Book Review: A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook



I love woodworking because I like the idea of making things and wood itself. There is something wonderful about the look, feel and texture of wood. It is an inexplicable thing, transforming bits of wood into something new and lovely. It is this urge that drives me for a few hours every day to my workshop.

I felt I had found a kindred soul in the late James Krenov, a legendary American woodworker who passed away in 2009 at the grand old age of 88. His A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, a classic that together with books such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road seemed to define the spirit of the Seventies, was an instant hit when it was first published in 1976. It articulated sentiments and ideas that many people shared about wood and woodworking. It made people think about creativity and their relationship with that process.

“My way of working is just a long series of personal discoveries”, Krenov wrote, echoing a feeling many woodworkers around the world will share. Every project, every new technique learnt is a discovery and that is indeed one of the most joyous aspects of woodworking.

The book is a collection of short essays on a set of diverse topics related to woodworking and the author’s general observations. The topics include “What is it like when you first set up your workshop”, the importance of knives, whether fine craftsmen should use power tools, the problem with a functional approach to wood, how to respond to commissions and, of all things, growing up with animals. Each essay says more about the author than about woodworking per se but in all of them there is a subtle reiteration about intimacy with the process of working wood.

His love for wood is clearly evident from this passage at the very beginning of the book:

“It’s always a little difficult for me to begin talking about wood because it is actually a matter of looking at it in one of two ways. One way is a generality, as just a material we make things of – and that for me, is too wide, shallow and impersonal. But there are people for whom wood and working with wood is not simply a profession but a very intimate thing: the relationship between the person and the material, and how they are doing it. I mean how they are doing it in the most intimate detailed sense; the relationship between the wood and the tools that they use, their feelings, their intuitions, and their dreams. Wood, considered this way, is to me alive.”

These were not abstract concepts for Krenov, who led a long and extraordinary life and achieved great eminence in his lifetime. His early life was tough and marked with wandering. He was born in 1920 in Siberia and as a child moved with his parents across China, to Alaska and finally to Seattle.  He began his career making model boats, then sailing ships and during World War II serving as a Russian interpreter. 

His life changed after his marriage to Britta in 1951 and they eventually moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where Krenov began woodworking in earnest. He studied for two years at the famous Swedish Malmsten School and then began working his craft in the basement of his house. It was lonely work and for many years he was constantly hard pressed for money. But he persevered and gradually people got to know his work and began commissioning pieces.

He also began teaching other woodworkers early in his craftsman days. The very school where he had learnt his craft invited him to teach. So he went back to the Malmsten School and taught for two years during 1967-68. By this time, his fame was spreading quickly and in the early 1970s he was invited to lecture at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the United States.  Invitations poured in from all over the world and Krenov went on to speak in New Zealand, Austria, Japan and a host of other countries.

First Page of an interview that appeared in 2001


Krenov became a writer thanks to his friend Craig McArthur of the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York.  McArthur had known Krenov since his Stockholm days and encouraged him to publish his first writings. The publisher Van Nostrand Reinhold agreed to publish “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” in 1976. 

“The book was a surprising success”, observed McArthur in his foreword to a later edition of the book.  “Even Jim must have been surprised by the enthusiasm of the response. Letters from grateful readers found their way to his workshop in Sweden.” Krenov was overwhelmed and a legend was born.

Finally, in 1981 he accepted an offer to start a Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods in the coastal Californian town of Fort Bragg. He taught and worked there for the next 21 years until his eyesight failed him. By then he was a legend in woodworking, a craftsman who received commissions from all over the world and whose works had found a permanent place in museums.

“I never thought I was destined to be a teacher or anything like that.  But I love to share. I like to chat about our craft. And here was a chance to make a living, to teach and at the same time have quite a bit of time to myself to do my work. It’s a nice combination, at the age of 80-plus I’m still making things – and people enjoy the fact that I just don’t talk about it, I also do it.” [Krenov’s Karma, by Laurence Mate, Furniture and Cabinet Making, No 59, December 2001]

A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook is simply written and full of photographs of his works to illustrate his ideas and philosophy of woodworking. Although the book is about concepts, it is not esoteric or abstract. It is also a practical, albeit a very personal, guide to the craft of woodworking. Its importance lies in making people think about their craft and savour the process of creativity.

Krenov came to inspire a generation of American and Europeans, and when he passed away The New York Times wrote a moving obituary:

James Krenov, a renowned cabinetmaker and something of a philosopher who wrote lyrically about his craft and his reverence for the subtleties of wood, died Sept. 9 in Fort Bragg, Calif. He was 88.
In one of his books, James Krenov wrote, “Let us know our wood as we do our hands, and work with it in common respect and harmony.”
A long-haired, bearded man who never stopped calling himself “a pre-Kerouac hippie,” Mr. Krenov was the founder of the fine woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, one of the most influential programs of its kind in the country.
“Through his school and his furniture, Mr. Krenov inspired a generation of furniture makers with a high regard for both materials and craftsmanship and design with an aesthetic informed by organic, subtle details,” the Web site FineWoodworking.com said. His work is on exhibit at museums in Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States.
He retired in 2002, but continued to build cabinets until his eyesight began to fail. He spent his last two years making hand planes, by feel. Mr. Krenov liked to keep shavings of Lebanon cedar and sandalwood in a box beneath his bed so he could savor their fragrance, his daughter Katya said. When he died, she said, he was holding a piece of sandalwood that he had shaped and smoothed.”

[“James Krenov, Wood and Word Worker, Is Dead at 88”, By Dennis Hevesi, The New York Times, 19 September, 2009]

A list of his books:
 A Cabinetmaker's Notebook. Studio Vista, 1976
 The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking. Studio Vista, 1977
 The Impractical Cabinetmaker. Van Norstrand Reinhold, 1979
James Krenov: Worker in Wood. Van Norstrand Reinhold, 1981
Krenov; Janofsky, With Wakened Hands, 2000
Krenov; Finck (2005). Making and Mastering Wood Planes. Sterling, 2005

Indranil Banerjie
14 October 2012

Comments

  1. Very interesting profile of a man who was not only a master craftsman but loved his work and believed in sharing his knowledge with the world.

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  2. Krenov!! US in particular and the west in general benefited a lot from Krenov Sam Maloof and Nakashima. They brought a bit of eastern flair and philosophy into western woodworking also they rescued the craft from becoming almost defunct and restricted to complete mechanization. India too is in this process over the last few decades alas there will be no Krenov for India.

    We will loose all our local sensibility by the time the panel board industry takes over completely with their red and blue plastic laminated work.

    If my kids were a bit older I might have thought of attending a year or so in the college of Redwoods.
    The thing about these schools is that at least you will be very competent in design and execution even if you don't turn out to be an artist.

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  3. Kittu: Alas, you may be right about losing our local sensibility and craftsmanship. I thought of going to some of the woodworking centres in India and trying to find crafstmen we could celebrate. But that is a project which is unlikely to ever take off.

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  4. I find www.gutenberg.org a very good source of free books (as in legally free).

    Traditional wood working skills are still relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, the books at this site, though old would still be interesting read today especially for wood working.

    Hope you and others find it usefull.

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  5. IBal: Project Gutenberg is indeed very useful. Lots of great books there.

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