Colonial Williamsburg's Working Wood in the 18th Century conference is back again this January for its 22nd year. This three-and-a-half day event has become one of our signature educational conferences and an annual must-attend for many furniture makers. While it’s not a hands-on woodworking course for attendees, it does present some extraordinary learning opportunities for furniture makers and historians — be they seasoned professionals or enthusiastic amateurs. Not only do we feature presenters from throughout Historic Trades and our department of Collections and Conservation, we also host internationally renowned craftsman and scholars. Presentations are conducted from stage, but there’s not a bad seat in the house since we have expert cameramen who can get in close to the action being demonstrated and project it on large screens in real time. We often compare it to watching a cooking show on television, but with the added benefit of direct interaction.
Have a question about what the presenter is doing? Okay, just ask it and they will probably answer right then and there. Our presenters are also very accessible to guests during breaks and over shared meals. If that’s not enough, fellow attendees spend much of their time between presentations, networking, sharing ideas, and forming lasting friendships through common interests. In other words, this is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in the world of period woodworking for a few days surrounded by one of the country’s great collections of 18th century buildings and artifacts. Odds are you’ll go home tired, but with a mind alive with thoughts for a new year of making.
For a better sense of what can transpire at a conference like this, I, along with a few colleagues, share some of our favorite moments from past conferences below. —Bill Pavlak, Journeyman-Supervisor Cabinetmaker
THE MAGIC OF MASTERY
Bill Pavlak, Journeyman-Supervisor Cabinetmaker
It is always rewarding to watch skilled hands employed in their craft. Even an experienced craftsman can learn from seeing a master at work. While there may be much to learn from the techniques they are teaching, I often draw most inspiration from observing how they go about their tasks — the confident economy of motion in each step and their deep familiarity with tools and materials. One of my favorite demonstrations came from the mind and hands of Patrick Edwards, a craftsman who specializes in period marquetry (“painting in wood” with veneers of different colors and grain patterns). Though I don’t typically practice marquetry myself, watching Patrick work and hearing him share his knowledge of 18th-century practices not only made me a better woodworker and historian, it also made want to dip my toes in to the world of marquetry myself.
Something like that happens every year. What makes Patrick’s presentation stand out so keenly for me, however, is wrapped up in the piece he was demonstrating: A 1790s tool chest lid that features a remarkable display of marquetry on its underside that includes a self-portrait of its maker at work. I have long marveled at this piece, trying to pull from its muted arrangement of veneers whatever stories I could of its dapper woodworker standing with frothy beer in hand, surrounded by the tools of our shared trade. The vibrant colors of marquetry fade significantly over time, and this lid was no exception (blues and greens become gray and everything else some form of brown).
Patrick’s presentation closed with a dramatic reveal. Marquetry is often assembled face-down on a piece of paper which holds the puzzle pieces together until the whole thing can be glued down to its substrate and the paper scraped away. As Patrick scraped away that paper away, it was like magic. Yes, it was an extraordinary proof of his skill, but it was also as though two centuries of fading had been erased. The cabinetmaker’s coat hasn’t looked that vibrantly blue in 200 years! The reproductions done at this conference allow us all to see the past with new eyes.
EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING TO LEARN
Edward Wright, Journeyman Harpsichord Maker
After finishing a demo about using hide glue in assembling the veneer decoration on the Seaton chest, attendees — as they typically did — came up during the break with questions. Among them appeared a well-known, respected woodworker who also presented a demo that year. He came up to me said straight away, “I’ve really never worked with hide glue, but after this I’m going to have to work with it.”
Of course, I was delighted with this vote of confidence from a woodworker with years of experience and reputation for skilled work. But it also struck me that even this most seasoned of craftsmen was open to a new idea, another method of work. It’s something that marks the real spirit of this event: learning and sharing, being surprised, professionals and hobbyists, masters and beginners alike.
MEET YOUR HEROES
Brian Weldy, Journeyman-Supervisor Joiner
One of my favorite things about the Symposium is the opportunity to rub shoulders with the woodworking giants. For example, in 2007 my wife gave me a birthday gift of a trip to Williamsburg to see Peter Follansbee and Jenny Alexander present. At the Conference dinner, we sat with the two of them and listened to their arguing, their jokes, and their stories.
Several years later after transitioning from participant to presenter, I was showing how to shape pegs at the Museum demonstration bench. A silver-haired gentleman walked up and told me the story about how he used to shape them as an apprentice working in Germany. Looking at his name tag, I discovered it was legendary cabinetmaker Frank Klausz. The thing is, these stories aren’t unusual and the Symposium demonstrations are great, but to have the opportunity to socialize with the likes of Steve Latta, Roy Underhill, Patrick Edwards, and too many others to mention is such an amazing opportunity.
JOIN THE COMMUNITY
John Peeler, Apprentice Cabinetmaker
I attended my first Working Wood conference as a participant in 2018. Having been a hand tool user and furniture maker for quite some time, I had grown increasingly interested in historical practices and the line-up and subject of the ’18 conference seemed well worth the time. I was obviously not disappointed and made many valuable connections with other woodworkers via the conference’s networking opportunities. Also valuable was getting to meet some CW tradespeople, including the folks in the Hay shop. We talked not only woodwork, but also historical interpretation. At the time, I was volunteering at a historical site near my home in Maryland, and by the summer of 2018, I knew where I wanted my career path to go.
With a retirement in the shop, a new apprenticeship was up for grabs, and before I knew it, I was planning a move to Virginia and into a new job at CW. We agreed that I should start in time for the 2019 conference, both as an extra set of hands, and to make myself known to the woodworkers that come to our symposium. Experiencing the 2019 conference and interacting with CW staff was very different from a year previous, but I enjoyed reintroducing myself and making new acquaintances. Some may remember my specific contribution to the work – turning the great wheel lathe for Brian Weldy as he dished out one of the tea table tops the shop had been reproducing. It was an illustrious start to the apprenticeship, no doubt. For the 2020 conference, I find myself quite a bit more involved, lending a significant hand in creating this year’s piece. I look back at my experiences with the symposium, from the changing perspectives to continuing maturation as a woodworker,and feel very fortunate to have participated. Going into the future, I look forward to sharing my love of historic woodwork with like-minded folks.
Register now for the 22nd annual Working Wood in the 18th Century conference, January 16-19, 2020. Registration closes January 6.