Williamsburg Woodworking Conference Trip Report

This year’s conference was a delightful departure from the so far typical furniture fare of Colonial Williamsburg’s “Working Wood in the 18th Century” woodworking conference. This year, Williamsburg’s interpreters teamed up with tool historians on both sides of the Atlantic to share with us their notions on Tools, Tool Chests, and Workbenches of the 18th century.

I attended the first session joined by several current and former interpreters from Pennsbury Manor. For me, the quiet conversations between the conference attendees are as interesting and educational as the presentations themselves.

Each year, I bemoan that fact that no videos or transcripts will be made available. As I sat in the gorgeous, packed yet comfortable auditorium, I couldn’t help but feel privileged. This sense was heightened by the forced absence of my friend Paul and those of you who emailed me and really would have loved to attend but couldn’t. But instead of continuing to bang a drum that know one cares to listen to, I’ll only say this in consolation: I think the “back of the class” conversations and fellowship are so great and so useful, that a video just wouldn’t be the same experience.

The conference began with short lectures by Jay Gaynor and Jane Rees. Jay talked about tools. Jane talked about tool storage. The most memorable bit for me was Jane’s mention of the “bass” joiner’s tool bags present in several period paintings of shops. I’ve been carrying a similar woven grass bag of the sort ladies take to the beach to Pennsbury Manor for several years. And I think for all those years, my friend Dave has been whistling at me. Finally, I am vindicated. As it turns out, English woodworkers, including Jane’s Grandfather, have been carrying their tools not in cleverly constructed wooden totes but in “bass” bags for at least 2 centuries.

Jane Rees, along with her late husband Mark, wrote the fantastic introduction to “British Planemakers from 1700”, “Christopher Gabriel…”, and contributed to “The Toolchest of Benjamin Seaton”. She’s a fantastic scholar and valuable resource, having a breadth and depth of knowledge matched by few or none. Perhaps because of this, I was left wanting more from Jane. She did a good job presenting the evidence of tool storage and workbench placement. But I was hoping for a summary that explained the rationale behind such issues. Maybe its obvious, but it seems to me that tool chests are not primarily used to transport tools, but rather to safeguard them in a commercial shop that you don’t own or live in. Like modern day auto mechanics, I suspect period craftsmen abhored lending or borrowing tools. Like modern day auto mechanics, having the right tool for the job can be a matter of maintaining one’s livelihood. Like modern day auto mechanics, the tool chest and its contents were easily worth 6 months to a year’s wages. So we see rural and family shops characterized by tool storage consisting of open shelves and racks on walls, like the Dominy shop. Urban commercial shops, like those depicted by Roubo can probably be characterized by rows of benches, left ends facing the light source, and the use of tool chests to store individual craftsmen’s tools.

Thursday’s conference began with a lecture by Jane on Benjamin Seaton. It’s important to note that neither the Seaton chest nor its contents were present. Somehow, I misunderstood “we’ll be looking at the Seaton chest”. We looked at pictures of the Seaton chest and Kaare Loftheim’s informative reproduction. The main carcass is fairly typical. It has a nailed or screwed up bottom. The till is a bit more interesting. We speculated that the secret drawers were nothing more than a way to fill space behind the drawers, very likely shortened to allow their removal without removal of the till. I’m fairly convinced and Jane confirmed my beliefs that tills like Seaton’s were not designed to be removed daily. But throughout the discussions, I failed to hear the Seaton chest placed in its proper context: It has many features we would come to see as typical of 19th c chests including its tall proportions, multi leveled till with drawers, and veneered interior. I can’t help but question the appropriateness of using this chest for a “working wood in the 18th century” despite the date of its manufacture. If we could look into a third quarter of the 18th c commercial shop, I suspect we’d see chests that look more like blanket chests, long and low, and few simple tills and tools with unmatched handles. In short, I suspect we’d see something more like the Nixon chest.

My notes are a little sketchy, but I think late Thursday morning, Marcus Hanson And Ed Wright demonstrated the hammer veneer work on the till. This was a fantastic demonstration that I think would make a great 2-hour video. When I began volunteering in Pennsbury, I saw my role as technical. I felt I was able to build things with period tools, in an unheated shop without electricity. Talking to visitors, especially non-woodworkers, was clearly not my forte. But Williamsburg’s Hay shop craftsmen are different. These guys are terrific woodworkers AND professional interpreters who are just plain fun to watch and listen to. While none of them are Underhill caliber, you can see that St. Roy is one of many folks in CW who are good at presenting information and making it fun.

Thursday afternoon, Garret Hack discussed workbenches. I had never met Garret before and I found him delightfully charming and down to earth. I was disappointed he didn’t discuss 18th c workbenches though. In my opinion, there’s something weird going on with FWW’s participation at the conference. The FWW speakers don’t seem to feel compelled to limit their discussions to Working Wood in the 18th century, which is after all, the generic title of the conferences and the reason many of us attend. I know some of the attendees felt stronger about this than I did. I liked Hack’s presentation and felt the need to jot down several comments:

“[The workbench] is the most important tool in your shop.”

“[It] influences the work that you do.”

“[My workbench] represents me as a craftsman.”

Friday featured Roy Underhill’s presentation (driven by his macbook pro!). The opening slide is shown below:

Roy’s presentation was on screw threads and it was everything one would expect from The Woodwright; It was hilarious and informative. A heckler (no it wasn’t me, really) mentioned that this was the first time he’d ever seen Roy work and not cut himself. I had a similar comment in a PW article on Building Saw horses some years ago, and later regretted it. Now I see that mentioning cuts to Roy is a little like singing Roxanne to Sting or asking Ricky Gervais “Are you having a laugh?”. So I was curious to take Roy’s reaction. Would he be peeved or annoyed? Surely he wouldn’t laugh like this is the first time he’s heard that one. He responded quickly: “The Director kept yelling “Cut!” and I didn’t know what he was talking about”.

The presentation ended with a very cleverly set up joke of the sort only someone with Roy’s superior intellect could muster. And as I finished my belly laugh with everyone else, a wash of disappointment came over me that would later characterize my feelings about the entire conference. Its was fun, but missing something. I felt Roy missed the opportunity to discuss the advantage (in my opinion superiority) of wooden vise screws that he’d just explained in detail how to build. It seemed like every lecture was great but with a few notable exceptions, needed a 5-minute summary or conclusion.

The conference closed with an informal poll indicating that more than half the audience was there for the first time. This made me wish more than ever that some of the lectures ha d a bit more resolution to them.

All said, I wasn’t and have never been disappointed by the conference in Williamsburg. It was a great experience, as much for the fellowship as the lectures. You’re going to leave the conference a better, more informed woodworker. So I recommend going and going back even if the last conference didn’t meet 100% of your expectations.

Adam

P.S.
The annual woodworking conference in Williamsburg is like a Star Trek convention for period woodworkers. People dress up in funny clothes. You meet wonderful people who are strange in the same ways you are strange. Its validating. No one asks where you get the time to use hand tools or offers their ill-informed opinions on rococo style.

But as period woodworking geeks go, I’m probably the nerdiest. I have been working on my Mack Headley impersonation and fantasizing about Williamsburg trading cards. A typical card would have a picture of say, Kaare Loftheim on the front, and on the back his favorite tools, pitch and rake of his saws, and other fun facts like where he keeps his cabinetscrapers (anybody know?) and maybe a note worthy catch phrase like “dummy marks”.

11 thoughts on “Williamsburg Woodworking Conference Trip Report

  1. Ed

    I try to attend the second session conference at Williamsburg. The presentations on stage often contain statements that start like, "During the first session we figured out a better way to demonstrate this…" or "There were a lot of questions about this during the first session which we can answer more fully for you…" Even though the speakers are getting tired by the end they keep their enthusiasm up. I always come a few days early to "be a tourist" as well as talk with attendees of the first session, which is how I met Adam this year.

    My personal experience regarding workbench placement and light sources is similar to Adam’s. I volunteer at an 1890’s living history farm. I work in a large, 3 story timber frame barn. The bench is against an interior wall. My light sources consist of the large barn door, 16 feet behind me to the left, and a 2’x3′ window facing a shady pasture 16 feet to my right. I can’t see anything, especially on a cloudy, winter, late afternoon here in northern Illinois. We have two lanterns hanging above the bench which do not help other than to "mask" the low voltage spotlights discretely hidden behind a beam over my head. (Don’t tell anyone we had to install 2 electric lights! It’s still not cushy… we have no heat and are open when the temperature is zero degrees. I have sawn, planed and nailed together wood that had ice on it the whole time I worked.

    Whenever I don’t need a vise or full bench I prefer to do my work closer to the barn door. It avails me lots of light and the visitors get to see up close what I’m doing instead of looking at my back. It also better fulfills our mission of educating the public. It’s especially thrilling to see children and teens get excited about trades and tools they never knew existed.

    Which brings me to Tom’s comments about not being able to attend the conference and missing the learning experience. Lots can be learned from DVDs, books, and magazines. They’re cheaper than conferences. (Also, try inter-library loan through your local public library of books by the conference speakers). I did that for many years. That’s how I learned to sharpen and set hand saws and tune planes – a job which is now mine exclusively at our shop.

    For interactive learning, if you are near enough to a living history museum that has trades folks working, take time to sit, watch, and ask lots of questions. I volunteer because I love what we do there and want to share it. Not all interpreters are equally gifted at actively engaging the visiting public. But most of us consider it a fulfilling day when a visitor asks tons of questions. It reminds us that we have valuable knowledge to give others. Often, I spend most of my time "demonstrating" (i.e. educating) instead of accomplishing high production work but the work eventually gets done. Kline Creek Farm in Winfield, Illinois even has free admission and parking every day. Come visit if you’re in the area.

    Adam, I’ll be the first to answer the question about where Kaare Loftheim keeps his cabinet scrapers. I think they are in the pages of his "Good Book" along with a small file or two. He jokes, tongue-in-cheek, that if he ever goes to jail all he will request to take along is his Bible (and it’s contents, of course)! 🙂

  2. Mike

    Adam; I hope in the future you’ll pass on the mystery of making wooden screws. I have one wooden and one metal and think of using them for the front vise a la Christopher Schwarz’s Holtzapffel bench. I’m assuming one wood and one metal would be a bad idea.

  3. Jamey Amrine

    Adam, I find your comment about the FWW influence at the conference interesting. I noticed this last year. I think it is wonderful that they help to sponser it, but they seem to be omnipresent. The breaking point for me on that subject was the slide show at the banquet last year. I actually couldn’t wait for that to end.

    I felt Ernie Conover’s presentation last year had similar issues to what Garrett Hack’s apparently did this year. I came away not understanding why we were shown this turning demonstration when it really had nothing to do with 18th (really 17th last year) century woodworking. The barleytwist form was period correct, but not Ernie’s variation on it. Of course, he was demonstrating the technique that had appeared in the latest FWW, so it was essentially a magazine promotion.

    I missed the conference this year regreatably after attending the last two. It seems I missed a good one. I have attended the second session each year I’ve gone, and I always miss you. Last year my traveling companion Jim Crammond caught up with you, but I was in the hotel getting over the flu that I traveled down with from Michigan.

    Perhaps next year we will meet up.

  4. Adam

    It was great meeting you at D-C, Al. You know, the Wmsburg conference has great tours for wives, assuming yours is not a woodworker. Its also a great way to support the CWF in their hour (okay month) of need. The whole situation is a win-win. I doubt I’ll miss another conference.

    Adam

  5. Al Rossi

    Adam, Thanks for the commentary. My wife and I spend a week in Williamsburg every year, but during the 4th of July holiday. Still inspiring to see all of those folks at work even though the cabinetmaking and carpentry takes a back seat to the rest of the activities going on that time of year.

    One year I will make the time to see the conference, but for now I’m just grateful that folks like you take the time to share your experience with the rest of us.

    Thanks again.

  6. Adam

    Workbenches were always placed to take advantage of available natural light. In small shops, benches were placed along the walls, under or near a window. In larger shops, where there were more benches than walls, benches were placed parallel, left ends toward windows.

    People say they worked by candle light. I’ve worked by candle light, and one candle doesn’t cut it. You need several and at that, its not fun. You might be able to carve by candle light, but its very difficult to execute joinery where you must saw to a line, etc etc.

    But as I wrote, this is my summary, not Jane’s. She presented the data and left it up to us to draw conclusions.

    Adam

  7. James Mittlefehldt

    Adam would you mind summarizing Jane Rees thoughts on workbench placement, even a nutshell mention would be nice?

    Would have loved to be there, but could not get time away from work. Thanks for your thorough synopsis of the event.

    James

  8. Tom Knighton

    As someone who had no way to go (financially), it’s truly a shame that everything folks like me can get about the conference was what folks who went would send back. There was a lot of good information there that would enrich the work of so many others who focus on hand tool usage in this age of slaughtering electrons.

    Mostly though, I’m just jealous that I didn’t get a chance to go 🙂

  9. david herzig

    I was there at the second section. My take on the Seaton chest, particularly, was that the inside work was also a form of marketing. When opened in the shop it would show a potential customer the capabilities of the maker. I could picture a customer coming into a shop with the top of the Seaton chest open and the tills exposed as thinking, "Wow! If that is what he can do just to store his tools, think of what he can do for my piece."
    As for the hidden compartments: I believe that in the previous centuries, a journey man cabinet maker would have such hidden compartments in his tool chest to store his money. I wonder if these were relics of that period.

  10. David Colafranceschi

    Too bad that Williamsburg will not be making a video of the conference. I was thinking about this in the weeks leading up to the conference. I completely agree that it would not give justice to being there and having discussions with all your peers but that being said I think all woodworkers would benefit from a video. Maybe a recommendation to Williamsburg for future conferences. Many thanks to you and all woodworkers who keep the traditional methods of woodworking alive and well.

    Dave

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