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SAPFM Meeting with Don Williams

J Gibson McIlvain Lumber YardThe Chesapeake chapter of the Society of American Period Funiture Makers, SAPFM, met on April 21st at the J. Gibson McIlvain lumber yard where I work. As host I was running around a lot making sure everyone had what they needed so I did miss a lot of the show and tell but we had some really nice pieces present.

Tea Table by Mark Hochstein

Mark Hochstein showing off his Tea Table

I got to see Kari Hultman’s masterfully executed Roubo workbench and I brought along my Joinery bench and planing beam. We had a Dolly Madison chair, tea tables, demilune tables, ladder back chairs, walking sticks, frame saws, and side boards rounding out the member contributions.

The talent represented in this chapter is stunning and usually the discussion surrounding each piece is just as entertaining as seeing the pieces in person.  It proves again why SAPFM is such a valuable resource with so many great furniture makers gathered together in one place.



Hardwood to Go Lumber OnlineI kicked off the meeting by giving a tour of the lumber yard and I was excited to have my boss, Gib McIlvain, present to add some validity to all that I was saying. I was impressed by how many questions we got and just how interested everyone was in the import process and quality control process that goes on at the yard. I want to thank everyone for coming out and listening so intently. Of course it was nice to see the eyes light up when I explained that the launch of Hardwood to Go would allow us to service orders less than 500 board feet in a virtual lumber yard experience.

Don Williams presentation

Don Williams illustrating different 18th century finishes

From there we settled in to the warehouse surrounded by Mahogany, Wenge, and plywood to hear Don Williams from the Smithsonian speak about 18th century finishing. Don is always a pleasure to listen to and one of those speakers who often dispel common misconceptions about woodworking. Today it was French polishing and waxed shellac. First, the French didn’t use shellac but stuck with more of a spit polish using water and wax. The English were the ones to use shellac. The process is still very much the same but now you can be the obnoxious one at parties who corrects everyone when the topic of French polishing comes up. Don’t expect to get invited back to that party however.


Next was the topic of waxed vs dewaxed shellac. I have been told so many times that waxed shellac will interfere with subsequent coats of finish and that dewaxed should always be used. Don busted this myth citing his 40+ years of experience and strengthened the stance that shellac will bond to any type of finish whether waxed or not. Moreover, waxed shellac has a much, much longer shelf life.
“Kept in a cool, dry place, you can expect your shellac to last around 300 years” said Don. He then went on to tell us he had just purchased 2300 lbs of the stuff in preparation for the coming apocalypse. This coming from a guy wearing alien head suspenders.

French finishing burnisherI think the biggest impact was the French burnishing technique that Don demonstrated. He had chopped off a whisk broom just below the handle then bound the fibers tightly together. Then rubbing the “broom” across the surface he quickly brown a planed board up to a high shine in seconds. The raking sunlight coming through the loading doors into the warehouse really made this technique pop and everybody in the building sat up a little bit straighter in awe. Once again, Don proved that so much can be learned from the past that we can apply to our woodworking today. Don told us that once he finishes his Roubo translation for Lost Art Press, he will be publishing a Finishing Manual. Based on everything he shared this weekend, I will be first in line for that book.

Don Williams finishing presentationOf course my day was made seeing Don standing at my joinery bench planing a piece of Mahogany for his demonstration then getting some feedback from him on it’s performance. Don is the only person other than myself who has worked at this bench so it meant a lot when he said he envisioned a knock off in his future.

So once again, the newly formed Chesapeake chapter delivered an outstanding meeting. Next time we will have Steve Latta as a guest speaker so things just keep getting better.

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