Bill Pavlak was an apprentice at the cabinetmaking shop in 2009 when he presented at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Working Wood in the 18th Century conference for the first time. His presentation involved replicating a mahogany cradle from the 18th century, and he spoke about the identity of the first baby who likely slept in it.
A member of the audience approached Pavlak after his presentation. “He explained that he was a direct descendant of that original baby for whom the cradle had been made,” Pavlak recalled. It was an incredible, unlikely connection — and the conference had facilitated it.
More than a decade later, Pavlak, now master cabinetmaker in the Historic Area shop, heads the conference’s planning committee. January 2023 marks the event’s silver anniversary. For 25 years, the annual woodworking conference has not only become one of Colonial Williamsburg’s signature events — it has also fostered camaraderie, community and connections for people passionate about fine craftsmanship, traditional tools and period furniture.
The conference was the brainchild of the late Jay Gaynor, who was serving as the Foundation’s director of Historic Trades at the time of his death in 2014. Gaynor first joined the Foundation in 1981 as a curator. Among the exhibitions he oversaw was “Tools: Working Wood in 18th-Century America,” which opened in 1994 and became one of the museum’s most well-attended presentations.
Building on the exhibition’s popularity, Gaynor landed on the idea for a symposium centered on woodworking. That first symposium was so well received that Gaynor planned for additional conferences.
Twenty-five years after its first gathering, the conference still annually brings together more than 200 attendees. Kaare Loftheim, who supervised the cabinetmaking shop before retiring from the Foundation in 2018, noted that the conference has always had “a beautiful leveling effect,” since it draws in people from all professional walks of life, including doctors, plumbers, teachers, carpenters, scholars and artisans.
The conference also helped launch a society that has provided even more opportunities for connection. During the 2000 meeting, Steve Lash and Mickey Callahan met and discovered their shared interest. “Over several cups of coffee at the [Williamsburg] Lodge, they came up with the idea of starting a society for people enthused about replicating and researching period furniture — the Society of American Period Furniture Makers,” Loftheim said. The society continues to promote period furniture making and maintains a close relationship with Colonial Williamsburg and its woodworking conference.
The conference also supports the Colonial Williamsburg community since it pulls together corners of the Foundation. Among the presenters who have showcased their work and knowledge at the annual event are tradespeople from Historic Trades and Skills, including carpenters, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers and even musical instrument makers. “The cover of the 2016 symposium [program] shows the image of a spinet made by Colonial Williamsburg’s harpsichord maker at the time,” Loftheim noted.
Though anchored to Colonial Williamsburg, the conference has also drawn on the expertise and collections of neighboring museums and historic sites, such as Mount Vernon and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Curators and museum professionals from these and other institutions regularly attend the conference, enabling participants to engage in scholarly conversations and “have access to people and objects that they normally don’t have access to,” Pavlak said.
Pavlak understands the value of these collaborations from personal experience. For the 2010 conference, Colonial Williamsburg partnered with Monticello on a theme about Thomas Jefferson and his love of furniture. Among Jefferson’s possessions at Monticello is a Campeche chair crafted by John Hemings, an enslaved joiner and furniture maker. Pavlak opted to replicate it for the conference. To prepare, he visited Monticello to study the chair and make detailed drawings of it. He said, “Having access to a really significant object that you don’t usually have access to is all thanks to this conference.”
Pavlak added, “This conference is a bridge between makers and scholars to show scholarship at the bench.”
Indeed, the conference includes live demonstrations that feature woodworking techniques and tradespeople assembling pieces of furniture. Though these demonstrations are typically staged in the spacious Hennage Auditorium, all audience members get a good view of the action: Professional cameramen record everything — even close-up details — and project the live video onto an oversize screen at the back of the stage.
This hands-on quality has been central to the event from the beginning. As Loftheim recounted, “Jay Gaynor would start the symposium by taking off his necktie and cutting it in half,” as if to underline the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work ethos of the conference. “He was always encouraging us to make shavings. People want to see chips flying.”
The demonstrations also add high-stakes drama to the gathering. “We’re not used to making furniture onstage with that sort of lighting and [camera operators] around you, so it can be quite nerve-wracking,” Pavlak admitted. “The audience can see everything really, really well, so if you make a mistake, you’re making it in front of a lot of people.”
Loftheim agreed, adding with good humor, “To watch people make mistakes live when they’re trying to put something together in front of more than 200 woodworkers is very entertaining.” He recounted a time when he was part of a presentation in 2000. To assemble a case piece during his live demonstration, Loftheim’s colleagues Mack Headley and David Salisbury used hot hide glue. “Hot hide glue gels up very quickly,” he explained. “It demands that you have all your ducks in a row ahead of time, and it’s very embarrassing to get stuck halfway through. Trying to insert the dust boards into the carcass of this chest of drawers was very challenging. David was sweating bullets.”
If live demonstrations are a feature of the conference, then its beating heart is the people who attend year after year. As Loftheim emphasized, “After I got over the nerves of presenting in front of a very formidable group of woodworkers, the camaraderie has become the best part of these symposiums for me. The friendly faces make it all worthwhile.”