The Many Sides of James Krenov


James Krenov breaking down a large slab outside his home in Bromma, Sweden. Krenov possessed an incredible talent for predicting what kind of wood he might find inside a board – and I find myself looking across the details of his life with the same hope of gleaning what insights lie ahead as I break down his story and legacy.

I returned this morning from a week of researching, scanning and interviewing on the Mendocino Coast of Northern California, where James Krenov spent the last 25 years of his life. While there, I had the privilege of looking through and archiving a huge number of photos, drawings, writings, lectures and correspondences that span Krenov’s lifetime, a bounty of raw materials to work through in the coming months.

In going through the photos and organizing my notes from  interviews and conversations with his family, friends, shopmates and coworkers, a complex and mutable portrait of Krenov and his many facets has begun to emerge. There is the poetic writer and gifted orator who inspired so many through his books and lectures; the mentor and teacher who provided the backbone for a craft school that continues to churn out inspiration and talent; a deliberate cabinetmaker, encouraging sensitivity and improvisation, while also practicing a deliberate process of design and iteration; the irascible old master who had little patience for uncaring work or needless invention; a loving husband, ever-thankful for the support of his partner; and a very human father, one whose children tip-toed around the house with caution while he glued up his next cabinet, but who took them fishing and adventuring in the northern wilderness of Sweden.


Krenov and his daughter, Tina, on her first fishing trip in the rural Härjedalen province of Sweden in 1964.

While I am still early in my development of his biography, these raw materials themselves provide a beautiful series of vignettes into Krenov’s vastly complex persona that I hope shed light on just why this cabinetmaker’s story is so worthy of sharing. I’m in the midst of organizing these materials, which will themselves be archived and housed by The Krenov Foundation, so that future researchers and interested parties might find and include Krenov in their work.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting these various sides of Krenov (or Jim, or “the Old Man,” or JK) as I dig through the archives. My aspiration in writing this biography is not simply to retell the “who, what, when” of his story, but to shed light on the lives he impacted and those ideas, moments and memories that shaped him as a mentor, writer and craftsperson.

I’ll leave you with the simple triptych below, a very narrow window into one side of Krenov that few outside of the municipal tennis courts of Fort Bragg ever saw. Yet it seems to sum up the competitive, mercurial, sensitive and generous personalities (and free-wheeling band saw usage) that made Krenov who he was. Krenov was an avid tennis player; stories abound in the community about his constant search for a good (but not too good) court mate and the perfect racket.

So I present to you one side among so many: James Krenov, the amateur tennis player.


Krenov at the school’s behemoth Oliver band saw, during school hours, shaping the handle of that month’s racket, in 1992. Photo by David Welter.


Two years later, in 1994, and another racket is under the knife (or file, in this case) having its handle smoothed and reshaped. Photo by David Welter.


Krenov in action at the Harold O. Bainbridge public tennis courts, just a few blocks away from the school in Fort Bragg, Calif.

— Brendan Gaffney

P.S. I owe a great many thanks to those who hosted me and sat down for conversations during my stay: Tina Krenov; David and Laura Welter; Ron Hock and Linda Rosengarten; Laura and Thea Mays; Michael Burns; Ejler Hjorth-Westh and Karen Mathes; Jim Budlong; Greg Smith; Todd Sorenson; Crispin Hollinshead; and the current students at The Krenov School (who gracefully put up with my hovering, photographing and rusty volleyball skills). I’m lucky to have such a warm and welcoming community of people to work with over the course of writing this book – it makes all the difference.

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23 Responses to The Many Sides of James Krenov

  1. Keith says:

    Somehow, I never got into Krenov-space in my thinking. I guess I was put off by the “let the wood speak to you.” And it seems like every Krenov-inspired piece is a waist-high two door cabinet on four legs. Oh master, enlighten me. My wood never told me to make it into a waist-high cabinet.


    • brendangaffney says:

      I think this “let the wood speak to you” talk is greatly oversimplifying his ideas (though he did say that at times) – when he spoke at length on the subject, the idea was much more nuanced, focused as much on grain composition and graphics as some new-age conception of the spirit of the wood. More of a “don’t dominate the wood, work with it” kind of attitude, not dissimilar from the green woodworker’s desire to rive and split wood into those shapes it intends to conform to.

      I’ll also note that the “waist-high” aspect of his cabinet has a very real cause – they are certainly not anyone’s eye level, but he was shorter in stature than many. His intention was to put the pulls and easy access to drawers and doors at a comfortable height for the outstretched arm, I believe, and having interacted with a number of his cabinets even just last week, none of them seem too short or small in my estimation.


    • Jim Creger says:

      Hey Brendan,
      I really look forward to the Biography! Glad to see you are apart of the Lost Art Press team!

      -Jim Creger (CR 14’-15’)


  2. pinusmuricata says:

    I think Karen spells her name “Mathes”.


  3. Keith says:

    My maxim is, “The wood is going to do what it is going to do — you can’t control it, you can only account for it.” This is something that all the cracked, warped and fractured Chinese furniture that I have to repair never got advantage of. Maybe some of that wood is saying, “Don’t use me for a chair leg!” and “If you put a breadboard on me and fasten it tight, I’m going to have a really big crack when I dry from my current wet state.”

    I’ve never seen a Krenov piece up close, so my comment about waist-high was merely to differentiate it from a cabinet starting 3-4 inches off the floor.


  4. mike says:

    Krenov’s writing is not about building small cabinets. His writing is about taking your work to a higher level, both technically and artistically.


    • jenohdit says:

      I think the issue is that too many of the guys who were spellbound by the idea of taking their work to those ‘higher levels” didn’t realize they could do that without emulating Krenov’s personal style.

      When I was in design school, I never saw any work produced by my teachers. I think there are problems with that approach. I think more come with being immersed in one man’s idisyncratic vision for too long, particularly when it’s an odd mash-up of Northern European (the least sexy) Art Nouveau and indistinct Asian styles which is interesting as a personal expression but is far from universal.

      It seems that many people who find Krenov’s books and/or school see a path to a “higher level’ in a spiritual sense in emulating his work and mistake the form for the substance. It is impossible to do what he did by copying, re-creating, or even re-enacting what he did.


      • brendangaffney says:

        Having met and worked with a great deal of his students, I can say that no one I’ve met mistakenly emulated his designs in pursuit of “higher levels” of work – it was done completely consciously. Just as students study with Curtis Buchanan and build his chair designs, or work with Chris and build staked furniture, many students at the school began their journey working in a very similar style to Krenov’s. In spending nine months making two or three pieces of furniture, very few unexamined moves are made.

        The school is not a design school, it’s a craft school – helping a craftsperson express their creative ideas starts somewhere, and a good starting point is remixing, emulating or reproducing as a means of improving a technical skill set. There is certainly a “Krenovian” aesthetic that influences students but I would say that some of the most successful students (like Ejler Hjorth-Westh, Laura Mays, Clark Kellogg, Brian Newell, Tim Coleman) found a creative voice through the technical skills they evolved at the school, starting in a design space near Krenov’s and slowly moving into their own voice as their designs matured. James Krenov never built a chair – each of those makers I just listed has built extraordinary chairs in their own idiosyncratic style.

        And, it’s worth saying, there is quite a bit that was produced at the school, even more so today, that is distinctly non-Krenovian in appearance. Check out the furniture gallery on their website – you’ll find wall cabinets, easy chairs, sculptural tables, Danish modern reproductions, etc., as you would at any other school, all made with the skills provided by a technical curriculum developed by Krenov and his fellow teachers.

        Here’s the school gallery:


  5. John says:

    At the time the picture was taken I’m sure James Krenov had forgotten more about tool use than I will ever know… but it does make me cringe slightly watching that small forest or felling axe being used when maybe a sledge or maul should be used? Axe makers always seem to be very concerned about informing customers that regular axes should never be used to hit wedges. Or maybe this concern is a kind of nannying unique to these litigious times?


    • tsstahl says:

      My tool, bugger off, I’ll do what I want. Your tool, how would you like it treated. 🙂


    • brendangaffney says:

      I am not an expert in axe usage – but I’ve seen everyone from Krenov to Chester Cornett use an axe this way.


      • I’m certainly no expert either (and sorry to belabour the point…), but Gränsfors Bruk cautions against using anything other than a splitting maul or a sledge hammer when hitting a wedge:
        “The Splitting Wedge is used in conjunction with the Splitting Maul which, with its weight and strong poll with bevelled corners, is suitable for striking a wedge… Warning: Do not use an ordinary axe as a wedge or sledgehammer. It is not made to withstand the force and may therefore become deformed”


        • Andrew Brant says:

          I’ve seen Gransfor Bruks axes in boutique clothing stores in Soho, Manhattan. I think this is a good warning to a customer who doesn’t know what they’re buying or how to use it. But if you know your axe, you know how to make a handle and attache it to a head, and you know the risk (Everyone has a dingy chisel around for rough work, or digging out a screw – maybe this is his axe equivalent, a ‘beater’ axe) I don’t see the issue. I would also think that’s a fair safety disclaimer from Gransfor as well. They’re a tool maker, of course they’re going to advise the ‘Right’ way to use something, but no one is calling the axe cops


  6. Nicholas Goulden says:

    There was , ofcourse,, a constant steam of visitors asking some variation of “how do you get in to the school”. The answer, “ do you have a dog? Do you play tennis?”


  7. tsstahl says:

    NorCal in the Fall(ish), Brendan? You poor baby. 🙂 Glad to read the trip was fruitful.


    • brendangaffney says:

      It was tremendously fruitful, I’m still sorting and editing documents. I think I scanned over a thousand photos, documents, articles and written pages.

      And if you think this trip was convenient timing, I’ll be escaping Kentucky winter for the Midwinter Show in Fort Bragg in a few months. Business travel, am I right?


      • mike says:

        They have winter in Kentucky?


        • brendangaffney says:

          I know it sounds unlikely, but there is quite a winter, indeed. I was surprised. It was bitter cold around the New Year last year, in the teens. That isn’t the normal trend, but what weather isn’t unusual these days?


  8. Hi Brendan,
    I’ve got some photos of Jim’s final shop at home in 2005 or 2006. I’d have to check the dates. You’re welcome to use them if you think they’d be helpful. I would ask for photo credit if you used them in your book.


  9. craig regan says:

    Part of the “Krenovian” appeal was the mystery surrounding the man. Opening up his personal histories will interest some, but to me it’s like pulling back the magic curtain on the great wizard. I feel most connected to the man from reading his books on furniture building than knowing where he played tennis. I’m sure it will be a great book and will look fantasic (thanks to the lost art crew). Anecdotal stories and archival documents will be compelling… just make sure you “keep it Krenovian”
    Best of luck with the book, it will be a real adventure researching this one.


  10. Steve C says:

    Quite the woodworker from what I’ve read. Wish I had known him. I still have my plane that I fashioned in his style of planes.


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