Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Am Not a Woodworker


One of the most frequent misunderstandings about my professional work is that people think I am a “woodworker”. This is not the case. A professional wood worker is someone who is commissioned to create objects of wood for sale to clients. I don’t do this. 


A furniture restorer/conservator is a practitioner concerned with the preservation and restoration of historic furniture. Our goal is to stabilize the piece without leaving conspicuous “fingerprints” of treatment behind. We attempt to remain invisible in the treatment outcome. If refinishing is called for then the finish would ideally look sympathetic to the period and look as if it were “supposed” to be there, warts and all. 

 Before Treatment

After Treatment

 So what are we then? Restorer/conservators get to be involved in the treatment of finishes (making us “finishers”), wood (making us “woodworkers”), upholstery (making us “upholsterers”), cane, rush, and wicker (making us “weavers”). We also need to be fluent in furniture history (making us “historians”) and familiar with basic materials science and organic chemistry (making us “scientists”). Now no one on the planet is expert at all these things. The conservation profession, especially when practiced in a rural private practice context, demands a degree of proficiency in all these areas but not one exclusively. We are not “woodworkers” in the sense that we are not “scientists” or “historians”. We are not specialists in any of these disciplines. Rather, restoration/conservation is an interdisciplinary amalgam of all these. It is, in fact, a new discipline all together. 



This is why I ultimately chose this profession. I have always been one who has had intense interest in a myriad of things so I needed a career with serious variety that guaranteed I’d never plumb the depths. I could never settle down and do one task for the rest of my working life. 
If I was hired to build kitchen cabinets, it would take me forever. If you called me to refinish interior woodwork with lightning speed turn around, I’d struggle. If you asked me to critique the determination of paint stratigraphy analysis of a materials scientist, I’d gracefully bow out.




 So where does that leave me? What does this amalgam of skills equip me to do? I am equipped to diagnose and treat historic wooden furniture with an aim to preserve material integrity and sympathetically restore all losses so that clients and our culture may enjoy these valued artifacts of history for the longest time possible.


P.S. I imagine that someday down the road if I ever get my new studio finished and have more space to work in, I will branch out my business to include furniture making. Until that happens, I just don’t have the space. (My current space is 14’ x 17’... just enough room for a few benches, myself, and a few projects.) When Julia’s birthday is coming up and I am working on a project for her in the studio, all other projects get shut down. One day hopefully, that will change.


  1. Josh,

    Remember you have a table saw and jointer waiting for you, with your name on it.


  2. Ah, I have not forgotten, my friend. Thank you again!

  3. Be careful not to limit yourself! Just because you don't sell woodenware you have made does not mean your not a woodworker. We all saw that nice Shaker table. And the goat shed (or was it a coop?) You are a woodworker, and all the rest. Not to mention an husband and father, community member and believer - these are perhaps the most important.

    As for the shop space, its not the size that matters. I started out in a building 12' x 18'. I had to put in a window in the back so that I could run boards over the tablesaw and out the door. I built a lot of furniture and cabinets (!) in that tiny shed. I built a lot of stuff with a tablesaw, drillpress and bandsaw. Evey time I took a long shaving off the edge of a board it landed on the woodstove. There was no doubt I was a woodworker.

    I understand you are trying to define your role in your community (including the larger one online). I have found it easier to understand myself with a larger view rather than a smaller view. Kind of the opposite of Emerson's "One Man" theory. We do lots of things and are capable of lots more. Limiting ourselves before we get there limits us when we do get there. Was it Richard Back who wrote, "Argue for your limitations and sure enough they're yours?"

    Happy Spring,

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Jason. I definitely don't feel limited. I mostly just want to clarify what the goals, priorities, and practices of the conservation profession are as a comparison to a woodworker's.