October 31, 1920–September 9, 2009
James Krenov was the founder of the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture Program. What follows is an introduction he wrote to the students June 12, 1997:
I’m happy that you’ve looked us up and are interested in what we are doing.
We’re not a new school, we just finished our 16th year, and have managed to gain a reputation for honest and conscientious woodworking.
We are a community college accepting students with varying degrees of experience. Our course is organized, but very relaxed. Because the students all have the same beginning point, that is, wanting to be here, we discover that there’s a wonderful comradeship and feeling among them; they share a lot.
We try to demystify the process of working wood; we simplify it. We concentrate on the logic and the simple physical and mental relationships in any given process. From the very beginning we work with people, leading them to the realization that wood is a vastly rich material and that different kinds of wood call for different methods of working. Wood also has colors, patterns, and textures that can fit into the work. We help people discover the graphics of wood, and that any shape or proportion can be given additional life through proper use of the wood, whether it’s in a cabinet or a something as sculptural as a chair.
We hope that in viewing what we are offering here, you will pay attention to the details, notice the results, and come to realize that if one cares enough, if one pays enough attention to the richness of wood, to the tools, to the marvel of one’s own hands and eye, all these things come together so that a person’s work becomes that person; that person’s message.
In this work, in these details, in these elements, something of a person is included. Their fingerprints or their sense of proportion, line, and detail are there; and what you’re experiencing is something very personal from each of these people: something that they’ve put their heart and soul into.
And we hope some of their enjoyment shows, too.
Graduate Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney (2014) has written a wonderfully well-researched and illustrated biography of Krenov, published by Lost Art Press, James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.
The Krenov Foundation, founded in 2014 to support the craft of woodworking and to maintain the legacy of Krenov, now has website that has much of Krenov’s work and history available for viewing.
James Krenov was born on October 31, 1920 in Wellen, a Chukchee village on the Arctic Circle in Siberia. As his parents sought out a more promising situation, he spent nearly two years with his grandfather in Shanghai.
His mother obtained a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a teacher. Her work took the family to Alaska for two posts, from 1924 to 1928, and from 1930 to 1933.
The family relocated to Seattle where Jim began a career with a nautical bent, working at the Jensen Motor Boat yard where yachts were built and refurbished. He moved on to a ship’s chandlery, while spending leisure time sailing small boats around Puget Sound.
As a result of his position at the chandlery and his background, he was sought out as a Russian interpreter for the Lend-Lease program before America’s involvement in World War II, and served throughout the duration.
In 1947, Jim moved to Sweden where he worked at a fluorescent fixtures manufacturer. During an excursion to the Continent as a “pre-Kerouac hippie” he met his future wife, Britta, who was studying French in Paris. They were married in 1951.
His career as a cabinet-maker began when a display in a fashionable shop in Stockholm captured his interest. Upon inquiry, he found that the graceful, sturdy furniture that appealed to him was made at Carl Malmsten’s Werkstada. He was enrolled in the two-year program at the Malmsten school in 1957 after “they let me in just so they could get rid of me.”
Upon his graduation, he set up shop in the basement of his home in Broma, Sweden where his work and his relationship to it gained recognition among peers and acquirers. Early visitors to his shop included Craig McArt and Martin Puryear, who were at the time pursuing academic goals. Commissions during this time included a box to contain a collection of prized ceramics belonging to King Gustav of Sweden.
Jim’s abilities as an instructor and speaker began to blossom in the late ‘60’s. He taught at Malmsten’s in 1967 and 1968. His international engagements began with an invitation from Craig McArt and Wendell Castle to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology(RIT). Subsequent teaching engagements included the establishment of the program in Wood Artisanry for the Franklin Institute of Boston University, and as a Guest Professor in Graz, Austria in 1978.
The response of students at RIT led McArt to encourage Jim to try a hand at writing. Publishers of the result, Cabinetmaker’s Notebook , sent him on a barnstorming author’s tour of the U.S. This led, in turn, to an invitation from the University of California, Santa Cruz, to conduct a workshop. Three of the students at that workshop were members of the Mendocino Woodworker’s Guild; they enticed Jim to conduct a workshop at the Mendocino High School in 1978. One led to another in 1979, and again in 1980.
In the meantime, Guild members, with support of local board of trustees and instructors, persuaded the College of the Redwoods (C/R), a regional community college with a budding branch in Fort Bragg, to establish a cabinetmaking program. The building, in which classes are still held, was finished with the help of the first group of students in the fall of 1981, and was the first building owned by C/R in Fort Bragg.
Invitations to speaking engagements continued. He presented two months of workshops as a Fulbright Guest of The New Zealand Crafts Council in 1984. In 1989, the newly established Hida Global Institute in Takayama, Japan, invited him to conduct a series of workshops and lectures. He has also led workshops at Anderson Ranch in 1989 and 1990, and at the Center for Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, in 1995.
Jim’s skills were evident long ago; in 1938 he won a bicycle for his entry of a ship’s model in a studio promotion of the Mutiny on the Bounty starring Charles Laughton.
More recently, he takes pride in being the first non-British recipient of the Annual Award of the Society of Designer-Craftsman’s Centennial Medal, bestowed upon him in 1992. The American Craft Council elected him to their College of Fellows in October of 2000, and he was a recipient of the Furniture Society’s Award of Distinction, in March, 2001.
His first four books, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook (1976), The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, (1977), The Impractical Cabinetmaker (1979), and Worker in Wood (1981) were first published by Van Nostrand Reihold and have since been reprinted by Sterling. A German translation of Fine Art,Die Kunst Des Möbelbaus was released by Ravensburger in 2000. With Wakened Hands was published by Cambium Press in the Fall of 2000. A Japanese translation of Notebook published early in 2009.
Jim retired from teaching at the College of the Redwoods, but continued to build cabinets until his eyes began to betray him. He spent the last two years in his shop making hand planes, and was still eager to share his discoveries in their creation. He could make them by feel as much as by sight.
In early June of 2009, it became apparent that he could no longer see well enough to work safely, and on his own terms as ever, he closed his shop. In spite of his discouragement, he was gracious with visiting friends until his last days.
Jim left this world with a small piece of wood in his hand and his family at his side. His ashes will be scattered in the ocean somewhere along his favorite path.
Britta suggests that those wishing to make a contribution in his name do so to the James Krenov Scholarship at the College of the Redwoods.
“Here we talk about the ‘why’ of cabinetmaking.” JK
Graduate Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney (2014) has written a wonderfully well-researched and illustrated biography of Krenov, published by Lost Art Press, James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.
I visited with him in February of 2009 along with Joe Amaral and Ricky Yu. I was nervous feeling like Dorothy visiting the Wizard because all the things I had heard.
He spoke of is origin living with his mother in Russia and Alaska. He told that story twice. It didn’t leave me so much with the thought that his mind was slipping as much as it made me think about my life and what would mean so much to me when I was in my eighties that I would share it twice.
He spoke of his wife with total admiration and appreciation for her dedication.
He spoke of the deterioration of his eyesight to the point that he could not see the food on his plate and how humbling it was. I was thrown off by this because acknowledging being humbled was not in line with the stories. He said it however matter of fact and as if he was on a journey of experiences.
He added growing old was humbling
He wondered out loud what was next. What he would come up next to offer the world and in that I saw a giving person.
He jokingly referred to Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”. I finally took the time to view it today….. wow
Do not go gentle into that good night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my
father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dannie Salas, Class of ’07
Jim really inspired me, and clearly everyone who has posted such kind remembrances here. We are all lucky to have been touched by Jim, and in return, let’s share what we learned from Jim, what he enabled us to learn about ourselves; pass it on, you know, to leave your own finger prints on what we make, and encourage others to do the same, and that’s not limited to woodworking. I was at the library with my daughter one day when she was very small (probably 20 years ago), and I literally turned around and there was a copy of Cabinetmaker’s Notebook sticking out on the shelf. The jewelry box with dovetails were on this hardcover edition-you know. It instantly drew me in and I checked it out over and over. I wasn’t even a woodworker. I wondered if this philosopher whose medium was wood was still alive, so I called the publisher and finally found out that he was teaching at CR, whatever that was. Over time, I checked it out so many times, and even built some pieces, very early stuff, but I look back and see Jim influence. I kept checking out the book so much that my wife orders a copy me (I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to buy it), sent it to Jim with a short letter and a few pictures of my work, all unbeknownst to me of course. For Christmas that year, you can imagine my surprise when I received the book with an inscription and signature back from Jim. I finally got the nerve to call the school and I heard this high voice on the other end. I asked if Mr. Krenov was available. The response was, “This is Jim.” We chatted for a few minutes, and he invited me to come see him and the school. I asked if that ‘tap-tap’ in the background was someone chopping dovetails, and he said it was. In any event, a couple years later, I got into his plane making class and the weekend presentation, and finally got to meet him, Jim and David. I especially liked his hand-written sign, “Knock Please.” Needless to say, it was a great week in my life, and despite my sadness at Jim’s passing, I am, and we are, all better people and woodworkers, and in that order, for having known Jim.
Robert L. Harris, Plane Making class, 1992
I didn’t really know Jim well, having only been in the shop w/him back summer of ’93 tools and techniques. Nonetheless I did manage to get flamed one day for a silly question (a specialty), honored another to help on a big glue up of panels for a parquet cabinet, and charmed by his walk-by comments and lectures. A tiny JK sampler. Missed out on green bananas apparently.
Maloof and Krenov in a matter of months. Contrasting inspirations, and a lot to think about. Brought into focus how in less than a year worries about clients/money/etc. have militated for unwelcome compromise. Still coming to grips w/fact that most folks don’t get this work. I really like to make things that please and satisfy, but I’m not willing to make what will satisfy most people, whose standards for quality (in all senses) are generally low but whose standards for economy are towering.”
Patrick Megowan, Class of ’07
Jim changed my life!
I’m the badger man in “Worker in wood 1981″ (wall cabinet of maple, ). I met him in Stockholm a few times in 1977 until he left Sweden. He made me dare the step from scientist to cabinetmaker.This late night, while working for a exhibition in Sweden, I thought I would look him up. I find that he has passed away just the other day!”
All my loving
Hans Ahnlund, Gnesta, Sweden.
I was scrambling this passed weekend working on the house and looking for a missing part or item in my barn/workshop. As part of my hunt, I opened up a special plastic container I have with items I still have from CR days. And there was a steel iron Jim once gifted me and I held it I did a little thinking about him. So it must have been like a message I didn’t understand.
I’m sure all the folks he left his fingerprints on feel the same lose. So the school will be another part of his legacy. You guys carry the torch for all of us.
Robert Lichvar, Class of ’86
it was with both surprise and sorrow that I read of Jim’s passing in today’s NY Times. I was Jim’s assistant for the year he spent at the BU Program in Artisanry, and shared not only his efforts to shape that program, but also some of the thinking that went into his first book. The PIA was a frustrating experience for both of us, and, I noted, was not mentioned in the Time’s obit. Jim and I shared a number of traits, including our love of wood (“Wood is Good”), our stress on quality, our association with the “hippie” culture (I was dyed in the wool to his pre-Kerouac), and our stature. There were some things we did not see eye to eye on at the time. One of those was my contention that softwoods such as sugar pine and cedar had a rightful place in the pantheon of worthy materials for the fine art of woodworking. Another was his innate sense of the value of aristocracy in the face of my innate populism. I now suspect that both these differences were two expressions of the same thing. My apprenticeship had been in harpsichord and organ building, and it was not until the year with Jim that I gained the confidence to start up my own custom woodworking enterprise in Boston. Jim’s intensity, his radical humanism, and his exquisite feel for the refinements, not only of his craft, but within the heart of his relationships, made him for me, as I know for many others, a revered mentor.
I was saddened today to learn that the oldest and the wisest of the elephants has gone. While I only spent two weeks taking a summer course in 2001, sitting with Jim, drinking tea and eating cookies, was instructional in itself. He was an amzing, gifted, unique, whimsical and cantankerous spirit and, as I told him, his craft has touched the ages, an experience precious few of us will ever have. I am much richer for having met him.
Phil Cullen, Summer, 2001
Jim has had a huge impact on my life. Thank you Britta for sharing him with us – supporting and encouraging him these many years. Your faithfulness in marriage and standing with him has also shaped him into the great man he was. May Christ meet your every need during this time.
In high school I stumbled across Jim’s books and gobbled them up. Twenty five years later I still pull his books off the shelf and read them – a little here and there – more for inspiration than how to … looking at pictures, remembering, identifying with his thoughts.
My two years with Jim at CR were also two of the best in my life. My passion was working with wood but to be studying under Krenov was icing on the cake. We all know Jim was a master at his craft – his designs and original creativity spur us on … wooden hand planes, “reel” veneer, dovetails with “tension” … The thing that stands out to me strong right now is his generosity – Jim was always giving. These days time is precious but Jim gave us his time. He generously shared with us all his discoveries. Your work will live on through us not because we stole ideas from you but because you passed them on to us – taught us … touched our lives personally one on one.
You were also very giving. I remember cutting into my last chunk of pear to complete front legs to a chair that matched a writing table only to find a big knot inside. Jim looked at a plank he had and found it was the same color and insisted I take a chunk off of his. His box of carving chisels were always passed around when we needed a certain shape. …
You will always be remembered as a great man of influence in my life Jim. Your example of generosity challenges me to do the same … You have touched so many and will continue to.
Jim loved the sea. A few years back I found this quote, framed it up with a picture and sent it to him … It fit so well:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders.
Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea” Antoine de Saint Exupery
Brian Roy, Classes of ’88-‘90
Add me to the list of people who when they read the books for the first time were gently jolted by the strange and yet somehow familiar thoughts and feelings about working with wood he laid out on the pages. As he’s said before, he writes with the spoken word and what he had to say really connected with me.
Fast forward to the first time I visited C/R to see this place for myself sometime in 2000something. There I was walking around in this building packed full of busy wood dogs, working on things of such quality and beauty that I had never seen before. I got to talk to a few, and as I was walking and looking around, out of the corner of my eye came this tiny troll of a old fellow with long stringy white hair walking by me. He looked up at me and I looked down at him, and he just kept on walking by and out the front door… I’m thinking wow!…there’s a strange little character… Not knowing at the time, I’d just met JK.
Fast forward again and I’ve actually been lucky enough to be accepted to C/R. JK has officially retired, but he was in and out of class and I got to see him at his home and shop. He was a feisty old dude. Sometimes seemed a little out of place in the laid back, ‘show no extreme emotion’, that is northern California. But at the same time he also fit right in, in that area so soaked in creative juices as it is.
I’ll never forget my time at C/R, I’ll never forget JK..
Albert Taylor, Class of ’03
It was a dream of mine to be able to come and study at the school, and it finally happened. The year I spent in the Monastery was simply the best single year of my life. Jim’s writings and teaching brought my drifting life plans into very clear focus. To discover the “Why” of it was to find the bridge from simply a mechanical process of building something, into all the doors being opened to creative freedom thru developing technical excellence in combination with injecting your soul, your creative force, into your work.
Having lived to just shy of 89, and given the remarkable life he led, and the legions of us he taught and inspired is great reason for celebration. We all had our “moments” with Jim, but his uncompromising message that your work should reflect your fingerprints as he would put it, your personal involvement, goes way beyond furniture making I think. It’s not a bad approach to a way of living your life, eh? Maybe that’s what he was telling us all along.
Ross Day, Class of 1987
I came to the CRW like so many others, enchanted with Jim’s writings and the person I thought I already knew; the person who I really believed had “the answers” to the questions in the pit of my soul. Quite a lot to ask of a stranger – and from the moment I met Jim he was nothing like the person I had imagined him to be. Perhaps I was a little disappointed or maybe surprised upon that first meeting, and subsequently, as the year progressed, to learn that I would not be embraced by Jim as the long lost son he never had; that we would never be more than “comfortable” with one another. Now, I realize that Jim was merely introducing me to the first of many lessons: that I did not come there looking for him as I had supposed. He was just the messenger, not the message.
Many people have touched upon Jim’s critical side in their remembrances. I would ask them to look to the results and forgive the methods. Sometimes a mother wolf must nip at a pup, and Jim’s “nips” made him real, took him down off the pedestal and helped us realize that Jim could only show us the answers he had found to the questions in his own life. We would need to find our own.
As with anyone who attended the College of the Redwoods and watched Jim living the life he believed in at the end of his bench, I could tell a few stories… There was the silver chest; and the three sets of drawer sides I made because the handles were too thin; smoked salmon and crackers; a borrowed chisel. And there was a moment when Jim caressed the sweep of one of my cabinets and called it good. Memories indeed, but on this day I need to say to Jim that everyday since I read his first words he has been a part of me; that he opened a door for me that changed my life and placed upon me a sacred debt that I try to repay everyday. I need to tell him thanks.
If Jim was correct and the world is all metaphysical, if the deeds of this life direct the journey of the “Soul” in the next, then I believe James Krenov will be reincarnated as someone or something very special. Peace be with you “Old Jim”, and may your chisels be sharp in that next “go around”. You gave us so much more than you took.
Garry Venable, Class of 1990
We all knew this time would come. How long has it been since he hasn’t bought green bananas? He has prepared us well. Such a community he has created, so many stories. I can say without hesitation that my years in Fort Bragg were the best of my life. I’m sure it had something to do with Jim, but there was also a feeling of ease and acceptance from the community that I haven’t felt since I left. He has certainly brought a lot of people together under one roof. I am grateful for the time I had there, and especially to have been one of Jim’s students.
Tim Coleman, Classes of 1988, 1989
My Rememberances of James Krenov
Jim Krenov, master cabinet maker, inspirational teacher, mentor, and friend has died at the age of 89 on 9-9-09.
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.
Greg Zall, Classes of 1991, 1992
My mentor passed away yesterday. He was 89
A man who went into his work without much of the rigid restraint which we all sense in this world of “gitdone” sensibilities.
He was a genius who took the time, had the intent-to make a few truly beautiful pieces of woodcraft.
A complex, “don’t tread on me” sort, yet very generous, and quite human. Jim influenced, and inspired alot of us who were looking for a teacher/mentor/touchstone who could open minds to some important concepts, and ways to live and see.
JK inspired something quite rare. Something like this: “It’s OK to be who you are”. And though we go through life with differing circumstances, pleasures, and obstacles, it is still relevant to “keep at it, and keep working”, and keep it simple.
I am going to work throughout this day in his honor, and rememberance.
James Lintott, Class of 1986
I’m sorry to hear about Jim’s passing. My summers with you all are my fondest memories and I’m still at it. I’m sure you will let Mrs. Krenov know how much he meant to his army of students.
Carl Haushalter, various summer classes
My condolences to all of you who shared so much with Jim. As
difficult a person he was his mark and legacy have made us all the
better. May he rest in peace and our memories of him pleasant.
Ken Ancell, Class of 1997
Thanks for letting us all know about JK. I am saddened to know that he is gone. The old curmudgeon certainly did influence my life and I am very grateful that I was able to get to know him and Britta as he transitioned out of his office at the school to his little shop at home. I hope he is at last at peace, but if there is something beyond life in this world, he will likely have heated exchanges with Sam Maloof and others. At least, from your previous email, he went down the final slippery slope quickly without suffering too much. It was such a sad thing to have his vision fail for his last years. n addition, would like to add something about the fact that for those who did not, or were not, open to digging beyond the oftentimes gruff and opinionated outer shell he used as his defensive shield, a persona that was hard to reconcile with the sensitivity that came through in his written works and was thus confusing to many, missed out on really knowing a very modest man with enormous sensitivity to nature, animals, the creative process in general, and of course all things wood. For those of us patient and brave enough to penetrate that outer shell, he was a generous, open and caring master who gave us much.
Carol J Hanna, M.D., Class of 2004
Jim was an extraordinary individual who made far more than just his mark in the world. He drew kindred spirits to him like moths to flame, and was as generous with his wisdom as we were eager to absorb it. He was alternately an enigma and completely transparent, and always just a little larger than life. His protestations to the contrary, I don’t think he would have been happy otherwise. He was fond of saying that his work “doesn’t glow in the dark!” and that he put his pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. Well… maybe. I remember him best as he was when I met him in 1984 — incredibly active and prolific, at 64, salt-and-pepper hair poised as if electrically charged, the lilting voice and those amazing hands. Beneath his sometimes gruff exterior he was as gentle and caring a soul as I’ve ever met. It was a privilege to know him, an honor to study with him. He knew what he knew, and the simple truths he talked about have helped light the way for a lot of us. His legacy will live a long, long time.
David Fleming, Classes of 1985, 1986
A Funiture Society posting from 2007 by David
I am honored to have called Jim a friend and to have had the opportunity to study under him. One memory of Jim that stands out and I think speaks to his way of working.
At the college of the Redwoods shop, we would often get visitors, and it would fall to whom ever was the least busy at the moment to tour them around. On one occasion a young man was visiting and I took him back to Jim’s little bench room at the back of the shop to introduce him. Jim was working on a small cabinet on a stand with small drawers and doors. The young man asked jim “What’s it for”? I cringed. With out blinking, Jim responded, ” I don’t care if they keep diamonds or old toothbrushes in it”. I often think of that when I am working alone in my shop. He did what he loved and let the material have it’s voice in the work.
Thanks for everything Jim.
Jay T. Scott, Class of 2001
I first met Jim in the late 70’s, when he came to Mendocino to do a weekend “show and tell” for the Mendocino Woodworkers Association. That encounter forever changed my relationship with wood, and for that I am grateful. The pace, sound, and tactile experience of planing wood, and the unduplicated quality of the resulting surface, is something I took into all the woodworking I have done since. While I never tended toward the scale of furniture that was his domain, I was able to use the basic techniques and aesthetic appreciation for wood, in the model making that has been my passion. The fact that the school, which formed primarily around the man, has been able to endure and thrive, despite the man, is a testimony to the spirit of his woodworking talents and insight. It is a truth of being an individual that we get to die eventually. I am sad to hear he passed, and glad to hear that he didn’t linger in painful limbo.
Crispin B. Hollinshead, Instructor, 1981-1982, the 1st year
I’m one among many who will readily acknowledge that we had a life ‘before’ and a life ‘after Jim Krenov’.
‘After’ had a new resonance, a color, a glow, a boldness, a freedom, a joy we quickly looked for ways to incorporate into our work. To say that he was a great teacher, a wonderfully innovative craftsman, an artist and a true original somehow only begins to define the man I came to know as “JK”. I know this because it’s been over 16 years since I left the school, and I can’t count the times I connected with Jim in spirit as I applied Jim’s aesthetic yardstick to evaluate an object or a book, a painting, an important decision. In the end what it came down to was integrity.
Jim had an unusual way of warning us about the pitfalls of working in the trendy styles that attracted the attention of the field and many collectors. “If it’s art, I don’t know what it is” he’d say. “But if it’s craft, it’s CRAP!”
Bill Merikalio recorded an extensive collection of Krenov-isms. (Thank you, Bill!) I just read through them and the classroom came alive: laughter, jeers, whistles, hooting n’ hollering. Jim knew how to make his teachings memorable. His natural wit and his sharp tongue lashes at us, at the work exhibited in galleries, at bad ”art”, at pretense and posturing, like the yapping shepherds’ dog rounding up the sheep and bringing them back to the barn, to discovery, to the creative dialogue with the material. His beloved wood.
Jim enjoyed our attention and our readiness to learn about the living material he had chosen for his work. He was a busy man, looking for ways to awaken us to the unique character of wood, its infinite variety and its ability to change and transform under our hands. And he, in turn, had a unique way of getting our attention. I remember feeling hurt the day he chastised me for not listening to him in making a decision he considered critical in the success of a project I was mocking up. I am grateful today when I look at the cabinet in my living room and try to imagine what it might have been had I not listened to him.
Seeing Jim at his work was a privilege I immediately understood. I loved the days when it was Jim’s turn to speak to the class. His stories took us to Japan, Sweden, Russia, France, and Alaska! With him we whittled a small piece of driftwood into a small pipe sitting on our haunches by the beach; we went with him up a narrow mountain road, scared half out of our wits as the road wound around the edges of a precipice on our way to an exhibit of chairs in the Japanese Alps. When Jim described a tree he remembered for its unusual form, its resilience, or its beauty we could hear the wind rushing through the branches and up the hillside. “This one must have had a difficult childhood,” he’d say of a gnarled tree in his slide show. His speeches were peppered with wisdom, one-liners, questions and humor. He was nothing if not a vivid ‘raconteur’. With his unique sensibility he opened our hearts and minds to a brave new world and encouraged us to go out there, to explore and, hopefully, to find what we could contribute to the field. This field which in many ways granted him a stingy nod when he generously continued to provide a beautiful and original vision, and a demanding practice which engaged all of him.
I was Jim’s bench mate during my first year at the school, and I can see him even now whistling under his breath, poking around his stash of wood bits for just the perfect little piece of doussie or rosewood he would fashion into a playful or elegant pull for the cabinet he was working on. I still marvel today at how infrequently he sharpened his chisels or his plane irons. I mean, I was at the sharpening station – a lot!! But his planes were the sharpest in the shop! With just a hint of a smile he offered that I borrow one of his round bottom planes once. He must have grown tired seeing me struggle as I tried to plane a smooth curve into my cabinet’s door. His plane hardly needed a push! It went on its own, singing through the wood! –Producing the thinnest curliest of shavings from the mahogany. Was this the same wood that stuttered and sputtered when it was my plane spitting up weird tight wrinkles of shavings? That day I learned that I had to hang on tight to his teachings and throw in for good measure a healthy dose of humility.
I think he knew he was loved and appreciated. There was a lightness of spirit, which came through in his work, lithe, and playful, and full of life. I am fortunate to have known him and he lives in my heart forever.
These words from a William Blake poem, remind me of Jim.
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternal sunrise.
Beatrice Munson, Classes of 1992 and 1993
What can I say… Jim will live on in our hearts, our work and for ever be an inspiration.
Adrian Ferrazzutti, Classes of 1997 and 1998
August 18, 1993
“If you try hard enough, you can get it wrong.”
“No numbers – logic, logic, logic.”
“Only death can keep us from making mistakes.”
August 19, 1993
“If you want to learn about war, go and get yourself killed.”
August 25, 1993
“It’s got to be real, real tight – especially if it’s pear wood. Then, God help you…”
“Not like Mr. Stanley; Mr. Rockwell.”
“You get a nice fresh piece of fish, cook it 10-15 minutes and yeah! These people mix up all these ingredients, and you can’t even recognize it.”
Sept. 1, 1993
“Always these dummies – they’re not so dumb.”
Sept. 2, 1993
“Radical curves produce radical objects.” If you can’t be good, then be lucky.
Sept. 8, 1993
“It’s late in the day, but there’s still room for improvement.”
Sept. 15, 1993
“A box, is a box, is a box – and a drawer runs just so smoothly.”
“Everything that can possibly be done has already been done – this puts you at ease.”
“Certain balances are timeless.”
“Numbers are not what beauty is about.”
Sept. 22, 1993
“That’s between the tree and the bug – I don’t know what they were talking about.”
“What you gain on the merry-go-round, you lose on the swing.”
Sept. 29, 1993
“You don’t have to turn to the bandsaw and curlicues for effect — the wood can do it for you.”
“You don’t have to have curves – straight is ok.”
Sept. 30, 1993
“There is a difference between an intention and a mistake.”
Oct. 7, 1993
“…and I don’t mean bum hinges – butt hinges can be good.”
Oct. 27, 1993
“The safest way is often the quickest way to do something because you have nothing to correct.”
Nov. 3, 1993
“Concave curves are dangerous.”
“It’s not always a question of your technique – it’s often a question of whether this can be done in these materials.”
Nov. 10, 1993
“That shows that you can do it. The answer to that is, so what?”
“Perfection only goes so far before it becomes paralysis.”
“Some cedars – different kinds of cheese, really.”
“Follow your whim; let go, but keep looking at it.”
“You’re after the sum total of it. You walk into a room and… WOW.”
“You can’t know enough about wood.”
Nov. 18, 1993
“Lacewood – somebody sprinkled cornflakes on it, and that’s fine… if you like cornflakes.”
Dec. 1, 1993
“You read about where things matter, but you can’t prove it and you shouldn’t try.”
Feb. 2, 1994
“Go from a mistake to an intention.”
Feb. 3, 1994
“I don’t remember if I had a Stanley scraper (#80) in Stockholm, but I remember the blisters on my thumbs.”
April 20, 1994
“A long way to go to build a box.”
“Good work makes its own pace.”
“I’m a wood nut.”
May 4, 1994
“You can become an instant artist – you have to work at being an artisan.”
“Shapes and balances are not rules.”
Collected by John Cameron, Classes of 1993 and 1994
In the spirit of fond and grateful remembrance, here are a few more JK gleanings.
“This is the 18th class since we started – we no longer have anything to
prove – just relax, be comfortable. ”
“If you’re going to worry, choose something worth worrying about. ”
“When you’re instrument is in tune you’re happy with that, and you don’t
retune it. ”
“Mind you’re p’s and q’s and you’ll do just fine. ”
“It’s not going to change the weather. ”
“Two small differences make an unhappy morning. ”
“Lets just go this far and not get too much in the attic. ”
“When I was growing up and someone got hurt, god help him….god and my
“What you gain on the merry-go-round, you lose on the swings. ”
“It’s pretty quiet on the coopering front. ”
Kevin: “Top of the mornin’ to ya, Jim!”
JK: “And the rest of the day to you.”
“Far enough from perfect to still be alive. ”
“My life has consisted of fitting a crooked door to a crooked cabinet.”
Collected by Matthew Werner, Class of 1999.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing.”
A perennial favorite
Times of London
September 10, 2009
In outline, James Krenov’s cabinets are conventional. It is in the way in which they display a creator in total harmony with his raw material — wood in all its vitality and variety — that they are extraordinary.
Krenov paid scrupulous attention to the grain pattern, colour and texture of the woods he used, chose carefully which, if any, to blend together, and made due allowance for the very various ways in which different woods age. His joinery details, too, are impeccable, as are the mechanics of each piece’s operation — cabinet doors close with the soft swish of wood against wood, and drawers whisper lightly in and out.
A typical Krenov piece began with only a rough sketch or doodle. “The sketch just gives me a line on a map — I can follow it, but I still have to take a look at what’s on either side of the road,” Krenov told readers of America’s Fine Woodworking Magazine. If a natural curve in the grain of the wood suddenly became evident while he was planing, he would improvise with it and — perhaps by adjusting another part of the design to balance or even emphasise it — show it off to its best advantage. He would let his wood guide him but (as in all the best partnerships) never dictate.
“I always think of wood as being alive,” he wrote. “I grew up in primitive places where there were many legends and the supposition that some objects were animated and alive with a spirit of their own. Sometimes, when I work, this creeps into the atmosphere.”
James Krenov was born in 1920 in Wellen, a Chukchee village on the Arctic Circle in northeastern Siberia, to Russian parents who were working there as teachers. By the time he was 4, his ever-restless parents had moved, via Shanghai and Seattle, to Alaska, where the young Krenov began to take an interest in Native American craftsmanship in wood, trying his own hand at carving bows and arrows and model sailing boats.
Krenov’s parents separated just as he entered his teens, and he went to live with his mother in a small, rented seafront cottage in Seattle. There he struck up a firm friendship with a retired sea captain who not only held him spellbound with seafaring tales but, more crucially for the future woodworker, also gave him informal shipbuilding lessons. Krenov was an apt pupil, making a series of small boats for himself and enthusiastically sailing them across Puget Sound, sometimes with similarly sea-struck school friends. When he was 18 he won the prize of a bicycle for making a model ship to promote the film Mutiny on the Bounty, being released that year in Japan.
Reflecting his love of the sea and ships, his first two jobs as a young man were at the Jensen Motor Boat yard, and at a ship’s chandlery. Then, during the Second World War, he worked as a Russian-English interpreter for the US Lend-Lease programme, whose cargo ships made the wartime journey from Alaska to Vladivostok.
“Probably I talk too much about ships,” he conceded in his first crafts book A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook (1976), “but they had a definite and lasting effect upon me, with their grace or lack of grace, their symmetry — not that perfect symmetry, but always something alive.” Just as, to him, there were no straight lines in a fine yacht, so in his cabinets he felt that tension, counter-tension and balance were best achieved without perfect symmetry.
In 1947 Krenov moved to Sweden, seemingly having inherited something of his parents’ wanderlust. There he earned enough from doing piecework in factories to finance his travels elsewhere in Europe, on one excursion to Paris meeting his future wife, Britta, of whose support in his early, hand-to-mouth years of cabinetmaking he would write gratefully. They married in 1951.
Deciding that he had had more than enough of soul-destroying factory work, Krenov spotted some elegant but sturdy furniture displayed in a Stockholm shop window, and beat a path to the door of Carl Malmsten’s School of Cabinetmaking, the institution that produced it, enrolling there as a mature student in 1957.
Deeply influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Malmsten was a household name in his native Sweden for producing finely crafted country-style furniture with a natural look, and as a student Krenov found his way with curves, in particular, inspirational. In later life, though, such was Krenov’s conviction that wood must be allowed to convey its own message that he could not help finding much of Malmsten’s work somewhat overdecorated.
One significant lesson that Krenov learnt at Malmsten’s school was a true appreciation of the value of hand tools, especially that crucial part of a cabinetmaker’s kit, the plane — or “the cabinetmaker’s violin”, as Krenov called it. He made his own planes and later encouraged his own students to do the same. And, as he wrote in The Cabinetmaker’s Notebook: “For me, now, it is the tool, in the sense that I enjoy planing the wood with a true plane more perhaps than any other aspect of working.”
In the same book, he lyrically described the thrill of working with planes: “Shavings curl from the plane in my hands, swish-and-slide, as I rock to the motion of the work. The smell of fresh-cut wood, a slick, silvery
yellow surface gleaming under the tireless plane and a feeling of contentment. Nothing is wrong. Here am I, here is my work — and someone is waiting for the fruits of these fleeting hours. Hands will caress this shimmery surface, a thumb will discover the edge which I am rounding.”
Graduating from Malmsten’s school, Krenov set up his own small cabinetmaking workshop in a basement at home in Sweden. So tiny was this room that the pieces he made were of necessity small and neat. But it also happened that doing meticulous, smaller-scale work — chess tables, music stands, or a box to contain some of King Gustav of Sweden’s ceramcs — suited his artistic temperament. He always felt that his bigger, more powerful pieces worked less well.
For a long while the Krenovs lived in financial straits, with one cabinet having to sell before wood for the next could be bought. Krenov was nevertheless resolute enough to resist cutting corners because, as he wrote: “A small compromise leads to another small compromise, and finally we wind up doing something that we do not really love.”
He was always to remain an amateur in the sense of loving what he was doing. “I’ve never made furniture professionally. I’m an amateur and I always will be. That’s the way I want to die,” he told the furniture historian Oscar Fitzgerald in the course of a long interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. By word of mouth, a market gradually grew up for Krenov’s uncompromising craftsmanship, and life became a little easier. His preferred way of working was simply to make whatever he felt like making, and hope it would find a buyer. Given the importance he attached to finding the right wood for the job, he was seldom able to respond instantly to commissions, except to say something like: “I’ll do it if and when I find a plank out of which I can get the right sort of pattern” or even “Well, yes, that interests me. If I ever get more than just interested, I’ll phone you.” A few years might elapse before the piece could be made.
Krenov was in demand as a teacher, too — first at Malmsten’s school and then as guest professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, and as associate professor of wood artisanry for the Franklin Institute of Boston University. Some of his students found his teaching style dogmatic but others thrived on the experience, revering his uncompromising pursuit of excellence and keeping in touch with him long after they had graduated.
Beginning with A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook in 1976, Krenov wrote a series of books in a crisp style and with lambent professional honesty, which inspired thousands of would-be furniture-makers across the world. The books also led indirectly to the College of the Redwoods inviting him to northern California, in 1981, to set up and direct its Fine Woodworking School at Fort Bragg. In his 21 years at this school before retiring in his eighties, Krenov taught nearly 500 students — they probably learnt as much from him about the philosophy of fine furniture-making as they did about the processes.
Krenov’s British following was such that, in 1992, the Society of Designer Craftsmen made him the first non-British recipient of its silver medal, and he drew the society’s largest audience for one of their annual lectures when he made it the occasion for his acceptance speech.
In 2000 Krenov was elected a Fellow of the American Craft Council, and the following year he received one of the first Awards of Distinction presented by the US Furniture Society. In 2006 failing eyesight brought a halt to his cabinetmaking, and, aged 87 and also suffering from arthritis, he switched to making planes instead, for which international demand soon outstripped supply.
He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.
James Krenov, cabinetmaker, teacher and writer, was born on October 31, 1920. He died on September 9, 2009, aged 88
Many people have asked how they could express their appreciation of James Krenov, his work, and his ideals.
Donations can be made to The Krenov School to be used either for scholarships or to aid in funding our program.
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and mailed to:
The Krenov School
440 Alger Street
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
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