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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

December 16, 2011

A Tin Shop for the New Year.

The Tin Shop and Diagonal Fence at Anderson's Armoury.

Last week Colonial Williamsburg publically announced that the Tin Shop would be rebuilt as part of the Public Armoury complex. This is very good news, indeed, and we are grateful to Forrest Mars for extending his interest and financial support to include the new building.

The initial plan for the Armoury envisioned construction of five buildings on the Anderson property: a kitchen, blacksmith shop, tinsmith and two storage buildings. Collectively, these buildings functioned as the 1778-1780 Armoury. This summer’s continuing archaeological exploration revealed convincing evidence that the Armoury’s primary tin shop was located a few feet to the west of the Armoury, on a lot that we attribute, in the 21st century, to Mary Stith (Stith did not purchase the lot until 1785). Accordingly, plans have been modified to incorporate this new understanding of the broader Armoury complex by rebuilding the Tin Shop on the adjoining property, recreating the broad scope of work and diverse workshops at the site. The shop previously identified as the site of tinwork will be reconstructed as a general workshop for gun cleaning, gun stocking, leather and canvas work, file-making, and button-making.

What sort of evidence confirmed the presence of the Tin Shop? If you have been following the blog, you have caught bits and snatches of the archaeological case. First, there was documentary evidence. In 1813, Mary Stith penned a will in which she mentions “my house in the yard called the tin shop.” Her reference makes it clear that, while formerly a tin shop, the building is (in 1813) used as a house. The question then became how to link the building (which was reconstructed in 1940 on archaeological foundations) both in time and space to the Armoury. Put more simply, the questions were: “When was it a tin shop?” And “Was there a connection between the two properties.”

Crucible found at the Armoury.

The physical connection between the lots became evident this spring when archaeologists began to uncover a line of fence post holes running diagonally from the northwest corner of the “Stith shop” to the south east corner of a building on the street (see image above). The apparent function of this fence was to gather up a single building, the “Stith shop,” and incorporate it into the Armoury’s secure core.  This fence was built just as construction began on the Armoury complex, and was removed soon after the Armoury was abandoned in 1780.

On the east, or “Armoury,” side of this fence was a great deal of Armoury trash: coal and clinker (the waste product from spent coal), gun parts, gun flints, a couple of bayonet scabbard tips, button blanks (flat animal bone from which bone buttons were drilled), and the remains of meals served to 40 Armoury workers over the course of 2 years. There was also clear evidence of metal-working: scraps of sheet copper, brass, and a large crucible which contained copper, zinc, and lead (according to XRF, or x-ray fluorescence, analysis).

Tinned iron scrap from the Armoury.

And, yes, there were scraps of tinned iron… unassuming, triangular fragments clipped from rectangular tinplate sheets as they were fashioned into various forms: camp-kettles, coffeepots, cartridge boxes, lanterns, mugs, plates, and speaking trumpets. Although they would not make for an attention-grabbing museum display, these tinned iron fragments were just the evidence archaeologists hoped to find.

In upcoming months there will some additional activity on the Tin Shop site as work to replace the building commences. Archaeological excavation under the shop floor will determine whether there is any remaining evidence to be examined before the foundations are altered. Architectural historians and digital modelers are already well through the process of conceptualizing the reconstructed tin shop.

Current plans call for construction of the Tin Shop to follow completion of two key buildings of the industrial complex, the kitchen and main Armoury building, both of which will open to the public in the spring of 2012. The Armoury’s Tin Shop will be the only reconstructed and operational eighteenth century tinsmithing operation in the United States. What an exciting prospect for beginning the new year!

Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith, and Meredith Poole, Staff Archaeologist.

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  1. Congratulations Ken.
    Your persistence and planning to reconstruct the armory is now paying dividends! You and your team are to be commended for the thorough research of historical documents reinforced by archeological evidence that lead to the understanding that the “tin shop” is the” tin shop”. And please thank Forrest Mars for me for funding this project so that I can watch History being recreated. I am anxious to see what an 18th century tin shop looks like in the opinion of the” conceptualizers”.
    Keep up the good work,
    Ken Heiser

    • Ken- I appreciate your long-time interest and support of our work here at Colonial Williamsburg. This entire project is, for me, proof that hard work and persistence pay off in the long run. Ten years ago my focus was on the Armoury building itself, but as we learned more about the Armoury it became clear that ironworking was only part of the story. The idea of Liberty was articulated by statesmen in the Capital, mechanics in workshops like the Armoury provided the hardware, and soldiers on the battlefields the courage and blood that brought those ideas to reality. That is the story that we want to tell on the Armoury site.

      Our thinking on the tin shop evolved as new information came to light, and ultimately we realized that part of the puzzle was in plain sight (Mary Stith’s “…house in the yard called the tin shop.”) but not recognized for what it was. Once we realized that the answer was staring us in the face, the archaeologist’s work confirmed our new theory.

      We have all thanked Mr. Mars for his interest and generous support of this project and the R. Charleton Coffeehouse. His sincere interest in, and generous support for preserving our country’s history is long standing. He has made it possible to bring this project to life.

      We are currently working on the design of the tin shop, and information will be forthcoming as the project progresses.

  2. It is so exciting to read about the evolution of the reconstructed Armory. Keep up the excellent work and we look forward to the progress each day. Can’t wait to visit, once the blacksmith shop is “back home”.

    • Thank you, Chuck. It is also exciting for us to see our years of study rising out of the ground as a new Armoury complex. I am glad to hear that others share our excitement. With the structure taking shape I am now realizing that the “real work” of bringing it to life is approaching quickly. No rest for the weary!

      The blacksmiths should be moving into the new workshop in March, and should be back to daily public programming on site by April. We will look forward to seeing you when we are “back home”.

  3. A new tin shop! Very exciting news.

    Do the historic tradesmen use authentic tools? Are their hammers made on site?

    • Dave- We will indeed be using authentic tools in the tinsmith shop. Curator Erik Goldstein and I just picked up a collection of early tinsmithing tools which was donated to Colonial Williamsburg by a long time friend. (More on that later!) The antique tools will join our collection of antique objects and serve as study pieces for replication, and the replicas will be used in the shop. This allows us to fulfill our mission of preserving early material culture, rediscovering early techniques, and sharing our knowledge with our guests. We will be making the hammers, shears, stakes, punches, etc. necessary to furnish and operate the tin shop, just as we do for all of the other workshops in Colonial Williamsburg. We will be making hammers of the tinsmiths- with hammers that we made for our own use in the blacksmith shop.

  4. Ken, This is great news. Forrest Mars is one of the great behind the scenes philanthropists. He has my gratitude. I’ll keep my end up by buying more dark chocolate peanut M’s. My question pertains to the building called, Mary Stith’s “house in the yard called the tin shop.”) If this is/was the original 1778 tin shop, why demolish and rebuild? Or is it a recontruction, that is not appropriate?
    It is amazing how Williamsburg has changed in the 45 years I’ve been visiting. I’ve been there 16 times since 1966.
    I wish all at CWF a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • Christine,
      Although I shouldn’t answer for Ken, I do know the answer to your question. The Mary Stith shop is a 1940 reconstruction, based on archaeological evidence. What that means is the footprint is accurate, but many of the architectural details are 1940 interpretations.

      Since excavation, at the time, did not take into account the nature of the artifacts found in association with structures, buildings were often designed with contemporary needs in mind. This building was designed to house employees. As we now know that a tinsmith worked in the space, we will have a much different interpretation of how this shop should look.

      We look forward to your 17th visit, and hope you will stop by the Armoury to introduce yourself. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  5. I just knew that someday it would be beneficial (in some way) that I ate ALL those candy bars!! Thank you Mr. Mars….I hope you read this blog. MERRY “CHRIST”-MAS TO ALL YOU BLOOGERS AND A BLESSEDLY, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    • Rick- I have to say that indirectly, I have a part in paying for the Armoury as well. That is, if I consider all of the Peanut M&M’s that I have consumed over the years as an “investment” in the project.

  6. Ken/Meredith
    I can’t wait to see the tin shop rise up and see it in operation. It set me on fire when Ken spoke about the antique tin makers tools that were donated to CW. Ever since I tried my hand on reproducing 18th tin items in my small wood shop,my chair making has taken a back seat. The tin class at JCC gave me a good start and the kindness of Mr.Mars and the never ending research of your staff and carpenters blesses me
    more than you’ll ever know.Last ,will we get to see photos of the tools on the blog or will we have to see them on display? Have a Merry Christmas to you all. P.S. Has Eleanor been taking lessons on linen kettle bags yet?

    • Kerry- We are excited by the tinshop as well. Meredith and Andy are preparing yet another dig on the site. It appears that some of the ground underneath the current Mary Stith building could yield additional information about the building. More on that shortly.

      I have to say that throughout my career, I have found more former woodworkers who are now metalworkers than the other way around. I will add you to my informal tally of those who have seen the light, and set down the plane and chisel in favor of a hammer and anvil!

      Eleanor’s skill with linen kettle bags seems to be curling up and sleeping on them. She has not proven herself with needle and thread.

  7. Thank you to Forrest Mars for his generosity that enables CW to continue to educate the masses on this crucial time period in the life of our nation! CW is Disneyland to those of us who have a passion for our nation’s history! The armoury complex is one more attraction to thrill. Looking forward to the post on the antique tools.

    • Good to hear from you Mimi. Mr. Mars has shown great commitment to the preservation of our nation’s history through his philanthropic support of this, and other institutions. We are indeed grateful for his involvement in Colonial Williamsburg, and generous support of our programming.

      Your comment about this new attraction is right on the mark! Many people assume that history is a stagnant subject, immune to new discovery. The Armoury project is one of many examples of expansion of our historical knowledge, and new stories of our past discovered through careful examination and analysis of primary sources. History is a vibrant and exciting subject for study, and the stories uncovered help us to define and understand what it means to be an American.

  8. Hi Meredith & Ken,
    It was thrilling to look at the computer enhanced design of the Armoury/Tin Shop property. The first time my wife & I visited Williamsburg was in 1968 & the blacksmith was behind the Elkanah Deane House. Almost fifty visits later we have seen it reinvented behind the Anderson House & reinvented again with the new information & reconstruction. Williamsburg lives again through the dedicated work of all of you. My wife & I make at least two visits a year and we look forward to them in 2012.
    If Williamsburg of the 1930s-1950s had the archaeology know-how & staff of today it would be amazing to see how accurate & different the interpreation would be. So much information was lost by the heavy-handed methods of excavation in those early years. I cannot wait to see what will be found in the next phase of the dig under the Tin Shop.
    Along with the progress of the site as seen on the webcams, I hope to see more images of the archaeologists & their work.
    All that are involved with the project are to be commended.
    Ron Trabandt

    • Ron- We appreciate your interest and support. You bolster my earlier statement about our ever-evolving understanding of history. While it is easy to see our shortcomings in retrospect, each generation of historian has done the best job possible with the information and technology available in their day. The Armoury project has benefitted greatly from technology like the internet- a tool that we take for granted today, but one that was unavailable 25 years ago when we built the first Anderson Shop. This has increased the availablility of information, as well as our ability to process, compare, and understand that information. While our current understanding of the Armoury is state-of-the-art, who knows what future generations of historians will discover?

      It is also important to understand that varying perspectives can yield different insights. When we look at primary sources, a blacksmith’s or carpenter’s experienced eye may yield different information than an architectural historian’s. One of the great elements of our work here at Colonial Williamsburg is the range and depth of experience. The Armoury project has benefitted from the experience of blacksmiths, carpenters, archaeologists, architectural historians, and library researchers- all contributing unique perspectives that help to enrich our understanding of the site.

  9. Occasionally we see tradesmen referring to drawings, as we see today on the roving cam. What is known of the plans used by the builders of the 1700’s? Are there any surviving drawings, of did they build using common knowledge of building practices?

    • There were construction drawings and plans made for early American buildings, especially public buildings, and some of these survive into the 21st century – but the surviving drawings are rare. Most give a sense of the design and proportions of the structure, the placement of windows and doors and other features, but clearly the details were left to the skill of the builders. The carpenters knew how big a floor joist should be and how closely the studs should be set. A bricklayer knew the patterns required to execute the work in a certain type of bond. And in a lot of these details Williamsburg buildings are more alike than they are different – which is why the study of surviving buildings is so important to undertake an accurate reconstruction.

      No one has seen more of these early structures than our architectural historians, and they use this knowledge to draw designs for our modern-day reconstructions. These designs then go our architects and engineers, who create modern working construction drawings, which go to the City of Williamsburg for approval and permitting. And it is those modern construction drawings that you are seeing us look at on the webcam.

      I have included a Virginia Gazette ad which specifically mentions the plans for constuction of a new hospital for the soldiers of the State of Virginia. Humphrey Harwood did the brickwork for that hospital, the same bricklayer that provided the foundations and the forges and chimneys for the Public Armoury.

      Virginia Gazette, Purdie
      “WILLIAMSBURG, October 4, 1776
      PUBLICK notice is hereby given, that an HOSPITAL for the reception of the sick of the continental troops in Virginia, is to be erected near Williamsburg, and will be let to the lowest bidder on Monday the 14th instant, in the forenoon, at the Raleigh tavern. Any person or persons, may see a plan of the same by applying to the subscriber in this city, anytime between this and the day above mentioned. WILLIAM RICKMAN”

  10. I am somewhat surprised to see the installation of an interior cladding to the outside walls where the earlier building had none that I can remmeber. What gave rise to this feature. Also, with the creation of space between the outer and intereior cladding, was there no thought to installing some sort of insulation(to complement the heated tubing in the floor)? Was there such a thing in the 18th century?

    • Mike- Glad to see that you are keeping an eye on us. The old building did have interior sheathing, but only on a small part of the building. Lack of sheathing on the remainder of the building was to visually reinforce the sequential development of the structure.

      In our research of Virginia Armouries, Garland and I ran across a description of an armoury at Point of Fork, Virginia, which was to be rebuilt in 1783 following an attack by the Queen’s Rangers in 1781. The description of what was to be built is the basis for what we are building at the Williamsburg Armoury. It reads in part:

      “…I think the arsenal should be built of common frame work of ten feet stud –it must be boarded on the outside with feather edged boards, and the sides filled in with bricks, and then boarded on the inside…”

      While this description is for the Point of Fork Armoury, we believe that it reflects a standard approach to constructing such structures, and we are applying the same design to our Armoury.

      Happy New Year!

  11. I love the roving webcam – what fun. I’m a bit confused by the inner brick fill. Why just in the corner? Might the whole building originally been filled? And is this just to show how it would’ve looked, or is there another reason for just this small part?

    Thanks, and I’m off for another Mars Bar to support the project.

    • Ed- Thanks for joining in the discussion. Initially, we feel that the entire building had brick infill between the studs (nogging). The Point of Fork description calls for “…the sides filled in with bricks…”

      Our building conservators felt that the brick infill would lead to moisture problems when the brickwork was below the dew point, leading to condensation inside the walls. In the interest of longevity of the building, we are only nogging exposed areas of the wall. The corner that you see will be the location of a stairwell which is unsheathed. The rest of the building has interior sheathing and therefore the nogging would not be seen.

      Bring me some peanut M&M’s. We can share chocolate and continue our Armoury discussion.

  12. Ken, thanks for the speedy reply.

    I’ve worked mostly on wooden boats where it is always wet, with lots of condensation. I’ve become a fan of borates and polyglycols for wood preservation, are you using any of that where the brick is in contact with the wood? Of course it’s not historically accurate, but since it’s water soluble, it vanishes into the wood, and as the wood gets moist it gets driven in further.

    • Ken – we agree with you about the utility of borates. Every wooden component has been treated with Boracare, including the frame, siding, sheathing and roofing. We have also loaded the sills with Impel rods, another borate product, to put off sill decay as long as possible. I think the philosophy of deciding not to nog the rest of the building is simply this: if ultimately the public will not see it, and therefore cannot learn anything about it, AND the nogging could potentially be a liability and reduce the useful life of the building, we won’t put it in. If nogging comes up in the interpretation of the building, we can open the stair door and say “See, the nogging would look like this.”

      • Er…that last post would be in reply to ED’s question, not Ken’s. Ken already agrees with me about the utility of borates…my bad.

  13. Watching the archeological work being done per the Tin Shop today. Where are they digging? What are they finding? Every once in a while one of the archeologists holds up something he or she pulled out of the ground. It’s nearly impossible to see what it is, but it’s fascinating to watch?

  14. Eric- Good to hear from you. The dig is actually inside the existing reconstructed tin shop just to the west of the Armoury (see the digital image above) The existing building was reconstructed in the 1940′s to be used as an efficiency residence for an employee. We have removed the flooring of that structure, and we are digging within the masonry walls of the foundation to reach material that was not disturbed by the 1940′s work. At present all material being removed from the surface is fill that was put down in the 1940′s, but soon we anticipate reaching undisturbed (we hope) archaeological material. There are artifacts in the fill, and those are examined and classified. When Meredith, Andy and Mark hold up an artifact, they are usually looking at it in better light, sharing it with each other, or sharing it with web cam viewers. Most of the artifacts will be broken and discarded debris, rather than whole, identifiable objects. Some artifacts will have to be cleaned and analyzed before identification is possible.

    I agree that it is fascinating work. I check in several times a day!

  15. [...] of a tin shop, with the thought that maybe they’d run across tinned nails during their excavations or seen something similar.  They suggested that instead of being cased or coated in a different [...]

  16. What will be done with the materials of the Stith House as it is being torn down?

    Since Eleanor’s house is being disassembled, has she adjusted to her new home in the armory?

    • Tee~
      We’re delighted that so many of our blog readers are so conservation-minded! All salvagable materials from the Stith Shop either have been, or are in the process of being removed. Windows and doors, as well as shingles are currently being “harvested” from the shop, and will be reused in other places in the Historic Area.

      As for Eleanor, she’s in transition at the moment, temporarily living in the kitchen. We’ll have to get a key cut for her before she can take up residence in the Armoury!


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