Interview with James Krenov
At the time of this interview, renowned furniture maker James Krenov was still working in his shop every day. Although his failing eyesight prevented him from building furniture, the 88-year-old woodworking icon was able to build handplanes through feel and an intuition that can only come from decades of woodworking.
Krenov’s contributions to the woodworking community came not only as a craftsman but also as a teacher and author of five influential books on woodworking. Fine Woodworking caught up with Krenov in Fort Bragg, Calif., in the spring of 2009, where he worked and lived with his wife, Britta. He discussed teaching, writing, inspiration, and the form he popularized, the cabinet on a stand.
FWW: You spent over 20 years guiding woodworking students. What does that process mean to you?
JK: Well, the difference between an instructor and a teacher is big. If you’re an instructor, you say “do this, like that.” That’s instructing. Teaching is giving options, opening up the topic for the students, teaching them to be self reliant, relying on their judgment, their ability to create things.
FWW: Let’s talk about writing the books…
JK: I look back on it [and] when the subject of the books comes up I say, “Who me? Did I write that?” Because it has all passed into the realm of fiction. I don’t remember how I managed. I didn’t have any organized outline. Notebook (A Cabinet Maker’s Notebook) I just rattled off. It had the basis of the thought, and it’s still there and it always will be there, that people should not be unhappy in the occupation of their choice.
FWW: Where do you find the inspiration for your work?
JK: I don’t claim to, you know, get a bolt out of the blue and be inspired or something, a revelation. I have no revelations. I have guesses, and I have hopes. And gradually over the years I’ve built up a small library of my own, of imagery I can use. I saw this, I saw that, and some was good some was not good.
FWW: Who were you most influenced by?
JK: I was the typical uneducated but curious would-be worker. I just groped my way, and I don’t remember having many books. I did get a lot from the English professor who wrote The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye. He influenced me greatly. I believed in what he wrote, the conclusion being that the best work[s] of our generation will be done by amateurs. They’ll be done with love, they’ll be done that way. And he believed that and I still do believe it. And I did not ever perceive that I was going to be worthwhile to other people, in other words that I’d become what I became, a teacher, a writer, etc.
FWW: Where did your interest in woodworking come from?
JK: In my childhood I hunted and was an outdoor guy on snowshoes, but I had a little tiny knife that my parents got for me, and at the age of 6 or 7 I started to putter with wood, make little wooden chains and a cage with a ball in it. You know things like that, they were sensitive for a boy 7 years old. The hand and the eye, those things have steered me. I had good hands from childhood, sensitive hands and strong hands. And a good eye.
FWW: What would you say to students going through the College of the Redwoods now?
JK: I would say to take a chance, learn as much about wood as you possibly can, not so much from books but from the feel of your fingers and the way the log looks when it’s cut and what the colors are and how the grain goes and what the fibers are like. Wood has personality. It’s alive. The more intimately you know the material of your choice—whether it’s embroidering or working with wool or working with clay or whatever you know—I’d say that your chances to find out whether you are intended to be an artist in that media are excellent, but you have to care about the material of your choice.
FWW: If you could only have one wood what would you choose?
JK: That’s a matter of saying to a painter, “If you had one color and only one what would you do with it?” I’d get blue and be painting the ocean. Sandalwood would be wonderful. I like Andaman padauk from the Andaman Islands. For a while I made little things like ladles, cocktail spoons out of juniper in Sweden. Juniper grows around the orchards and the fields, and there is an unspoken saying that you should not cut any of them because the birds like to nest in them. They’re prickly green and you can’t get at the bird if it finds a proper nesting. Burls I like.
FWW: What about all the people out there making cabinets on stands…
JK: You know the alternative is a cabinet without a stand, and then you have a question of whether to put it on something, which should have been the stand, but happens to be the hall table or something. The convenience of the stand is not to be denied. And some of the cabinets that look very well with some air underneath and a little bit of geometry that is the stand would not necessarily look good as a continued cabinet all the way down to the floor. It would be too much of a good thing.
There are a great deal of surprises in a stand, a lot of geometry, a lot of aesthetics, a lot of guessing and composing it. Should the legs flare out? Should they go straight to the floor, should they taper? On the contrary, grow down near the floor? All these things and the rhythm of the intermediate pieces, you know the connecting members and so on. Don’t take them too lightly. It’s not just putting four legs and a crosspiece and calling it a stand. You’ve got to be lucky to get a good stand to go properly with the piece.
It’s a very nice exercise in proportion and weights and measure. If you don’t take it too casually, you learn about the cabinet itself from the stand. They talk to one another—they should, anyway. They should be on a friendly basis.
FWW: How do you feel about the work you’ve done and your contributions to the craft
JK: Well, I don’t want to make a point of it, you know. My modesty is false, but it’s still modesty. In the sense that, yeah, I’ve tried to share everything that I pick up that I think someone else may be able to use. I love to talk to people, I like to meet students and see their work. It’s been a good life, you know, it’s been a good life.