Farewell to Carl Bilderback, Mr. Wonderful

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My good friend Carl Bilderback passed away tonight after a hard-fought battle with cancer.

If you are a member of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association (M-WTCA), then you almost certainly knew him. (And if you are not a member, then he most certainly would want me to twist your arm to do so.)

I first encountered Carl when I was a junior-level editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine in the 1990s. Carl subscribed to all the magazines, and he enjoyed calling up editors and pointing out their factual errors and typos. But he was also generous with his praise when you did something well.

After years of phone calls I finally got to meet Carl in person at a M-WTCA meeting and we became fast friends. For the next decade or so whenever we met at shows or woodworking events, he’d take me aside to show me something.

Usually it was a cache of gorgeous user-grade tools. And he’d ask: Do you know any young woodworkers here who could use these tools?

I usually did. And Carl would seek them out and give them the tools – no strings attached.

He did this all over the country. Sometimes he’d read about a young woodworker and simply send them some tools they could use. He knew that the future of the craft depended on us helping young woodworkers take their first steps into the craft.

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For me, he personally stood as an example of both intellectual rigor and endless generosity. He never pulled punches when he thought you were wrong. He wanted the written record of hand tools and techniques to be correct. But he never hesitated in helping you with information, tools or encouragement.

He also was a ridiculous showboater and prankster.

Carl, a union carpenter, had a voice like an angel and would amaze the members of M-WTCA when he would sing at their shows. He also sang at church, funerals, weddings and (occasionally) at a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event.

During one event in Cincinnati, Carl walked into my office wearing a blonde wig and began signing a pitch-perfect rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” a la Tiny Tim for show attendees.

And even to the end, he sang at karaoke bars with his girlfriend Sue (though they are both teetotalers). She sang country and western. He sang show tunes.

And it was this funny combination of being a carpenter, singer and prankster that leads to my favorite Carl Bilderback story of all time. It’s just slightly off-color, but in a sweet way.

Carl worked as a carpenter mostly in the Chicago area, and during his career he was in charge of a remodeling job at Oprah Winfrey’s place. Winfrey (or her interior designer) had requested that all the screws used for attaching the switchplates be gold plated.

So they sent out all the screws to be plated. When they came back, Carl was put in charge of them so they didn’t get “lost.” At the end of the job, there were a few left, and Carl got to keep them.

Carl traveled a lot as a carpenter. And when he landed in a new town he’d seek out a piano bar or karaoke bar so he might get to sing. When he walked into the place, he’d sit next to a woman who was alone.

After some small talk, he’d tell the woman: “I am going to give you the most incredible screw of your life.” And then Carl would give them one of Oprah Winfrey’s gold screws and tell them the story.

I sometimes wonder where those gold screws are. And I wonder where all the block planes, chisels, miter boxes and saws are that Carl gave people over the years. I hope they’re in good hands and bring joy every time they come out.

I know he’d like that.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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32 Responses to Farewell to Carl Bilderback, Mr. Wonderful

  1. Sad to hear this. RIP Carl. 😦

  2. stjones911 says:

    Thanks for posting this. Carl was a good man, kind and generous with his time and knowledge. The hand tool world has lost a great mentor and teacher.

  3. mrogen says:

    Chicago was one of my favorite places besides my home, in NY. I had an office there but wasn’t into woodworking back them, or I might have gotten to experience Mr. Bilderback in person. Unfortunately that never happened. My loss.
    Be well,

    Michael

  4. Doug Mckay says:

    Another one of my hero’s has passed. Meeting him at Hand Works 2015 was a highlight of the weekend. Godspeed Mr. Bilderback, well done sir.

  5. erikhinkston says:

    What a tribute to a great man, what a legacy he has left behind.

  6. Jeff Meyer says:

    I’m sorry for your loss and for all of us who never had the fortune of meeting him.

  7. Eric R says:

    Very sorry to hear that.
    That gentleman was quite a man.
    The whole woodworking community grieves.
    There are going to be some great additions to the decor in Heaven.

  8. karlfife says:

    So sad. After seeing Slav Jelesijevich’s video with Carl, I always hoped I’d have the opportunity to meet him one day. He will not be forgotten.

  9. is9582 says:

    Chris –

    I’m so sorry to hear about Carl. He was a hoot, and a great guy. Thanks for making sure the info was broadcast. Happy trails Carl!

    Cheers

    Lee Laird

  10. azezo1 says:

    The world is truly a lesser place now that Carl is gone. I consider myself very lucky to have known the man and am better for it. I knew he was ill and that I should make time to go see him but all of life’s “important” things got in the way and now I’ll never get to laugh with him again. One of the kindest souls I have ever met. Carl will be greatly missed.

  11. Alaska Woodworker says:

    Rest in Peace Carl.

  12. patrickaleach says:

    Seeing Carl at the recent MWTCA national meet near Pittsburgh was very difficult for me. I knew in my heart that it would be the last time I saw him. It was the toughest goodbye I ever made.

    My son loved Carl. Carl always gave him some tools to sell while I was selling at some event. The tools were really nothing much, but the joy a five year old boy gets when someone gives him $10 for something that shouldn’t see the light of joy is immeasurable.

    Later in his life, Carl had a thing for my mother-in-law. I never really could figure out why as my mother-in-law is the only person I know who has never inhaled as all she does is exhale talking nonstop.

    One day, I asked Carl why he warmed up to her. He told me why, which stunned me as I have known Carl longer than I’ve known my wife.

    Carl’s wife suffered from Huntington’s disease. She developed symptoms rather early but managed to live decades with it. Carl dutifully attended all her needs never once considering sending her to a long-term care facility. He stayed with her to the very end fulfilling his matrimonial oath of “in sickness and in health.” I reckon most of us could never manage that loyalty for such a long time, but Carl did with nary a mention of her or complaint.

    For all Carl did in the woodworking and tool world, no better testament to his character can be made of him. Such fidelity and integrity is next to impossible to find these days, but when fate permits us to meet a person like Carl their presence is forever etched on the mind and soul.

    Godspeed Carl. After my father, you are the finest person I ever had the pleasure to know.

  13. beshriver says:

    I wonder what people will say of each of us when we’re gone. I admire brutal honesty, and a fair amount of busting stones. I’m at a point in my life where many people that have touched my life in a special way are gone. I never met Carl, but I most certainly would have liked to. Maybe it’s time to go through my tools and take Carl’s example.

  14. mysticcarver says:

    Sounds like an amazing individual. Wish I had had the opportunity to meet him. I had seen that video with him in it before and loved it. RIP Sir!

  15. William Robertson says:

    Chris, that was a really nice write up about Carl. I first met him about 30 years ago. We will all miss him. He is the second old master of the tool world to pass away this week, the other was Don Wing.

    Bill

    >

  16. greenebelly says:

    I can only hope that I have someone write an epitaph like this for me one day. Very nice. Condolences to all who have lost.

  17. Sorry to read this. I met him a few times at tool auctions. He was a very nice guy.

  18. My favorite Carl story:

    20-odd years ago I was doing a Shaker box-making demo at some MWTCA meet, and Carl (who I knew fairly well by then) walks up to me as I am cutting box tops with a mini bowsaw.

    “What the heck is that thing?” (pointing at my bowsaw)

    “Bowsaw that takes coping saw blades– friend made it for me”

    “Coping saw, eh?” (bends in to take a close look) “Who taught you to put the blade in that way?”

    I look, and the blade is set for cutting on the pull stroke, which I *thought* was correct. So I said, “My Dad taught me to cut on the pull for a coping saw. Is that wrong?”

    Thinking I was about to get one of Carl’s famous harangues about hand tool technique, he simply said “Your dad is smarter than any apprentice I’ve had” and walked away laughing.

    A world without Carl in it is a much sadder place.

  19. Niels Cosman says:

    I’m very sorry to hear of Carl’s passing.
    From all of the kind stories, it seems he was a wonderful human being that got it right.
    He is a person I was really hoping to meet one day. Maybe on the next time around.

  20. raney says:

    Carl was truly an exemplary human being in every way.

    A life well lived, and time well spent. Rest well, friend.

  21. gblogswild says:

    I never got to meet him, but I will regret never getting that opportunity.

    Here’s to hoping that this will be the last time I have to say that.

  22. paulstraka says:

    Thank you for sharing the memories of such a fine man.

  23. Ryan Cheney says:

    I believe I met him briefly at this year’s Handworks. I was looking at a wire/sheet metal gauge and a set of feeler gauges, when realized it might be him and asked half jokingly, “Hey, are you that guy from that video…” (I had seen the one posted above). “I am that guy.” I didn’t have the money on me and when I told him I needed to go get it, he just wrote me his email address and told me to send it via Paypal “when you can”. Anybody who trusts a stranger like that deserves to have that trust justified, and I paid him only a few hours later. Not sure what my point is, but that interaction struck me as a rare one in this day and age. Seemed like all I had heard about him was true.

  24. jarvilaluban says:

    I got choked up every time Carl sang the national anthem at Handworks. I also cracked up both times. Also had the pleasure of taking Carl to dinner after a Lie-Nielsen event in Chicago. We asked if he’d be up for some Indian food. His response: “Navajo or Cherokee?” and “do they serve dog?” Once we arrived at the place we had some great laughs watching Carl try something other than small-town Indiana fare. We offered him something round and deep fried. We told him it was like an Indian hush puppy. He replied “I knew I wouldn’t get out of here without eating some dog.”

    Carl was a gem, and will be dearly missed.

  25. ballisticman says:

    Hi Chris:

    Thank you for your testament on Carl’s life. Penned by a true friend.

    JP

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  26. Ryan Starkey says:

    Condolences Chris. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the CVSW, He assisted me in how to properly use a rip saw, something I’ll never forget.

  27. jackplain says:

    Master Carpenters like Carl are a rare find. I had the honor of meeting Carl twice. Both times he was generous with his time and with the knowledge that he passed on to me. From what Chris wrote and other have written about Carl, he left this world a better place. Old School and Old Tools…That was Carl. Rest Easy

  28. I met Carl at an estate auction in LaPorte, Indiana when he approached me after I purchased an old Craftsman bench plane. He proceeded to educate me on the history of that particular plane and got me to join the MWTCA as a result. One story that stuck out was when he reminisced about a finish carpentry job where he was put in charge of hiring the carpenters and there was one simple question they had to answer. He had a scrub plane on his desk and he would ask them what it was. If they knew, they got hired. If not, they wouldn’t get hired, but he would make sure they knew what it was before they left.

  29. Slow on the uptake but I’m terribly sorry to hear that Carl has passed. I met Carl at WIA 2013 when I was a guest of Chris’s at the event. Not only did we cross paths but Ty Black and I spent at least an hour or two at the tail gate of Carl’s truck having him show us the tool box he used as a union carpenter and some amazing compound/mitre boxes he brought to show. Not only did I see some amazing tools, but I heard many great stories from Carl. A huge caldron of win from that man and he will be missed greatly.

  30. I met Carl at an MWTCA event where I had picked up a scrub plane with a cobbled, yet serviceable wooden wedge. As I took my loot to the truck, Carl had walked up to me and ask what I had bought. I showed him the scrub and he insisted that I write down my contact info so that he could send me the proper lever cap.

    That was my first interaction with this generous man… which completely restored my faith in humanity.

  31. Tom Marshall says:

    I am so fortunate to have met Mr. Bilderback when I first joined MWTCA in 2005 – he invited new members local to his area to his house which I accepted and spent the better part of the day with him learning some tricks and seeing shop & his great collection – in the brief time I spent with him he put and indelible lasting impression on me with his strength and courage in the face of what would be a crushing blow to many men – caring for his sick wife and still getting up every morning and doing what he did. My wife is sick with ms now and I think of Carl all the time and it gives me more than enough strength to make it through the day. R.I.P. Carl, you are one of my angels now as you were on earth.

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