One Student’s Memories of Krenov
One Student's Memories of Krenov
Editor’s note: James Krenov, modern woodworking’s most influential teacher, passed away Sept. 9. Go to FineWoodworking.com for a celebration of his life and legacy, and look for a special gallery of his students’ work in the next issue of the magazine.
I found James Krenov’s book, The Fine Art of Cabinet Making, in the 1970s. A recommendation blurb said, “This book will teach you how to build your own handplane, which you can then use to build your own cabinet.” The book stunned me.
Like a lot of other crafty people, I had done a few small refinishing and sanding projects, but on opening Krenov’s book, I was plunged into another world. He described a special relationship with a cabinet, with the wood, with the process—offering something outside our society’s norms. Here was an alternative to mass production, to meaningless jobs, to striving for money.
The book became dog-eared and eventually fell apart 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 Jim had made his home and set up a school (that’s me and him, above, in 1991).
The program reflects his attitude. There is little time spent on teaching how to use a router or a tablesaw. The focus is on the fine points of cabinetmaking.
In class, it was hard to reconcile Jim, a sometimes hard and aloof person, with the sensitive, creative spirit I had met in the books. It took me a while to see that the person was inside a protective shell. He had become famous and was thrown in with 20 adoring students and a constant stream of visitors. But at times during his lectures, or one on one, the spirit would come out, and I’d have a burst of recognition and nostalgia.
I remember his beautiful hands, muscled and padded from years of working wood, delicately tracing the sweeping top of my cabinet. It delighted him. Then, moving into the air, his hands re-created the curve, dancing like a ballerina.
In his lectures, what started as technique often boiled down into philosophy, but never overt and always within the context of woodworking. A talk on handplanes turned to the idea that by slowing down we could produce results that big machines can’t. Cabinetmaking or life lesson?
In the end, his was the life of a radical expressed in the simple process of building a cabinet. You must see his work in person to appreciate the plea it makes to be special, to be the best you can, to break the rules of society—all conveyed in subtle details and exquisite proportions. Rustic yet refined. Loved.