Editor’s note: After watching a video tour of the Anthony Hay Cabinet Shop at Colonial Williamsburg (produced by Joshua Farnsworth/Wood and Shop) I stumbled across the Instagram account of one of the cabinetmakers, Bill Pavlak (@billpavlak) and was instantly hooked by this behind-the-scenes look at his work. I was also intrigued at the Clark Kent/ Superman-like transition from the Hay shop to his home shop and somewhere in the middle of watching him post progress shots of carving the back of a Chippendale chair I knew I had to ask him to write one of these posts and he graciously agreed. We can all be thankful he did.
For a more detailed introduction to Bill and his craft, I commend to you this excellent article from Fine Woodworking. You can also follow his work on Instagram (@billpavlak) and through the official Colonial Williamsburg account (@colonialwmsburg).
Blame the Pedestals: Perfection and the Period Cabinetmaker
By Bill Pavlak
Blame the pedestals. They raise ancient artifacts up before us and with them our expectations. It’s hard not to see perfection in an old piece of furniture that’s placed on a museum pedestal. But what about those dents, dings, and cracks? They’re proof of age and durability, of structures so well wrought as to withstand the abuses of people and time. Those murky and dirty surfaces, what to make of them? That’s not dirt, we say, that’s a rich patina, an exclamation of historical significance. No wonder we “don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Of course, there is only the aura of perfection here, a perceptual distortion brought on by the pedestal’s knack for raising expectations: if it’s on a pedestal in a museum, it must be perfect. But look closer. Compare the knee carving on the right leg to that on the left. Better yet, open a drawer. Flip that table over and scrutinize its surfaces. In the moments between doing this and being tackled by a burly security guard you’re likely to forget about perfection. You may even be disappointed by what you find: coarse textures, gaps in the joinery, unintentional asymmetry, and so on. The pedestal raised us up high enough to really fall.
Now I’ve been working closely with antiques as a cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg for twelve years and I know what to expect. Early American pieces, even ones widely considered masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s craft, are typically expressive of the economy and efficiency with which they were made. Secondary surfaces were not only often made from cheaper woods as is generally known, but also with a secondary – get the job done – kind of attitude. Ornamental carving, inlay, and veneer work were often executed efficiently to create an overall effect, rather than a measured perfection. Despite my knowledge and experience with these realities, my engagement with the pieces I reproduce always follows a similar arc. My initial excitement over a piece and its perceived excellence, gives way to disappointment as I begin to study it carefully. “Is this even worth re-creating,” I ask. “Surely,” I think, “I can do better.” As I begin building though, my perspective shifts again and my struggle with notions of perfection begins in earnest.
I recently jumped back into a project that had been on hold for a long time: the reproduction of a walnut escritoire made in 1707 by the Philadelphia shop of Edward Evans. My experience with this walnut desk neatly encapsulates the perfection perception arc that I so often follow. In other words: the piece is perfect – the piece is not really that good after all – the piece is close to perfect, but for different reasons than I first believed. Here’s how this works in my mind (and I’m not alone in this overwrought thinking). By the time I begin a build, I’m deeply ensconced in step two of the arc – the desk isn’t as good as I thought. The challenge in historically informed cabinetmaking is to strive for perfection in your work despite copying an original that falls short. Some do this by “improving” a piece (knotty pine drawer sides become neatly worked curly maple and the like). Others ignore all the shortcomings and seek a reproduction that reads like a facsimile of the original. Both approaches have merit and I borrow from each, but neither allows me to properly blend the crafts of historian and cabinetmaker. Instead, I try to surmise what the ideal version of this desk would have been for its makers and then set my sights on achieving that ideal. The ideal, by the way, is usually fairly obvious – i.e. the dovetails should be laid out in this way, but actually fit better – no mind reading is necessary. Of course, as I strive to make that ideal version of the desk, I fall short in my own ways. Sometimes I fall short in the same ways they did, but I get there through the good historical work of experimental archaeology and tend to learn a lot more in the process. Invariably, my estimation of a piece increases as I follow in my predecessors’ toolmarks, building with the same tools and techniques as they did. Sure, the original may not be perfect, but my faith in its quality is restored, and my understanding of it is far greater than when I first saw it idealized on its pedestal.
The Evans escritoire has an inherent kind of perfection though. It’s a perfection that overrides the occasionally sloppy dovetails or the few poorly fit drawers. Everything in its design is how it should be. The piece has the heavy boldness befitting its time, but it’s not ponderous. Behind its massive door, the upper case features offsets among its parts that create great visual interest and Evans carefully used increasingly thinner partitions as a means of drawing the eye inward. I contemplated using some richly figured walnut for the door panel and drawer fronts, but this would have been all wrong. When cabinetmakers or joiners gussied up an escritoire it was with elaborate veneer and marquetry work. The Evans desk is remarkable among surviving examples of the form for its plainness of grain. Its quiet drama comes from the play of light and shadow among its moldings and many stepped surfaces. Besides a figured door panel with that surprisingly heavy frame would have looked too much like an old television set: so much console for so little screen.
Though the pedestals beneath these old pieces may imply perfection that we rarely find, they do bring this furniture out for all to see and contemplate. Through the shortcomings of our predecessors, we can often locate the ideal form they worked toward and perhaps renew their quest. Perfection may remain elusive, but the shared search for it is deeply satisfying.