It was hard to believe as I cruised down the train tracks from DC to Williamsburg this morning, but a huge snowstorm was about to hit the entire southeast region. The forecast was so bleak that day 1 of our pre-conference DC field trip had already been cancelled, much to my extreme dismay. Still holding out hope for the Friday activities, I arrived at Williamsburg station determined to make the most of the remaining good weather.
I haven’t been to Williamsburg in almost seven years. I was so giddy to be back that nothing could dampen my spirits—not the bitter cold or the train delays or even learning the hard way that my luggage was way too heavy to walk from the train station to the hotel and I really should have just taken a cab. I’m so used to not being in these surroundings at home. I get excited when I spot a rare Georgian-style building in California, or a bachelor’s chest in the background of a scene on House of Cards, or a random Chippendale mirror on the wall of a dark restaurant. My husband amusingly calls it my “colonial radar.” So, needless to say, Williamsburg puts me in major sensory overload. Shutters! And dormer windows! And brickwork! (Oh my!) I’ve already seen too many Windsor chairs to count and I’ve only been here half a day.
Calming down from the excitement (and getting some feeling back in my hands after lugging those bags), I set out for the Anthony Hay cabinetmaking shop. Cabinetmaker Brian Weldy greeted me as I came in from the cold. I explained I was in town for the antiques forum. An annual woodworking conference has recently ended in Williamsburg, and Brian laughed as he observed that the antiques forum attracts a lot more pretty ladies. Apparently there’s largely a lot of plaid flannel seen around town during the woodworking days…
We had a great conversation about the interpretation of Anthony Hay’s shop, their current projects, period finishes, and wood selection. Brian handed me two pieces of mahogany of roughly equal volumetric size. One was modern, commercially available, Honduran mahogany. The other was the type of Santo Domingo (or “island”) mahogany used by 18th century cabinetmakers. Though the difference in quality and density can be usually be observed just by looking at the finished furniture, actually feeling the weight difference in the blocks really hit the concept home. Brian commented that the Honduran mahogany is often so inferior that their sharp tools can’t get a fine, smooth cut in the wood. The cabinetmaker ends up wasting a ton of extra time smoothing out and sanding down the surface. He likened it to using a sharp knife to cut either a nice hard cheddar or a soft goat cheese. They’re much better off using native walnut when possible, he explained. It’s absolutely period accurate (although mahogany was the absolute height of fashion in the 18th century), as well as readily available in a high-quality, easily-workable supply.
I also chatted with harpsichord maker Edward Wright, who works in the same shop. Apparently only four colonial-made harpsichords are known to survive in all of America, and none of them are in an ideal condition for studying their original construction methods. A reliance on English-made examples is necessary (of course, the colonial craftsmen relied on these examples too). Few people in the colonies could afford such a luxury, and it seems that those who could were much more likely to import it from England. But there is evidence that colonial Williamsburg did have a harpsichord maker in town.
At the end of their workday, I thanked Brian and Edward for the chat and opened the shop door to a bit of a surprise. Rapid snowfall had already covered the town in a thin blanket of white, and it was only coming down faster. Deciding that the moderate protection of my umbrella gave me authorization to take the scenic route, I slowly wandered back to the hotel with camera in hand. On the way, I ducked into a shop that was still open, and surprised the ladies at the counter. “What are you doing walking around in the snow?!” they asked, perplexed. “I’m from California,” I explained. “This is awesome!”
Like a kid in a candy store.