Bess Naylor, owner of Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe in York, PA, is a woodworker and instructor in period American furniture, particularly in the Queen Anne, Chippendale and Pennsylvania German styles, and constructs her pieces with the same kind of tools used in the 18th century.
Bess is also a master finisher and can make a newly made piece look 300 years old. Some museum curators have suggested that she needs to start signing her furniture because in 50 years it may be difficult to distinguish her pieces from an original antique.
VC: How did you get started in making period furniture?
Bess: Probably the fault of my mother and grandmother, developing in me at an early age, the love of old pieces, particularly family pieces. They taught me a lot about finishes and how to re-finish. As I pursued my professional degrees, I still came back to old furniture or old family pieces that were in need of repair and re-finishing. When my kids were very young, we decided to try a woodworking business so I "retired" from the faculty at the University of Maryland and became a business woman. My love of chemistry and colorants started it all, as well as a love and committment to teaching (and learning) every facet of wood, especially antiques. I always tried to go up the food chain to whomever seemed to know more. They were the people I wanted to hang out with.
VC: You use authentic tools & techniques as well as hardware made specifically for each of the pieces you build. What drives your desire to be so historically accurate?
Bess: I have always been taught that if something is worth doing, then do it right. Right, to me, means being authentic to the period in tools, hardware and finishes. Perhaps I am just bonkers.
VC: Do you have a favorite tool or set of tools?
Bess: Probably my Barr bench chisels and my norris shoulder plane. Some of Tod Herrli's planes are high on that list as well. And my dovetail saw. I might take them with me when I go—you never know what is around the next bend!
VC: Of the pieces you have built, do you have a favorite?
Bess: Right now the Evans Escrutoire (top photo). It does not have any carving on it, but a real challenge in the joinery department (VC adds: the tricky joinery is due at least in part to the 7 secret drawers, one of which is the entire front piece of crown molding!). And to realize the original of this piece was built in a shop with very few tools, at a time when substinence living was all there was—it is really humbling at how creative and hardworking our ancestors were. A close second is a miniature William and Mary high chest/spice chest—a beaut!! (VC concurs...I have seen this piece!)
VC: What do you love most about period furniture?
Bess: A sense of where the originals came from, the time period, the builders. The tools and materials available to them. A true sense of history—and survival!!
VC: What is your advice for someone who would like to start building period furniture?
Bess: Pick up a tool and try! And most of all—do not be intimidated to make a mistake. Make them—make lots of them. Then learn how to correct them all and then train yourself not to repeat them. Move on to new mistakes! And new fix-its! Read, read, read. Study collections in museums and private collections whenever available. And study whenever possible with someone who knows more than you do. Don't be egotistical—you can learn lots from unexpected places and people.
VC: Can you recommend resource material?
Bess: Auction catalogs and good, solid publications from reputable museums. There is lots of information available, but some is more misleading than really helpful, especially regarding true period furniture. Be cautious of your sources.
VC: What is the one question you wished I had asked and how would you answer it?
Bess: Probably why?? Why be driven to reproduce with careful accuracy and authenticity?? Not sure other than it is a lifelong disease. The more I learn and do, the more I want to learn and do. I want to get better, faster, smarter....there are truly too many pieces that I would love to make and finish, like a fabulous japanned high chest. But right now, I am not building for myself, so that will have to wait for another day.
Be sure to check out Bess's website—www.oldmill.com—to see the classes she is offering this year. There are some amazing projects!