Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Joiners and Cabinetmakers at Colonial Williamsburg

The joiners' shop at Colonial Williamsburg is a relatively new, and most definitely welcome, addition.

Joiners in 18th-century Williamsburg were responsible for building everything from shipping boxes to houses, as evidenced by the newly-constructed Charleton Coffeehouse, built by the joiners using period tools.

They were the jack-of-all-trades of the day—an indispensable part of the village—combining carpentry and joinery into one business.

Corky Howlett was building a sailor's box made of heart pine when we visited. The workbenches were also made of the same species—a dense, heavy, stable wood that is well-suited for utilitarian pieces.

He explained that all tradesmen must work through a 7-year apprenticeship before becoming a journeyman. It doesn't matter what you already know about the trade when you come to work at Williamsburg; you start at the beginning, just like the 14 year old apprentices in the 1700s.

The shop is a hand tool lover's dream with rows of bench planes, moulding planes, complex moulders, handsaws, bowsaws, squares, and more. It's the kind of space that makes you want to take up a mallet and chisel and start chopping dovetails.

Two streets away is the cabinetmakers' shop, run by Master Mack Headley.

Ahhh. To visit the shop is to enter woodworking nirvana. The first things that greet you are exquisite reproductions made by the cabinetmakers, using only handtools. Many of their pieces complement the historic buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

Mack told me that most of the furniture is made with black walnut or mahogany, and southern pine or tulip poplar are used as secondary woods.

They had sandpaper in the colonies in 1765, he explained, but they also used equisetum (horsetails) for its abrasive qualities.

To achieve a glossy finish, they use unrefined shellac—a 1.5 pound cut to 1 gallon of (presumably denatured) alcohol. They apply 4-5 coats a day until they reach 16-18 coats. Next, they rub with sandpaper, then pumice and rottenstone, and finish with wax.

For pieces that will receive gold leaf, they mix rabbit-skin glue and chalk to form a gesso as the base.

Brian Weldy, the other cabinetmaker on sight that day, offered other tidbits. In the 1700s, a saw would cost you a week and half's wages. A chisel would cost a day's wage.

The original workshop in Williamsburg was a 5-man shop, and each person would work 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Each journeyman owned his own set of tools, and apprentices would build their own toolbox at the end of their apprenticeship.

Speaking of toolboxes—they have an incredible reproduction of the 213 year old Benjamin Seaton tool chest for visitors to admire. Just...out...of...drool... range.

The veneer for the tool chest was cut with a wide-blade frame saw to 3/32". Brian remarked that a wide blade tracks a straighter kerf than a thinner blade, which is ideal for cutting veneer.

Brian is in his third year of the apprenticeship program. But you can tell he's in for the long haul. He's got that "I'm in heaven" look in his eye.


Darnell said...

The photo of the cabriole leg is calendar-worthy. Thanks Kari.

Darnell said...
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Unknown said...

Kari- looks like a wonderful place to visit and those tools...did you ask if they were hiring? ;)
I love the first shot of the guy with the hat in front of the sea chest with his arm full of ink~did you manage a visit to the Colonial tattoo parlor while you were there?
Another great post-

Bob Easton said...

Dang! I wanna know what that guy Clark and that guy Williams are eating. They've survived from Colonial times and are still makin' planes. Wow. :)

The perspective on the Colonial cost of tools should make us very appreciative. For example, today's apprentice can buy today's premium saws for much less than a week and a half's wages. Put in that perspective, today's premium tools are very affordable.

THANKS Kari for all the pics and info. Great stuff!

Steve Branam said...

Any pictures of that wide veneer-cutting frame saw? How wide were the veneers they cut? I was able to cut 1/4" white oak veneers (for 1/8" finished thickness) 2" wide for my Stickley table legs using a ripsaw. I'd like to be able to go thinner and wider.

Woodbloke said...

Great place to visit with some fabulous work going on. 'Brian' does indeed look like he's "in heaven" but at the end of his 18th century working day he'd possibly go home in his SUV to the delights and comforts of a 21st century home...not something that the original craftsmen had the luxury of looking forward to... - Rob

Tico Vogt said...

Thanks fro the great post. It will hold me over until I get a chance to go there.
I once tried to follow Mack Headley's video on carving. It was well done but, at nine o'clock at night, I could never make it past a few frames. I do remember him saying that by using a bowsaw to saw into the mahogany for the cabriole legs you instantly learned something about the nature of that piece of wood, which would be valuable when the carving came around.
Sixteen coats of shellac, no wonder the pieces have endured looking so great.
Did you see anything that related to their tool sharpening technology?



Dave Griessmann said...

I love that photo of the legs!

Great post Kari! Makes me wish I was there.

Mark Poulsen said...

Thanks for the post! The coolest thing is that the cabinetmakers will answer your woodworking questions. Last time we were there I asked about finishing a mahogany Clock I was working on where the wood was very uneven in tone and color. I talked to one of the guy for about 45 minutes. Went home and used his suggestions and the clock looks great. I just wish I was a few thousand miles closer, cause I got lots of questions.

Shannon said...

Great minds think alike. I read this post then went back into my own photo library from my last visit and I have almost the same photos. I love that place and it looks like you were able to avoid some of the crowd that come with the Cabinetmaker's shop. I love the Joinery because it doesn't get much traffic off the beaten path by the Capitol building. Can't wait to go back in June!

will said...

Equisetum looks nice, as long as it's not on your property (we are "blessed" with the Great Horsetail variety). It is impossible to eradicate - the rhizomes are very deep and if you miss pulling out one of the many spore producing heads, a new cluster will pop up the following spring.

BTW, traditional Japanese woodworkers have used Equisetum as sandpaper for centuries. One master craftsman told me, in use, it outperformed the modern garnet or ALOX varieties of sandpaper.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Hultman:-

Many thanks for you wonderful post, brings back good memories of my visit to CW. Glad to hear the Joiners finally got their shop, they were looking towards its construction when i was there. Mr. Corky is a blast to talk to, and a very informative person. Thanks for the great pictures.
-Nathan W.

Kari Hultman said...

Darnell, they were beautiful. It was neat to be able to see them up close and compare the differences.

Tom, I was wondering how period-correct the tattoos were. It definitely caught me eye, though! (as did the tools...)

Bob, that's a great point about the cost of tools! We pay a fraction of the cost for quality handtools today. Also, good point about Clark & Williams' diet. I need to reexamine my nutrition plan.

Steve, I just emailed a photo of the frame saw to you. I didn't ask about the width of the veneers, but you'll see by the photo that there was no limit to the width they'd be able to cut.

Rob, I would never be able to withstand working hours like that, let alone without the comforts of 21st c. living. And without internet even. No way!

Tico, I did not ask them about tool sharpening, but the coopers use a grinding wheel and stones. I bought the cabinetmaker's video while I was there, but haven't watched it yet.

Thanks, Dave! We're planning another trip in December if all goes well.

Mark, they are very happy to share their knowledge, for sure. It's a wonder they have time to build anything. haha

Shannon, I'm not surprised that we'd focus on the same things. ; ) The first day we were there was "Take a busload of school kids to Williamsburg" Day and apparently all the schools in VA got the memo. I managed to outrun them, nonetheless.

Savrita, thanks for the added information about equisetum. That was the first I'd heard about using it for sandpaper. Its invasive nature sounds a lot like the chives I regret having planted so many years ago. *sigh*

Mr. W., the last we visited C.W. was about 10 years ago and the joiners' shop was not there at the time. I'm not sure when they got their own space, but it's a nice-sized building. Two relatively large rooms and one smallish back room with the little workbench and smallest of the three Nicholson benches.

Larry Marshall said...

Great photos, Kari. In particular I love the photos of the Nicholson benches as I hope to build one 'real soon.'

I'm curious, though. How do those vises with the offset screw work? Also, is the vise chop also softwood?

Cheers --- Larry

Torch02 said...

Random observation - There is no half pin on the bottom of the drawer side.

I really need to get back to CW.

Anonymous said...

Tattoos are definitely unusual - they weren't known in Euro-American culture until the South Seas were opened up to regular trade some time in the early 1800's, and then really a rare and exotic art found on sea-farers.

I knew Brian Weldy when he lived in Massachusetts and taught woodworking at the North Bennet Street School - I think he also worked for Peter Follansbee as a joiner at Plymouth Plantation. He's a really nice guy and a great woodworker - I'm glad to read he's so happy at Williamsburg. Couldn't happen to a better man.

Brian Smith

Kari Hultman said...

Larry, I'll send you some more pics of the benches. I don't know if they'll help you with building yours or not, but they're fun to look at. There is a pin opposite the vise screw that keep the vise aligned. It looks like the vises are also made of southern yellow pine, but the wood is super dense. I think Corky said they were using reclaimed wood.

Steve, I noticed that, too. Looks a little odd. Not sure why they did it that way.

Brian, thank you for the information on tattoos and on Brian. He is definitely a super nice guy and talented woodworker.

Anonymous said...

Most interested in the 1765 use of sandpaper . Much earlier than any OED date. There was a plant grown in Australia with abrasive leaves called " sandpaper " I think that might be what they were talking about .I think all your early cites should be forwarded to OED editors.Maybe you do have something that will will cause a date change.

Anonymous said...