Editor’s Letter: The things we take with us

Editor’s Letter: The things we take with us

This is Betsy Engel (left) and me at FWW Live. We had fun.

“What do you know about woodworking?”

The managing editor sat back in his chair.

“Not much, to be honest. I’ve been around carpenters all my life, I know my way around a few power tools, that’s about it.”

It was 2005, and Fine Woodworking was looking for a copy editor. Having spent most of my career as a newspaper editor, I was searching for something with a bit more stability, normal hours, more time to pursue my own passions, less controversy.

Living just up the road from Newtown, Conn., where the offices were located, I figured it was worth a shot. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

So I took the editing test they gave me. It was an article about rasps and rifflers. Lots of mistakes in it, but nothing too challenging. “This is going to be easy,” I thought. As I worked, people in flannel shirts and jeans strolled by, and in the background I could hear the sounds of power saws and sanders. Somebody played a guitar. There was laughter, and the quiet hum of people working. It smelled like sawdust and linseed oil.

“Oh well,” I thought, after the interviews were done. “Nice people. We’ll see what happens.”

That was nearly 20 years ago. I’ve been at Fine Woodworking ever since. And no, it has not been easy. But it has been good. I’ve worked with some of the best people I will ever know. I’ve come to realize how deep the love is for this craft and for this magazine. I’ve learned to see the words and photos through the eyes of readers who are so dedicated they can spot an error at 50 yards and so passionate they will call and tell you about every error, every single time. I’ve edited at least 5 million articles about how to cut dovetails, while somehow avoiding ever cutting them myself. I’ve met people who make furniture so beautiful it will break your heart. And I’ve learned how a small group of hard-working people, dedicated to excellence, can change lives.

It’s not easy being an editor at Fine Woodworking. Our editors travel all over the country to help talented and experienced woodworkers write about the craft. They take their own photos, spending days in someone’s shop as they build a piece of furniture step by step. They document the process, in still photos and videos. They shape the author’s outlines and words into articles, help get illustrations together, write captions, check and re-check dimensions, cope with different egos, all while juggling families and often while far from home. And this is all before it ever gets to me, to the art department, and to the production of the magazine. Some editors are extremely good at this work. Some have come and gone quickly, having never quite mastered this delicate, difficult dance.

My job has been to take their articles and make them better. To help polish out the rough spots just like the furniture maker scrapes and planes and sands the wood to remove flaws. To see each article through to production and to ensure it gets to print on time, in as flawless a condition as possible. It’s a sacred trust, to take something that people have worked so hard to produce, and guide it over the finish line. I have tried to be mindful of that over the years.

Lately though, when editing the articles for the next issue of the magazine, I do it with the happy/sad knowledge that my last deadline is just around the corner. At the end of June, I will retire. Someone else will comb through the articles in search of perfection. Someone else will nag the staff about deadlines. Someone else will make up trivia games to ease the weird isolation that working from home has imposed on us since 2020. Someone else will plan the lunches and get togethers. Someone else will pester Mike about details, large and small.

I hope whoever it is realizes what a privilege they’ve been given. There are not many places you can work where everyone cares about the product as much as these people do. I certainly didn’t realize when I started here what a deep impact it would have on my life.

I do now. Thank you, everyone. Thanks for reading, thanks for caring so much about your craft and about our magazine. It has been an honor.

Editor’s note: As of the publication of this post, Liz still has a couple of weeks working with us. We will be savoring every minute of it as she is one of the best people ever. Ever. -Ben

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