Editor’s Note: Longtime LAP author Don Williams is in the process of writing a new book: “The Period Finisher’s Manual.” The book will be a culmination of his years working as a conservator, educator and scholar (including more than 25 years of service to the Smithsonian) with expertise in conservation, woodworking and wood finishing. Here he talks about his writing process. You can find Don online at donsbarn.com.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
For most of my working life, writing tasks were simply a matter of plugging information clusters into whatever format the recipient required. Artifact condition reports, conservation proposals and conservation treatment reports follow a regular format. Either you had the information at hand or your did not. Ditto budget requests, performance evaluations, monthly and annual reports, and a multitude of bureaucratic tickets to be punched.
Much to my surprise I discovered that I did not mind the writing itself and began to explore it outside the 9-to-5 boundaries. I did not care if I was any good at it, rather I found it to be a pleasant diversion. I recall the day in the 1990s when I was reading a well-known thriller from the library. After several dozen pages I put it down and said to myself, “Self, you can do better than this.” So, over the next year I wrote a novel about a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong woman and the bad, bad things that ensue; a story that tied together threads from the Weather Underground, Stasi terror brokers, mobsters, purloined identity, and a history teacher at a remote private school (and, of course, a beautiful sniper).
I have no idea if it is any good but there is a beginning, a middle with many rabbit trails, and an end. From the start, I knew where the story was going, but I did not always know how it was going to get there. I did not write it in a beginning-to-end manner. Since the bare bones of the story required a lot of embellishment I found that the enriching texture was added when Whimsy would strike and individual vignettes unfolded irrespective of where they fit in the plot. When the pile was large enough I knitted all the pieces together, smoothing out their connections. I found in subsequent fiction writing that this strategy fits my temperament perfectly. (My current book plot involves weaving together 1760s Parisian ateliers, a 1930s Skull-and-Bones-ish group, the French Underground, the contemporary New York museum scene, and a furniture conservator putting his life back together after a 10-year bender and how he saves Western Civilization while the bodies start piling up.)
I have, on occasion, written here about my similar process for creating earlier LAP books, the two Roubo volumes, “To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry” and “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture,” and “Virtuoso, The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” Since writing is a prominent focus of my working life these days, I am often asked, “How do you go about writing a book?” The answer for my current undertaking, “The Period Finisher’s Manual,” makes me sound sort of goofy.
In the former cases the text was established by Roubo himself via Michele Pietryka-Pagán and all I had to do was make it sensible to a 21st-century woodworker. There were times I thought the latter text (“Virtuoso”) wrote itself because Studley’s tool cabinet was so iconic all I had to do was write what I saw, gather as much primary source material as possible (thank you, John Cashman!), get it all down on paper and smooth out any wrinkles (aka “editing”). As I recall, the first draft of “Virtuoso” took about 10 weeks, eight hours a day most days, or about 100 words per hour. The captions took another two weeks, at a faster pace. But that was at the end of several years of traveling, observing, measuring and researching, so the raw material was ready at the waiting.
My current labor on “The Period Finisher’s Manual” began years ago with a detailed outline, so for good or ill it will have a fairly cogent organization. I hope. When the time comes, Chris will tell me if I am correct and instruct me on changes if I am not.
My typical working habit is proving to be true for “The Period Finisher’s Manual.” With my working outline in hand, and mental sketches of the knowledge to be conveyed, I wait for the paragraph (or paragraphs) to emerge from my experience of almost five decades of practicing and exploring wood finishing. “The Period Finisher’s Manual” content thus congeals in a non-linear fashion but in the end congeal it does, and the gelatinous masses are merged in a careful review and self-edit. Sometimes smoothing these wrinkles is more work than creating the original fabric.
One minute I might be working on a section describing the nature of solvents and a half hour later something about good finishing shop rags or making 18th-century sandpaper followed by using molten wax grain filler or building a flawless spirit varnish then extolling the virtues of avoiding power tools near the finishing shop might come up. I do not labor over a section if it is not flowing well from my fingertips – that just means those words are still in gestation. I know that the words will emerge when their time comes. Once a larger section has all its swatches I sew them together, a sometimes-arduous task. I am reminded of Edison’s description of invention: “It is 1 percent inspiration and 99 perspiration.” That probably explains why the timeline for any book covers many years, a characterization that fits this book, too.
When writing a book like “The Period Finisher’s Manual,” my job is to first create the skeleton (outline) then fill in all the holes of the outline one at a time and do my best to make it accurate and readable. On Day One, all the holes were empty so I had a target-rich environment – any paragraphs I threw out there would fit something, somewhere. As I told someone recently about this project, “You start with one paragraph somewhere in the book. Anywhere. It does not matter. You keep writing until you have a 1,000 or 1,500 paragraphs. You connect them together seamlessly. Then you have a book.”
— Don Williams