Black History is Our History – African American Woodworkers

Wood has always been a prominent building and construction material because it’s durable yet versatile. Making things from wood can start as a simple hobby and over time become your skill. Then beyond skill, there is a natural talent. Many woodworking projects today are replicas of another man’s creation.

While imitation is the best flattery it’s important to pay homage to those who paved the way before us. After the 13th amendment abolished slavery, many men had learned a trade that they continued to master as freemen. African American woodworkers were familiar with the beauty of wood and thus made beautiful cabinets, furniture, bed frames, instruments, and more.

Henry Boyd – Furniture Maker

The Boyd bedstead – a collector’s item today was one black man’s dream in the 1800s. At 24 years old, Henry Boyd moved to Ohio as a free man with no money and no one willing to hire him. He took odd-end jobs until one day an opportunity allowed him to craft a countertop for his boss at the time. That one opportunity showed he was a master woodworker. It led to more contract jobs until one day he was able to open his own shop.

In his shop, Henry builds bed frames with a revolutionary design. The bed design was highly sought after because it allowed the beds to be sturdier and more durable. He operated an integrated workplace of up to 50 men at one time. His success and popularity continued to rise, and he eventually built a showroom showing his bedsteads and parlor furniture. While some praised him, others caused his business to close from constant arson. His work auctions for top dollar today and regarded by some as the greatest pre–Civil War woodwork.

Thomas Day African American WoodworkerThomas Day – Cabinet Maker

When you ask for a “daybed” do you know you’re referencing the African American master cabinetmaker Thomas Day? Thomas Day born a free man in Southern Virginia moved to North Carolina and opened his own cabinet shop in 1827. 96% of the cabinetmakers in North Carolina were white at that time but Day had proven his skill and was treated with high regard in his community. He had unique artistry that excited his customers and kept them coming back.

He added architectural enhancements and curve features unlike any seen before. Yet the shapes were subtle small touches that gave simple pieces like sofas and dressers, great character. The Civil War caused Day’s shop to drop in prominence but today you can find his millwork in homes throughout North Carolina. From playful staircases and archways to hand carving that showcased his woodworking mastery – his work is in museums and considered to some as prized possessions.

Freeman Vines – Guitar Maker

Freeman Vines - African American Woodworker

Another North Carolina freeman who never made two guitars alike is Freeman Vines. A guitarist and wood craftsman, Freeman Vines has been making wood guitars hoping to create the perfect sound. Rescuing wood and upcycling its material adds a story to each guitar. He uses wood from unlikely places such as the soundboard of an old piano, the steps of an old tobacco barn, or even a previous hanging tree.

He crafts these reclaimed wood guitars by hand then plays each one of them. Some guitars are shaped like African masks while others have a simple design like that of a leaf or oar. Most notable about this skilled woodworker is his ability to rewrite his own people’s history. He made four guitars from a black walnut tree where a young man was hanged, and it plays beautifully honoring his ancestors with every strum.

Make a Lasting Mark

History is many things to many people. It can be a teacher and it can be a mirror. Showing us how we as Americans need to change and showing us how the past is ever-present today. History is important to us and we strive to understand it and learn from it.  At Woodstock AP, we treat all people with love and kindness. We handcraft wood pieces with the hope that they will bring happiness to whatever home they find. Our showroom is open, book an appointment for a dedicated tour and design consultation.

Additional sources: Smithsonian Magazine “Freeman Vines” & “Thomas Day”, Kentucky Tribune

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