The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Bang the drum slowly..

Some time ago on this blog I wrote: If all it took to kill “fine” furniture-making was IKEA then the trade deserved its fate.

 I stand by that statement even more so today than on the day I made it, but I would like to add an to it an addendum. For the profession of woodworking may indeed have been “killed” by so-called cheap furniture, but the profession’s cousins, woodworking media and hobby woodworking, were murdered by the very people supposedly perpetuating their existence.

I have been woodworking on a regular basis, meaning weekends, for the first time since last November. However, I have avoided woodworking media, magazines, books, and even videos, almost completely…that is until this week. I checked out a few (there are only few left) of the sites I used to view almost daily and almost immediately I discovered both the murderers and the murder weapon(s).

What was most frightening was not the content, which was disturbing enough on its own level, but the comments made after the fact. Instead of woodworking, I found pseudo-intellectual babble, BS political and economic philosophy, sycophantic kiss-assery (if you’re going to make fun of the President at least be funny and original), and worst of all: no dissenting opinion.

Why would there ever be a need for dissenting opinion on a woodworking site? Because it appears that these sites no-longer are about woodworking, they are about pushing an agenda that is quite frankly scary to me. Of course, I’ve made mention of this before, approximately 5 years ago, but I did not foresee the fall happening so quickly.

So what murdered hobby woodworking and the media related to it? A small handful of woodworking journalists. What was the murder weapon? The ideology they created in order to destroy competition, drive up costs, and sell their own products. Who were the accomplices? That is a little less clear, but my money is on the people who leave all of those lovely comments.

 As I have said over and over and over again, the one thing that would and could end woodworking as a popular and viable hobby is the alienation of the working people who once were the professionals in the trade, and the middle class people who were once the majority of the hobbyists. This small group of writers managed to do both, and I have to give credit where credit is due, they did an absolutely terrific job of it.

Allow me to do a quick assessment of the current situation in woodworking media…

The few magazine editors still left are all journalism and English majors who may or may not have had a relative who once was a carpenter. The site operators are more focused on pushing products, a political agenda, and a horrible economic philosophy than actual furniture making. And the relative few who still read the very few magazines still in operation are upper middle class/wealthy people (nothing wrong with that in general, mind you) who have somehow come to despise capitalism and are now waging a war against “the man” and his “machine”.

I have to break it to you folks, and I hate to bring political ideology into this on my end, but the vast majority of hobby woodworkers I have met were and are what I would call politically conservative. When they pick up a woodworking magazine or sign on to a professional woodworking blog they really don’t want to read a political diatribe against corporations, religions, and the government. They don’t want to read comments such as “I’m a risk analyst for Manhattan Life, but I hate corporations! Down with the man!”, and they don’t want to be told that THEY are the problem, because they are not.

So what is the problem? First and foremost, much of the crop of woodworking writers who appeared as the new millennium began were not actual furniture makers. As I mentioned earlier, they were a group who studied journalism, or English literature, or marketing, and they couldn’t find jobs in their field because those fields are competitive and don’t really pay much, and frankly are far less relevant than they were in the past (for the record I am not belittling any of these fields, they have merits just as any other line of work does. I am only stating that in the current job market these fields are somewhat saturated).

This group, who really couldn’t write about woodworking in a way that spoke to hobbyists because they were likely even less experienced than their audience, decided to write about esoteric topics disguised as woodworking projects while at the same time interjecting their own political and economic beliefs into their work. In these magazines, actual furniture making became less important and was replaced with witty banter and subtle jabs at those who were not indoctrinated into the writer’s own beliefs. While I have zero magazine editing experience, I can’t imagine that alienating a large portion of your target audience is good business practice.

As the magazine’s focus became more narrow, more readers were lost. Couple this with a bad economy and suddenly tool companies stop advertising (mostly power tools, which remember are “bad”) and cheaply produced internet shows begin to take the place of long running television series. Because power tool companies advertising revenue drops considerably, power tools are even more vilified by the writers. The magazines focus narrows even more to cater to a more narrow readership and soon enough many different options are replaced by very few.

 The few magazines still operating focus on hand tool work. In and of itself hand tool work is a fun and viable way to woodwork, but the writers cannot keep from continually narrowing their views. It no longer is acceptable to use hand tools unless those tools meet a rigid criteria. Writers begin to focus on minutiae which has little to do with actual furniture making, but who forged your holdfast, where you purchased your saw, which company made your chisels, where you purchased your wood, and which country your workbench originated from. These things and not furniture became the focus of most woodworking media. Single furniture forms are pushed continually in order to sell books and videos. More and more people are turned off.

Who are those people who were driven away? I am one of them, and as a middle aged, middle class man I believe that not so long ago I represented the demographic which made up the bulk of hobbyist woodworkers.

Today, woodworking magazines are a pale shadow of what they once were. Woodworking television shows are virtually non-existent, and the woodworking “blogosphere” is a near black hole of nothingness. The few blogs remaining spend more time on political preaching than on woodworking. Corporate maligning has replaced content (a small-company can screw you over just as easily as a large corporation and you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise). And woodworking experts have been replaced by internet gurus.

So, yeah, just as the profession of “fine” furniture making has died, so too has the hobby along with its corresponding media outlets. The profession no longer exists for a number of factors. Some people will blame large furniture manufacturers, and that is a part of it, but in reality the profession has died because it is no longer necessary for the survival of the human race, which is the same reason that dozens if not hundreds of now non-existent trades have vanished. It is now a quite minor specialty field. And though hobby woodworking didn’t need to follow suit, it has for the reasons I discussed in this post. It’s quite sad, really, because I used to enjoy the media aspect of the hobby. Now, I get my woodworking media fix the old-fashioned way; I watch re-runs of The New Yankee Workshop on YouTube.

 

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On Woodworking Books.

I made a rare visit  to the doctor’s office this past week. It was nothing serious, yet at the same time it was enough to get me to go to a doctor’s office. Either way, while in the midst of the prerequisite second waiting period, I relieved the boredom by looking at some of the posters hanging on the walls in the examination room and I noticed that all of them contained many photos. Considering that most posters are just large photos this was hardly mind blowing, but the content of the photos is the compelling factor.

While in that waiting room it occurred to me that medicine is very much a visual art. Of course you can call a medical doctor with a description of symptoms and they can probably come close or even very close to the mark in regards to a diagnosis, but a visual examination is generally far more precise. And this little revelation led me to write this post.

Not 20 minutes ago I was going through a few woodworking books doing some research for what I hope is an upcoming project. To be forthright, I have a love/hate relationship with woodworking books. Currently, I count 37 books dedicated to woodworking on my bookshelves (I had more at one point but donated quite a few to the local library) and I have an issue with most. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, it just means that just as we are all imperfect, so too are all of those books. And their biggest source of imperfection is the lack of photos.

Woodworking is a visual art, and woodworking books have too many words, and that is the problem with nearly every woodworking book ever written. A photograph in a woodworking book is worth a chapter of written description. In fact, I believe the ratio of photos to pages should be a minimum of 1 to 1. It’s simple really; trying to describe the process of building furniture using words borders on stupidity. It doesn’t work.  I read the instructions for attaching a lid to a chest and I honestly wanted to burn the book…yeah, I am not kidding. And this is not made up, I picked up my cell phone and watched Paul Sellers attach a lid to a chest and any confusion was instantly gone. Have I attached lids to chests before? Sure. That isn’t the point. The point is I paid money for an “instructional” book that somehow complicated the extremely simple act of attaching a lid to a chest.

Maybe you can blame it on bad writing, or maybe attaching a lid to a chest is something that really cannot be described in words; I don’t know, but I do know that there was not one freaking photo of the process on those 2 pages; not one….And a photo would have been a hell of a lot more clear than 4 paragraphs of nonsense.

And perhaps the worst part is that it gets worse. Read a description of sawing dovetails, or creating complex angles, or maybe worst of all: sharpening…I can almost guarantee that if  you were not confused it will make you so. And now I know why I haven’t purchased a woodworking book in years.

For the record, I am hardly an anti-intellectual. I love reading, and I am at this very moment surrounded by many hundreds of books, all of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and most of which I’ve loved to the point that they have become part of my lexicon. But of the 30+ woodworking books currently sitting on the shelves of my little library, I can count on one hand the number of them which consider “keepers”.

Why the vitriol? After all, they’re just books. Well, for the first time in more than 6 months I have considered making full-sized furniture again. And when I went to those books to find inspiration I found myself not energized but frustrated; I found myself remembering why I stopped blogging about woodworking. And it made me realize that it’s about time to take all but a handful of those books and throw them in the donation bin at our library. Then again, in doing that I may be doing nothing more than contributing to the frustration of other woodworkers in the area, and that is the last thing I want to do.

Bueller, Bueller…

Once upon a time I received quite a few comments on my blog posts. Some of those comments were actually posted on the blog, and quite a few were sent to my personal email (just to set the record straight, the hate mail to “fan” mail ratio was about 50/50). In fact, I received enough of those emails to warrant creating an email (gmail) address specifically for the blog posts. Strangely enough, once I did that, I received far fewer blog related emails..go figure.

Anyway, I received my first blog related email in quite a while, more than a year, asking the same questions I’ve been asked many times before: “Where are my fun posts?” “Where are my rants?” “Where have my fringe, op-ed pieces gone?”

I haven’t answered this persons email directly as of yet, but the answer I give him (or her) will be the same I’ve given before: It’s not worth it.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the world of woodworking is simply not worthy of my time and my opinions. I could go on a long diatribe explaining my reasons, but instead I’m going to break it down to this most simple phrase; Woodworking is dull.

Let’s face it; woodworking magazines, videos, books, and blogs (sorry) are or have become really boring, very bland, and more often than not, they suck. (Once again, sorry). At one time I liked to think of myself as a counter point to the boredom, but now I just don’t care enough anymore to bother.

So the last two paragraphs are going to be copied and pasted and given as my response to the email. I will continue to post on the occasional project or tool restoration, but my days of ranting are over. I don’t want to be lumped in with a group of boorish, pseudo-intellectual geeks anyhow (referring to trees by their Latin genus? C’mon)

Washington Campaign Desk completed.

On Saturday afternoon the Washington Campaign Desk project officially became a completed piece of furniture when I moved it from our downstairs family room into our “office”.  In actuality, the construction of the project was completed two weeks ago and the finish applied over the course of a week. While I’m very much an amateur when it comes to finishing, and I may have already mentioned it in another post, I will briefly touch on the topic again.

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The finished desk.

 

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Candle and lantern lit..

In most cases I would have finished walnut with BLO and some wax. I wanted to go with something more refined, and after some online research I wound up with a product from Rockler called ‘Sam Maloof poly oil/poly wax’. The instructions were similar to other finishes: sand to 400g, burnish with 0000 steel wool and a soft cotton cloth, apply liberally, and immediately wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (I’m glad they added the immediately, because letting the finish sit is a recipe for disaster no matter what anybody, anywhere will tell you). Anyway, the recommended sequence was 3 to 4 coats of the poly/oil blend, and 1-2 coats of the wax blend, with a 24 hour drying time in between coats. I went with 3 coats of the poly/oil, and 2 coats of the poly/wax, and I can say without any reservation that it was the easiest and nicest finish I’ve ever applied. Even better, it is dead simple to apply further coats in the future for renewal purposes. At $20 per pint it was not inexpensive, but in my opinion it was well worth the cost.

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Detail of the leg assembly.

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Desk drawers opened.

 

I have two regrets with this project: One, I wish that I had documented the little details a bit more. Two, I would have done a better job on the through dovetails at the back of the drawers. Don’t get me wrong, the drawers are square and tight, but compared to the rest of the desk, I think the through dovetails are a bit sloppy. Speaking of the drawers, I did not fully assemble (meaning glue them together) and finish them until after the final coat of finish was applied to the desk itself, just in case some final resizing needed to be done. And the last task, adding felt bottoms to the drawers, was completed yesterday.

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Detail of the drawer interior. The nail next to the ink (which you can barely see) is from the blacksmith shop at Mt Vernon.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we moved the desk into our office. I added some of my memorabilia to it and it really brought the desk to life. Everything looked like it belonged, and when I replace the oil lamp with a real candle lantern I believe it will look even better.

This desk was the first full-sized piece of furniture I built this year, and more significantly, it could be the last full-sized piece I make in a long time. Not that I’m planning on giving up woodworking, but the real truth is I have very little room in my house for more furniture. Currently, the living areas of my house contain 14 pieces of furniture I built. That is a respectable number. So from now into the foreseeable future, I will likely be making small boxes and such, which I am fine with, because whatever else happens, I built something that I am extremely proud of, and I set the bar higher. Now, I just need to find a suitable chair…

 

Washington Desk Thoughts

‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.’

One of the things that has always bothered me concerning woodworking forums, magazines, etc. has been an overemphasis on the spiritual/metaphysical aspects of making furniture. If there is one quality that I despise in anybody, it is an overabundance of self-importance. A lot of people, too many people, tend to over-value themselves, and the things they make, in relation to how they think others should perceive it. I had mentioned in an earlier post a trip to Mount Vernon and how that trip was in many ways a spiritual experience for me. Others may visit Mount Vernon just because they enjoy the grounds, and others still may visit and feel nothing at all. So when it comes to the Washington Campaign Desk I recently completed, I am very much in the mindset that it is without a doubt my favorite project, yet I would not doubt that some may look at it and think to themselves: ‘big deal!’

Firstly, as far as woodworking projects go, this desk, for someone at my skill level, would probably be considered an intermediate level project. For a professional woodworker it would likely be considered a relatively simple build. It was not the most technically difficult project I’ve made. In fact, I can say in all honesty that I spent as much time milling the wood and cleaning up the resulting mess as I did on the actual woodworking involved in constructing the desk. One of the most time consuming individual aspects of the project was making and fitting the breadboard ends, and when I carelessly removed a chunk of the desktop with a shoulder plane I wound up removing the ends completely rather than attempt a shoddy repair. If the two plus hours I spent on the breadboard ends are removed from the equation, I probably have more time spent milling than woodworking.

As in all of my projects, I like to think that I become a little better woodworker and learn a little bit more every time I complete one. But I cannot assign any one particular “Eureka” moment when it came to the physical act of working the wood used in making this desk. Probably the most challenging aspect of the construction was sawing and shaping the ogee ends. At that, the job I did was just okay. I certainly learned something, and I certainly gained some experience, but I don’t feel any closer to the woodworking gods in doing so.

After re-reading these few paragraphs you might thing that I sound bitter, or even ungrateful. Rest assured, I am neither. As I said, this project is hands down my favorite, and it is possible that I may never build anything again that I like quite as much. Why? It is simple, really. I went to a museum and caught a brief glimpse of a piece of furniture that was likely used by a person who has very much guided me throughout my life, and I knew enough about woodworking to be able to construct a near-enough reproduction of that piece of furniture using only a memory and a photo. If there is any “spirituality” to be found, this is it. When I saw the desk I knew immediately that I had to make it. I experienced a unique moment of true inspiration. I wasn’t looking for it; it wasn’t forced; it just happened. And in my estimation, that is the essence of spirituality.

There is more of me in that desk than in any other piece of furniture I’ve made. It isn’t in the joinery, which is dadoes, bolts, and a few screws. It isn’t in the desktop, which quite frankly has a bit more “character” than I had hoped, or the drawers, which are made of basic home center poplar held together with some basic half-blind dovetails. It is something that can’t be seen by others, and I’m glad of that fact.

I could write ten more pages trying to explain my reasonings, but I’m not going to do that. Just know that when I look at that desk, I feel connected to something larger than myself. And I believe that when I finally use it, I will be inspired to be my best.

I don’t know if there is a “woodworking god” or not. But if there is, just for a brief moment as this desk was nearing completion, I believe that I saw His face

Washington Desk Day 6

For all intents and purposes I completed the construction phase of the Washington Campaign Desk over the weekend. On paper there wasn’t much left to do. Basically I had to assemble the drawer compartment parts and attach it to the desk top. But we all know that “on paper” doesn’t mean much.

Assembling the drawer compartment wasn’t overly difficult. I pre-drilled and counter-sunk the screw holes, applied a little glue, and screwed it together. That part was relatively easy. I had one minor issue, and that was the right side drawer divider would, for some reason, not sit perpendicular to the desk top. I double and triple checked the dado fit and no matter what I did I could not get it perfectly straight. Don’t get me wrong, it is not off much, probably 1 mm or so (for all you metric people), so I decided to not let it bother me. To finish it off I used walnut plugs purchased from Rockler; they worked surprisingly well, and I’m very happy with the finished appearance.

In the meanwhile, I also pre-drilled and counter sunk the holes in the desk top to attach it to the leg assemblies (using elongated holes to allow for movement). But before I went any further I disassembled the base and spent a good 90 minutes with a hand plane and sandpaper cleaning the parts up for finish. As far as the sanding was concerned, I used the grit sequence 60/120/220/320. I did not use a random orbit sander, rather, I just used a sanding block because it seemed easier to control, though it was definitely more time consuming. Once the sanding was finished I reassembled the legs, and thankfully I marked all of the parts before I took them apart to assure that I would put them back together correctly. I used a little glue to attach the filler pieces to the leg cleats, but otherwise, the only glue used in the entire project was on the four dadoes on the drawer compartment, and the walnut plugs. (I promise once it is finished, with finish, I will photograph all of the relevant parts). With the leg assemblies ready to go, I attached them to the desktop and reattached the cross cleat, once again plugging the countersunk holes and cleaning them up.

The last part of the assembly for me was the scariest, and that was attaching the drawer unit to the desktop. Before I took everything apart I marked and predrilled holes into the desktop. To attach the drawer unit I decided to use pocket-hole screws. I like using pocket-hole screws in situations like this because of the pan head holds nicely on elongated holes. In any case, I used two combination squares (I highly recommend having two BTW) to align the drawer unit, enlisted my lovely wife to hold the drawer unit in place, and carefully screwed the drawer unit to the desk top. Speaking for myself, it’s always a bit nerve wracking lying on my back and screwing through a tabletop sight unseen. Thankfully, everything went well.

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The desk just before final assembly. Please note that the drawer unit was still temporarily assembled in this photo and it was still not attached to the desk top.

And speaking of pocket screws, I may attach a cleat underneath the desktop to connect the two leg assemblies, just for added strength, because as of right now they are only connected by one cross brace. After doing some research it appears that pocket screws were traditionally used for such a task, believe it or not, but as of right now I still haven’t made up my mind.

The last task of the day was milling up some poplar for making the drawers. The drawer fronts were completed last week, but I didn’t want to plane them to final size until the drawer unit was assembled. I decided to go with half-blind dovetails for the drawers, which is the logical choice. So I gang sawed all four drawer sides at once, tails first obviously. I am holding off on the drawer backs just to make sure there is no settling, or what have you, before I glue the drawers together, but that part should only take a matter of minutes.

As far as the finish is concerned, when I started the project I spent some time searching the forums to find a nice finish for Walnut and kept coming back to a product called Sam Maloof poly/oil. It seemed to get good reviews, so I ordered a can of both the poly/oil and the poly/wax. The instructions call for 3 to 4 coats of the oil and 1 to 2 coats of the wax, with an overnight dry in between each application. I likely won’t start applying the finish until this coming Friday night, when I will have time to take my time.

And on another note, I am not overly concerned with the finish when it comes down to it. I used to worry a great deal about having a perfectly smooth, plastic-like appearance. But considering that the boards used to make this desk likely came from barn walls, I am more than happy with how it looks. I was more concerned with doing the best job I could do, and I believe that I did that. The desk looks like I want it to look, and I believe that it is well constructed and it should last for quite a while. I think that George Washington would have liked it, and more importantly, my daughter loves it, and I have a feeling that she will be the one to use it most, and that is about all I could ask.

 

Washington Campaign Desk Day 4

My favorite part of any furniture project is the point when a solution has been found to a challenge. It’s a figurative crossing of the “hump” which then signifies hopefully smooth sailing moving forward. This past Saturday I crossed that hump.

The bad news first. The temperatures in the area dropped well below freezing, and though that is not unheard of in my neck of the woods, it is uncommon for this time of year. So after I returned home from work on Saturday the first thing I did was check on the desk top panel. The panel is just fine, but the breadboard end with the issue was not looking so good. The underside developed a split that was instantly noticeable. Maybe the cold exaggerated it, but at that point I didn’t care, so the instant decision was made to saw off both of those bread board ends, which I did using the table saw and a cross-cut sled. I understood it meant losing a few hours of work, but I know the decision was the correct one because I felt no real remorse then or now, and rather than dwelling on it, I moved on to putting together the leg assemblies.

The leg assemblies posed a bit of a challenge, at least to me they did. Firstly, I wanted them to appear as if they could fold up, so I could not ship lap them together, though that in some ways may have been easier. The dilemma was attaching them to the cross cleats, which sounds simple but was a bit complicated.

The issue was the offset of the legs. Because the legs were not ship-lapped, one side of the leg would obviously offset, in this case ¾ of an inch. So my solution was to make a filler board to make up the gap made by the offset. At that, I wanted the board to match the angles and width of the cleat board as closely as possible, so I spent a good deal of time clamping and measuring. Once I was as sure of myself as I was going to get, I made the cuts, planed it to final size and started drilling holes for the quarter inch hardware I purchased for the project. I won’t lie, those first couple of holes were nerve-wracking, because a mistake would cost me several more hours of work, but once I got moving things went relatively smoothly. It took more than two hours, but in the end I had a finished leg assembly.

Sunday morning I started on the second assembly, and using lessons learned from the previous night’s experience, I had it finished and ready to attach in under an hour, so rather than leaving those two assemblies on top of the workbench, I did just that attached them to the desktop using some angle brackets. I hadn’t planned to do an assembly to be honest, but curiosity got the best of me. The good news is that so far it looks pretty good. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the breadboard ends needed to be removed, but it doesn’t look bad in my opinion. But the better news is the fact that the legs all sit level with the ground. Generally, when making a table, there is usually a bit of wobble. As of right now the table sits nicely, and when I placed a level on the top I found it dead flat. At that, the table does rock a bit back and forth, but considering it is not permanently attached to the top yet, and considering the leg assemblies haven’t been joined together yet with any cross bracing, that was to be expected.

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Not too bad…I will post a photo of the undercarriage once it is permanently attached and “safe”

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A photo I came across of the campaign table and writing desk at Washington’s HQ in Valley Forge Park

 

 

 

Lastly, I removed the assembled table from my garage and placed it in the family room, where I think it will be much safer. Over the years, I’ve found out the hard way that leaving unassembled furniture projects in my garage is a recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s gremlins; I don’t know, but whatever it is my projects seem to take a beating if they sit in the garage for too long, so I was taking absolutely no chances. In any event, the cat seems to like it, because as soon as I brought it inside the house she promptly hopped onto it, sprawled out, and took a nap.

Next weekend I will mill down another board to use for the cross bracing as well as the desktop drawer unit. Thankfully, I already have the drawer unit finalized in my mind, so the construction should have no unwanted surprises. So with a little luck I could quite possibly have a desk ready for finish a week from now.

On another note, some of you (or none of you) may be wondering why I did not post last week. Well, I had the very good fortune to go to Washington DC and not only take a tour of the White House, but to visit Mount Vernon as well. The Mount Vernon trip was not planned, it just happened to fall into place, and because I had not been able to go there last time I was in DC, I made it a priority. I will only say of the trip that I was completely blown away. The furniture examples in Mount Vernon alone are beyond description, and I would have taken photos, but they are not allowed inside the house itself. And because I believe that rules are a good thing (they are hardly “for fools” as some in the woodworking world would claim) I did not attempt any, and instead purchased a very nice book with photos that are much better than those I would have taken anyway.

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Posing with my daughter and niece in front of a tree believed to have been planted during the time of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

My family, who was skeptical about the Mount Vernon visit in part because the day was cool, cloudy, and damp, was nonetheless blown away. My daughter in particular was completely awestruck. But the highlight, for all of us, was visiting the final resting place of George and Martha Washington and paying our respects. When I say that this trip was beyond inspirational and much more of a spiritual experience, I am understating to the highest degree. Upon leaving Mount Vernon, my admiration of George Washington, which was already immense, grew even greater. And more than ever I am committed to making this desk to the highest level I possibly can.

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The final resting place of George and Martha Washington.

 

 

 

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