An Old Woodworking Crank


On Tuesday, for the first time ever, I felt my hand skills fade a bit.

I was chopping half-blind dovetail sockets and I could not get the tail board to lock smoothly and at 90°. I looked down and noticed my hands were trembling. Weird.

It could be that I’m still recovering from a nasty infection that cut me down at Handworks last month. Or that I have an iron or protein deficiency as a result. But at that moment, I thought that dovetailing had evaporated from my hands.

I sat down and thought of R.J. DeCristoforo.

One of the odd aspects of entering the woodworking magazine business in my 20s was that I became the editor for a lot of mature craftsmen. I watched them make the transition from a vibrant maker to someone who struggled at the bench and then turned his efforts to teaching or writing.

Some of them continued to explore the craft in ways that their abilities allowed. Woodworkers who were traditionalists allowed themselves to use more machines and power hand tools. Others explored aspects of furniture design or history. But they were always curious. Always looking to learn something more that could be passed on.

The majority, however, seemed to close up like a paper fan. They guarded the ideas, designs, tools and techniques they developed during their long and fruitful careers. They lashed out with letters at other woodworkers who stole, borrowed or adapted their ideas without due credit. They began writing the same column over and over, like it was a copy-and-paste job.

After observing this cycle a few times, I resolved to be R.J. DeCristoforo – or Cris as he preferred to be called. He was a poet (literally) who fell into writing and editing for a staggering number of magazines and books (almost 90 titles). His pioneering work in the radial-arm saw and Shopsmith practically launched those two machines into American garages and basements.

We might snigger today at those machines. But my second machine was a radial-arm saw, and at the time I thought it was way better than my coping saw. Yes, even for ripping.

Near the end of Cris’ life he wrote a column for Popular Woodworking called “Cris Cuts,” which was basically anything he wanted to write about. Even up to his last column he was dreaming up new and different ways to explain the craft to people like myself who weren’t qualified to buff shoes on his radial-arm saw (my grandfather had that attachment!).

And he still kept building right up to the end in 2000.

His wife, Mary, called to tell me the news and I cried at my desk. It’s not cool these days to list Cris as your woodworking hero. But he was mine. And he was my first. Not just for the way he wrote, but for the way he lived out his handmade life and avoided becoming the bitter woodworking crank that I fear I’ll become.

I can still hear him saying on the phone: “It’s Cris! from sunny California!”

This afternoon I took a friend’s advice and ordered a big bloody double cheeseburger for lunch – I don’t eat all that much meat, to be honest. Within about 30 minutes, I wanted a second crack at those dovetails.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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17 Responses to An Old Woodworking Crank

  1. waltamb says:

    I hope you get well soon.
    What you are experiencing is but a glimmer of what many of us deal with on a daily basis.
    Poor sight, shaking hands, bad backs, knees, hips and so much more.
    When our passion for our craft exceeds our challenges, then we are victorious.
    To everyone reading this with one challenge or another… Don’t let anything steel your dreams, just adapt and modify as you have fun woodworking.

  2. Gail Middleton says:

    I have many challenges that make life interesting; I try very hard to look at them as things to work with rather than obstacles. I also love to share what I know when the opportunity arises.
    Chris, it seems you were just hungry…

  3. Gail Middleton says:

    P.S. – your sharing is what gave me the courage to start woodworking.

  4. therealdanh says:

    Thanks. I am not familiar with R.J. DeCristoforo. I will look him up. You always seem to find a way to get new information into your blog(s).
    Speaking of shakey and over-the-hill, I was so tired that I literally fell out of my car when I got home after that two day tool chest build class you taught in April at the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers. Fortunately, the tool chest landed on top of me, so it did not get a scratch on it.

  5. Earl Lambert says:

    Get you vitamin B-12 checked. A deficiency will cause trembles.

  6. tombuhl says:

    I appreciate uncommon heros. Well put, Chris, thanks.

  7. abtuser says:

    That was a nice tribute.

    (I live in a city, but in an area that with a short evening drive, can hear that double cheeseburger mooing off in the distance somewhere. Comforting somehow.)

  8. Derek Long says:

    Ahh, the pleasures of getting older. Sounds like low blood sugar, Chris. My wife has always had it bad. I used to think she was marginally crazy. Then I hit 35 and started experiencing it myself and was saying to myself, “what the hell is this crap?!!” Then I felt bad for all those years my wife would glare at me when she was hungry and I’d wonder why it couldn’t wait a minute or two. Oops.

  9. kpinvt says:

    I’m 61 and a tremor in my hands first showed up a few years ago. My GP called it an intentional tremor and there wasn’t much I could do about it, to get used to it like I’m used to the idea that I can’t make a solid fist with my left hand anymore because of arthritis. Thank goodness I’m right handed.

  10. rockyferraro says:

    My first table saw was a radial arm saw and I still have a couple of his books.
    Great memories from that saw.
    Using it sometimes was like a high wire act, you know the one where the guy is suspended, pole in hand between 2 tall buildings, especially ripping thin stock.


  11. Tim Shumaker says:

    While serving in Paraguay in the early ’70s, I built a whole suite of living room furniture from his chair plans in Popular Mechanics. Simple lines but very comfortable.

  12. Chris,
    As an English Prof’ (only once) wrote on a paper of mine in the late 60’s; “A valuable thing to have written.” Your piece is valuable on several levels.
    Thanks for sharing and best wishes for a complete recovery.

  13. Corey Megal says:

    I hope you feel better, Chris! Nice tribute.

  14. calebjamesplanemaker says:

    I cringe every time I feel the urge to hoard an idea. >

  15. emcknight58 says:

    You are obviously suffering from Kuru.

  16. Chris,
    You are going to be flat-out amazed at the things that will be happening to you physically, and how you percieve and react to it mentally. I look forward to the blow by blow descriptions.

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