Note: The article below appeared in AWR#64, September, 2009 and was James Krenov's last recorded interview.
For James Krenov, arguably the world’s most famous woodworker, it’s still all about the wood. Story by Linda Nathan.
Ringing up James Krenov is, in the world of woodwork, a little like putting a call through to God. Not that he considers himself as such. It’s just that everyone else does.
Have you ever read or heard someone say that it was one of James Krenov’s books that got them started on the woodworking path? How many furniture makers do you know of whose signature cabinet on stand has become a generic style of furniture?
Krenov is not just a woodworker, he is ‘the man’. Spearheading a new direction, Krenov put woodwork in the hearts and hands of amateurs. He meant the latter in the true sense of the word, because he wrote A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook for ‘those who love the material and the work of their craft more than anything else about it’. But, written as they were from a mature age viewpoint, his books were in many ways more about a philosophy of life, because their primary message was not about technique, but about the attitude and, importantly, the enjoyment of the maker.
Before I rang at the pre-arranged time I thought about what questions to ask. Techniques, tips, favourite tools, defining moments...all the usual stuff seemed way too mundane to ask a living legend. Turns out there was no need to worry. Jim (I’m allowed to call him that) is very approachable and talks freely about the things closest to his heart: firstly his wife of many years, Britta, who he dearly loves: ‘I have a terrific wife. Her name is Britta, B-r-i-t-t-a. She’s a terrific source of keeping me alive. I have gone through some operations with my eyes and I may be slowly going blind, but she prods me, encourages me, keeps me alive’. But after that, when James Krenov talks, even now at the age of 90, it’s all about wood and what it can reveal, and, most of all, the pleasure that can be had working with it.
Before A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook was published in 1976, James Krenov, then 57, knew what he wanted to talk about but had to convince others. ‘I had a big argument with the publisher: I wanted the why before the how. The theme of the book was that one should not be unhappy in the choice of work of one’s life. There are so many people that hate their job… they’re not fulfilled, they’re not happy, and I was trying to find a way to encourage people to choose the work or whatever, and find happiness in doing things well.’
Cabinet on stand in European cherry, spalted chestnut and kwila, 1995
So was the woodwork irrelevant in a sense?
‘Well, it’s not Zen, I’m not a Buddhist, I haven’t studied Eastern religions. But I suppose somewhere in some religions there’s the fact that if you’re good at something you’re probably a happier person than one who dislikes the work that they have to do.’
The books were a big thing for Jim too. ‘The other books are mostly information with a few bad jokes thrown in just for the fun of it’, he said, ‘but Notebook was crucial. I was about to give up when I got a short note from a British critic: “The book will become a classic”, he said. And that was such an injection, such a revelation! “Oh”, I thought, “the book is starting to work”. It changed my life because had (the critic) not found something positive I might have given up. And people responded. I got invited to teach. (The books) didn’t make me rich but they kept me very, very happy.’
Of course James Krenov didn’t know that his books would resonate so profoundly with more than one generation of woodworkers. Yes, it’s true he wrote those books at the ‘right’ time, during the seventies craft revival. Post-world wars, postindustrialism, post-60s and pre digital age Krenov’s words hit the mark with a lot people who were looking for a new direction, something earthy, elemental and hands-on. This was a way that harked back to values of patience, diligence, discipline and the physical and mental knowledge that comes with repetition and experience. In other words, the Craft.
Did you ever suspect your books would inspire so many people?
‘We get an endless trickle of appreciation from people we have never met: “Thank you very much that helped me straighten out some things in my life, and I enjoyed the books”.
How do you describe your work and style?
‘Low key. There is very often clear evidence of the techniques used, how it was carved, how it was planed, or how the joinery has been done. I think I was among the first people to start putting a little tiny flare into my dovetails. They are not a straight line on the taper. I hollow them just a little tiny bit with a knife and people rather often notice that you know. It’s the absence of complete rigidity, and that might tell you that this was not done with a machine. That this was done very carefully. They were straight at first and “then he took a very sharp knife, and he’s got very strong hands, and he used to have good eye, and he hollows those tapers just a little bit”. And it’s amazing how often people notice that. I haven’t made as many objects as many craftsmen are prone to do. Partly probably because I’m slow, but I think in part also because of that intimacy—I want to know more and more about the proper and pleasurable way to work wood.’
If you could tell people what was the most important thing about woodwork what would it be?
‘That gradually in time, one’s interest in the material becomes closer. You develop a feeling for the material and there’s always the “What’s really inside this plank? If I open it what colour will I find?” So there’s a sense of discovery and gradually you weave together your good fortune to know and feel for the material. That transfers itself to the tools that enjoy. For a person like myself there’s an intimacy also in the process of using the wood and making discoveries along the way until I developed a slogan: “If you can’t be good, be lucky!”’
So when you start a piece, what inspires you?
‘Sometimes we can be carried away by the necessity to feel inspired. I think enthused is a better word for me. “Inspired”—that’s for real artists, I’m just a woodworker.’
Do you think it’s the old 99 percent perspiration, one per cent inspiration rule?
‘I think you could get so inspired you forget to work. The romance of the craft, and the romance of the result. I think that has just about consumed me.’
So if there’s no blinding flash of inspiration, how do you know what to do with a piece of wood?
‘Well, I don’t really. I just take a poke and make little samples of it and use it on different tools and try to guess what’s inside the plank. And gradually of course I have built up a small store of knowledge, so “If you can’t be good, be lucky,” is working for me sometimes. So it’s endless…I am very aware of quality, not only in wood, but in tools that work wood. I want a tool that’s cosy in my hand, that has the edge for that wood, and the shape. I have made some knives you know that are not straight but that work well for what I am about to do. The chain between the material and the possibilities and the person. Those three links…I don’t know about inspiration, it can carry you too far.’
If you look at the things people make, is there one thing that strikes you as their biggest mistake. Is there a tip you can give people?
‘Well I think the necessity for novelty is choking some people and pressuring them away from their real selves.’
Who would your favourite furniture maker be?
‘Oh, I don’t have a favourite. If you go back in time you’ll find that aside from furniture that was done by royal decree—some of it was atrocious, I mean, just piled up details, it was terrible— but way back in time there have always been solitary people that just went their own way and just made things, and sometimes I get inspired and emotionally stirred by some of the things they have left mankind. I remember in Vienna there is that wonderful cathedral in the middle of a square, and there is a pulpit there in oak, and it must have taken several generations of the same family of woodcarvers to do that pulpit. And it’s not the beauty (it’s not a beautiful thing) but it’s awesome, awesome. It tells you about what men can do with their hands and a few (rather primitive in those days, two, three, four hundred years ago) tools, and you marvel at that, and I think that humility can be a very great asset. You are better able to judge your work in the light of time and the light of what other people have accomplished. You become humble at the thought of how little they had to do with—ice cold in one corner of the shop and red-hot stove in the other and the roof is leaking and the door won’t stay shut and yet on they go. And they did it, and they did it, and they did it. And not all of them were whipped into doing it, or by decree. Some of them were just plain good honest craftsmen and I think in realising that, a little humility never hurt anyone. I feel I am one of many that have travelled that road.’
But in recent decades less value has been placed on the value of hand skills. For a while ‘craft’ even became a dirty word. Do you agree with that?
‘Yes, yes, yes, but I think that’s universal. If you start out by saying you’re going to change the world or knock somebody dead I think that’s the wrong start. You’ve got to start with the pleasure, the details, the possibilities—then you can be excited because you see in this wood it tells you the nature of the grain and the way it is, it tells you which tools are more adequate and more pleasurable to use on it. There are some woods that are just plain downright nasty—they want to bite you! The grain goes every which way, it’s rude, it’s coarse, you can’t really do smooth and delicate things on it. The only thing to do is to say goodbye and go for something else. I don’t want to fight wood, I have no score to settle with any bad-grained wood, I just leave it alone and it leaves me alone, so we’re mutual on that.’
So it’s more about the journey than the destination?
‘Yes. And now I feel I’m an old enthusiast and that’s the way I want to go away—not enthusiastically departing!— but with that enthusiasm, and curiosity. I think that most craftspeople who achieve something—in terms of being respected and revered—know the intimacies of the material and the intimate connections between that endless source of discovery that’s in the material, and how to live with it and use it in a way that’s enjoyable. I’m a wood nut, you know! People used to say “The guy’s got a love affair with wood and you can’t live with him. If a shipment of wood arrives he’s all over it with his ruler and saw and writing his name on all the boards”. But it’s been a wonderful life.’
James Krenov presents an oak cabinet.
James Krenov’s website is at www.jameskrenov.com
His books are:
• A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, Sterling Publishing Co, 1976, reprinted 1991
• The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, Sterling Publishing Co, 1992
• The Impractical Cabinetmaker, Sterling Publishing Co, 1993.
• Worker in Wood, Sterling Pub. Co, 1997
A special thanks to Graham Waterson of Professional Woodwork Supplies who, via Ron Hock (toolmaker extraordinaire), put me in touch with James and Britta Krenov. Thanks also to David Welter, College of the Redwoods, Fort Bragg, California, www.crfinefurniture.com for supplying images for this story.