Ornamental Separator

Fallen Treasure

Storm ‘debris’ became a woodworking opportunity

Buildings in the Historic Area escaped damage from Irene’s hurricane-force winds in August 2011, but a number of mature black walnut trees were not so lucky. In the eyes of Colonial Williamsburg’s cabinetmakers, though, what the storm left behind was an opportunity to turn the fallen trees into fine furniture.

“The day after the storm we went around looking at the trees, like vultures,” recalled Bill Pavlak, then an apprentice and now master of the cabinetmaking shop. “Crews were trying to get all the debris out of the way, and we wanted to make sure these didn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

Black walnut, with its rich chocolate-brown color and straight, consistent grain, was popular in the 18th century. It was also relatively easy to work with and was suitable for furniture both simple and elaborate. Today, it is hard to come by boards like those that were cut from the felled trees — some were 2 feet wide.

Eager as the cabinetmakers were to get started, they had to wait a few years for such thick wood to season. But some of the furniture made of the walnut has now been completed, and other pieces are nearing completion.

‘Plain and Neat’

Apprentices Jeremy Tritchler and John Peeler have been working on a combined desk and bookcase based on an original on display at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Tritchler is working on the large desk and Peeler on the bookcase that will ultimately be attached to the desk. The choice is especially appropriate since the original was also made in Williamsburg at Anthony Hay’s cabinetmaking shop on Nicholson Street. Saddler and harness maker Alexander Craig bought the desk and bookcase from Hay in 1753 and it was passed down through the Craig and Galt families in Williamsburg.

“To be able to use wood from trees that were growing in Williamsburg to reproduce a piece that was made right here,” Pavlak said, “is something special.”

The piece was what would have been described during the period as “plain and neat,” a phrase Virginians used to describe furniture that was well-made, elegantly proportioned with well-chosen materials, yet without too much ornamentation. Plain and neat furniture like this one would have been a fashionable piece in the Craig home, but at a price that a successful small business owner could afford.

Peeler pointed to a dovetail joint as an example of the “neat” construction. These joints take longer to make than other types and are very durable.

Some of the furniture made from the trees has already been finished, including a sideboard table based on another piece attributed to Hay’s shop. In this case, the evidence for its provenance included discarded furniture legs unearthed on the Hay site during a 1960 excavation. One of the never-finished legs found at the site has the same distinctive trumpet-shaped foot as this sideboard and as a series of tables and chairs with local histories. The original side table is not far away, in the Peyton Randolph House.

A tea table with a round top that tilts for easy storage was also completed — and sold at the Prentis Store. The table is based on a design by today’s historic cabinetmakers, though it was made, as always, in the 18th-century style with period reproduction tools.

An Elite Instrument

Spinets, which are small wing-shaped harpsichords, were popular among the gentry. Harpsichord maker Edward Wright used some of the walnut wood when he reproduced a spinet from Colonial Williamsburg’s collection that was made in 1726 in London. He is working with apprentice Melanie Belongia on another reproduction, also using the walnut, of the same spinet.

Walnut was especially appropriate for this piece since the original maker, -Cawton Aston, used it for a serpentine bent side for the case. “Walnut allows the instrument to be built more efficiently because of the bending work,” Wright said. “Walnut bends very successfully whereas mahogany, though fashionable, does not and must be used as a veneer.”

“It was wonderful to use locally grown walnut, as they may have for spinet work in the 18th century,” Wright added.

The spinet won’t be the last piece of furniture made from the walnut, though the cabinetmakers don’t yet know what’s next. “The majority of work we do in walnut in the coming years will likely come from this stash,” Pavlak said.

The Right Seasoning

Walnut, like other woods, should be seasoned — which means dried — before it is used. Wood will shrink and distort as it loses most of the water that was present in the tree. A well-seasoned board still expands and contracts with changes in humidity, but seasoning minimizes this. The traditional air-drying process also reveals flaws in boards that can be worked around or cut out. Master cabinetmaker Bill Pavlak’s rule of thumb for the black walnut: Season one year for every inch of thickness, though a little longer is preferable.

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