“Behind me you see all the stuff that we’ve done so far in the series using the technology of the nineteenth century, and it’s been pretty tough going! So to make ourselves feel a little bit better, let’s take a look back one more step into the eighteenth century.”
I knew we were in for something special for the season finale when Roy walked into the shop with a spiffy new vest on! We’re off to Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum and working laboratory of eighteenth century craftsman. Roy himself is one of these craftsman, as he began his new show he also began a new job as Williamsburg’s master house wright. Later he became director of interpretive development before the demands of the show and family life forced him to give up the Williamsburg gig in the 80’s. But he’s not here to talk to himself, we’re going to meet some of his fellow craftsman, the people the Young Roy Underhill shares a dram with after a hard day full of house wrighting. Me, I spend my evenings watching television and eating cheese. Roy spends his evenings hanging out with master craftsman chatting about the eighteenth century.
Dan Stebbins is first up. He’s the wheelwright, having learned the skill after he arrived in Williamsburg like many of the craftsman do. He’s tasked with maintaining “twenty vehicles, each with four wheels, so that’s a hundred wheels he’s looking after…” (Math isn’t my best subject either.) He’s draw shaving a spoke for a wheelbarrow in a unique vise adapted to a woodworking bench, but he stops to give a quick lesson in wheel making. You can tell Roy’s dying to crank the six foot wheel that powers the “gonzo of a lathe”, and Dan obliges him. Outside they fit an iron tire to a wagon wheel straight out of the campfire and you almost expect someone to break out the marshmallows and camp songs.
Dan hasn’t got time for camp songs, so Roy makes his way to another workshop, passing a pair of questionable looking lasses sitting on the porch, no doubt gossiping about the scandalous length of his mustache. Here we meet the master cooer, George Pettingill, who learned the craft as an apprentice to a London brewer. Today he’s got an apprentice of his own who is hard at work making buckets. It seems funny to our modern minds to think that there was an entire profession, learned through years of apprenticeship and hard work, just to make buckets! Well, not only buckets, also barrels and small dippers. Coopering, like all the other trades, owed its exclusivity to the medieval guild system. Like today’s unions, the guilds kept the wheelwrights from making buckets and the coopers from making wheels and so on. Everybody had their job and a secure future, except for that whole Black Death thing.
Coopers are an impressive lot. Without today’s digital gauges and fine-tuned machinery they could cut a bunch of bevels and grooves and end up with an article that held itself together without glue, water tight no less. Roy’s as amazed as I am, but it’s time to go visit the next shop.
The master blacksmith is Peter Ross. He’s making a garden rake and Roy, whom we already know can smith a good black, or whatever they call it, suddenly appears to be visiting a forge for the first time. He cries out with a schoolgirl’s excitement when the hammer strikes the glowing iron, making silly comments like “the punch has to stay hard or else it’ll loose its temper?” Of course everybody plays along, knowing he’s really asking for the camera’s sake, and we learn a lot of cool things about the hottest craft of the eighteenth century. (See how I played on the words there?)
There are over a hundred craftsman in Williamsburg, and there must be at least as many fair damsels with nothing to do but sit on porches and fence rails waiting for Roy to walk by. Really, it looks like you’d have a hard time finding a flat surface in all the colony without a petticoat on it. But it’s not a living museum as much as a research facility where the craftsmen and women not busy trying to improve the scenery work to rediscover some of the long lost secrets of eighteenth century life and essential trades. And the most essential of those trades is up next, the cabinet shop.
Wright Horne is the master cabinet maker who has recreated every aspect of an eighteenth century cabinet shop from the work to the business end to the apprentice program, and today he’s staining a mahogany Queen Ann something or other. Staining is easy enough today, we open a can and with a little practice we get a nice color. There were no General Finishes or Minwax colors back then, every shop had their own secret recipes which they guarded closer than the Coca-Cola formula. Horne is also the best dressed craftsman in Williamsburg, he could almost convince me to start wearing a puffy shirt! We get to see several projects at various stages of completion, all a lot nicer than I typically make with vastly superior tools. Imagine what these guys could do with a table saw!
“I can’t believe that’s all the time we have.” As Roy makes his way out with a thanks to the 3,000 people who make Colonial Williamsburg possible, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to close to the very first season of the Woodwright’s Shop.
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode and thoughts as he watched it. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
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