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Krenov in 2003.
This letter came in to our editorial mailbox, written by Greg Zall, a former student of James Krenov.
My Remembrances of James Krenov
Jim was a special inspiration for us woodworkers at a special time. I found his book in back in 1970’s .A recommendation said “This book will teach you how to build you own hand plane which you could then use to build your own cabinet.” It was the “Fine Art of Cabinet Making.” Still my favorite of his books.
It stunned me when I got the book. There is no slow build up. In Jim’s books you are thrown into his world and it takes awhile to get your bearings. There is no talking down or taking into account that you may be a novice. His voice is talking to a peer. As though you were also a master woodworker.
Wood is an unusual medium, grain, texture, color. There is no denying that it is beautiful. I was drawn to it and have fallen in love with the look of it. Like a lot of other crafty people, I had done my little refinishing and sanding projects, but on opening Jim’s book, here was an immersion into another world.
It spoke of a special relationship with a cabinet, with the wood, with the process. Here was something outside of our society norms. There was no striving for money or success. Here was an alternative to mass production, to meaningless jobs. Here was meaning in the simple idea of building a cabinet, to involve oneself in ones work to the level of spirituality.
The book was dog-eared and worn, the back broken and ripped as I worked my way through years of learning. Finally I was good enough to be accepted into the Fine Woodworking Program at The College of the Redwoods where JK had made his home and set up his school.
The School bears out this similar attitude where there is little time spent on teaching how to use a router or a table saw. This is the one of the few places in the world where you can learn the fine points of cabinetmaking.
In class it was hard to rectify the person Jim with the relationship I felt with the author. And it took me a while to see that the author was inside a protected shell. He had become famous and was thrown in with 20 fans and a constant stream of visitors who were anxious to meet him. The sensitive, creative spirit was often replaced with a hard aloof moody exterior. But at times during his lectures or one on one the spirit would come out. Finally I’d have a burst of recognition and nostalgia when my hero from the books made an appearance.
I remember his beautiful hands, muscled and padded from years of working and moving wood. He was delicately tracing along the sweeping top of my cabinet. It delighted him. Then moving into the air, he recreated the curve with his hands dancing like a ballerina or a conductor. Students everywhere will remember the poise in his hands and the poetry in his hand movements.
His talks were good and often what started as technique boiled down into philosophy, never overt but within the context of cabinet making. During a lecture on handplanes, for example, the idea that doing something slower can achieve results that the big machines cannot. Hmm cabinet making or a life lesson?
Well, in the end it was the life of a radical expressed in the simplest of crafts. You must see his work in person to appreciate the call it makes to be special, to be the best you can, the scream it makes to break all the rules of society, housed in the gentlest subtle details, exquisite proportions, rustic and refined. Loved.
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