Ornamental Separator

Tricks of the Trades

Research into 18th-century methods has taken tradespeople in some surprising directions

Visitors to the trade shops in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area expect to see silversmiths making drinking vessels, bowls and jewelry, and cabinetmakers fashioning furniture that matched the styles in London.

Such activity is constantly in view, to be sure. But there are other skills at work as well — less visible, but no less important.

A carpenter, for example, not only uses woodworking planes but makes them. A wheelwright makes not only carriages but also the paint that’s used to finish many of them. Shoemakers make not only shoes but also the “blacking ball” to shine them.

Making Planes

Colonial Williamsburg’s cabinetmakers, joiners and carpenters once depended on a couple of vendors who made woodworking planes with one or two designs.

“That wasn’t the 18th-century way,” said Matthew Sanbury, an apprentice historic carpenter. “When you look at 18th-century collections, you see that there were lots of different sizes and shapes and designs.”

So, about a year and a half ago, Sanbury started to make the tools himself, and now his planes are used throughout the Historic Area. He’s even made planes for left-handed users who’ve never had one that felt fully comfortable.

By making the tools, Sanbury is preserving the technique and also the “tool diversity” of the period.

Sanbury uses beech or boxwood for making planes. The woods are very strong and less susceptible to warping, which is why they were commonly used for tools in the 18th century.

Mastering the process took time. Sanbury started by studying a series of period tools. Tool marks on some of them provided clues as to how they were made. Before he started working with the harder woods, he practiced with the more common oak and a variety of saws, chisels and other sharp implements to gouge and shape the wood.

“It took about half a dozen planes or so until I became comfortable with all the steps and details in a hand plane,” he said. “And it took that many practice pieces before I spent time on a plane made of beechwood.”

Now it takes him about four or five days to make a plane, though like all tradespeople he often stops what he’s doing to talk to guests.

Other tradespeople are involved in the process. Master blacksmith Ken Schwarz makes two blades for each of Sanbury’s planes so that a sharp one can be substituted at any time.

Even in colonial times, many carpenters bought their tools rather than making them by hand. But many, like Sanbury, wanted a special fit or a distinctive decoration.

“The last thing I’d want our guests to see is all woodworking people in Williamsburg having tools that look the same,” he said. “That wasn’t the case then, and if we can reproduce known 18th-century examples, why wouldn’t we? Every day I come to work I use tools that I made to make buildings here. It doubles my satisfaction.”

Making Paint

Some of the carriages made in the wheelwright shop sport paint that is made in the 18th-century way.

Paul Zelesnikar, a journeyman wheelwright and supervisor of the shop, started making paint about 15 years ago. He learned the process as an apprentice and in true 18th-century fashion is passing it on to apprentices.

The process involves spooning a small pile of an earth-based pigment — a powder made from minerals — onto a marble slab. He uses the spoon to create a small crater and then pours some linseed oil into the crater. Both the pigment and the oil were used in the 18th century, and both come from a company today that caters to artists and conservators. But it’s the blending that may be the biggest surprise. Zelesnikar uses a flattened river stone to grind the material into paint.

While the paint doesn’t actually look different from modern paints, he finds the process satisfying.

“We do all the rest of the work by hand,” he said. “It would feel corny if we just bought the paint. Making the finish really finishes the project.”

Making Polish

A “black ball,” or “blacking ball,” is the colonial equivalent of shoe polish. Shoemakers didn’t typically make them in the 18th century since they were produced commercially in large batches and then sold in a range of shops. One Williamsburg milliner, in a 1771 ad in the Virginia Gazette, offered “fine IVORY BLACKING CAKES, for Shoes, in universal Repute.” Some members of the gentry purchased the balls directly from England. George Washington bought six to 12 balls each year for himself and his household.

It isn’t easy to find the polishing balls today, so apprentice shoemakers Nicole Boileau and Rob Welch decided to make them. They use a recipe they found in the journal of a Presbyterian minister who traveled in Pennsylvania during the 1760s. The Rev. Charles Beatty’s instructions were titled “to make Curious black Ball” and called for using mutton suet and beeswax.

Correct sourcing is key, Boileau said. Mutton suet or tallow works well on leather. Other fats, such as beef or pork tallow, result in too soupy a mixture.

The fat and wax are melted in double boilers made at the tin shop and are combined with a black pigment in a third pot before they are poured into a mold. The process takes only an hour or so, though the balls are then left overnight to set.

Boileau said the balls have been used on several pairs of shoes and appear to be doing a good job of conditioning and coloring the leather.

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