A Trip Back In Time

While Joshua and his family ventured across the country for his week-long class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking a while back, I decided to stick to this coast and take my family south. Several future M&T projects converged to create an opportunity to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Plus, our kids are focusing on American History this school year, and there are few places that bring revolutionary history to life like CW. I was a bit over 4 feet tall when I last visited, and the memory resounds strongly. I was looking forward to seeing the place with new eyes, and through the eyes of our children.

Driving through snow as we left home, springtime gradually crept in as we headed south: songbirds, flowers, leaves, sunshine. Folks were telling us that it was unseasonably cold in the Mid-Atlantic, but 55F felt positively balmy, although we did have some rain to deal with.

 I’m quite familiar with our variety of trees here in New England, but tidewater Virginia presents a whole new smorgasbord of species. Loblolly pine, cypress, tulip tree, osage orange, sassafras, hornbeam – it’s another planet. I eyed the young woods near our lodgings with hungry eyes (yes, I brought my saw “just in case”) but managed to restrain myself.

Dinner in Chowning’s Tavern after watching the Fifes and Drums in the Market Square gave us time to soak things in. Our kids were wide-eyed and loving it. I discussed chair styles with our oldest while we ate – there’s a banister-back chair just like the one in Issue Two! Check out the ladderback at the table over there! It’s inspiring to see all those forms together, in context and in use.

 My focus for this visit was craft. Yes, cannons are cool and carriage rides are fun, but I wanted to get better acquainted with the mindset of 18th-century artisans, and better unpack the answers to that age-old question (and bottomless rabbit hole): “How’d they do that?”

We took aim at the cabinetmaker’s shop, the silversmith, the joiner’s shop, the coffee house (a vitally important craft, for sure), and the blacksmith shop. Bill Pavlak, who wrote a fascinating piece in Issue Three, showed us around the Anthony Hay shop. We were in awe of the harpsichords that are built there, and our son treated us to some Beethoven. Beautifully-carved cabriole legs and intricate patterns invited closer inspection. Again, seeing this work being made in the context of an 18th-century shop begins to reveal how deep our handcraft roots run.

The joiner's shop provided similar food for thought. Skilled historic interpreters are a joy to watch, and some may even begin to approach the speed and efficiency of a period craftsman at work (although all the questions they have to field certainly slow things down at times!).

I spent some time with a master cooper, and saw these skills exemplified. Issue Four discusses the use of the axe in the shop, and coopers develop dexterity with this tool that is second to none. Working by feel and through muscle memory, staves are beveled to invisible lines with a degree of precision that is hard to believe. Dry cooperage could often be assembled right off the axe, no jointing necessary.

The knowledge of the properties of wood necessary for this trade is immense – understanding how wood moves in different climates, knowing the desirable grain orientation for specific applications, the use of dry heat for bending thick oak staves, even being aware of the flavor that the barrel wood will impart to the contents and how to deal with that – needless to say, I left deeply inspired.


~Mike Updegraff

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