Oct. 27, 1968: A few stars are showing. A light breeze coming up and 26°.
A day for small chores. I mixed up a batch of wood glue very thin and painted the runners on my sled. Tomorrow it will be ready to kick out the door. If I only had a pet caribou to pull it. Snow picking up – big flakes and lots of them.
“Dick’s lightweight sled is held together with 48 mortise-and-tenon joints, a few nails and his thin copper-coated electric fence wire. He put the sled to heavy use each winter, to haul firewood and occasionally meat from wildlife he found.”
This is an excerpt from “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” by Monroe Robinson, which we are happily and fully immersed in right now. The italic portion is from Dick’s journals. The quoted portion is commentary from Monroe. — Kara Gebhart Uhl
[Editor’s note: We recently reached out for an interview with Maurice Pommier, author and illustrator of “Grandpa’s Workshop” (translated by Brian Anderson – you can read about Brian’s visit to see Maurice and his workshop in 2012 here). Maurice lives in Évreux, France, and speaks little English. But he responded, in the most generous way – an illustrated letter. Here are his words, as he wrote them without edits from us, along with a handful of illustrations, sketches and pictures to help paint a small picture of who Maurice is and some of the brilliant work he has done.]
I am not very able to speak of me. I am born in 1946.
My mother was dressmaker. She worked hard, early morning and late evening.
My father, alive but broken by the nazis.
We lived in a little village, Peyrat de Bellac. I go to school and after I was boarder at collège in the nearby town.
I thank life for having put in my company a lot of great people – I can not name them all. I choose three, the others do not be dissatisﬁed.
Tonton Dédé, the best, with working with tools and with his hands.
Pépé Léonard, the best storyteller. When he stop speaking, he was whistling.
I think I’ve been drawing since I know how is made a pencil.
In 1968, I married Francine, she supports me since that date. We live in Évreux. We had three children and now four grandchildren; I worked at the Post Office for a long time. But I did not stop drawing.
My friend Xavier Josset has been presenting my ﬁrst book to a publisher, me, I would have never been there.
After things changed, I left the Post Office, but I continued to draw and scribble. And write stories. In the following pages I enclose a small catalog of my bad habits. J’espère ne pas être ennuyeux.
My current job, under Patrick’s direction. I met Patrick Macaire a few years ago and since, in my drawing workshop, there is a struggle for space between little pieces of wood and drawings.
Tracés théoriques qui ne seront pas repris intégralement à l’épure (Theoretical plots that will not be fully included in the sketch)
Jambe de force La jambe de force peut s’établir en prolongeant sa face inférieure jusqu’au lattis et en reportant son niveau sur la ferme de croupe et de l’arêtier; puis, en plan, en générant une sablière d’emprunt (au niveau de la ligne de trave) et en la faisant tourner à l’axe. Vériﬁcation en générant un faîtage d’emprunt au niveau de la dalle et en faisant tourner: les trois points doivent s’aligner.
We are finishing the Deuxième carnet – it’s been 7 years since we are working on these two notebooks.
much into sports and instead spent his spare time painting, drawing and playing
music. He was content with Bs, spending less time on achieving perfect test
scores and more time on creating things of beauty. In high school he attended a
charter school with a focus on art. Half of his day was spent taking art classes
along with dance, music and theater.
really was pretty formative for me,” he says. “It legitimized my interests.”
Although his parents were supportive, Joshua said many of his peers were more interested in sports – that is, until he was surrounded by likeminded peers at the charter school. That experience set up his life trajectory in a way, which has been, essentially, exploring different forms of art.
grew up in a typical Midwestern suburb and had a conventional upbringing.
say that disparagingly,” he says. “It was a blessing to us.”
father worked for Pierce Manufacturing, building fire trucks. He started out in
the engineering department and later moved to sales. His mother stayed home to
care for Joshua and his two younger brothers. She did some babysitting as well.
father was skilled at drawing, handy around the house and built the family some
furniture in his basement shop, but has never considered himself a
furnituremaker. Joshua remembers his father drawing for his engineering job in
the early years, and says that influenced his own interest in visual arts.
are kids, and following footsteps or building skills for work as an adult seems
unnecessary when adulthood feels like a lifetime away. “I was basically just a
snot-nosed kid who didn’t really have any interest in what my dad was building
in the basement,” Joshua says.
high school Joshua played guitar in several bands.
terrible, of course, but that was pretty fun,” Joshua says. “I was pretty
faithful to that. We had multiple practices a week and we’d play shows and we
had merchandise and we’d do recordings, all that stuff. That was pretty fun to
do. I was pretty dedicated to the electric guitar all throughout high school.”
“We actually played really loud, distorted, hardcore screaming music. So lots
of very aggressive-sounding music – there was thrashing – it was
pretty wild, pretty loud stuff.”
still in high school, Joshua did a 180. “Basically I was very, very hardened
and very bitter toward Christianity,” he says. “It just seemed like a bunch of
hypocrisy to me, and I didn’t have any time for it. I was actually quite vocal
and aggressive in high school toward Christians.”
had a few Christian friends and he realized they didn’t fit the mold of who he
thought Christians were. In fact, he was impressed by them. And through
conversations with them, talking about the relevance of the Bible in this
century, he reconsidered.
dramatically changed my life,” he says. He stepped away from his “dark, dark,
dark music stuff,” he says. “It basically reoriented my whole framework of
So much so
that after high school, Joshua attended Calvary Chapel Bible College.
to have a firm spiritual foundation for my decision making, and if I got
married someday I wanted to have that firm foundation,” he says. “So I felt
like that was the first thing I needed to do, get established spiritually, and
then pursue career things.”
The best way Joshua can describe Calvary Chapel Bible College is as a Christian ashram. “It wasn’t a seminary, per se – I wasn’t getting rigorous academic theology study although there was definitely a lot of study of the Bible but it was sort of a personal growth kind of time.”
studied there for a year. It was a two-year program, and he was taking it (and
paying for it) one semester at a time. There, he also met his wife. They fell
madly in love, he says, and made plans. But after two semesters of college, Joshua
was out of money.
to make money to go forward with anything in my life,” he says. So he worked
for a year in the metal fabrication department of Pierce Manufacturing, where
his dad worked, to save up. Then, he and Julia got married.
that year I was pursuing a lot of different options,” he says. “I wanted to
work with my hands and at the time I really loved music, and was very dedicated
to it. So, I thought, you know what would be really cool is if I could learn
how to make guitars or repair guitars. That would be the coolest job ever.”
honeymoon Joshua and Julia went from Maine, where they got married, and drove
up through Canada to Minnesota. They found a place to live and Joshua enrolled
in a guitar program at a technical institute in Red Wing, Minnesota, where he
learned how to make and repair guitars.
“I basically think of that as my introduction to woodworking,” he says. “I learned how to do woodworking building guitars, highly precise, highly micro-scale kind of woodworking. And which is probably a good thing, because I was focused on a thousandth of an inch of adjustment. So that was good, but it didn’t quite suit me, it wasn’t quite the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
the tech school Joshua took a tour of the National Institute of Wood Finishing,
located on the campus of Dakota County Technical College in Rosemont, Minnesota.
Much of the focus was on furniture restoration and, as someone who thought
something from the 1950s was ancient, the work this school was doing on
antiques – on pieces built before the advent of power tools – blew
Joshua’s mind. He was hooked.
one year in the guitar program, Joshua switched and studied furniture
restoration for a year at the National Institute of Wood Finishing.
time Joshua and Julia had decided that they wanted to settle in Maine, which is
where Julia grew up. While dating, Joshua had met Julia’s family in Maine, who
lived on the Blue Hill peninsula, right below Bar Harbor on the coast.
vacation land,” Joshua says. “Totally gorgeous. … This place has such an art
culture. It’s very rural and tucked away but so many really interesting people
either summer out here or they retire out here.”
is also considered a hot spot for the back-to-the-land movement.
Helen Nearing, and Eliot Coleman and a lot of other people, real foundational
people, this is their neighborhood,” Joshua says.
strong local farming and homesteading culture appealed to Joshua. There are also
a lot of antiques in Maine, and so Joshua’s change in study made a lot of sense
for a lot of reasons, he says. He had a viable career option in sight.
moving to Maine, Joshua landed what he thought might be his dream job in
Nashville, Tennessee – he was hired in the finishing department of a small
custom guitar shop. It was a short stint.
we tried it,” he says. “It wasn’t a great fit. It was interesting, but it
wasn’t for me.”
time Julia was pregnant with their first son. “Let’s just go home,” Joshua
says. So in 2009 Joshua secured a job in a cabinetmaking shop and three days
prior to their move, as he was loaded up their U-Haul, he got a call. The shop
had a huge job that fell through and they lost six months of work. They
couldn’t hire him.
arrival in Maine, Joshua was hired by his father-in-law, a carpenter, just so
he could pay some bills. Although stressful at times, the experience of trying
to put pieces together and simply figure it out ended up being great, he says.
“When you’re self-employed you have freedom,” he says.
addition to working alongside his father-in-law, Joshua says he also was able
to start building some furniture and restoring antiques. And then, after working
for his father-in-law for a year and a half, Joshua hung out his shingle and opened
up his own shop.
I was booked up,” he says.
his father-in-law he was going to take some time off, just to further establish
his own business and work through his initial job orders. “But I never worked
for him again,” Joshua says.
of getting customers surprised Joshua. “It caught me off guard,” he says.
“Basically, I showed up at the right time that there was a gap. There was no
one around that was doing this type of work for at least a decade. So, there
was this backlog of work that needed to be done.”
because the Blue Hill peninsula was an established vacation destination at the
time, many of the summer homes which were being bought up were filled with
antiques that needed work. Word of mouth spread quickly in the small, rural
area. Still, Joshua placed a small black-and-white ad in the local newspaper,
just to feel legitimate, he says. And it did make him feel more legitimate,
even when clients were approaching him on referral.
Laying Down Roots
Julia were renting a small house when Joshua, with a stack of woodworking books
and a desire to be part of the back-to-land movement, built his first piece of
furniture. His workshop was a tiny garden shed out back, which also held things
like their lawnmower. He made a small, painted, two-board top pine table with
At the guitar-making
school, Joshua had been taught how to do highly precise and mechanized work. He
had learned how to sharpen hand tools for very precise tasks. Because the
entire school’s curriculum centered on guitars, the process of how to get
boards out of rough stock and turn them into a finished piece of furniture had
not been discussed. Rather the school’s teachers focused on complex router jigs
and technical mechanical operations.
really fulfill me, for what I was after,” Joshua says.
seeing tool marks on furniture and every time he did, it reiterated his desire
for a different type of work.
began taking his own clients in Maine, most of whom contacted him for
restoration work, Joshua filled his free time with learning how to build
furniture and tools using pre-industrial methods. He owned a few power tools
– a table saw, drill press, router and band saw. He knew how to sharpen
hand tools, and the basics of using them. But what he really wanted to do was
work with a rough board all the way through a completed project using hand
he rented a shop from Julia’s grandmother, a small carriage shed, 14’ x 17’,
located next to a stream. In it he kept a workbench, a tool chest and the
object he was working on. There was a large picture window with old wavy glass
with a view of a massive multi-family garden. “It was quite an inspiring
setting,” Joshua says.
Julia bought the property they live on today, 11 acres on a dead-end road, seven
years ago. They bought the house and land from old friends who were doing
homesteading and had been working on the house for 10 years. “Basically, we
bought into their progress,” Joshua says. “We jumped in where they left off.”
and Julia’s vision when buying the land was to eventually build their own
house. “We wanted a handmade house,” Joshua says. “We ultimately decided,
because of our love for history, that we wanted to restore an old house.”
three years ago they bought an 1810 Cape Cod a half hour away. The house had
fallen into disrepair and was going to be bulldozed. “It had a gorgeous mantel,
all the original moulding, there was no plumbing in the house, very minimal
electricity – it was basically untouched,” Joshua says. “It was such a
beautiful thing it would be a tragedy to see it go. So it was perfect for us.”
an entire summer documenting and dismantling and labeling every board, every
joint, everything. They took the entire house apart and put it in storage, and
are now making plans to perform a massive restoration on it, on their current
property, in the next few years.
Joshua lives on has a small pond with a stream at the back of the property, and
it’s mostly wooded with a few small fields – basically, it has a little
bit of everything.
selling point for us was that the way the property is situated there is a
perfect area for a workshop right at the road that is separate from the house,”
allows Joshua to work from home, while still keeping home and work separate.
Because Joshua and Julia are active in homeschool and homesteading, Joshua says
their yard and driveway are filled with kids (they have three sons) and
chickens, and is simply not suitable for customer traffic. But with this
separation he can still hear his son practice his trumpet and yet, when
customers visit his shop, Joshua and Julia’s house is out of view.
Joshua’s shop is an old 24’ x 26’ 1-1/2 story house frame that was built around 1790 in Vermont. He found a company that dismantled old homes and restored them – they had done that to this one and, after seeing it on their website, Joshua thought it would be perfect for his shop. So he bought it and the company brought it to his property, where there was a raising that lasted an entire week. The company put the boards on the rafters, shook hands and then left. Joshua and Mike Updegraff – Joshua’s co-worker an editorial assistant at Mortise & Tenon magazine have been working on it ever since.
The Birth of Mortise & Tenon Magazine
Joshua founded Mortise & Tenon magazine in 2015. The inspiration came from spending every day in his conservation studio taking apart antiques to repair them and putting them back together again. Joshua found himself filing all this information he learned about the process away, simply because it differed so drastically from his work at the guitar-making school.
all of the conventional dogma that ‘good work looks like this’ or ‘don’t ever
do that’ – all those rules that existed for the last 200 years,” he says.
“And so I got really interested.”
same time Joshua was learning how to use hand tools.
heard a lot of people telling me that hand tools are slow, and that it’s a
romantic way to do it but it’s really not practical,” he says. “But then when I
looked at the furniture it actually looked like it was done very fast. The tool
marks were actually quite interesting looking.”
In addition, Joshua was reading journals of journeymen who detailed what they charged for the time they spent working and the time they took on various tasks was so fast. Something didn’t add up. Modern woodworkers were insisting hand tools were slow, but records from the past proved otherwise. Why?
M&T grew out of an old blog that Joshua was writing exploring this
question. “It was a personal blog, about my life and gardening, but it also had
a lot of shop stuff,” he says.
was growing tired of his blog. He wanted something that would be around for a
while, something crisp. He considered making a print version of his blog but
then he wanted contributors to share what they were learning. What would that
be? he thought. He realized, laughing, that what he was dreaming up already existed
– it’s a magazine.
So then he
shared his idea with a bunch of people. “They all said I was insane,” Joshua
says, “and that I shouldn’t do it because ‘print is dead’ and ‘there is no market
for that kind of thing.’”
Schwarz was one of the people Joshua consulted with “and he probably wouldn’t
say he told me I shouldn’t do it but he did warn me,” Joshua says. “And so
everybody else is saying, ‘Yeah – that would be cool if it would work but
I don’t think the market is going to support that.’”
took all this information and advice and ignored it. He got printing quotes for
100 copies. “I wanted to figure out the smallest print run I could possible do,
and how much it would cost,” he says.
forward despite the well-intentioned advice not to? “I just really believed in
it,” he says. But he wasn’t willing to take a financial risk for his family. He
has no trust fund, no investors. “I was just this dumb poor kid that wanted to
start this thing,” he says. “So how was I going to do that? How was I going to
make this thing sustainable right out of the gate?”
proved impossibly expensive but then Joshua realized that if he is going to
sell a magazine dedicated to hand tools, he was probably going to have to
connect with people outside of Blue Hill.
“So I got
one of those newfangled smart phone things and did some social media stuff,
trying to connect with people,” he says. “I remember getting on the Internet
and searching, ‘How to use Instagram.’”
and through Instagram and Facebook he really began connecting with people.
Eventually he shared his vision for the magazine and took pre-orders six months
in advance for Issue No. 1. This direct sales to customers helped him gauge the
print run. “That’s how I felt confident that it wouldn’t sink my family and I
thought, ‘Well, I got to try it.’”
describes it as the magazine he’s always wanted to read. There’s no advertising
in it. It reads like a journal. It’s hefty. There’s beautiful photography and
solid research – both in and out of the shop.
print run, gauged on the initial pre-orders, was 5,000. Joshua assumed this
would give him enough copies to also sell back issues over the next few years.
And while the size of the print run compared to pre-orders didn’t provide him a
massive profit, it did allow him to pay the bill.
But there were no back issues to sell. To fulfill the orders Joshua and friends wrapped each issue, along with a wood shaving, in brown paper sealed with wax. As they fulfilled orders, images of the magazine began appearing on Instagram. Interest grew quickly and he sold out before they finished shipping.
Joshua’s print runs are 10,000 and the magazine is published two times a year.
Fulfillment still works the same way (brown paper, wax etc.). To get it done
Joshua throws a big party for about 30 friends and family. Over a Friday and Saturday
they help him with fulfillment, and he and Julia feeds them. On Monday morning
Joshua fills a U-Haul with all the magazines and drives them to his local post
of it for us is, and so much of the goal of Mortise
& Tenon is celebrating the joy in manual labor,” Joshua says. “So for us, this is just like that. We’re all
standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, wrapping magazines. It’s
relatively mindless work so we’re just talking, having amazing conversations
for two days straight and gorging ourselves on great food and we’re just having
such a blast.”
fulfillment will someday have to change. Joshua says he knows that and already there
are ways he could it do it more easily and more cheaply, but right now, he
says, it’s just too fun.
“I was not
trained as a historian,” he says. “I went to a trade school. It was very hard for
me, very hard to do this kind of work. Because every single sentence in that
book could be wrong. I think it’s a lot easier in books that say, ‘This is how
I do it in my shop,’ because I’m right. But with that book every sentence could
be wrong or not have the right nuance to be accurate. So it was really honestly
grueling, it was really hard work, but I was obsessed for five years. My wife
is so pleased this book is done because I was just immersed in it.”
so focused on the book that by the time it published, he needed time away from
it. So he poured himself into M&T.
Only now is he willing to look at his book again, an act he finds interesting
as he now has a different perspective on it.
have regrets with the book at all,” he says. He’s also beginning to realize how
deeply his research for this book shaped his thinking about woodworking. “It
completely transformed my whole thought process, the questions I’m asking about
historic work, my aspirations with what I want to do with woodworking in my
life, and it totally changed my trajectory, forever I think.”
merger of historic research and hands-on woodwork, M&T has been the perfect outlet for him to explore this new way
of working. Joshua and Mike now spend about half their time in the shop and the
other half writing and editing articles, and doing graphic design work. The two
met in a homeschool co-op. Mike had been woodworking for 10 years and was
looking for a change. At that time Issue No. 1 of M&T had taken off, and was completely consuming Joshua’s life.
He was working 90 hours a week on M&T
but also had a backlog of furniture projects he needed to finish. So Joshua
asked Mike for help in the shop, repairing furniture. Mike started part-time,
pretty quickly moving to full-time. And pretty soon after that, Joshua said he
needed help on the magazine full-time.
super skilled, super talented and so basically he was able to jump right into Mortise & Tenon,” Joshua says. Now
the workload is split 50-50 between the two of them – they do everything
also have additional freelance help, including Jim McConnell (content editor),
Megan Fitzpatrick (content and copy editor) and Grace Cox (customer service,
shipping and administration).
Joshua is also dabbling in instructional videos and some other book ideas, but M&T is his primary, long-term project.
He no longer does furniture conservation – the last project he worked on
was more than two years ago. “Not because I dislike it,” Joshua says. “I love
it. There are just so many hours in a day, in a week, and I want to be
available to my family some. So I cut it off.”
is still deeply important to Joshua. He’s structured his business so that half
of his year is spent building things. Of course, the last two years have been
spent building the shop itself – doing trim, window glazing etc. Joshua
calculates they have about six more months of work on the shop, and then he’ll have
more time to explore, research and build.
“Furniture projects primarily for me are the exploration of the process, not about getting more furniture,” he says. “I have a bunch of antiques and I have a bunch of stuff I made and I don’t have room for any more furniture.”
he makes furniture and simply passes it off to other people. He’ll occasionally
take commissions but usually only exact replicas so that he can also take the
time to research it, learn about it and report on it. “My primary goal is
research,” he says. “I love learning about things and then teaching about it.”
describes himself as a very independent person. “I’m homeschool, homestead,
home business,” he says. “I guess I’m just wired that way.”
he struggled with assignments not chosen by him that had to be done a certain
way and had to be turned in at a certain time. But if it’s a project of his
choosing he pursues it passionately, becoming obsessed (his word) and unable to
stop researching it.
similar to the relationship he’s had with theology. For many years, after
school, he got very deep into theological research (particularly in the Reformed
tradition) and, to some degree, he still is, he says. But that same deep
research now also applies to woodworking.
researching and asking questions and discovering,” he says. “I think doing
woodworking research at the bench is, frankly, the better way to do it.”
Joshua has spent researching both theology and woodworking intersect on the
subject of work – its value and what the Bible says about it – and he
has spent a year and a half focused on that.
spiritual life and interests, and professional life and interests, are all
connected right now.
“Working with your hands and how that relates to the head, heart and hand thing – it’s all intertwined,” he says. “And that’s what I learned from Fisher, you can’t really compartmentalize it. That’s part of what I learned from Fisher is to try and say so-and-so was just a woodworker or to try to define their identity in just one aspect just oversimplifies it.”
Joshua gets up at 5 a.m. and does an hour to an hour-and-a-half of research, reading and studying. He then spends the first two hours of his day doing farm work. He and Julia have goats that they milk, chickens that they raise for meat and for laying eggs, and they’re expanding their vegetable garden. He arrives at his shop at 9 a.m., joining Mike who is typically already there. Then it simply depends on what’s needed to be done. Maybe it’s editing manuscripts or shooting the next cover for the magazine or building something.
it would be fair to describe the work as always different,” he says. “Mike and
I work as a team with whatever is going on so there might be a situation where
we’re working in the shop and we hear my son’s trumpet through the woods and
then all of a sudden the goats start screaming through the woods and one of
them jumps the fence and gets electrified and they all run down into the woods
and you have to go catch them and bring them back in. It’s honestly like a
circus around here. A typical work day has nothing typical.”
home around 4 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Joshua typically works through
email and begins thinking about the next day’s tasks. He leaves the shop around
5:30 p.m. and is then home with the kids. He doesn’t work on Saturdays and
are family centered. Joshua hangs out with the boys while Julia makes dinner,
and because his children are young, he often fixes something in the house that
had been broken during the day. He reads before bed.
The youngest of Joshua’s three sons is 2 but still, the boys have a workbench in the house, with rasps, spokeshaves and handplanes. Joshua says he regularly finds little piles of shavings around the bench.
out to rural Maine because I wanted to be with my family,” Joshua says. “We
started the whole thing by asking ourselves, What kind of life do we want to
have? What do we want to do day in and day out? How do we want to raise our
kids? What will life be like when the kids move out? And this is the kind of
life we want – connected to nature, connected to farming, connected to
handwork. And so we have the business stuff, Julia has her piano stuff [she
teaches], I have Mortise & Tenon,
so there’s a lot going on. But we always come back to: What kind of life do you
want to live? Do we always want to be out in life chasing things? Do we want to
push M&T and try to get it to
grow, grow, grow? But it’s about satisfaction and family and raising our kids.”
And in 10
want to milk my goats,” he says.
Mike have been asking some hard questions lately. Mortise & Tenon is going all the time. Take the packing
parties, for example. With growth, they simply aren’t sustainable. And Joshua
finds that distressing.
have visions of conquering the woodworking world,” he says. “I just want to
make my own magazine and have my garden. I’m not resisting success but I don’t
do any advertising, I’m not a salesman, I don’t try to push it. It’s just the
natural growth of it. I just want a quiet life in rural Maine. That’s my goal.”
talks about Patagonia, and how they only grow 1 percent a year. He talks about
strong growth rather than fast growth and how he wants M&T to still be around in 75 years.
changes the way you think about your work,” he says.
time of our interview Joshua was re-reading “A Handmade Life: In Search of
Simplicity” by William Coperthwaite as part of his more-recent deep immersion
into the intersection of modern technology and society. In the book
Coperthwaite doesn’t preach anti-technology but rather focuses on humane
technology, technology that’s good for us.
what Joshua has been diving into – the relationship of working with one’s
hands, modernization, machines and smart phones. While he says he’s been
sharing some of that in his publishing, he sees this as becoming a strong
message or theme in M&T.
though, is human. Self-sufficiency is a myth, he says. With farming, they do it
because they love it and they simply grow enough to keep them happy. With three
young children, teaching them to be helpful on the land takes time and,
honestly, distracts from productivity. So Joshua isn’t uptight or rigorous
about living off the land. Rather, the family simply does what it can, focusing
on what brings them joy. They hope to take their hobby and let it grow, knowing
that they’ll have more help from their children in the future.
In the meantime, Joshua and Mike continue to work on Mortise & Tenon magazine being mindful of their purpose statement, which speaks not only to the publication, but both their lives: Mortise & Tenon exists to cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world through the celebration of handcraft. You can read a detailed blog post about this here.
After talking about beauty for a bit, Joshua talks about Proverbs 27, which Fisher mentioned a lot in his journals: “You do not know what a day will bring.” In addition to this bit of inspiration, Joshua lives by his purpose statement, trying each day to “cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world” through handcraft, his farm, the soil, being at home with his family, loving his kids, attending church, worshiping, singing and reading the Bible. … I’m just on a journey, trying to keep my head on straight, doing what I love and trying to make sense of it along the way.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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,
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.”
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.”
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
“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
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.
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? CATALOG $5.00 C. H. BECKSVOORT FURNITUREMAKER Box 12, New Gloucester Maine 04260. (207) 926-4608
often led to a couple sales.
business matters he addresses in his book include mailing lists, public
relations, craft shows, galleries, selling direct, customer care and giving
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
In his review, Matthew Boutte, a Texas-based finance executive who is “a lover of many things, among them books,” writes: “As I step back and review ‘The Difference Makers’ as a cohesive work, rather than 30 individual profiles, two distinct themes emerge. The first of them is that of craftsmanship and how it is defined.”
Boutte shares some quotes from some featured makers as well as his own thoughts on craftsmanship, including this idea: “Craftsmanship then, is the relentless pursuit of excellence; the best you are able to do.”
Boutte then writes: “The second theme relates to the first: ‘The Difference Makers’ clearly illustrates that these people were driven to pursue excellence, to pursue craftsmanship, by something internal that would not be quenched and in virtually every case, resulted in years of economic hardship or the willingness to allow their art to be their passion while some other pursuit provided shelter and food.”
Boutte’s review is interesting in that while so much of the focus on this book has been on individual makers, he takes the time to point out some connecting threads – the themes that run true for many of those featured. Consider his observations about the number of makers featured who are left-handed compared to right.
You can read the entire piece here and be sure to check out Boutte’s other thoughtful reviews as well.
Oh, and Matthew, in answer to your question (“Embossed on the cover. What’s the story here?!?”), the diestamp on the interior cloth cover is a Tree of Life image that dovetails Marc’s preface and introduction. Thank you for finding it and noticing it, and thank you for the kind review!