“I was the victim of a good upbringing” – Q&A with Don Williams

Don Williams has a new DVD with us. I caught up with him last week to learn as much as I could about the topic – creating historic (and stunning) furniture finishes. We ended up talking even more about Don’s wealth of experience in both building and instructing.

Historic_Finishes_opener

Dan:

The first thing most of us notice when we look at a true historic finish is the sheer beauty of it. Where does that beauty come from? What is it we are actually looking at on the face of the wood?

Don:

I have read a number of studies about brain physiology and the connection between our vision and our psychology. There are certain kinds of images we almost all identify as beautiful. I’m not an expert on that whole topic, but what I have found in finishing is that there is an almost universally accepted definition of beauty. It translates to a finish with low molecular weight, high gloss and high sheen. Think about a traditional French polish versus an epoxied bar top. The French polish has low molecular weight and high gloss and sheen. The bar top finish is too heavy.

This can be a chicken and egg debate. Did we develop the tools to create what we already considered beautiful, or did the definition of beauty come after using the tools for many years? It doesn’t matter very much. Historic finishes are beautiful, and we have all the tools we need to do the work.

Dan:

At what point in your career did you develop your own finishing vision and technique?

Don:

In about 1974 I went to work for a father and son crew – Pop and Fred Schindler. Pop had more or less retired when I arrived, but he still puttered around the shop. He was Swiss, very traditionally trained in Europe and seen as kind of funny here in the U.S. I was the victim of a good upbringing, and did not see Pop as odd, but rather treated him with a lot of respect.

When it came to finishing, we were all just sitting at the bench and doing the work. We were not following aesthetic theory or anything like that. I worked in the Schindler shop for 4 years, and that was when I developed my technique.

Dan:

After 45 years of finishing and teaching, you have boiled the technique down to 6 concise rules that you share with students and woodworkers everywhere. Tell us more about where this list comes from.

Don:

To the extent that I have any native gifts at all, my gift is the ability to organize ideas. I taught off and on for 25 years at the National Institute for Wood Finishing, and throughout that time I was always seeking a more concise way to explain the craft. That’s where the 6 rules came from.

Dan:

Just a few of the hundreds of brushes at Don's home shop.

Just a few of the hundreds of brushes at Don’s home shop.

One of my favorite moments in the new video is when you show viewers the Japanese rasp that has become one of your favorite tools for flattening veneered surfaces. Are there any other modern or non-traditional tools you like to use in your historic finishing process?

Don:

I probably own over 500 brushes, and have used everything from the traditional badger brush to goat hair and even boar bristle. But I use modern synthetic nylon brushes most of all. They work really well.

Dan:

Thanks, Don! Readers – be sure to check out that new DVD. It’s a gem.

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

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