You're unlikely to come across Christian Becksvoort's workshop by accident. After driving through New Gloucester, Maine, you cross the railroad and head down a dirt track for a couple of miles. The sign outside is succinct, an indication of what you'll find when you arrive - simple, elegant furniture, built to impeccable standards. It's no coincidence that Chris' work is heavily influenced by Shaker designs. Author of the classic The Shaker Legacy, he's one of the few people privileged to have worked on real Shaker furniture. He's done plenty of restoration work for nearby Sabbathday Lake, the only remaining Shaker community.
He grew up in Germany, where his father was a furniture-maker. When Chris was six the Becksvoorts moved to Washington DC, where he later helped out in his father's workshop. Chris then headed north to Maine to gain a degree in forestry and wildlife. Deciding woodwork was not so bad after all, he worked for Thomas Moser for nine years. In 1985 he set up on his own.
Chris has made around 500 items of furniture and works directly with each customer. He sells mostly through his catalogue and website, with no galleries or furniture showrooms to complicate matters. His work can be found in Japan, Europe, Canada and across America.
He works alone, handling the marketing, selling and making unaided. "I build everything to order. People write for the catalogue and during the summer I get two or three visitors a week stop by," he explains.
He designed and built the two storey workshop some twenty years ago. Wood is stored upstairs, accessed by stairs in the middle of the shop. "When I get a truckload I waste a day just carrying boards up. When I built it I figured I'd add more square footage. It's cheaper to build two storeys, but it creates a bit more work in the long run. It's no big deal, though."
Most of his furniture is made from black cherry, mainly from Pennsylvania.
"I've been using it for 30 years and have got to know the stuff pretty well. It's an attractive wood and fairly well behaved. It's hard enough for table legs and chairs, and a nice compromise for cabinetmaking." Chris gets a truckload delivered twice a year and he usually buys about 500 board feet at a time. "I deal with an outfit that have been in business since the late 1800s and have their own woodlot. They have 125,000 acres and know exactly what they're going to cut every year. Most lumber yards will buy on the open market, so you don't know where the wood comes from, whether it's been stripped or clearcut. These folks do a really nice job taking care of their land."
Boards are stacked according to width and thickness, and some downstairs are up to 36in wide. "I mark it all, where it came from, whether it's got knots, sap and so on. I use different colours for different deliveries," he explains. In a corner is a stack of gorgeous figured cherry. There are also a few boards of maple and walnut.
"They are one of the few yards to sell me quartersawn lumber," he smiles.
Chris is an authority on wood movement. He used to determine the expected movement with a calculator, then build accordingly. He now uses a conversion guide from Lee Valley Tools.
"I go through an awful lot to make sure the wood is free to move. I over-compensate for everything. For instance, a customer in Georgia, where humidity is high, could move to Arizona, which is very dry. You never know where furniture will end up. Only once have I had a piece back for repair," he confesses.
The workshop is equipped with a few machines, mostly General, from Canada. He has an Italian Griggio slot morticer, the only three phase machine, plus a Makita thickness planer.
For such a productive shop it's amazingly tranquil, partly because much
work is done by hand. Chris has an impressive collection of fine hand tools, but I wondered if he ever bought old ones?
"It depends. I had a lot of old Stanley and Record planes, but when Tom Lie-Nielsen started producing his range, it was just such a big step forward. He uses computerised machining which give him the tolerances that were not possible 100 years ago. The fact that he uses heavier blades and castings than the originals really adds a lot to the tools."
Chris loves to use dovetail joints. These are all cut by hand, no mean feat when there may be as many as 200 in one piece of furniture... For this reason, tool quality is pretty important. He uses chisels made by Barr Quarton in Idaho. They often only need to be sharpened once when making a complete piece of furniture, the quality is that good.
Chris has also been working with Lie-Nielsen on their new bevel edge chisels.
He shows me an old Disston handsaw. "This is my radial arm saw. When I'm bringing planks down from upstairs, this is what I use to cut them to length. It has an apple handle that just flows into your hand. And when you get tired you can use both hands. It gets sharpened every five years..." Not surprisingly, Chris is very methodical and has a card index system so he can keep track of every piece of furniture he's ever made. "It's extremely valuable, with work going back to 1985. If I were to have a fire I'd probably grab that drawer rather than my toolbox. Tools can be replaced," he says. As well as a contributing editor to Fine Woodworking magazine, Chris also finds time to pass on his knowledge and skills. "I've taught at a lot of different schools. In three months of intensive one-to-one teaching you can turn someone into a furniture-maker that's equally as good as someone who's gone through a seven year apprenticeship. I've seen people who have never held a chisel before turning out amazing pieces of furniture." We meet many talented craftsmen, but it's rare to come across one who can be described as a real master...
After saying goodbye to Chris and his dog Spirit, a husky cross, we head back up the track. The end of a perfect day. Words by Phil Davy Photos by Mark Corke


This elegant sleigh bed in cherry has turned crest rails. Rosettes top the splayed head and footboards
A bench in the corner is used for gluing up. Note the slots in the wood rails designed to accept the sash cramp bars
Chris salvaged these drawers from a local library and uses them for storage
Much of Chris furniture is inspired by the Shakers, evident in this cherry dining table
This cherry wall cabinet has textured door panels and smooth stiles and rails
This wonderful tool cabinet featured Fine Woodworking magazine a few years ago. "There isn't a piece of plastic to be seen in there," says Chris
The sleigh was popular 100 years ago during the New England winters. This Snow Glider is made of laminated ash with brass metalwork. It's finished in lacquer with gold leaf pin stripes and leather upholstery
A cherry chest of drawers with around 200 hand-cut dovetails...
Rows of cupboards ensure every tool has its home. Hand tools are grouped together
Powered sanders include an elderly Skil chain-driven model
This sideboard is derived from a tailor's bench. It's part table, part chest, and can be used as a freestanding kitchen counter
These Japanese chisels were made for Chris by master blacksmith Akio Tasai
An old chisel may well become a drawer handle for workshop storage
This Makita thickness planer copes with boards up to 15 " wide
Machining is centred around a cast iron General table saw, which Chris uses fitted with moulding cutters
Part of the upstairs wood store, reached by stairs from the workshop Chris spent many hours planning the workshop layout, but admits it's not quite perfect
This stunning Slant-Top Desk in figured cherry has three secret compartments, a hidden silver dollar and 130 dovetails. It costs around $13,000...


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