questions to belittle anyone, only to learn why. I want to know why one method is best, why a certain product is best, or why a belief is correct. Any time I have ever believed anyone just because of their certification, or their degree, or because they have been in business for 20 years, I ended up making a mistake. Questions are intended to expand the mental processes of both parties. So keep right on asking questions. It helps us all.

  2. David Cockey

    My wife and I attended the second session, and the only restriction I heard on reporting the event was not posting photos and video. (Adam – we talked outside the blacksmith shop on Wednesday while my wife and I were sightseeing.)

    The second session as sold out, and had many more folks attending than the first session based on the published registration list. The Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) uses the second sesion as essentially their annual meeting, and most of the second session attendees were SAPFM members. It appears that “Period” in SAPFM generally refers to high end 18th and early 19th century furniture. It’s also seems, based on conversations with various members, that many SAPFM members use power tools primarially. The previous two years I attended the first session which seems to have a slightly different and smaller audience.

    Mount Vernon furniture was suggested two years ago as a topic as a follow-up to that year’s topic of Monticello furniture. The Monticello furniture seemed to provide a more diverse range of pieces to select for study and reproduction.

    I found Jeff and Steve’s presentation about building the Aitken chair interesting, and I took it as represenative of how a successful custom maker of period furniture works. Final shaping and carving the various pieces wasn’t shown and I assume that is mostly done by hand tools. A more interesting presentation to me on building a chair was last year’s presentation by Phil Lowe on building a Queen Anne chair. Phil demonstrated cutting and shaping various pieces by hand as well as cutting joints by hand. Phil commented on what tasks he would do with power tools in his own shop.

  3. Mark Maleski

    I attended Session 2 and was pleased with the experience. I observed several discussions that compared modern construction methods to the period techniques. That said, I requested more emphasis on this in future conferences when I turned in my conference feedback form; what I experienced was good but I’d be even happier if it was more consistent/pervasive.
    Your point about the template for the satinwood inlay didn’t occur to me. However, I think the template does make sense for both the 18th and 21st century chair maker. Consider that George Washington ordered 2 dozen of these chairs – that’s 48 tapered legs with 96 satinwood inlays. That a production environment, and a template approach does make sense in that context even if it requires a little more care with working hand tools to a line. With the template, the period shop would be able to employ an assembly-line approach with an overall efficiency gain.

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Chairmaking is one of those enterprises where I would expect to see some level of cooperation beyond the amount I think cabinetshops engaged in (namely very little if any). Not sure I’d go as far as assembly line. We know Philadelphia chair makers relied on outsourced carvers and uphosterers and possibly finishers. Cabinetmakers used outsourced carvers either in their shops or out. But generally, i don’t see evidence that apprentices were helping journeymen. Your project was yours to build. If you needed help building it efficiently, you’d be fired.

      Not that it matters to the issue at hand, but my guess is if you measured those table (or chair) legs, you’d find enough variation to suggest:

      1) a jig wasn’t used
      2) a jig/template wouldn’t work if one were used.

      The reason I say this is that Dan used the template as a jig to cut the veneer. But he didn’t and couldn’t use it to CUT the leg and nor could an 18th c craftsman. Of course he could use it to mark the leg. But being as the veneer is inset, you’d need 2 jigs or you’d need to best fit the template on the table leg. And still you’d be left planing to a line by eye. While you could do a great job of that, I suspect they didn’t. And with such a small reveal, a small inconsistency would show up.

      And all of this is just SO much easier to simply make the legs as you wish, and use a cutting gauge to get the offset you want EXACTLY on every leg regardless of it’s shape.

      Keep in mind, if you use the cutting gauge, you wouldn’t have the problem Dan had with the custom scraper he made. He had to take away both mahogany and satin wood to ensure a good fit.

      My way, when it came time to do the stringing, you could just set the gauge further out to account for the width of the stringing, and just cut and remove the veneer. (no scraping).

      Not picking on Dan, but this is a good example of someone thinking factory when he should have been thinking craftshop. I think the method I’m describing would be better and faster for any number of items. It’s also the standard technique that guys used for veneer work.

      This is exactly the sort of thing that I think needs to get represented in all ww pubs. If you are doing this sort of work, it’s just better to learn the way guys did it (not saying I know).

      Dan told us he doesn’t make copy period furniture and he tends to correct their “mistakes”. I’ve heard other guys say this. In Dan’s case, I wonder how someone with 10 or 15 years of experience feels he can identifty the “mistakes” of someone who did this for his entire life, then passed everything he knew on to someone else who did the same over a 100 year period. I’m not saying their work was perfect. Only that we collectively don’t know jack about how those guys built furniture yet we’re convinced they did it wrong. When I bring up specifics, I get shouted down. Asa says I can be a little overbearing. I agree, but maybe you can understand why. My side never seems to get a fair hearing.

      1. Mark Maleski

        Adam,

        Adam, It’s too bad you weren’t there for Al Breed’s Cartouche dinner. He made several notable statements about modern reproduction of period pieces and I suspect you’d have been nodding vigorously. Here’s a quote (from his blog, not the SAPFM dinner, but he made the same point in both): “you’re not trying to make your work look handmade, you’re trying to make it look perfect with the tools available that are appropriate to the period. If it’s made this way, it will look as it’s supposed to, with the slight and sometimes almost imperceptible evidences of hand tools.” That’s just one example of the many great points he made that evening.

  4. RWL

    The idea that process (tools + methods) is much more important than the final result (the product) appeals to me as an amateur. It creates a very rare opportunity for living history, which to a history buff is superior to working with original resource material (e.g. reading Roubo). Few places can match Colonial Williamsburg in this way. But that line of thought appeals to a minority, and to a professional, it’s pure hooey (his customers want perfection, and soon). FWW has to try balance a range of different audiences–they seem similar from a distance (woodworkers), but the closer you get, the more the differences pop.

    Part of what drew me to woodworking was looking at a beautiful piece of furniture and asking–How did they do that? It’s also amazing to me how much decorative work (like carving) went into making furniture 200 years ago.

    By the way, your readers who wonder–How did they do that–might like the program by the same name at the Duncan Phyfe exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 10th. See

    http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/family-programs/how-did-they-do-that/american-furniture-making?eid=R001_{8B83FCA0-F544-48D1-938E-CF7FFD69F221}_20120310130000

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      My sense is that if you focus too closely on the finished product, you loose sight of what is really useful to woodworkers. It inevitably leads to glamour shots of finished pieces and captions. And that’s exactly what I see in FWW. Also, perhaps unintended, is the iconization of the author/builders. Some might paint Chris with that brush. He has such a cult following, much of which has little to do with wood work. But what is unique with Chris is that he doesn’t suggest (as I see elsewhere) that he is unfallable/unquestionable because he built X.

      Personally, I’ve learned a ton from you guys and others on the internet, some of whom may have never built anything. Does that mean your understanding of scrub planes is somehow incomplete? See, I don’t think so. I’m always wary of litmus tests and woodworkers chops/portfolios and the insinuation that good finished products necessarily means they are good woodworkers.

      Last, I think the process is WAY more interesting from a theater/print standpoint. And if you’re incapable of presenting the process either because you’re in a hotel conference room at WiA and you do all your work with 1000lb machines, or because FWW’s photographer editor showed up in your shop 6 months after the high boy was finished, I think you’re at a distinct disadvantage. You just can’t capture the process and make it real. That’s why Underhill is such a great show (live or taped).

      1. RWL

        I should add that the Why underlying the process (for example, your research on nailed furniture) is glorious sustenance for the art of furniture making. It revives not only a good chunk of the meaning underlying the craft, but also the form itself (in this case, nailed joints). It’s great that not everything piece of furniture has to show off the dovetails. That kind of research is a boost to the woodworking field.

  5. JBRowe

    Interesting observations, Adam, and a great perspective. The other commenters make some great points as well. For me it’s not a winner takes all comparison of WIA and the CW conferences but I agree with most of your comments.

    I didn’t attend CW this year after going for the last 4 or 5. I always learn something and it’s usually a technique from the CW craftsmen. There were years when a great deal more about the “how the original was made” was part of the program. Some of this happens when Mack or Kaare explain why they’re doing a particular thing on the part they’re working on. It’s along the lines of “we saw the layout lines on the original and decided it must have been cut/carved/sawn this way.” The how-to seems to swing to either more or less of this each year so perhaps this was an off year. But there’s never a shortage of great talent to watch at work, frequently so when the CW team takes the stage (Steve Latta was another great presenter). Bruce Love’s comment about the interaction between Mack and Jeff Headley being one of those unscripted things that makes the conference worthwhile and educational is right on.

    A couple of years ago the CW dinner speech was by Mark Schofield of FWW about the state of the woodworking magazine industry. Which magazine focused on what content and reader skill set, who’d folded, who’d been absorbed, and who they thought were going to survive. The two pillars of the industry seemed to him to be FWW and PW. I like them both for very different reasons, frankly, and it’s clear the FWW people are watching PW’s activities closely. Perhaps the PW team do the same with regards to FWW but from my perspective FWW is following PW’s lead these days. The evidence is in the content now in FWW with more stories like PW (hand tools and workbenches, anyone?) Competition brings out the best, no?

    The first CW conference I attended was the year Peter Follansbee presented and his presentations were a revelation I had not expected. I don’t make high style furniture nor are my skills all that advanced and there are many attendees like me in the Williamsburg audience. We’re just there to learn some history, discover a method we probably wouldn’t have been able to teach ourselves, and, like you, watch the skilled woodworkers work and ask questions we can’t with the TV presenters. Peter was that and more, he went into great depths about the how and the why and they’re probably the best CW sessions I’ve attended.

    The other fun is the ability to hang out with other woodworkers and bask in that affinity group for a few days (and I admit I have a Jones for those country ham & biscuits). That’s a lot like WIA. WIA seems to have a lot more interactivity and that’s a great differentiator. The Market at WIA can’t be beat, something the CW conference lacks. You have to admit it’s nice to leave the conference area and walk through Colonial Williamsburg but WIA’s pub dinners are great fun, too.

    I’ve never been prohibited from taking photos at the CW conference during the presentation and more than one chronicler has posted their notes from the conference on-line (an architect attendee had glorious hand drawings on his post) so I’m surprised this year might have been different. Perhaps your known association with PW colored Asa’s comments?

    I agree that the topics each year seem to be less interesting than prior years. Two years ago it was Thomas Jefferson’s furniture and I suppose we’ll see every prominent president’s furniture featured if they can’t think of anything else. I’m more amazed that the audience poll Jay takes at the end of each session, asking for proposed topics for the next year, seems to have no influence on what’s actually presented the following year. Evidently this was not always so. If they fail to listen to the audience the decline you predict will surely follow.

    I’m sorry for the windy comment. The real test is the answer to this question: Will I go to the CW conference (or any others) next year? I’d like to think the program will be interesting enough to compel me to give up vacation time and money to do so. Let’s see if the CW team can revert to form.

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      So the photog restrictions came from CW, not Asa. He was photographing all sorts of stuff.

      I think CW needs to be careful about the future of the conferences. Now Asa rightly pointed out, I have no data, but my sense is that the demographic, work, and intentions of woodworkers is changing. So we can’t keep doing the same thing (at CW). I get the sense they feel there’s only so many unique pieces of 18th c furniture. Which is true. Looking at processes just extends the possible.

  6. rwyoung

    You mean things didn’t start with Griz? Who’da thunk it…

    Very much enjoying the “why” as much as the “how” aspects of the A&M columns. Just as I enjoy listening in on design discussions if only because it means I have to go hit the library to understand why somebody is bringing up some obscure (to me) name or school.

  7. BruceWLove

    Thanks Adam. I just came back from Session 2 Sunday, and even though it was my first time attending – I had some of the same thoughts, so I am glad it was not just me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I am not complaining – but I did expect “Woodworking in 18th Century” to be more completely geared towards period techniques (not just period furniture). To me it is not a hand tool versus power tool thing, but a history lesson. As you often point out, it is not safe to assume that modern tools lead to the same process as period tools.

    An interesting minor example came up when Jeff Headley and Steve Hamilton (whose presentation I really enjoyed) were presenting. Jeff and Steve were explaining that they would shape the crest on the chair before clamping it up and they asked Mack about whether the CW shop would do the same. Mack paused for a bit and said his initial reaction was “no” as Jeff and Steve’s clamping of the chair involved using the “cut-offs” to support the crest within the clamp; and Mack indicated it was not clear those “cut-offs” would have remained intact if the crest not been cut with a band saw. That minor point potentially changes a lot of stuff around in the assembly (and carving) approach if you think about it (they used cut offs to support pieces a lot). I am not complaining about their approach (again I learned a lot from theirnpresentation), but this illustrates how the tool choice does affect the understanding of the construction of the original.

    It is fun to watch as it seems the more experienced the woodworker, the greater the synergy between the woodworker and their tools. It is not about having the latest and greatest, but understanding what you have and how to use it (and how to modify it when necessary) to operate as quickly and efficiently as possible. I also did appreciate not getting sales pitches for new tools (or a DVD) along with each presentation.

    In my post conference evaluation I said something like “The best part of the conference is the little unplanned asides that came up while watching a master work.” Those sort of things cannot be planned – they just come up, given the right environment.

    Oh….and I am excited about the upcoming second edition of the “Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton” (did you get that commercial at Session l? I think Jane Rees was at session 2)

  8. Anderson

    With magazines part of the thing is that they have to serve their advertisers, and their advertisers need to sell stuff. I think a lot of what Schwartz and Cherubini are into is that you can just cobble together a minimal tool kit and build what you need or want, and who cares how long it takes or if there are a couple of mistakes. Their deal is woodworking is good for the soul, working with hand tools is better and how much stuff do you need.

    The tool companies have to sell their tools and mostly they sell them to guys who are going to start building furniture just as soon as they can dial in a bedroom set from Ethan Allen or whatever, so that’s where the magazines tend to go too. I’ve known a couple of guys over the years who have had pretty nice powertool shops, were really excited about their new festool domino joiner, but can’t remember ever seeing anything much that they actually made.

    On the other hand I know guys that have made pretty respectable boats with $150 worth of tools.

    Don’t mean to knock it, but I don’t get it.

  9. J. Pierce

    Thank you for the discussion – I think it voices a lot of things I haven’t quite figured out how to put into words.

    Along Chris’s points – I think the jigs bother me sometimes, because I rarely build enough of something to warrant the jigs; it’s one thing if it’s a bending jig or some jig to make the 300 mortises in a Morris chair work, but in general, I don’t care.

    But the thing I miss in articles is the “why” – I like PW because it discusses these more often in the projects. Adams articles on nailed furniture where a good example – he didn’t tell me how to build nailed furniture, he told me why it was built, and why it still holds together. Too many articles in too many magazines tell me some crazy way I can make a tablesaw I don’t have make some joint – but not why I’m using that joint except that I can make it with a tablesaw.

  10. chrischitty

    Thank you Adam for taking the words right out of my mouth. I agree that woodworkers can generally be divided into goal oriented and process oriented people as could probably be said of the population in general. Reading articles that describe wonder jigs that will repeat some tricky piece of joinery flawlessly and effortlessly interests me so much less than getting an insight into why a master craftsman chooses a particular piece of wood and holds it a particular way and works in a particular order of operations. Building jigs makes me more productive but understanding even just a little more the subtle mysteries of how wood, tool and hand interact over time makes me wiser and in my estimation, a more fulfilled woodworker. I know this is beating a dead horse and preaching to the converted but I would love to see more of the subtlety of craft explored and celebrated in the media at large. Thanks

    Chris Chitty

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