A Visit to the Sampson Joinery Shop in Duxbury, Mass.

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The discovery of an intact 18th-century joinery shop in Duxbury, Mass., set off a storm of interest last year in the small outbuilding behind a school.

Now, months after the discovery, preservationists and employees at Colonial Williamsburg have begun to piece together the interesting story of the site, to document every peg and nail and take the first steps toward stabilizing and preserving the building.

This week I took a tour of the site with Michael Burrey, the restoration carpenter who discovered the shop while working nearby, and Peter Follansbee, the joiner at Plimoth Plantation.

The working area of the shop is about the size of a single-car garage, yet almost every inch of the room is packed with clues about the work that was done in the shop, the tools that were in use and how they were stored. There is so much detail to see that after two hours of rooting around, my senses were overloaded and there was still much more to see.

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As a workbench enthusiast, I was quite interested in poring over the benches that lined three walls of the shop, creating a U-shaped ring of working sufaces along the outer wall.

The benches were all fixed to the structure of the building. I haven’t written much about this style of bench. These fixed benches seem to first appear in the 15th century as best I can tell (see the evidence here). These fixed benches exist at the same time as the typically freestanding Roman-style workbench. Eventually the Roman benches disappear (though not entirely in Eastern Europe), and are replaced by the movable forms we are familiar with now.

The benches in the Sampson shop have seen so much use that the bench along the back wall had been recovered with a new benchtop – you can feel the old mortise for the planning stop by feeling under the benchtop. None of the benches had end vises or even dog holes. There are planning stops and a couple huge holes that may have been for some metalworking equipment, Burrey says. There was at least one leg vise.

Dendrochronolgy on one of the benches indicates the top was pitch pine from 1786, Burrey says. That lines up nicely with the 1789 date painted on a beam in the storage area outside the shop door.

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The shop was known in the area as a shingle shop, but it’s likely that a lot of other things went on there. One of the benches has been converted to a lathe, with a large metal wheel above it. The original owner of the shop, Luther Sampson, was (among other things) a planemaker, Burrey says.

Sampson was one of the founders of the Kents Hill School in Maine. And the school has some of his tools and the name stamp he used to mark his planes. Burrey also indicates that they have found shelves in the shop that were likely scarred by moulding planes set there.

Other tool marks suggest some other operations. Along the back wall, Burrey suspects that bench was used for crosscutting. The area is under a window. Right above the bench the wall is pierced with hundreds of jab marks from a marking awl. Above that is an unusual rack that would hold try squares. And the back wall looks like it has been hit by the tip of a backsaw repeatedly.

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In fact, every square inch of surface seems to hold some message. There are bits of old newspaper pasted in places. The shapes of sailing ships are scratched into the walls with a nail or awl. A hatted figure is painted on one of the shop doors. And inside that painting is a series of concentric scratches made by a compass.

Empty tool racks are everywhere, many of them elegantly chamfered.

Burrey and Follansbee are cautious about making any firm declarations about how the shop was used.

“We’re just looking at ghosts here,” Follansbee says.

Follansbee is correct. The place is haunted. Like many unrestored old places you can still feel the heavy presence of the work that went on inside the walls. And now the really heavy work begins for the people who are not ghosts: Figuring out how to stabilize and preserve the building.

I don’t have any insight into the status of that end of the project. If I hear of any news, I’ll report it here.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to A Visit to the Sampson Joinery Shop in Duxbury, Mass.

  1. I saw PF’s post about this shop. I find it fascinating that this shop survived and remains in such a good state. I’m going to guess the bank of three windows are on the north side?

  2. I remember reading about this workshop find a couple of months ago. I’m glad to hear it’s care is in capable hands. You may not have noticed, but you have changed Micheal’s name from Burrey, to Currey later in the post.

  3. hughjengine says:

    Lovely photos, thankyou.

    Regarding fixed benches, the violin shop I frequent is ringed with fixed benches, with a single European bench in the centre. The owner (now in his seventies) was trained by a sixth generation master, and his ancient shop in Germany had the same arrangement.

    Dendrochronology! They’re not holding back, are they? Also, whoever did the boat scratching knew their stuff as well!

    Cheers,
    Burbidge.

  4. Tom Dickey says:

    I am just so jealous! What a cool building.Peter put up some pictures a few months ago but until now I did not realize how big the whole building is. Funny thing I was riving some oak the other day and there was a change must have been you and Peter being together.

  5. Thanks for a fascinating report, Chris. Someday I hope we find out all of the shop’s output. Was it external architectural items (businesses tend to expand into the same category) or did the shop owners change the business over time?
    Having lived in MA, I can just imagine the musty odor of a really old structure.
    Again thanks and congratulations to you and Peter.

  6. The perimeter bench top was the type we used to have in our old workshop 1931>2006. Almost exactly the same as the images, even with the tool tray. At one end was a wheelwrights vice, the other end a quick release (it was about 6 meters long). It had knock up wood planning stops too. In the early days work was made at the bench and then assembled on some big ol’ trestles.

  7. I agree with Justin Leib, HOW COOL! Many thanks for sharing. When I was a kid growing up in the late 60s early 70s, I loved to spend time in my grand father’s garage. There was an old work bench with a leg vise in there and an old tool chest with all of these hand tools in it. They were either my grandfather’s or great grandfather’s. Both were carpenters off and on. This story reminds me of that old bench and garage.

  8. “This principle states that sites useful to dendrochronology can be identified and selected based on criteria that will produce tree-ring series sensitive to the environmental variable being examined. For example, trees that are especially responsive to drought conditions can usually be found where rainfall is limiting, such as rocky outcrops, or on ridgecrests of mountains. Therefore, a dendrochronologist interested in past drought conditions would purposely sample trees growing in locations known to be water-limited. Sampling trees growing in low-elevation, mesic (wet) sites would not produce tree-ring series especially sensitive to rainfall deficits. The dendrochronologist must select sites that will maximize the environmental signal being investigated. In the figure below, the tree on the left is growing in an environment that produced a complacent series of tree rings.”

    I was initially very interested in this site. The process is exciting and I like the investigative aspect of it.. But scientifically, choosing subject trees to use in research, based on criteria like those sited above, gives the scientist the ability to lean the results to whichever result he is trying to prove. No wonder some people are so sure of global warming and others are so sure it’s wrong. If they are each doing research like these people, they can just choose the trees from the area that proves their point. I’m sorry, but if your looking for drought results in trees, (unless it is for the area where the specific trees are chosen), then you would have to consider the abundance, or lack of water in normally wet areas as well.

    The science, at least by these people’s definitions, is lacking.

    This of course is totally off topic a bit, the shop, and it’s history, are way cool. I just hope that the “ghosts” are researched with a bit more of an objective science than the people at this dendrochronology site show.

  9. shopsweeper says:

    Cinderella, is this your shoe?

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/RARE-ORIG-EARLY-1900s-LEG-VISE-WOODEN-INDUSTRIAL-PRIMITIVE-RUSTIC-DECORATOR-LOFT-/380639492827?

    Lynn is the wrong side of Boston from Duxbury but you never know.

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