Christian Becksvoort was born in Wolfsburg, Germany. His father, who had spent seven years as a German apprentice, worked as a cabinetmaker. When Chris was 6, his parents decided to move to Toronto. But shortly before relocating to Canada, the Toronto church sponsorship fell through and Washington, D.C. became a last-minute alternative. In time, the family settled in Wheaton, Maryland – better school, better neighborhood.
As a child, Chris remembers building small wooden boats, model ships and historic schooners – “little things like that,” he says. “I always enjoyed making things and being outdoors.”
Chris’s high school had a nice shop, and he took four years of shop class. There he learned how to use power tools, tool safety, joinery methods and finishing techniques. Wood technology, however, was glossed over. He built a mahogany plant table “that was put together pretty well,” he says, but it cracked. When he asked his shop teacher why, his teacher simply said, “You didn’t let the wood move.”
Chris says at the time, he didn’t have the faintest idea of how wood movement worked or how to allow for it. (He later took one semester of wood technology in college.) His furniture now sells to clients all over the country, in many different climates.
“Sending it back to me is not an option,” he says, citing, in particular, substantial delivery costs. “Once I get paid I never see it again.”
And that’s how he likes it – his furniture is built to last generations, and this lesson he learned in high school has influenced the design of every piece he has made since. On his website, under “The Becksvoort Difference,” he writes, “I take wood movement seriously, over-building and compensating to ensure that your investment lasts.” He includes two examples: dovetailing all his mouldings and constructing telescoping web frames between his drawers.
Chris’s dad continued working as a cabinetmaker in the states, building furniture and doing architectural work, built-ins and kitchens. When Chris, who was still learning, turned 12, his dad, a perfectionist, hired him.
“Things didn’t go as well as they should have,” Chris says, counting the number of times he was fired and re-hired in one summer. “He was not the easiest guy to work for. So the last thing I wanted to do was be a woodworker for a living.”
Chris ended up at the University of Maine – far enough away that he couldn’t go home for a weekend but close enough that he could go home for a week’s vacation, he says. Plus, he enjoyed cold weather. He played intramural hockey (and, later in life, did speed skating for several years). He started out studying forestry, but switched to wildlife. The switch in majors required some summer coursework to catch up on credits. While taking a photography course he met a woman who would soon become his wife, Peggy.
After graduating in 1972, Chris got a government job at a wildlife research center in Maryland. Part of his job was feeding 600 Japanese quail. While he enjoyed the fact that everyone knocked off early on Fridays to go out for a beer, the work wasn’t what he expected, and wasn’t much fun (let’s just say another employee’s misplaced decimal point once meant the untimely demise of hundreds of birds). Woodworking, he said, was beginning to look not too bad after all.
So Chris returned to Maine and worked for a furniture manufacturer for nine years. He learned a lot, both about woodworking and running a business. Next was a gig with a large architectural millwork shop in downtown Portland. There he helped restore Victorian homes by working on stairways, windows and doors, and reproducing historic mouldings. “It was a real learning experience,” he says, as he describes using routers and shapers in heart-stopping ways.
In 1986, he opened his own shop. “I’ve been at it ever since, and it’s been a real challenging ride, to say the least,” he says.
‘That Shaker Guy’
“Mary mother of God. That’s Christian Becksvoort! He’s the modern master of Shaker style. I never dreamed that I would see him in the flesh.” — Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” season 5, episode 9.
Before Chris’s name became synonymous with Shaker furniture, he first became smitten with the form after seeing pieces in a 1974 exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick gallery. “I went back to visit it five, six, seven times,” he says. Little did he know that someday he would have the chance to reproduce two of the gallery’s pieces in his own shop.
Chris says his father built a lot of Danish-style, mid-century modern furniture. So Chris grew up admiring clean surfaces and with an understanding that less is often more. “I don’t want to interrupt a surface with fancy mouldings,” he says. He doesn’t like design that exists without a utilitarian purpose (ahem, gingerbread), anything that screams “hey, look what I can do” or anything that makes dusting difficult. “There’s no dirt in heaven,” he quips.
In his 1998 book “The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style,” (The Taunton Press) Chris writes, “As a furniture maker, I not only value the Shakers’ considerable craftsmanship but also respect their insistence upon utility as the first tenet of good design. With the Shakers, there is no ego involved, no conscious effort to produce works of art. Austere utility is beautiful in and of itself, and often works of art are inadvertently produced.”
He not only appreciates the simplicity of Shaker furniture, but the construction methods used as well. “It’s clean,” he says. “But some of the construction is fairly complex. It’s well-designed.”
Chris says his biggest entry into Shaker furniture was being allowed to do maintenance and restoration work for Sabbathday Lake, the last remaining active Shaker community, in New Gloucester, Maine.
“If you want any repair work done I’ll do it for the cost of materials,” he said. They agreed, and it’s work he’s still doing today.
“From making display cases to replacing chair parts, restoring a sewing desk, replacing moulding, or assembling an entire built-in, my work with the Shakers has been rewarding, educational and, hopefully, mutually beneficial,” Chris wrote in “Shaker Inspiration,” his latest book from Lost Art Press. “Seeing the size, angle and spacing of dovetails cut 200 years ago, or taking apart a mortise-and-tenon joint and discovering that the edges were carefully chamfered, was a learning experience unlike any taught in school.”
Chris also rose in name recognition through his work with Fine Woodworking. Chris had heard about a guy who had a cool portable band saw so he drove to him, interviewed him and took pictures. He sent it all to Fine Woodworking and not only did they buy the article, but soon after they offered him a job. Not wanting to move to Connecticut, Chris agreed to a contributing editor position, which he has held since 1989. (You can read much of his magazine work here.)
He has written several books, including “The Shaker Legacy” (Taunton Press, 1998); “With the Grain: A Craftsman’s Guide to Understanding Wood” (Lost Art Press, 2013), which was originally published as “In Harmony With Wood” (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983) and “Shaker Inspiration” (Lost Art Press, 2018).
And for years he ran workshops and conducted lectures around the country.
As such, Chris says he’s been dubbed “that Shaker guy.” I ask if this has ever made him feel pigeonholed. Sometimes, he admits. But he’s also taken some creative liberties with design. For example, a traditional Shaker music stand is fairly straight forward and stiff – his are more fluid, “Shaker-inspired.”
“There are plusses and minuses,” he says. “But mostly it’s a good label.”
His work has resulted in a bit of fame. Fans regularly take the time to find and visit his showroom and shop, tucked away on a dirt road in the backwoods of Maine. Most visitors are kind and considerate, he says. He’s been featured on Martha Stewart’s show (you can watch the 2001 clip here). And actor, woodworker and writer Nick Offerman considers him a personal hero (Chris is featured in Nick’s book “Good Clean Fun” (Dutton, 2016) and Chris appeared in an episode of “Parks and Recreation,” in which Nick plays character Ron Swanson).
“A major treat, and a great honor, was to be featured in Nick Offerman’s new book, ‘Good Clean Fun,’” Chris wrote on his blog in October 2016. “A whole chapter, no less!”
Crafting a Business
In “Shaker Inspiration,” Chris spends a lot of ink on the business of woodworking. He begins with the necessity of preparation and a solid business plan that includes a summary, organization, description, product line, market analysis and funding. He then dives into the importance of quality photos, advertising, catalogs, customer lists, customer records and time cards.
Pre-website days Chris could buy a 1”, black-and-white ad in The New Yorker for $800. Search the October 19, 1992, issue online and you’ll see one, on page 106, situated aside a review of Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Reservoir Dogs”:
Why invest in furniture from a
one-man shop on a dirt road in
New Gloucester, Maine?
C. H. BECKSVOORT
Box 12, New Gloucester
Maine 04260. (207) 926-4608
These ads often led to a couple sales.
Additional business matters he addresses in his book include mailing lists, public relations, craft shows, galleries, selling direct, customer care and giving back.
“There were a lot of dead ends,” he says, when talking about the business side of things. He started collecting catalogs from other woodworkers, not to copy them but to be different. He learned that placing his work in galleries cut too much into his profits and unless a show was indoors and juried, he skipped them.
“After more than five decades, I can do the woodworking almost in the dark,” he writes in “Shaker Inspiration.” “It’s the business end that’s a constant challenge, and it keeps me on my toes.”
Chris eventually built a 14 x 20 showroom on his property. “It takes effort to find me,” he says. But a customer/fan who is willing to find him is one often willing to purchase a piece. And having a designated space where customers can see much of his work in person, touch surfaces, pull out drawers and run their fingertips over carvings has been a great benefit, he says.
He works alone and builds 20 to 30 custom pieces each year. They are all signed and dated, and each piece has an embedded silver dollar in it, secreted away to the delight of many customers. He estimates he’s built more than 850 pieces.
“I keep trying to retire but it’s not happening yet,” he says. “I keep saying to myself, ‘Where were these people 25 years ago?’” Right now he’s booked almost to Christmas. There are five to six pieces he would like to design and build for himself, “but the bills have to be paid first,” he says. Finding time for personal prototypes is difficult.
The Gift of Simplicity
Chris and Peggy have two children, a son and daughter, both now grown but within easy driving distance. They also have one grandson who likes to push his bulldozer through little piles of sawdust in Chris’s shop.
Still not a fan of hot weather, Chris says he enjoys Maine and the changing of the seasons, although he hates shoveling in the winter and isn’t a big fan of mowing in the summer. When they first moved to New Gloucester, they rented while looking for a house to buy. Eventually, in 1977, they saw an ad in the paper – a fully furnished house for sale on 25 acres for $20,000. In reality, there were only a couple pieces of furniture and the house required a significant amount of work. Chris and Peggy spent a year working on it, tearing out, redoing plumbing and wiring, adding insulation, sheet rocking and painting. They moved in in 1978.
With time Chris added a shop (Fine Woodworking featured it in their Tools & Shops 2019 Issue – you can take a tour of it here), garden shed and showroom. In the main house, there are built-ins in every room. They did a significant amount of landscaping, including planting hundreds of daffodils. They rebuilt stone walls and created trails through the woods. The land allows for gardening and Chris’s first love, forestry.
When studying forestry all those years ago Chris remembers being handed a sheet of paper with spaces numbered 1 through 100. Outside the university’s lab were trees labeled with numbers – students had to identify them all. He did well, and to this day he can identify most any tree in any season.
Climate change has changed Maine’s winters, he says. The first winter he and Peggy moved into the house the only heat source they had was a wood stove and the temperature dropped to 44 below zero. The water in the washing machine froze. “We haven’t seen temps like that in the past 30 to 40 years,” he says. They also now have ticks and opossums and cardinals.
Every year he buys a little calendar that he uses to track the daily temperature, first frosts, the birth of a child, the addition of a dog (he’s had three huskies over the years). “It’s not really a diary,” he says, “but every day I write two or three lines of what happened, what we did.”
The house and land, he says, is getting a little more difficult to maintain. With thoughts of retirement on the horizon Chris and Peggy are considering moving to something smaller.
These days Chris sometimes slows down on Friday afternoons, as he and his colleagues did at his first job at the wildlife research center. He still works Monday through Friday, and he’ll occasionally finish up some work on a Saturday, after supper. But he no longer puts in what used to be a solid 60 hours a week. He splits his time between working in the shop and the business side of things – sending out proposals, tracking down hardware, bookkeeping, taxes etc.
Chris enjoys working in the garden, walking, going out to eat with friends, drinking Scotch and listening to music. He has a Bose player in his shop and 4,000 songs on his iPhone. His taste in music is varied – ’60s and ’70s rock, folk music, jazz, classical, dulcimer music (but no opera or hip hop). Peggy is a librarian and they both enjoy reading.
“Bookshelves are all over the house – we have way too many books,” he says. They’re filled with books about woodworking, Shakers and forestry. He typically doesn’t indulge in buying novels – those he gets from the library. He uses his books for research and owns almost every book on Shakers that has ever come out.
Some folks may be surprised to learn that Chris has nine tattoos (you can see a few of them here). They include a butterfly joint, a maple leaf (because he likes working with maple and almost became a Canadian, he says), a white pine silhouette, a dovetail saw, a cross section of black walnut, a No. 5 plane, a black cherry tree, a chisel and, his newest, a Shaker peg (“a wink at my wife,” he says). “That’s it for now, unless the spirit moves me.”
The Herbie Project
In the June 20, 2010, issue of Portland Press Herald,” Bob Keyes wrote an article titled “Herbie’s come down, sadly. Happily, there’s a big upside.” Herbie was considered the biggest American elm in New England, and started growing in Yarmouth in 1793.
“In 2010, the tree was beyond saving, and had to be cut down,” Chris wrote in a September 2016 blog post. “Some of the branches were over 4’ thick, and the trunk was over 10’ long and roughly 7’ at the butt end. I joined the Herbie committee and suggested that we distribute the wood to craftspeople throughout Maine. During the next nine months the branches were cut up, and the trunk was sawn and the boards were kiln dried, and the wood was distributed to woodworkers throughout the state. They made chairs, benches, birds, baseball bats, cabinets, desks, tables, music stands, hundreds of bowls, pens, a coffin, sculptures, cutting boards, and even an electric guitar.”
In November 2010, the items were auctioned off and the Yarmouth Tree Trust netted about $40,000.
According to the Portland Press Herald article, Chris made a music stand, which was debuted at the Maine Festival of American Music: Its Roots and Traditions at the Shaker Meeting House in New Gloucester, hosted by the Portland String Quartet. The article also noted that the tree’s birth year, 1793, coincided with the establishment of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community and its plans for the building of the 1794 Meeting House – which was where the festival’s concert took place.
Looking at Chris’s life as a whole, circles like this become apparent. His love of forestry and trees and woodworking connect in a simple and satisfying way as in the story about Herbie. His love of reading and learning have translated in dozens of articles, books and workshops. He has followed his father’s legacy, but on his own terms. And his philosophy on life, rules, if you will, for good living, are seemingly so simple on the outside, but require a sometimes surprising bit of complexity on the inside (much like Shaker furniture):
“Only let positive people influence you. Try to stick to your values. Leave a little footprint. Be as creative as possible. Honesty and kindness go a long way.”