An eye on 18th-century bedroom furniture

The 11th annual Working Wood in America Conference at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va., will focus on bedroom furniture during the 2009 sessions set for Jan. 7-10 and Jan. 11-14. As opposed to previous conferences when the theme has been a single piece of furniture such as a chair or table, the 2009 theme opens up a variety of possibilities. Members of the Anthony Hay Cabinet Shop and several textile specialists at Colonial Williamsburg will be joined by educator, craftsman and inlay specialist Steve Latta to conduct conference demonstrations.


“I’m doing a dressing table of the Portsmouth school with Portsmouth inlay and construction methods,” says Latta, an instructor in the Cabinet Making and Wood Technology program at Thaddeus Stevens College in Lancaster, Pa. “There are about six pieces that are of this school, and through great curators and generous museum folks, I have gotten images of a lot of these pieces. So not only am I making the dressing table, which is more of an amalgam of all of them, I’m going to show examples of the other ones.”

Hay Cabinetmaking Shop master cabinetmaker Mack Headley and his staff will conduct several demonstrations of late 18th-century bedroom furniture, a topic originally suggested by a member of the shop.

“The tall-post bed we’ll be doing is inspired from a photo from the Smithsonian that was Martha Washington’s bed,” says Headley, a fourth-generation cabinetmaker. “It has very tentatively been attributed to Benjamin Bucktrout who was working in this shop. It would be a 1760s design. It’s going to have tall posts; we’ve wanted to do a bed cornice, and we’ll explore all the workings of bed hangings. The Department of Collections people will be explaining all the fabric attachments, curtains and things like that.

“Kaare Loftheim is going to be copying another low-post bed, a Philadelphia bed with carved claw feet. Between the two of these beds, we’ll also be talking about bed structures, physical posts and how to bolt them together and again design options.”

In addition to beds, cabinetmakers will demonstrate the production of several looking glasses/mirrors, including techniques such as joinery and gilding that are applicable to picture-frame making as well. As is always the case at the annual conference, only tools of the period will be used during construction of the pieces.

“There will be hand planes for material preparation,” Headley explains. “We’ll be doing some interesting things with molding planes, both for cross-band moldings and some small mirrors, to some undercut areas for bed cornices. We’ll have some coping saw work, or what in the 18th century would be more properly called a turning saw, for doing a scalloped frame for what we generically refer to as a Chippendale mirror. We’ll be doing a small cradle and that’s going to involve some small dovetail tricks, so we’ll get out our dovetail saws. There’ll be a little bit of veneer on some of the mirrors and the cradle. I hope to do some gold leafing on a carved picture frame.”

For Latta, working with 18th century methods may create some interesting moments during the construction of his dressing table.

“The challenge for me is blending my normal techniques back into the 18th century mode,” he admits, although he adds that he is looking forward to the event.

“The dressing table is sweet. It’s not overly ornate. It has a nice bow front. This is a lowboy ‘Federalized.’ Gone are the cabriole legs and, with the exception of the sweep apron and bow front, the curves are gone. It’s a real transition from what was done before — it defines Federal. It’s a light piece; it’s a finesse piece, and probably in some ways is more practical to be used as a dressing table. You can actually sit at it. You can’t sit at a lowboy.”

Headley believes there is more to gain from the conference than just the demonstrations. It’s an opportunity for woodworkers to gather for a few days and talk about the craft.

“It’s a social occasion for a lot of them, it’s the camaraderie, and the woodworkers enjoy socializing with each other. I find it pretty challenging to find something new to say that they haven’t already heard two or three times. I think this broader range of bedroom furniture may be part of the reason we’re coming up with that tact, rather than a specific piece of furniture, to give us a more general topic that gives us a range of things that we can do.”

Other Colonial Williamsburg presenters include Tara Gleason Chicirda, curator of furniture; Beth Gerhold, textile refurnisher; Kim Ivey, associate curator of textiles and needlework; Bill Pavlak, apprentice cabinetmaker; David Salisbury, journeyman cabinetmaker; Chris Swan, furniture conservator; and Brian Weldy, apprentice cabinetmaker.

“I think we have a pretty good crowd of attendants and hopefully the precedent has been set, and that’s part of the fun of it — the discussion back and forth,” says Headley. “It is an open conference.”

Contact: Colonial Williamsburg. Tel: 800-447-8679. www.history.org