With the passing of Carl Bilderback this past week I took some time to think about the people we've lost from the hand tool community. It's inevitable given the median age of the people that were the majority of the first people that joined the hand tool renaissance. Fortunately the average age of people that are active participants in hand tool woodworking is younger than it was at the beginning.
I first met Carl Bilderback at a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at Jeff Miller's shop in Chicago in the early years of my being a full time plane maker. At our first introduction I didn't quite know what to make of Carl. I observed him heckling Chris Schwarz that weekend about the sawing techniques he was demonstrating. Before that weekend was over I figured out that Carl Bilderback was the best kind of guy.
This was about the time I started attending the Midwest Tool Collectors Meet in Madison, GA. This event is referred to as the Peach Meet and it happens the first weekend in February every year. I began to see Carl there most every year. I would always engage Carl in conversation and I never walked away from one of those conversations without having learned something. It may have not been an astounding bit of information, or a piece of knowledge that caused an epiphany but an accumulation of knowledge is known as experience. Guys like Carl are a great source of that kind of experience. These meetings meant a lot to me even though Carl would always look at me in a inquisitive way and asked "you're that plane maker, right?".
There are several reasons I try to attend the Peach Meet every year.
(1) I sometimes see tools that inspire an idea. Seeing a Chaplin Patent plane in person inspired the creation of the Winter Series of planes.
(2) It's a chance to spend a day out of the shop with like minded people that appreciate tools.
Third and most importantly is that I get to see the Carl Bilderbacks of the world. You never know what year will be the last year you will see some of those guys. For this reason I always make an effort to attend. Like Carl, many of these people are a pleasure to know and I get precious little time to spend with them.
Almost 3 years ago the first Handworks event was held in Amana, Iowa. On Saturday morning prior to the presentation about the Studley tool chest, the Emcee, Brian Buckner announced that Carl Bilderback would start the festivities by singing our national anthem. The crowd sort of snickered and laughed a bit thinking this was just a joke on Carl. But then Carl started singing and except for Carl's voice the place went silent. Who knew that Carl Bilderback had a golden voice? If my memory serves me correct he received a standing ovation for his performance.
Last year at the Peach Meet in Madison I saw Carl but I could tell immediately something was different. When the long term MWTCA guys show up with their most coveted tools for sale something is up. I was informed by a another friend attending that event that Carl was terminally ill.
I guess Carl singing our national anthem at Handworks became a tradition. At the second Handworks this past spring just before Roy Underhill's presentation on Saturday morning Carl once again sang our national anthem to a very appreciative crowd. I was sitting on my workbench along side George Walker and when the applause subsided George and I looked at each other and both said "that's the last time we'll see that". I'm sure we both hoped we would be wrong but there is an inevitable end to life. At the next Handworks I wonder what will fill the void of Carl's singing? Maybe it will present the opportunity to remember Carl and some of the other mentors and patrons of the hand tool community.