The Age of Wood


Making the job up as he goes along is one of Garland Wood’s favorite aspects of his job as carpenter at Colonial Williamsburg.

Learn more: The carpenter


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking Garland Wood, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's the master carpenter. I'm curious about something – I've talked to a cabinetmaker, what's the difference between a carpenter and a cabinetmaker for Colonial Williamsburg?

Garland Wood: Excellent question, and it's a question that we get all the time. A carpenter's main job is building construction. It can be as simple as a log corncrib, or as elaborate as the Capitol building, or the College, or the Palace. In which case, the carpenter's acting as a general contractor. Carpenters knock together cheap furniture, they put together coffins, they build gates and fences, and all kinds of wooden implements. Where the cabinetmaker comes in, he is responsible for the high art of fine furniture. So he's a cousin to the carpenter, but his business is filling the rooms in the homes of the wealthy with the most stylish furniture. The carpenter is responsible for building those homes.

Lloyd: For building the rooms that get filled with stylish furniture.

Garland: That's right, that's right. I hasten to add, carpentry is a much older trade. It goes back as long as people have had the habit of living inside structures, and we take a lot of pride in that.

Lloyd: So let me see if I can get this right: if it's wood, it can be done by a carpenter or a cabinetmaker, but the end result is going to be totally dissimilar. You're going to build a house, he's going to build a table or chair.

Garland: Yes. That's essentially it. There's all kinds of carpenters. We read in the period about house carpenters. We read about joiners, we would today call them "finish men." A joiner is closer to a cabinetmaker in that he's working at a workbench, but he's making window sash, and he's making shutters and mantle pieces and pieces for stairs, interior and exterior finish work. You've got ship's carpenters. So, it's a very diverse group of individuals, which causes some confusion sometimes.

Lloyd: No matter what, you work with wood, because in the 18th century, there's no plastic.

Garland: No plastic. You know, this is the age of wood. They have wooden ships, and wooden houses, and wooden implements of every kind. For common farmers, they're often doing their own carpentry work. But, as you get closer to either the great plantations, or the cities and towns where people can practice their craft at a very high skill level – for instance, there are more builders in Williamsburg in the 18th century than almost any other trade. The tradesmen that outnumber builders are in the fashion trades, so, barbers and tailors, and mantua makers and wigmakers, but after that, it's carpenters and joiners and bricklayers and smiths, and they're all involved in the business of building fine structures.

Lloyd: How long have you been here?

Garland: I'm in my 25th year now.

Lloyd: I would ask, "Do you enjoy it?" but that seems kind of dumb.

Garland: Well, you know, people ask me that a lot, and I tell them I started here with a summer opportunity – I was in college and needed a summer job. I was hired in by the first master carpenter, Roy Underhill, and 25 years later, it's been a long summer job. I've just never been able to walk away from it. I've also said, when I stop having fun, it was time to move on to something else.

For us, every project's a new challenge. We don't build the same thing twice, and I find that very rewarding. We've built workshops, we've built barns, we've built slave quarters, we've done a project that was all joinery. We did the restoration of the inside of the courthouse, planing up 10,000 feet of heart pine to build an interior. Then we went out and did a rough structure. So, lots of variety, and lots of challenges.

The best part about the job is that we really don't know how to do it. So we get to spend a lot of time looking at old buildings, and digging through old manuscripts, and consulting with all the other experts at Colonial Williamsburg that can point us in the right direction – our architectural historians and building conservators. We all work on the project together, and it's sort of a detective story. What I tell people a lot is, the best way to learn how to do this business is to have the old carpenters tell you, but they're not saying much, so we have to look at the buildings they left behind and figure it out from there. The ultimate compliment for us is when a visitor walks up to a building we've done and asks us how old it is. Then we are practicing our trade correctly.

Lloyd: Say, "About two weeks."

Garland: You know, if it's made of the same stuff, and it's made the same way, it should have an authenticity about it that I think is very compelling to people.

Lloyd: So, for any practical purpose, everything you do is done by hand.

Garland: Absolutely. Speaking of practical, the only way you can make that practical is in a museum setting like this, where building the building is part of the point, showing people how the building is built. In many cases, asking them to help us, and to become involved in the construction of the building. That's an experience that will last people a lifetime. I've talked to people who are grown men now, who were young men or children when they saw us start a building 25 years ago. Now they're bringing their family back, who they can tell, "I helped split some of these boards, and I helped crosscut these logs, and I helped plane these planks." There's a little bit of that visitor inside that building. I think that's a compelling argument for the way that we build things.

Another argument is that, again, I've said before that we really don't know what we're doing until we're trying it out. As we build the buildings, questions come up that we hadn't thought of before. We can go back to the original structures and look at that and come up with some answers, so we learn the trade by practicing the trade. Of course, one of the goals of our historic trades program is that there will always be people here doing this kind of work. As we learn the secrets of the past, then we can pass them to the next generation of apprentices, and keep this going.

Lloyd: You're the master carpenter. In the old days, the master carpenter would have been head of the shop, and he would have journeymen working for him, and they would have apprentices working for them. A journeyman would be a very highly developed carpenter, but he would not own his own shop, he would work for somebody else.

Garland: That's right.

Lloyd: So, as a master carpenter, you have journeymen working for you, and apprentices working for them, and they would learn the trade coming up.

Garland: I guess, to split hairs, the apprentices are legally bound to the master. He is expecting the journeyman to work alongside the apprentices, and to help teach them. Ultimately – and in fact, we have the surviving contracts – the master is responsible for bringing the boy up in the trade. The contracts spell it out very legally, but what it's basically saying is, the apprentice has to do anything his master compels him to lawfully do. So, basically, it's like rules living at home. If you live under my roof, you gotta do what I say.

The master's responsible for the upbringing of the apprentice – teaching him to read and write, teaching him to run the business when he's grown up himself, and he's responsible for the apprentice's behavior. There's a tension. I would love to have a group of apprentices come and work for me in the 18th century, because I don't have to pay them. But, they're not very good at anything yet, and they're all teenage boys. So imagine opening your house up to six or seven teenage boys, strangers to you, and letting them do what teenage boys do. That's an awful lot of responsibility, and they will eat you out of house and home. And they don't know what to do yet.

Lloyd: (Chuckles.) All teenage boys are strangers to you.

Garland: That's an excellent point. So probably, most master carpenters had one or two apprentices.

Lloyd: OK, you came here, you said, to get a summer job. You were in college, and it's just lasted and lasted, and summer never ended.

Garland: That's right.

Lloyd: What attracted you to it?

Garland: Well I grew up in Williamsburg, and I always wanted to work for the Foundation, even just for a little bit, because it looked like it was a lot of fun, and I was interested in history. When I applied, they had six positions open, and they called me up and said, you know, we have an opening. You can help in the blacksmith's shop, the shoemaker's shop, the cooper's shop, or the carpenter's. And there was something about the carpentry program that sounded interesting to me. So I showed up at the carpenter's yard in my brand-new costume, and met the master carpenter, Roy Underhill, and I had so much fun working with Roy and learning the craft of carpentry, but also learning the craft of interpreting to the public, speaking to the public, interacting with people. The summer was over before I knew it.

Lloyd: Interacting with people – people see you working as a carpenter – what are the questions they ask?

Garland: Well, carpentry is a trade that is close to everybody, because everyone lives in a building. Everyone has family members who are in the building trades, so there's an immediate connection with them. There's also a mythology that's grown up about old buildings, and buildings from the colonial era. Houses built without nails, everything's pegged together. So, a lot of my job is talking about what we're doing, and how it fits into American history. What people understand about building, which is right, and what's not so correct. Not sure if I'm answering your question there, but there's lots of questions about what we're doing, because it's immediate to so many people. Other trades might be more arcane, but this is pretty basic. Food, clothing, and shelter, we all understand. It's all very important to us.

The other thing that's interesting to me about 18th-century building is, people are still building houses that look like the houses that you see in Williamsburg. This is a style that a lot of Americans really still like. They ask me for plans all the time, they want to go home and put together a copy of a house in Williamsburg or its outbuildings. It has a lot of appeal. You don't see as many people wanting their dream house to be a 17th-century thatched cottage, but they really like the look of our Williamsburg houses. I wish I could remember who it was, years ago, somebody criticized Colonial Williamsburg, and said that Colonial Williamsburg and its presentation is looking more and more like the suburbs every day. The counterpoint was, no, of course, the suburbs were looking more and more like Colonial Williamsburg every day.

Lloyd: You've got to get straight which came first. On the other hand, if I wanted to build a thatched-roof cottage, I certainly could. And a carpenter could, really.

Garland: Absolutely. This is an English tradition that came over on that first boat at Jamestown. You won't really go back to England and find houses that look like the structures that are here. So it's also a very American system of building that developed over the years of settlement. Thatching is a nice example. Thatching is not something that lasted here at all. When people developed tobacco, developed plantations, organized slave labor, it took the English tradition in a whole different area. You can go 100 miles in any direction and find differences in buildings and differences in architecture. But there's an architecture here, in what we call the tidewater of the Chesapeake, that is unique. When people say, gosh, you seem to know a lot about building, I say, well I know a whole lot about 18th-century tidewater Virginia English carpentry and architecture. But that's not really a whole lot to understand. We know a lot about our particular trade, and our particular area. But again, it's that architecture that so many people seem to like today.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *