| C.H. Becksvoort Fine Furniture |
Loud Music, Sharp Tools,
and a Meticulous Touch
words Joanne Friedrick
photography Michael D. Wilson
You can hear Chris Becksvoort at work before you see him. Classic rock reverberates through the wooden door of the tidy, spacious workshop behind his home in New Gloucester.
As a fine furniture maker, Becksvoort has his routines, including listening to music as he works. His eclectic playlist includes the classics—Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi, which set the mood during the careful, precise work; rockers Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Janis Joplin for pounding dovetails; and Cowboy Junkies, a Canadian blues/folk rock band, who are also customers of his.
“I like my music loud and my tools sharp,” says Becksvoort, also explaining his penchant for working alone.
With a passion for detail in his creative and business life, he has systems in place as well: A large chalkboard lists his current projects; finely honed chisels, some of which he designed, are hung neatly in a cabinet; an old library card catalog houses precisely labeled boxes of hardware.
Another drawer in the card catalog contains evidence of his life’s work, with each project carefully written on a three-by-five card. “I have a line for each day, the amount of time spent and what I did that day,” says Becksvoort. There are about 200 clients covered in those cards, many of them having bought multiple pieces.
Becksvoort’s relationship with furniture making harkens to his father, who moved his family to America from Germany when Becksvoort was 6. He began studying with his dad at 12—“I learned my finicky craftsmanship from him.” Then as a teenager he wanted to get far away from the Washington, D.C., area, so he headed to the University of Maine to study forestry and then wildlife ecology.
Yet the siren song of working with wood was always in the background. And not long after completing his degree and settling into his first job with the Environmental Protection Agency, Becksvoort returned to furniture making.
Some of his earliest work—and still a great influence—came from an association with the Shakers, whose Sabbathday Lake community is nearby. Becksvoort began doing furniture repair work for them and that relationship continues 40-plus years later.
His case pieces—chests, cabinets, counters—are mostly in the Shaker style, with other work reflecting a Scandinavian or Danish Modern influence, which share similar aesthetics to the Shaker style. Those styles, and his own aesthetic, says Becksvoort, are about “basic simplicity. I try to keep it as understated as possible.” The Scandinavian influence comes through in rounded corners and softer edges as well as with pieces that aren’t part of the Shaker repertoire, like music stands and lamps.
Throughout his work there is a focus on hand-chiseled dovetail joinery, proportion and grain matching, all parts of good design, he says. He even created an extension washer that allows wood to move more freely. Wood moves across the grain, not the length, and this washer accommodates changes from humidity and heat.
About 90% of Becksvoort’s work is made with sustainably harvested black cherry from Pennsylvania. But he does work in some local wood—white pine, birch, ash. “I hate oak. You can’t get a sharp edge on it,” he says.
Cherry, however, “is the perfect compromise wood.” It’s strong and it colors in well, achieving a rich patina as the sunlight hits it.
Becksvoort has also worked with elm, crafting tables from the famous Herbie tree in Yarmouth—New England’s oldest and largest elm until it succumbed to disease in 2010 and had to be cut down. “They were just going to make key chains and cookies from it. I said ‘Let’s cut it into slabs and make something.’”
Starting with a 300-pound, four-inch slab that was five feet wide and about nine feet long and then split, albeit unevenly, into two, Becksvoort, with the aid of a sanding operation in Westbrook, got it down to two 1.25-inch-thick pieces. Each slab went through the sander at least 10 times.
“Elm is one of those woods you can’t plane well,” he says, because the grain is interwoven. The project took months to complete and resulted in two single-board tables, which reside with a client in Freeport.
First-time customers typically select something from Becksvoort’s extensive catalog. But even those items are built a little differently each time. Most large pieces feature a hidden compartment into which he places a silver dollar. One client has 26 pieces—each with its own secret space.
Even as he works on commissioned pieces, Becksvoort continues to create items to test his talents—or fill a niche in his own life. “Once or twice a year I’ll build something that needs to be built,” he says, like a white pine blanket chest with walnut trim and Damascus steel hinges. “It may find its way into the catalog,” he says, or, like the standing desk he created for himself, it may be one of those items that customers see when they visit and decide they want one, too.
Becksvoort is a longtime writer for Fine Woodworking, which “brings fame in the woodworking world, but not business.” He has also written a couple of books with a third in the works. The new book will cover basic woodworking, Shaker pieces and a final third will be about running a business.
There have been lean years, he notes, when he did more writing than woodworking, and times when the backlog stretched for 18 months. But consistent has been the desire for something crafted by his hands.
“People still value the unique, the handmade,” he says. “Yes, people can order anything they want on Amazon, but then so can anyone else.”