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From my way-back archives

Ellis Walentine
I was rummaging around my documents library tonight and found an original Word file of an article I put together after a week of hanging with James Krenov at the College of the Redwoods in Ft. Bragg, CA, back around 1997. It appeared in some form in American Woodworker magazine around the same time. I thought it couldn't hurt to air it out again for our visitors...

THE PERSONAL TOUCH
An Interview With James Krenov

by Ellis Walentine

Tucked away in an unassuming building in Ft. Bragg, California, 22 woodworking students are intensely working on their end-of-year projects, sweating details that most of us wouldn't even think about. They've come here to the College of the Redwoods from as far away as Japan to study with James Krenov, the legendary cabinetmaker whose four books, A Cabinetmaker's Notebook (1975), The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking (1977), The Impractical Cabinetmaker (1979) and James Krenov Worker in Wood (1981), have influenced a generation of woodworkers worldwide.

Krenov is best known for his meticulously-crafted cabinets, finished largely with hand tools, in which form, color, grain patterns and surface textures work together to create an overall feeling of balance and harmony.

I visited Jim Krenov recently to try to discover the essence of his teachings, which I call the "personal touch"--that intimate sensitivity to material and detail so evident in Krenov's work and that of his students. Here are some excerpts from our conversations:

Your first book, A Cabinetmaker's Notebook, captured the imaginations of woodworkers around the world. Why do you think it had such a profound effect?

I think the positive reaction to "Notebook" was largely a social phenomenon, a sort of rebellion against the monotony of the time-is-money approach of purely professional craft. It happened at a time when there was a lot of social upheaval in America and other countries against authority and rigidity. Here was a guy who said you don't have to hate your work. A lot of people wrote to me, saying "I thought I was the only one in the world who felt this way, and now I know there are two of us."

Today, it's more a matter of doing what you want with your craft and being happy in your work. There is an undying, reoccurring interest in this kind of work, even among the tremendous number of amateurs who want to do it for the pleasure, the satisfaction.

What is the first thing you teach your students?

Early on, we get into the fact that our tools and materials--and our work itself--will respond to our sensitivities. We remind students that all these little sensitivities do matter. If you don't believe in them you get sidetracked. But, if you believe in them, your chances of them becoming a part of you are so much greater.

This early reminder of the significance of seemingly insignificant things is the beginning of habit. It's the first link in a long chain that gradually becomes a natural way of working. You no longer worry about the physical aspects of a tool but about what you're going to do with it. You're thinking about how that's going to feel and how the result will look.

But, along with these sensitivities there is a responsibility. We don't build things and say, "well, maybe it'll fall apart, maybe it won't; maybe this door will jam in a certain climate; maybe these doors work here today but they won't work elsewhere tomorrow." The gallery visitor or the would-be owner of these pieces has to know that a piece is really well made--that this veneered top is not only beautiful but it's stable and it's going to stay that way.

What is the secret of learning to do the best work?

First of all, you need curiosity and an open mind. Most of the ease and the enjoyment of woodworking comes through simple processes that require harmony, both mentally and physically. You have to focus on what you're doing and ask yourself questions. If you are not sharpening well, it probably is an unnatural movement of your hand or fingers or arm that's causing the problem. But, you don't need to buy a gadget that ensures that you will maintain the correct angle. There's more satisfaction in learning to do it right and in believing that you can maintain that angle by yourself.

If you are curious about wood, that will lead you to discovering the individual properties of different types of woods, properties that are not really so much in books as they are in your fingertips and your eye. If you see that the wood has interlocked grain, you know it will demand to be worked differently than a very smooth wood. You need to be curious about that and learn those properties by yourself.

Your curiosity about the wood leads you to an interest in its relationship to certain tools. Some woods will demand that you learn how to use the scraper properly because they are too difficult to plane. Others will beg for fine planes or chisels or other cutting tools. When you balance the tools to the wood, it usually results both in enjoyment and in sensitivity of touch, for you and for the person who will live with that piece of furniture.

How do you go about designing a piece of furniture?

You start with a concept of the object you want to make and apply some common sense. In a functional object, you have the responsibility to consider its function and how comfortable it will be to use. Put yourself in the position of the user. You should believe and hope that people will live comfortably and enjoyably with it.

In a purely decorative object the responsibility changes. Sometimes the function is primarily to be beautiful--to appeal to people and to convey the intimacy of the process involved in making it. Or, part of its function may be to amuse and delight--to give people something that has a content in it, an element of discovery that they can play with--something that makes it irresistible. The physical function may be secondary or even irrelevant--it's simply a lovely little object. It doesn't necessarily solve a furniture problem, but somebody is going to enjoy living with it.

When you have sketched your concept and selected a piece of wood, you can draw the characteristics and rhythms of that particular plank on your sketch and see how they work visually. See what kinds of graphic lines the grain of the wood will give you--arches, swirls, straight lines and so forth--how certain wood grain works with the shapes of the piece and not against them. That will help you a great deal.

Then, there's the intermediate step from the sketch to a full-sized mockup, which we usually make of scrap wood and cardboard. The mockup is not intended to reveal details; instead, it reveals the three-dimensional aspects of a piece--its balance or imbalance--that you can't see in the sketch. For instance, what people forget when sketching tables is that the spacing of the legs creates a volume of space under the table. Some tables have a very comfortable sense of space--a nice balanced feel. The mockup lets you see that.

If you want to, you can add life to the mockup by drawing lines or shading to represent certain elements. Otherwise you can just use it to solve the basic problems of dimensions and balance. If the mockup only helps you see what you need to do to restore the balance you wanted, it was worth the effort.

Once you're satisfied with the mockup, how do you begin making the piece?

First, it's terrifically important to determine the sequence of work. Set your mind on what is most important and try to think of what can go wrong. You are usually better off doing the most difficult part first, because if one element does not turn out well, everything has been spoiled. Learn to rely on your own logic rather than the traditional ways of doing things. Gradually your judgment improves.

And what if you make a mistake?

Somebody once wrote that death alone can prevent us from making mistakes. A part of any craftsman's honest work is to correct mistakes that can be corrected. If something goes wrong, you need to make a very important decision: Do you need to redo it, or is there a way out of the temporary difficulty that you are in? It's a matter of judgement and integrity. You can cover up mistakes like a cat covers a litter box but you can also do it in a way that will leave you honestly happy. That is craftsmanship. There never has been a craftsman who never made a mistake and there won't be. I'm a charter member of that club.

How do you decide what details a piece should have?

At an early stage, it's tremendously useful for the craftsman to have a sense of how an object will be used. Consider how people will relate physically to the object and it will help you in evolving forms and details that are comfortable for that physical use.

Another thing that helps you terrifically is the graphics of what you are doing. Not only the graphics of the wood--its grain and figure--but the graphics of your original sketch--the shadows, the little details. You look for those details in the wood; and if the wood is neutral, you add detail by means of a little profile, a groove, a chamfer, a rounded edge. You are, in effect, shading your little rough drawing, which was just an outline of your idea. You are putting substance into it with all these details.

If you have a dimension that's necessary structurally but that doesn't work well visually, you can change its appearance with the help of details. You can make a table top seem thicker by giving it a very soft little arched edge. Or, you can make it seem thinner by chamfering the underside of the edge or by creating a little profile which breaks up the thickness into two elements.

Part of the enjoyment for the craftsman is in playing with all these things--discovering what can be done with details. In other words, once you've got the rough substance of your piece, you work with the subtleties that add to the life of it. It's not pure chance that when I open the doors, the pulls on the doors just beg to be caressed and ask a gentle handling rather than a rougher approach.

But, you have to remain sensitive to what you are doing; don't be afraid to change. Just because your drawing or mockup is this way it may not be right when you get your piece together. You may need to go with the way your piece is telling you to change. It is a visual experience.

Would you call it art?

We differentiate between "art" and "artistic." I think that is a very crucial distinction, because the notion of art intimidates people. It puts pressure on them. They're looking for a definition of art when really there is none. Art depends on the critic for its definition. It's something very, very far off.

But artistic means something different to me. Fortunately, my own background was such that I was made aware of ethnic art and people making things they needed. I was reminded constantly of this word "artistic." I think it is simply the quality in people that achieves balance and sensitivity and all these things that we are talking about.

What are some other ways to add your personal touches to your work?

We find ourselves using fine carving knives to make little details like door pulls and shelf consoles [rests]. With a narrow, pointed blade you can turn on a dime.

There's also marquetry, which is a fine art but very accessible. A surprising amount of it can be done with a hand fret saw; you don't have to invest in a machine.

Would you always prefer a hand tool over a router for shaping an edge?

Yes, definitely. Router bits and certain other tools usually produce mechanical shapes--half circle, quarter circle and so on--and they become a habit. You've got to be curious; you've got to believe that the shape that you can produce by experimenting with comfortable, friendly tools will be more interesting to both the eye and the hand than a purely mechanical shape.

What we are really about is classical tools. We've got the same basic woodworking tools and resources that cabinetmakers have had for generations, even centuries. But we do pay attention to what makes them tick. We know the difference between sharp and not sharp, and we tune our tools to work the way they were intended to work.

Is there a particular finish that you prefer?

We are rather conservative about finishing, but not categorical. We're open to suggestions. We use mostly traditional finishes--"polish" [shellac diluted with denatured alcohol] and various kinds of waxes--and we never try to make one wood look like another wood.

It's important to accept the responsibility that goes with functional furniture: It's going to be handled; it's going to be soiled; people are going to spill things on it. Certain kinds of furniture need a durable finish. But, that should not force you to use heavy varnishes or lacquers or something that will create a distance between the wood and the eye or hand. An oiled surface is remarkably durable. A waxed surface is too, if it is the right kind of wax.

Also, try to preserve the beauty of the wood. Don't use a finish that leaves it muddy or dirty looking. If you put oil on pear wood it looks like a garage floor--splotchy and uneven--no matter how evenly you have applied the finish. So you should always try different finishes on a trial piece of your wood, then make your decision.

What advice would you give to someone interested in starting out in woodworking?

First, ask yourself what you want to do, and don't be overly worried about what other people are doing. Cash is certainly a stimulant, but I think that in the long run you end up living with yourself as a craftsman.

Learn your strengths and weaknesses, and devote yourself to the kind of work that you like the most. If you like it the most, it's partly because it comes to you naturally. If you are a carver you will be attracted by carving. You have a leaning towards that and you will enjoy it.

And try to be happy in your work. We've all had times when we were temporarily much less than that.

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