Handmade in Williamsburg
Williamsburg, Va. — J. Frank Cross, like thousands of other men across the country, enjoys woodworking in his basement. His basement workshop, as it happens, is in one of the most attractive brick homes on the Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg. It is a reconstructed structure on the site of the original early 1700s house, and is called the Red Lion now just as it was in Revolutionary War days when it served as a hostelry. It is today a private residence and is not open to the public.
Since Mr. Cross, who heads the reproductions program for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, is steeped in the history, lore, and living traditions of the old Colonial capital, it is not surprising that what he produces in his basement workshop are fine reproductions or adaptations of early Virginia antiques.
''My office job gives me a distinct advantage over most home woodworkers,'' he admits, ''because I am working all the time with the furnishings of the Williamsburg houses, and I couldn't help but be impressed with their simplicity and sense of trueness. I couldn't handle these objects for over 20 years without developing a feeling for the refinements of their design and scale.'' He works with those 25 or so manufacturers of furniture, silver, pewter, porcelain, paint , wallpaper, and rugs that are involved in the Williamsburg reproduction program.
Mr. Cross and his wife, Barbara, have lived in the Red Lion for 18 years, and its decor and furnishings are typically Williamsburg. The difference is that over 40 of the most stunning pieces of furniture were made on the premises by the master of the house, who works only with antique hand tools and a modern piece of equipment called the ''shopsmith.''
Frank Cross tries to complete about one major piece of furniture per year since he gardens and golfs during warmer months, indulging his woodworking hobby on winter evenings and weekends. He never counts the hours he spends in the workshop, he says, because the time flies by when he is engrossed with cabinetmaking, ''the most relaxing and rewarding hobby in the world.'' Nor can he be persuaded to make furniture for anyone else, ''because that would seem like work and take the fun out of it.'' As it is, he finds the leisurely pace of his workshop to be the perfect counterbalance to long office hours.
It is his magnificent mahogany tall-case clock that greets you when you walk into the entrance hall of the Cross residence. Mr. Cross traveled to England, unsuccessfully, to find the right movement for it, then located a 1720 movement in a neighbor's attic.
One of the craftsman's favorite pieces, in a living room full of his work, is a walnut tea table that sits between two camelback settees, which he made as well. The stately Queen Anne highboy is another favorite. And he especially likes the drop-leaf table, cellarette, and Southern huntboard that are part of the dining room furnishings.
In addition to his tables, desks, lamps, sofas, highboys, and clocks, Mr. Cross has completed in the last two years seven dining room chairs (reproductions of an early Virginia model) and a wall-hung shelf for plate display.
The executive says his hobby dates back to his boyhood, when he was growing up in Suffolk, Va., during the depression years. In 1933, he remembers, his father purchased a set of 19th-century woodworking tools to help a relative, and he found himself intrigued with them and eager to experiment.
With the old tools and the help of a high school shop course, he constructed his first piece of furniture, an Empire chest from which he learned an important lesson. Because he had used green wood, the piece of which he was so proud immediately began to warp. He never made that mistake again.
''When World War II came along, I went into the service and got married and soon discovered that we couldn't afford the furniture that we wanted. So the old tools came out again and, sitting in the middle of the floor because I had no workbench, I put together by hand two expensive-looking side tables. They were such a success that I have never stopped making furniture since that time.''
He has never worked with a cabinetmaker but now wishes that he had. ''I think my work would have benefitted,'' he says. ''As it is I still consider myself an amateur, and just keep learning new things every time I work on a piece.''
Mr. Cross draws his own patterns, sometimes makes his own brass locks, keys, and backplate brasses to go in his desks and chests, and always carves the ornamentation, and makes the fretwork, as well. He uses the mortise-and-tenon construction methods of the 18th century, and pegs and dovetails all the joints in his furniture.
He mixes his own shellac for the dull, distressed finish that he prefers and adds a protective coat of lacquer to his table tops. Since he contends that good , continuing care is important, he manages to wax and buff all of his pieces at least once a year.
If there is any one factor that has contributed a great deal to his work as a furniture maker, it is, he says modestly, ''an eye for design.''
This craftsman works mainly in solid walnut, mahogany, and sometimes cherry, and is constantly on the lookout for fine examples. He gets wood from auctions, from friends, from old furniture, and has even been known to saw up logs from a felled walnut tree in a neighbor's yard.