“I always wanted to work with my hands,” Jim Becker told us when we visited last month. But he didn’t get his start in furniture. “A friend’s dad was building boats and turned me on to an internship program at the Bath Maritime Museum. I was in my early twenties.” He smiles, “They had a boat building program. Then I worked as a deckhand on a schooner out of Camden for a summer or two. Finally I got a job at a pretty notable boatyard in Friendship – the Lash Bros. — and I worked there nine months on a 65-foot fishing boat.” That was 1979. Interest rates skyrocketed and the next boat project fell through. And our culture of New England craftsmen is lucky it did…
Without steady work at the boatyard, Jim looked toward Thomas Moser’s furniture shop. (Some might call that divine providence.) In fact twice he approached them, with dogged determination to do good work by hand. On the second try, he was hired and so going, spent the next six years learning and refining skills, experimenting with design and turning out master work. Then he opened his own studio, Jas. Becker Cabinetmaker.
One of Jim’s most popular studio pieces is, in part, Moser-inspired. He calls it the Bowback Bench. “It was so popular that a big company copied it. For the two years that they made them, I didn’t sell one. Now they don’t and I sell them again,” he said. It seemed a not so subtle commentary on the challenges artists face today.
This particular bench is cherry, with ash spindles and maple legs. The curve of its ‘bowed’ back is a laminate because cherry doesn’t steam bend well enough to make the tight curves you see, and Jim buys laminating veneer in flitches. “A flitch is a half a log that has been sliced with a knife, in this case to 1/10th inch thick slices. Since the slices come in sequence, the grain matches when the bows are glued together and the lines disappear.” It’s smooth, sturdy and elegant. The seat is rough shaped with an electric chainsaw (yes!) then ground and finally, sanded a few times in successively finer grits.
When we visited Becker in Londonderry, he’d just finished up a ready-to-ship commission. Lucky us – a photo op of the maker with his piece! The walnut daybed was a collaborative design with San Francisco architect Steven Justrich, massaging Jim’s contemporary shaker style to fit his client’s California home.
More than half of Jim’s furniture pieces are custom or one-of-a-kind and projects ranging in size from a single footstool to furniture for a four-bedroom townhouse. “A lot of my wood comes from Baker Lumber up in White River Junction. I had a shop in Wilder for 25 years before we moved down to Manchester.” Jim selects wood with rich tonal qualities and he sands and finishes to reveal a lightness and purity that’s just spectacular. Check out his colonial-inspired cabinet below, designed to fit again a wall or function as a free-standing room divider.
A favorite project? The craftsman replied in unison with his colleagues — the piece he’s working on at that moment. What types of projects then? Desks are a favorite, he concedes, citing a Cylinder Desk commissioned by a client in Hawaii. “The traditional design was updated to contemporary dimensions so that it could accommodate standard file drawers and a modern office chair. The work surface pulls out for writing and is pushed back when the desk is closed.” We happen to love Jim’s Ming Shaker Desk, a studio original.
And then the million dollar question… How would you characterize your work? Jim kind of shrugged. I’m better than some, as good as any.” And then he paused. “I always do hand cut dovetails. I’d make more money if it did them with a jig. But I like doing it. It’s kind of Zen thing. I make a conscious decision to do it and I enjoy it.”
Becker’s son Colin is a pretty competent filmmaker and we’re glad we could include this piece he put together when he was just starting out. If you get a chance to click through to watch it, Jim’s assembling an oval cherry table to the tune “Tenor Conclave” by Al Cohn, Hank Mabley and John Coltrane. The Becker modesty kicks in again.
“This video was one of my son’s first. His skills are much improved and I need to get him to make more for me,” Jim says. Smart man, we think.
So Jim Becker’s a maker; and a really good one. He’s got a quiet kind of humility that makes him real approachable. And if you have the pleasure of speaking with him about a custom furniture piece, don’t let him go without asking for his recipe for homemade pizza pie. We tried it and thought… is there anything this guy can’t do?