Meet the Carpenter


You can’t build a town without wood. Master Carpenter Garland Wood describes a Williamsburg built completely by hand.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. If you lived in colonial Virginia, there was hardly a building you could enter that a carpenter hadn't been in first. From houses and outbuildings to shops and churches, all were brought into being by the carpenter's hands. Today master carpenter Garland Wood has stopped by to tell us a bit about the carpenter's trade in America's early years. Garland, thank you for being here today.

Garland Wood: Hi, how are you?

Harmony: You practice the trade of carpentry. That's actually distinct from the cabinetmaker's trade. You both work in wood, but how is your specialty different?

Garland: Yes, and we should add another trade too, which is joinery. So carpentry is the heavy work, it's the construction of the timber frame and a carpenter's tools, you know in our time are really chisels and mallets so we're cutting and fitting the joints to join the heavy timber frames together and it's our responsibility as a carpenter to move other people into a shelter. So our job is working outside putting everybody else inside. So we raise the frame, we cover the frame against the weather and secure it.

A joiner is someone who uses the same kinds of chisels and mallets to make mortise and tenon joints, but they're doing the finish work for the house; so window sashes and panel doors and paneling and what we would today call trim carpentry. And then a cabinetmaker's specialty is really not building, but furniture. So once the carpenter has raised the frame and the joiner has embellished with fine moldings and pretty windows and doors then it's often filled with nice luxury furniture of a cabinetmaker. That makes the distinctions.

Harmony: If you're looking at the buildings in the 18th century, is it fair to say the carpenter built everything that wasn't brick?

Garland: I think that is fair to say. Even a brick building such as the Capitol building has wooden floor joists, wooden staircases, rafters, ceiling beams, so there is a tremendous amount of wood in a brick building.

Harmony: So you can't have a town without a carpenter. Is this a very prestigious trade?

Garland: Well, it's a very common trade and some of the carpenters in Williamsburg were very shrewd businessmen. Some even elevated themselves through their business dealings into the lower levels of the gentry. There aren't many other trades that you can say that about. Williamsburg's Benjamin Powell is a wonderful example of a very good builder and businessman who became a member of the gentry during the Revolutionary war.

There were probably more people in Williamsburg involved in fashion trades than anything else, but one you run the milliners and barbers and wig makers and tailors out of town, the builders are the most numerous. That would be carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, brickmakers, blacksmiths. We're still interpreting a trade that did not have a single machine involved in the production of any part of a building.

In other words, in the time period we stress here at Colonial Williamsburg human hands form every part of a house, whether it's the bricks or the nails to actually sawing the logs with hand saws into planks, splitting out the shingles so we make every part of the building traditionally. And I think that's part of the appeal of the program today, because that's pretty unusual and our visitors really enjoy seeing that kind of work. In many cases they get to help us out doing some of that work.

Harmony: Do you find that different carpenters in the period develop different specialties?

Garland: That's a good thing to talk about. Carpentry is one of the few 18th-century trades that, in Virginia, seems to be broken up into different categories. So for instance, you'll find in the city of Williamsburg a man who says he's a house carpenter or a house carpenter and joiner. To the period that means someone who is doing a fairly refined frame, and he's also doing the moldings and the finish work himself too. You also see the term clapboard carpenter, and a clapboard carpenter really is a rural woodworker. His job might be a log slave quarter, or you know, a smokehouse, or a hogpen or the kind of rustic work.

And of course, Virginia being an extremely rural colony of farmers, there was way more work for clapboard carpenters than there was for these more sophisticated house carpenters and joiners. You also see the term Negro carpenter, and the best way to explain that is that skilled white craftsmen in colonial Virginia were in scarce supply and many planters brought slaves up as apprentices in a trade. So that they had a sort of home-grown corps of craftspeople that worked for them all the time.

The term Negro carpenter is kind of interchangeable with clapboard carpenter, but it means a carpenter who's trained to do every kind of woodwork that might be required on a plantation or farm. So you might be framing a building, you might be hooping up an old barrel, you might be repairing a bridge or a wheelbarrow, kind of a general purpose woodworker. So we've got a carpenter, we've got a joiner; we've got a house carpenter joiner, clapboard carpenter and Negro carpenter. All kind of different facets of the trade, but who are all involved in the most fundamental thing, which is putting people under a roof. Carpentry is one of the most ancient trades there is, and it goes back well before written history and of course it's still a thriving trade today in the 21st century.

Harmony: Colonial Williamsburg has 88 original buildings. Are you able to study those originals and get an understanding for the way that these problems are being thought out; these projects are being carried out?

Garland: We're really privileged to have access to that original source material, and that's really the way we think about it. In our trade today we talk about object-based work. Maybe another way to think about that is in the period in the 18th century, an apprentice learned from a master who was leaning over his shoulder and telling him exactly what to do. And then the traditional trade of carpentry died. We started using machines to build houses and to make pieces of houses. So it would be great to be able to go to the cemetery and dig up one of these 18th-century carpenters and ask him, but we can't do that. But what we can do is look at the buildings that they left behind, and that's their legacy. And so really the smartest thing we can do is look very carefully at what they built and then model our work on it. Otherwise, we're just making stuff up.

Harmony: We said that the carpenter's trade was indispensible in the 18th century. You're in no less demand today. They keep you pretty busy from projects like restoring the Peyton Randolph House and its outbuildings, building Charlton's Coffeehouse recently, and currently Anderson's Armory reconstruction. The carpenter's hand is still very evident throughout Colonial Williamsburg.

Garland: Colonial Williamsburg is still very much a work in progress. We've got a long way to go before it's all finished. It may never be finished. And, let's say 70 or 80 years ago, when the work of reconstructing and restoring the town took place, it was done by very skilled but very modern carpenters for the time period. It's only been fairly recently that we have created a carpentry-joinery program where we can do the same kinds of work as a public program. And the good news is, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of buildings still to be reconstructed in Williamsburg. And so there are really three useful things about those kinds of projects.

One, the public finds it fascinating and we're glad it's fascinating and we encourage them to come and watch. Two, we have to sustain these trades by bringing in apprentices who are novices at this kind of work and having them put up buildings so Colonial Williamsburg helps us to develop the apprentices so that they will then stay here and keep the trade alive for the next generation.

And the third thing is, we get a very believable-looking building. If you go down this path of deciding that you want to build a real 18th-century building from the ground up, it's a pretty daunting task. Because you can build a beautiful timber frame, but if you set it on cinder blocks it looks horrible. You've got to have bricks. And if you're going to have a brick foundation, well they really should be handmade bricks to look right. And once you're ready to put hand-planed boards on the wall, then you can't use a modern nail. That takes away from the overall looks so then the nails, the glass, the plaster, the paint, the wood, the bricks and the mortar all have to be made traditionally, and we can do all of that at Colonial Williamsburg in our trades program.

So the buildings have a believability that I think is unsurpassed. They don't just look like 18th century buildings. We're building them the same way, out of the same material, they're just new 18th century buildings. So I think that's the legacy that we leave behind as we put these structures up. I think every generation here wants to do better, more authentic work than the generation before and we hope to continue that process as we reconstruct the other 100 buildings for the town.

Harmony: Garland, thank you so much for being our guest today and talking about this trade.

Garland: You're very welcome, my pleasure.