Thanks, Bill

This isn’t the blog post I wanted to write tonight. A few readers emailed me with the news that Bill Coperthwaite died in a car accident in Maine on Tuesday. Icy road conditions, lost control of the van. Died at the scene.

So what am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? Simple –  having met Bill. About 10 years ago, the museum acted as training ground and consultants for a PBS program called Colonial House. I had little to do with it, other than making 4 housefuls of furniture. But my wife Maureen & I, along with several of our great friends and co-workers back then, were part of the clean-up crew. That meant we travelled to Machias,  ME and stayed out in this glorious seaside house, while we worked at the site dis-mantling the innards of several 17th-century style houses…in absolutely perfect New England early October weather as I recall. We liked it so much that several of us, in one configuration or another, rented the same house for a vacation for several years after that.

Here’s the view out the front door of that house:


When we were there the first time, I remembered one of the young members of our building crew telling us about a guy who lived around the cove in a few yurts. I thought, “that’s Coperthwaite.” I had never met Bill, but we had several mutual friends, foremost Drew & Louise Langsner. Look in Drew’s early book Country Woodcraft, and Bill wrote the introduction.

We had no time to chase down Bill’s place that first season, but the next year we had no work to do, so my friend Tom & I decided to try to find him. Catch was we had no boat, so had to figure out how to get there by land. It’s Maine – the place that invented “you can’t get there from here.” When we finally did get to Bill’s trail, and started walking in, out came Bill, en route to a workshop. He invited us to come help, but that was the day we were headed home (an 8 or 9 hour drive.)

Life got in my way & it took me several years before I was out that way again. After working with the folks at Lie-Nielsen a bunch, I decided to tack on a trip to Machiasport after one of my stints at LN. I got to spend a couple of afternoons with Bill, no where near enough time, but glad I made it happen. What an interesting person! It was fun to watch & listen as Bill never answered a question directly, everything became a teaching opportunity.

A Handmade Life

When people ask me, I always say that A Handmade Life is my favorite book…some can’t stand it, but I take what I need from it & leave the rest.

Best poem in it?

Dead Time

Bill Coperthwaite

“Why not get some horses?”

Comes over the water,

From a 30-foot lobster boat

With 300 horses,

To my 20-foot canoe with

A one-man cedar engine

It’s a two-mile paddle to haul supplies

By rock-bound shore and gnarled spruce.

Osprey “float” above with sharp cries.

A startled heron croaks displeasure

Waiting for the tide to drop.

If lucky – there may be otter kits

Playing in the shallows

At the tide rips.

An eagle perches on a snag,

Loon laughter lilts over the bay,

A seal looks me over.

A motor would take half the time –

But, what with mounting it,

Feeding it, and keeping it in tune,

Would there really be a gain in time?

True – I could go when the wind is

Too strong to paddle

But that is a non-problem.

The racket, the stench, the poisons –

There is the problem.

Oh – I could still see (most of) the birds

But not hear them

And the otters – they’d be gone.

The paddle – lovely yellow cedar –

Carved on a beach in the San Juans,

Has served me well these thirty years.

While paddling the brain does delightful things,

Each moment a surprise – a treasure.

Motoring puts all that on hold,

Thieving those precious minutes –

My brain turned off:

Dead time.

22 thoughts on “Thanks, Bill

  1. Thanks Peter, sad news indeed. I read his book a couple years ago and found it “conflicting”. He was a rare soul. Happy thanksgiving to you and yours nonetheless. And thanks for the spoon. Rick

  2. As I mentioned this summer, his book had a big impact on me, and I thank you for introducing me to his work.

    One can only wish to have lived a life that has positively influenced as many people as Bill did.

  3. Very touching. I was listening to the soundrack of The Village when I read your post Peter. Would have been nice to know him. Onward to greener pastures.


  4. Such a bittersweet thing to “meet” someone after they’ve gone. From the pictures and his poem, I know this is a man I’d like to have known. Thank you for sharing him with us. I truly think that when we share the stories, our lives become our legacies. My condolences.

  5. First of all. Happy Thanksgiving!

    This is sad news. And I’m saying this about a gentleman whom I have never met.

    I’m very much on the periphery here, but I must say, any time I hear or read of a talented individual meeting an untimely end, whether it’s a musician, woodworker or what have you (I tend to think they’re only ones that really matter) it saddens me.
    Just have to take a breath, say “thanks” and move on.

    Enjoy your day.

  6. What very sad news. I remember you recommending Bill’s book to me Peter and how much I both enjoyed and appreciated his message when reading it. Life seems so fast paced and complicated by many distractions that on reflection seem unimportant, but in the moment appear all encompassing. His message is a breath of fresh air and if I can only apply a small measure of it, I’m sure my life will be enriched. Thank you Peter for introducing Bill Coperthwaite’s book to me and may his teachings and memory live on.

  7. Been sick for a couple of days and I saw this. Bill was incredible and a truly sweet man with an opinion that mattered. Just have to shed a tear because we just lost a great one. Met him for the first time back in 1979 or so and have been the making a Handmade Life my life since. He changed my life, Thanks for posting. My mantra LESS= less, E=energy, S=stuff, S=stimulation

  8. I somehow missed this post and just had to pipe up to say how saddened I am to hear of Bill’s passing. Handmade Life is one of my all time favorite books and I’d been thinking of trying to make my way up there one day to try to meet him. I am just a lurker on your blog and many others regarding carving, woodwork, and simplicity. Bill has been an inspiration to me via that book and I one day hope to get out of the rat race of NYC to simpler – handmade life. Thanks for posting this news – sorry I missed it.

  9. Thank you for posting this Peter. Mr. Coerthwaite made a big impact on my life from the moment I spotted the strange unidentified object which turned out to be his three story Yurt from the thatched roof of one of our freshly built English boxes. Exploring William’s compound and discovering the wonders it contained didn’t feel like trespassing any more than exploaring his thoughts did when I read his book for the first time. I am interested to learn that his is your favorite book as well. I have purchased and shared many copies by now. I just lost an equally remarkable man in my life. It makes me realize that efforts made to make time for extraordinary encounters are rarely regretted as much as sticking to the plan.

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