The Canajoharie Library reading room windows have seen a lot over the last 95 years.
They’ve been privy to hushed conversations among friends and patrons whiling away afternoons with a book in hand.
Lately, they’ve been seeing the inner workings of Alden Witham’s workshop.
Tucked away in Sharon Springs, Witham’s workshop is in a former train station. The arched and rectangular window frames from the reading room hang from a track along the ceiling when one first walks into what seems like a modern workshop.
But a few steps (and a doorway) away, it transforms into a museum of sorts.
The place is packed with tools from the 1800s; there’s a large sander from 1868 and an elegantly decorated wooden nail making machine from around the same time.
“I don’t know of any other place in the country that restores windows authentically. That’s the key. The machinery makes it authentic,” Witham said.
He’s operated Contractors’ Millworks for nearly 34 years and started collecting vintage window-making machines in the 1970s.
“There’s 25 old machines here. We probably have enough to equip three more shops in storage,” Witham said.
All the machines are powered by a single motor and a belt system. Witham turns each machine on or off by placing the belts on different line shafts.
‘What’s everyone not want to do?’
Before opening the business, which he owns with his son Steve, Witham worked in the furniture industry. He started specializing in windows when he realized few craftsmen and professionals wanted to pursue it.
“That’s the first thing I thought of when I wanted to specialize in something. ‘What’s everyone not want to do?’ Then I’ll get that business. I started collecting the early machinery and that made it more fun, more interesting,” Witham said.
Over the years, he’s come to find joy and satisfaction in restoring windows. He’s restored windows on Martha’s Vineyard, in Schenectady Stockade homes, and is currently restoring some windows for the Arts Center of the Capital Region, as well as the Canajoharie Library.
“There [were] a lot of problems with the muttons. [They] had been overpainted and spot-treated over the decades. But it was time to really give it solid, professional restoration, attention. We’re very lucky that we’ve got this crew to do that,” said Sue Friedlander, the executive director and chief curator of the Arkell Museum and the Canajoharie Library.
Witham and his team (which includes his son and several part-time workers) took out the 10 windows over the course of two January days, and replaced them with secured plywood and storm windows.
As soon as the windows were back in the workshop, Witham steamed them to loosen the putty around the original glass and remove the panes.
“That’s part of the original fabric,” Witham said.
Most of the panes were intact, though some were chipped or broken. Luckily, Withham’s shop has 10-tons of antique glass that he’s saved from other projects he’s worked on.
“That is something no one has, I don’t think,” Witham said.
After the glass was removed, the window frames were blow-torched, which made the paint crack.
“They get torched, the paint removed and then they get sandblasted. All things you would never think of doing to a window. You would think it would [destroy it],” Witham said.
Following that, the broken muttons will get replaced, using Witham’s early machinery. Each gets primer paint and blonde-yellow finish paint. Then the frames get grained — a technique that brings out the wood texture — and the glass put back in and steamed again.
The whole process will take at least three months. Then Witham and his team have to wait for the perfect conditions to reinstall the windows; it can’t be too cold or too damp.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, a lot more than meets the eye,” Witham said.
For Friedlander, it’s well worth the wait, and it’s part of a long-term project that started in 2014 before she stepped into the executive director position.
“The first phase was to custom design and install those interior storm windows. These guys are so good at what they do. When they designed the storms they matched the framing of the exterior windows so you don’t see the storm windows when you’re on the inside and looking out; you’re not getting [an] awkward break in framing,” Friedlander said.
To restore the windows in the reading room, the Canajoharie Library was awarded a $66,450 New York State Public Library Construction Grant and a $31,010 grant from the Stockman Family Foundation Trust.
“The original windows were gaping so much because of putty loss and dried out wood that when they get those windows back in we’re going to experience a really terrific energy improvement and comfort level that we really haven’t been able to enjoy in the reading room,” Friedlander said.
While he’s working on the reading room windows, Witham and his crew are also working on restoring windows for homes and businesses in Troy and all over the Capital Region and beyond.
Though the company doesn’t have a website, business keeps rolling in due to word of mouth, and thanks to shows like PBS’ “The Woodwright’s Shop” with Roy Underhill.
In 2006, the film crew called and asked if they could shoot a short segment in Witham’s workshop. They ended up staying for much longer.
“They get here and the host, he didn’t even say hello. He saw the machinery and . . . his first words were ‘Can we do a whole half hour?’ ” Witham said.
The episode certainly helped to spread the word about Contractors’ Millworks, though at that point, Witham and his son had already gotten calls from the likes of the Fenimore Cooper Museum, for which they replaced the grand staircase using mostly hand tools. They also got calls from Eddie Van Halen’s interior designer, who asked them to build Van Halen and his then-wife, Valerie Bertinelli, a bed.
“At the foot we put a heart, thinking he’d put his and Valerie’s initials in it. But they’re separated now. I don’t know where the bed is,” Witham said.
While he’s gotten to work on some stunning projects, Witham said the best part of the job is the people he’s met along the way.
“They’re nice people. They care about history and work hard to preserve it. The Canajoharie Library is a prime example.”