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.