Fred West: In Memoriam

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January 2014

Fred West –- furniture maker, tool collector, tireless supporter of those
who spend their happiest hours knee-deep in sawdust –- died last weekend
after a short and apparently brutal battle with cancer. Let us celebrate
this man’s life.

I took several of my infill planes to the Woodworking in America show in
Cincinnati last fall having never heard of Fred West, and I flew back home
to California with a single commission in hand, from Fred. I’’d seen him
talking with Konrad Sauer and Raney Nelson, and after someone told me who
he was, I introduced myself, asking him to look at my work.

He spent maybe 20 minutes doing so and then, without further ado, asked me
to make him a plane. Take your time, he said. There are things I like
about your planes and things I don’’t. Make me a good plane.

At that point I’d been making infill planes for less than two years; in
fact, I made my first two years ago this month, and like Fred himself,
there were things about the planes I’’d made in recent months that I didn’’t
like.

Surely, I said to myself, I ought not to send Fred West the same plane I’’d
been making, with improvements at the margin. What I ought to do was to
backtrack through the steps I follow in making a plane to find those spots
that gave rise to the things I didn’’t like and then find ways limit their
impact and maybe, if I were really diligent, get rid of them altogether.

Now, I had no more idea than Fred did that time was running out for him,
but I knew I ran some risk in any such effort. It might take a while to
re-think my work, and Fred might grow impatient. Worse, I might end up
sending him the same plane I’’d been making, with improvements only at the
margin –- might end up, that is, with nothing to show for the effort.

No way, I thought. No way. Take the risk.

I spent six weeks holed up in my garage cum workshop knee-deep in sawdust
and metal filings and then e-mailed Fred with a longish note outlining
what I’’d been up to. The following came back December 15:

Thank you for the update. As things are always changing in life, mine has
taken a fairly major turn. About three weeks ago, I found out that I have
Stage 4 cancer. I am, without question, going to beat this but it does
change my priorities and time lines.

Accordingly, while in no manner do I want to rush you, please place a
greater priority on getting this out the door. If I have a chance, I will
write more….

He had no chance, it seems.

I went into overdrive, got the plane done, and sent it to him New Year’s
Eve for second-day delivery January 2, painfully aware that I’’d made my
first plane exactly two years earlier – and that I might be too late.

UPS attempted delivery on schedule Thursday, January 2, and again the next
day and the following Monday. By Tuesday, January 7, when someone,
possibly a family member, signed and took delivery, I feared the worst.
Yesterday, an e-mail from Raney Nelson brought news that Fred had died
over the weekend.

The good bet is that Fred wasn’t well enough even to look at my plane,
much less to figure out whether I had indeed sent him a good plane.

Had I done so? Maybe. I think so, at any rate. But I lay awake last night
thinking that it ought not to have taken me six weeks. On the other hand,
it’s also possible that what I really brought home from the WIA was not a
commission but the gift of time from a man who didn’’t have much left, and
that Fred West, having helped so many people like me, might think ours a
good bargain so long as I understood that my debt to him is one of
gratitude. He has that in spades.

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