As I mentioned in the introduction, I don't have a formal education in woodworking. My father is a tool user and has always had a rudimentary shop. It wasn't a hobby for him, just a way of Getting Things Done. When I was young he made some furniture, a fancy dog house, stuff like that, but mostly we fixed up the houses we lived in.
He didn't have any training either. In fact, he hadn't even attended High School, much less finished it. He just figured them out. I definitely gained that attitude from him. If something is broke now, me trying to fix it will either work, or it won't. Same with making things. I'll give it a shot.
For woodworking proper, I started out with that great educator of our youth, the TV.
Early on I got hooked on the popular PBS series: The New Yankee Workshop. Norm Abrams took a lot of heat from purists for his approach to furniture building, but they miss the point. His goal was exactly what the effect he had on me: it was a gateway.
The projects were approachable and avoided the requirement of expensive and specialized tools. The show's introduction quickly became my favorite part of the show. Norm would travel to a museum and with a curator, examine a piece, pointing out the important details. This set the piece in context and showed what the actual antique furniture looked like. Then it was off to the shop to build a reproduction. In most cases, this was not a faithful reproduction as such. It was simplified for the aforementioned reasonable tool kit and skillset of his viewers.
Norm's other show, This Old House, was another favorite. As the owner of an older house, learning about renovations sometimes on a pretty massive scale, was educational.
And, of course, no list of influential TVs would be complete without the amazing Roy Underhill. He's even nuttier in person than he in on his Woodwright's Workshop. This ran for 30 years and you can find most of it online. Time well spent.
I read a lot of books and magazines. You can find a list of my favorites in the Bibliography.
Woodworking in the 18th Century
This conference has been a huge influence on me. While the content is technically out of period for SCA work, it's still of great interest to me. In addition to the fact that the tools and methods of work didn't change much from Roman times to the Industrial Revolution, so there's still a lot to learn here.
Around 2005, I discovered this 3-1/2 day annual conference that was close by in Colonial Williamsburg, and affordable (~$500). Called Woodworking in the 18th Century, it's run every January while Colonial Williamsburg is otherwise pretty quiet and held in the depths of winter (i.e., ~50 degrees). The conference features a couple of talks, usually by curators or furniture historians, but mostly it's on-stage demonstrations of craftsmen making period furniture. The speakers are from the Historic Trades in Williamsburg and invited guests from the furniture-making world.
Each year there's a theme. This year (2020) it was "Back Country Furniture". In this context (Colonial America), "Back Country" meant west of the coastal plain: the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. And also down what was then known as the Great Wagon Road. This was American's first highway. It ran west from Philadelphia to the start of the Shenandoah Valley, then southwestward the length of the valley and down into Georgia. With branches off through the Cumberland Gap into Ohio and another into Kentucky.
This wasn't the "frontier" exactly, but it wasn't the well-settled coast either. So it had lower availability of high-end materials (e.g., mahogany) and the slower penetration of the latest styles. Previously it was thought that the furniture was rougher and crude, but the speakers demonstrated that this was anything but the case. Some quite sophisticated pieces were made in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in what the folks in coastal urban centers were sure was basically the moon.
There were also several different before conference activities, for an additional fee of course. I signed up for a session with the furniture conservator at the DeWitt-Wallace Museum. He (and 2 assistants) took about 10 of us through their exhibit of backcountry furniture over an hour and a half. We had an in-depth discussion about each of the 20 or so pieces on display. The physical and social context the furniture was made in as well as the details of each piece. That was really nice.
Also, there were "companion programs", i.e., things for the wives to do. I signed Jess up for a couple of them. One was a 2-hour session with the weavers and dyers. She got to weave a dish towel sized piece of cloth, she enjoyed it very much.
The conference proper starts off with an evening lecture on the theme of that year's event, usually by a furniture curator of either the DeWitt (the Williamsburg collection) or another notable museum, or by a furniture historian. Often this includes some of the antiques trotted out on stage to supplement the talk.
The next 2-1/2 days are broken up into roughly 90 blocks. During each block one (or more) craftsmen will demonstrate building something, carving, painting or whatever. Some are staff in the Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg as and such are quite adept and fielding questions while working. This is encouraged. During breaks, you are welcome to come up on the stage, ask more questions, take pictures, whatever. The only thing you can't do is handle the actual antiques. Duh.
I have to say that I am one of the few people in the audience that doesn't have white hair. I am certainly in the bottom quartile of age here. Woodworking as a hobby is popular among the retired crowd when you have both the time and money to spend on it. This event, even with 300-350 attendees (plus spouses) is very well run and low drag. Perfect for old white guys.
Includes a banquet which is slightly tedious as you get mashed 8 or 10 to a round table and packed into a hall just barely large enough. You can only really converse with people to either side with the noise. And there's an after-dinner talk as well. I'd skip it altogether except I talked the organizers into having some tables set up in the pre-dinner open bar area for tool sales. So I get to offset some of the costs with an hour of selling tools to the old guys.
Anyway, that's a sample of one of these conferences. Each year has a different theme. We've gone each year since 2006 and it's been well worth it. Williamsburg is nice and in January it's usually in the 50s and EMPTY. Shops and restaurants are SO HAPPY to see you, it's great.
I never fail to come home recharged and ready to jump in the shop and Get Things Done.
Here's the programs from recent years:
- Woodworking in the 18th Century 2020
- Woodworking in the 18th Century 2019
- Woodworking in the 18th Century 2018
- Introduction to Carving with George Slack (2006?)
- This was an afternoon class with a notes carver of 18th furniture details who lives in Northern Virginia. We covered some basic techniques and sharpening a V-tool and then proceeded to carve a rampant lion on a mahogany blank. This was a pretty basic class, but I got some confidence in carving and learned that mahogany is far superior to any wood I had tried to carve on. I didn't get super far and my blank has an annoying streak of sapwood running across it.
- 18th Century Wood Carving with Kaare Loftheim (2 Days, April 2019)
- This was a great class. There were maybe 6 or 7 students in a small shop to learn from the former Master of the Hay Shop in Colonial Williamsburg. Patient and articulate, Kaare was a great instructor. This class was WAY outside my comfort zone. Carving on a flat surface is one thing, carving a 3D shape, quite another. Still, it went pretty well (pictures below).