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.