My Friend, the Mad Scientist

Donald Williams is one of my heroes. As the senior furniture conservator at the Smithsonian Institute for many years (now retired), he has been instrumental in shaping the field of conservation and training many of our nation’s foremost practitioners. Despite the fact that his experience and acumen are far beyond most anyone I’ve ever met, he’s a down-to-earth guy, eager to converse with craftspeople at all levels. For many years Don’s graciously welcomed me into his life as a mentor. He’s advised me through my meager furniture conservation efforts, supported me through my research into the furniture making of Jonathan Fisher, and remained a friend over the years M&T has developed. We regularly exchange emails, but I hadn’t seen him in person for six years.

So, I’ve looked forward to my next opportunity to get down to his place in the mountains of Highland County, Virginia for some time now. Don resurrected his vintage timber-framed barn workshop in 2006, and he’s been outfitting it and filling it with loads of tools from all sorts of endangered and extinct trades ever since. I typically feel relatively competent when it comes to identifying antique woodworking tools… that is until I visit Don’s place. There, I always feel lost in a sea of unfamiliar objects. Don is quick to explain the uses of any one of the thousands of tools and to tell you of his experience with that particular example. It’s humbling. And inspiring.

I’ve always thought of Don as somewhat of a mad scientist, always exploring and insatiably curious. Some recent ventures include recreating the process of building the famous Samuel Gragg “elastic chair,” formulating imitation tortoise shell, experimenting with 18th-century French parquetry techniques, and a building yet another workbench form (he already has more than 20 workbenches in that shop).

Don and his wife Carolyn were tremendously hospitable to us for the few days we spent with them, and I know we all grew closer as we shared stories at the dinner table and walked their wooded property together. And my boys love Don and Carolyn as much as Julia and I do.

If you don’t already follow Don’s blog, you should. There’s a new post nearly every day. And it’s always fascinating stuff.

– Joshua


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