Monday, June 13, 2011

SAPFM Demo at Whitehorne House, Newport, RI


The e-mail flyer sent out by the Newport Restoration Foundation.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in a truly unique event.

The Whitehorne House, in Newport, RI, was celebrating its 200th anniversary with an open house. It's one of several properties owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation, founded in 1968 by Doris Duke. Built in 1811, it now serves as a museum of fine Newport and Rhode Island furniture from the late 18th century, featuring Townsend and Goddard pieces, among others.

As part of the celebration, the Foundation had contacted the Society of American Period Furniture Makers about doing a demonstration of period furniture-making techniques. Founded in 1999, SAPFM is a national organization, though its membership is primarily in the eastern half of the country. At the SAPFM New England chapter May meeting, Freddy Roman had asked me if I would be interested in participating. Of course! Once again, I feel blessed to live in an area so rich in history, with so many exceptional woodworkers willing to share their passion for the craft.

There were four of us in attendance: Mickey Callahan, SAPFM co-founder; Freddy Roman, SAPFM NE chapter coordinator; Paul Williard, professor of chemistry at Brown University; and myself. Together, we provided a broad range of experience, from the 25-year professional down to the weekend hobbyist.

You can see in the flyer above they mention "expert craftsmen"! Well, three experts and an apprentice, me! My skills are 10 to 20 years away from the museum-quality work of people like Al Breed and Phil Lowe. I mention them because there was a tea table much like the one I saw at Al's in the Whitehorne's drawing room, and two chairs much like the one I saw at Phil's in the dining room.


Mickey Callahan working on a ball-and-claw carving in mahogany.


Freddy Roman veneering a serpentine card table with banding.


Paul Williard carving a fan in mahogany. Note his use of a bench-on-bench to elevate the work.


I'm chopping a mortise in poplar, banging away noisily with mallet and pig-sticker chisel.

The original plan was to have us working outside in the beautiful urban garden, but the weather was uncooperative. It rained the day and night before, and in the morning. So as a backup plan, we laid a dropcloth on the floor and set up in the house's kitchen. It was a bit tight, but Mickey, Freddy, and Paul shared Mickey's bench, and I worked on my portable Underhill bench.

Mickey had brought a beautiful, nearly-completed mahogany corner chair with ball-and-claw feet, and worked on the carving for a matching chair. Freddy worked on a serpentine card table similar to the ones in the house's dining room. Paul had a mahogany fan carving and a tall clock case.

I chose to demonstrate basic skills. I made a mortise-and-tenon joint and a dovetail joint as people watched. Since this was intended to be interactive and hands-on, I also brought some pieces of walnut in raw and dressed condition to let people try out different bench and molding planes. There's nothing that brings a smile to someone's face like making shavings!

I ended up making two mortises, demonstrating both a failed joint and a successful one (unintended, since I neglected to leave a horn on the first one and it blew out the end-grain). The dovetail was truly ugly, but nevertheless demonstrated the fine mechanical properties of the joint. They're all teaching moments!

None of us completed much actual woodworking, because we had many questions from numerous interested visitors, but of course engagement was the real goal for the day, not projects. In fact, after closing the doors, Lisa Dady, the NRF Director of Education and Public Programs, said it was a record day, with 175 visitors. For a small specialty museum, that was good to hear.

Mickey gave several impromptu lessons in blade sharpening, and I even got as far as showing one group the differences between rip and crosscut saws and how they are sharpened. People were fascinated by the results that could be achieved with hand tools, and the variety and specialization of tools. To most people, a saw is just a saw, and about all they expect to do with it is cut off the end of a 2x4.

Several people asked if I had run my dressed walnut board through a planer or sanded it, and I explained that it was all hand-planed, and I wouldn't want to ruin that satiny surface with sandpaper. With a little oil finish, it would flash as beautifully as the mahogany antiques behind the ropes in the other rooms.

I had people scrubbing the rough board with a #5, edge jointing the dressed board with a #6, taking gossamer face curls with a #4, and rabbeting and chamfering edges with a wooden skew rabbet molding plane. Some quick lessons in tool handling and body mechanics produced satisfying results.


These two pieces of the same walnut board show rough and partially dressed condition in back, and fully planed to thickness and smoothness in front. It's always hard to capture grain, but you can just make out some flash in the figure at the right end of the smooth board. This wood had been sitting in a basement in Durham, NH for nearly 30 years.

A little about the Whitehorne House and its contents: it was built as a symbol of prosperity by Samuel Whitehorne, Jr. in 1811. He had accumulated his wealth through shipping and other enterprises following the American Revolution. But as readers of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories know, fortunes can turn in an instant on the blue water. Whitehorne was bankrupted by the loss of two ships at sea. The house was sold at auction in 1843, and over the next 125 years, through use as shops and apartments, fell into disrepair.

In 1969, Doris Duke, heiress to tobacco and energy tycoon James Buchanan Duke, bought the house and had it restored. It was in shockingly hideous condition inside and out. You can see before and after photos of the exterior here, and another pre-restoration photo here. The fact that she could discern anything of value in it is amazing. But much like a rusted hulk of a tool a woodworker finds in the back in the dark in some old barn, she had a vision of what it could be.

Once it was restored, she set about acquiring authentic period pieces to furnish it. The house now contains a wonderful collection. As one of the guides pointed out the secret drawers in one of the desks, I was again reminded of a scene from O'Brian, where a British warship is docked for repairs after being mauled in battle by a French frigate. The shipwrights and carpenters having completed their tasks, the "confidential joiners" move in to build secret compartments into the captain's cabin for hiding gold and admiralty documents.

This was my first demonstration, and it was instructive. I brought far too much stuff. I was prepared to do every possible operation (9 years as a Scoutmaster does that to you), but in the end a couple of interesting joints and a variety of planing operations suffice for a general demo. Maybe a little sawing, since the humble saw is the least intimidating to most people.

Many of the same questions were repeated as one group of visitors left and another came in. We all offered to let people try their hand at things, and the responses were either that they were afraid to damage our work, or they were eager to jump in and try it.


My gift of appreciation for Freddy: a Fray and Pigg Spofford brace that I found in an antique store in Maine, made sometime between 1859 and 1866. A little rusty, I tested it and found it to be dead-on in alignment. A few drops of oil in the handle restored it to perfect operation. It should serve him and his descendents for another 150 years.

This morning my toolbox went straight from Newport to my daughter's school, where for her end-of-year session, her group is building the 12' dory Daisy from the 1995 Wooden Boat issues 126 and 127. They only have a week, so they won't complete it, but they hope to put her under sail next year. I'll be taking two days vacation to help out, so hopefully that will be my next post. They got the first station mold up today.

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