Two of a kind
In this market, where contemporary and modern styles dominate mainstream design trends, reproduction furniture makers are far and few between. But there are two veteran craftsmen, Jeff Headley and Steve Hamilton, keeping the tradition alive. They run Mack S. Headley & Sons and a woodworking school in Berryville, Va.
“We’re still in it,” says Headley, a fourth-generation owner of the family business. Hamilton, his business partner and an employee of over 46 years, teases that he’s “still waiting for something better to come along.”
“We used to be two-and-a-half years behind on our orders,” adds Headley. “Today we’re probably eight months, depending on what we’re building. We are not quite as choosy as we were before. Tastes have changed. Kids don’t really want this type of furniture that used to be passed on for generations. Now the younger generation really wants something that can be replaced in four to five years. They don’t have the appreciation of period furniture, the old stuff, but that all happens.”
A storied history
The company was founded in 1921 in the nearby town of Winchester by Headley’s grandfather, Boyd Headley Sr., who started building on his own after working in a furniture factory on the eastern shore of Maryland.
“One of the first pieces [my grandfather] did was for a doctor in 1921. He built and traded the doctor something for that, and the doctor loved his furniture so much he backed him, so he started building and restoring furniture. My great grandfather (Joshua Headley) worked with him for quite a number of years; that’s why I call us fourth generation. At one time there were 14 people working in that shop,” says Headley, sitting by a workbench in the current shop, a 1,600-sq.-ft. space inside a carriage-style barn attached to a home on the family farm.
“My father (Mack S. Headley) had his shop in my grandfather’s shop in Winchester, and in ’67 it burned down, so in ’68 they moved what was left and worked in a barn here, then moved into this building in ’69. At that time, there were six of us and my dad.”
Headley has been part of the operation since he was a boy, working alongside his father and grandfather, and officially took over when his father retired in 1981. He notes the business name often gets confused with that of his brother, Mack Headley Jr., who left the company in the mid-70s to work as master cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg. Hamilton, who’d previously worked as a home builder, joined around that time.
One of the turning points for the business occurred in the 1940s when Headley’s grandfather started marketing with auctions.
“With 14 people or so working for him, they would accumulate all these things they didn’t sell. They’d sell them at the end of the year at an auction. The auctions got to be popular, so people would ask him to sell their estates,” Headley explains.
“The auctions brought in all these pieces of furniture that led to restoration work, so they got to see a lot of pieces that were in places like Williamsburg and state departments. They got to see really good quality furniture, what worked and what didn’t work, and just learn about general furniture construction.”
The acquired skills eventually led to commissions for museums and historic homes, including Mount Vernon, the Carlyle House and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the National Park Service. Headley & Sons has had a 42-year association building for the White House and three presidents.
Built to order
The company has produced thousands of pieces over the years. “We serve all over the country, certainly. We send pieces everywhere. We mainly build to order, that’s what we like to do, anything starting with rough lumber,” says Headley.
Often, the shop builds copies of pieces that have been placed in a collection, borrowed, sold or otherwise missing. “We did that for Mount Vernon a number of times,” says Headley.
Hand tools and benches dominate the shop, but machinery has its place.
“We try to do museum quality furniture. We do period construction, so we use mortise and tenon, hand-cut dovetails, things like that. Our carvings are all done by hand. We’re trying to promote period furniture which is 1820 and earlier. That’s when we figure they did mostly everything by hand.
“We use our machines to size our lumber. We treat them like an apprentice, what an apprentice would have been doing, so we can concentrate on our joinery to build these pieces,” says Headley.
The average building time for one piece is three weeks to six months.
“Usually, one person starts a piece and the other finishes it. I do a lot of hand finishing. Steve’s better at carving than I am. We have certain areas we like to do. I like turning on the lathe, so I do most of the lathe work,” says Headley, who admits parting with a piece can be an emotional moment, but business is business.
“We can’t eat them. We have to sell them. I’d like to have some back but there’s no room here. That’s what we do. It’s nice to see the smile on the people’s faces with what we do. Mostly everything we’ve done people are happy.”
Passing on the skills
Headley and Hamilton opened the Woodworking Shops of the Shenandoah Valley in 2006.
“We offer classes here at our shop, usually once a month for one week. They are mostly project-oriented classes, but we also offer one-on-one classes for individuals who are working on certain projects, and we can help them with that project, or quite often, we help people with other projects they have started here or other places,” says Headley.
“We don’t advertise our classes. We draw the line with five people. Quite often it’s one to four or so. It depends on what the pieces are and most of them are pretty involved.”
A few projects from this year include a Chippendale chest, Washington tea table, serpentine front chest, hanging cupboard, and more. Some of the most popular classes cover slant front desks, tall case clocks, and miniatures.
They’ve also been teaching biannual classes at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind., for the past 17 years.
“We also go around and talk to organizations like the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, Washington Woodworkers Guild, and Potamic Antique Tools and Industries Association, a group of old tool collectors. We’ve gone all over the country lecturing about furniture construction. I was hired by the government as an instructor,” says Headley.
Headley and Hamilton have had a fair share of employees over years, including family members. Most were dissuaded by the financial prospects or a lack of enthusiasm for the craft. Headley and Hamilton want to do this as long as they can.
“It’s something we love to do,” says Headley. “We used to work every day, and on weekends and evenings, too. Everything here is paid for. I don’t have to make a lot of money to survive with low overhead.”
For more, visit headleyandsons.com and wwotsv.com.
This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.