David Charlesworth, one of the most influential woodworking writers and teachers of the last century, died on May 22, 2022, after a long illness.
Though he was a professional furniture maker by trade, Charlesworth was known worldwide for his three books and multiple long-form videos, which explored the details of furniture and sharpening technique in exquisite detail.
He is perhaps most known for his “Ruler Trick,” a simple sharpening hack that greatly shortens the time required to set up and polish a handplane’s blade for use.
No matter what technique Charlesworth studied, he brought a methodical and open-minded approach to the task, as opposed to an historical approach. As a result, Charlesworth’s research nearly always resulted in discovering new and better ways to perform old tasks.
Charlesworth studied furniture making with Edward Baly, the founding member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. In 1973, he began working as a professional craftsman, and later he turned his attention to writing and teaching. Charlesworth was a frequent contributor to Furniture & Cabinet Making magazine in the UK, and many of his best articles were compiled into his first book, “David Charlesworth’s Furniture-Making Techniques” (1999, Guild of Master Craftsman).
During his long career, which focused on the fine details of sharpening and hand-tool use, Charlesworth developed the “ruler trick,” which was first widely broadcast in his 2004 DVD with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, “Hand Tool Techniques Part 1: Plane Sharpening.”
Today the ruler trick is used by millions of woodworkers, and is still debated by some (personal note: It works fantastically). For many woodworkers, this small trick was an entree into Charlesworth’s other work, including his instructions for shooting planes, secret mitered dovetails, drawer making and knuckle joints.
Charlesworth’s influence on the craft of woodworking cannot be overstated. So many woodworkers and woodworking instructors have been influenced by his books, videos and methods. In fact, his influence is so widespread that many don’t even realize they are using modern techniques he developed for jointing board’s edges and faces, for example.
Charlesworth mostly taught in the UK and Europe, but occasionally traveled to the U.S. to teach classes and make videos with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.
That all ended in 2016, when Charlesworth was hospitalized for respiratory problems while teaching a class in Germany. He then stuck close to his workshop in Devon with his wife, Pat. Though he would occasionally venture out to some of the UK woodworking shows.
I first met Charlesworth through Thomas Lie-Nielsen, who helped arrange for Charlesworth to teach a dovetail class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in 2006.
It was Charlesworth’s first trip to the U.S., and when he got off the plane late at night, we took him to the only place that was open, a Texas Roadhouse. We told Charlesworth that all the waitresses were going to be charmed by his accent. He thought we were pulling his leg. (If I recall correctly one of the waitresses tried to sit on his lap at one point.) Charlesworth was most bemused by all the peanut shells on the floor.
That weekend Charlesworth spent the entire weekend cutting a single set of dovetails to the absolute rapt glee of his students. In his methodical manner, Charlesworth went over every single detail of the joint and showed how to make it without leaving anything to chance.
During a subsequent visit to the Indiana school, he and Lie-Nielsen volunteered to help me and John Hoffman move a huge Nicholson-style workbench into Hoffman’s basement. We’d all had a few drinks that night, and the workbench almost killed Charlesworth, Lie-Nielsen and myself before crashing into Hoffman’s basement wall, destroying it.
While I have many funny stories about Charlesworth, my favorite is about his fingernails. Charlesworth worked with waterstones, and his fingernails were often long and packed with slurry and other workshop grunge.
Many people noticed his fingernails. Charlesworth had written a few articles for my magazine, Popular Woodworking, and I had to stop the art director from cleaning up his fingernails in Photoshop.
During one of his visits to Indiana, Susie Adams (Marc’s wife) decided to take Charlesworth out for a manicure to do something about his fingernails. Instead of being insulted, Charlesworth was both gracious and delighted.
The last time I saw him in person was at the Cressing Temple woodworking show in the UK. We chatted for hours and discussed how to get all three of his three woodworking books back into print (we failed).
As we parted, Charlesworth again invited me to visit his workshop in Devon. It was something I’d always hoped to do, and it will stand as one of my bigger regrets.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. If your life has been similarly touched by Charlesworth’s please leave a comment below. I know that his family and friends would love to hear it.