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Editor’s note: This year is Chris Becksvoort’s 20th as a contributing editor. His mastery of the Shaker style and his wonderfully efficient techniques, honed over 30 years as a successful professional furniture maker, have made him one of our most popular authors. We recently asked him to look back on his history with the magazine.
Random Thoughts of Twenty Years
It’s been 20 years since Dick Burrows (FWW editor from 1989 to 1991) stopped by and asked me if I’d be interested in becoming a contributing editor. Those were simpler times. I’d only submitted three or four articles, and figured that Fine Woodworking must be some desperate, or that woodworkers who could string two words together were few and far between. (Photo above: This is Chris Becksvoort as he appeared in 1998 when he authored “Elements of the Shaker Style” for the magazine.)
In addition to Dick Burrows, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of talented editors over the 20-year span: Paul Bertorelli, Jim Boessel, John Kelsey, Charley Robinson, Vincent Laurence, Scott Gibson, Strother Purdy, Matt Teague, Jon Binzen, Erika Marks, Bill Duckworth, Tim Sams, Tom Begnal, Mike Pekovich and, most recently, Anissa Kapsales.
Of course, no one is born with woodworking skills. According to Malcolm Gladwell, if you want to become really proficient, you have to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. I was drafted by my father, a cabinetmaker, at age 12, and was fortunate enough to have four years of woodworking in high school. I also managed to squeeze in two semesters of wood technology in college, and in the various shops I worked in early on, I picked up marketing, problem solving, business practices, and thinking on my feet.
High school shop class was somewhat spotty. We learned hand-tool use, machinery safety, joinery, and finishing. Wood movement was never mentioned. Handplanes were sharpened at the beginning of the year and by the time I got around to using them, I thought they were the most useless tools on earth. I concentrated all my efforts on the belt sanders, and became pretty good at using them. It wasn’t until I bought my first Lie-Nielsen plane that I discovered the potential of this amazing tool.
As a writer, things didn’t always go smoothly either. Even though I’ve had over 40 articles published, I have probably twice that number of rejection notices. I get to proofread almost every article before it goes to press, yet once one slipped by with a made-up paragraph that made me look less than knowledgeable. And I too, have had my slip-ups: Very early in my career as contributing editor, I ran my finger into the bandsaw during a photo shoot. Even the pros can let their minds wander at the most inopportune times.
Once, I finished a shoot early with Vinny Laurence (FWW assistant/associate editor, 1992 to 1998), and he had another in Maine the following day, so we headed up the coast to my favorite antique-tool store. Just beyond Augusta we found ourselves following a truck, which sped up when it was safe to pass, then slowed down on hills. After a few miles of this, Vinny managed to pass him, on a hill, just as a trooper crested the top. The lights went on, the trooper did a 180, and I thought we were doomed. Now Vinny was a great editor, and ex-Marine and English major, who had a way with words. He actually talked his way out of an obvious ticket. He’s now in medical school and we are still in contact. As a matter of fact, I was the witness, best man, and sole celebrant at his wedding.
Over the years, my work has remained fairly understated. I’ve always admired the unadorned and timeless designs of the Shakers. That point was underscored years ago when I was at a seminar with Tage Frid. He told of a student exhibit at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), where one of his students boasted: “I bet you’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Tage pointed at the piece and replied, “That’s why!”
Being a contributing editor has been gratifying, but has it brought me fortune and fame? Well, one doesn’t get rich by selling furniture to woodworkers. Only once, when I wrote the pencil-post bed article, did I actually get any orders from subscribers. I think many readers promised their wives a new pencil-post bed, “I can make one of those, no problem.” Famous last words.
As for fame, I’ve been told that I must be Chris Becksvoort by folks I’ve never seen before, at airports, hardware stores, lumber yards, and even restaurants. I’ve had visitors from all over North America, Europe, and even as far away as Australia. They’ve managed to find me even on our dirt road in the backwoods of Maine. I’ve enjoyed meeting my fellow craftspeople, sharing our love of wood, tools and craftsmanship. I hope it continues for years to come.
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