This post is a continuation from last week’s post, a “read-along” or book club of sorts. This week, I’ll be discussing the first section of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 23. Next week, we’ll be reading on from here up to page 51, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 23-51 in the comments section at the bottom of this post, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post.
Immediately upon opening, it’s clear that James Krenov’s first book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” is not really a “how-to” in any sense. There’s no table of contents. The first writing past the acknowledgements is a poem by Chuang Tzu, a Taoist poet who wrote in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. The paragraphs are long and read like the spoken word. If you have the first edition, there’s an Old Testament quote on the copyright page, Sirach (or Ecclesiastes) 38:34.
Atypical though it was, this book was a huge success. Nancy Newman Green, Krenov’s editor at Van Nostrand Reinhold (with whom I had the pleasure of talking with recently), remembers that they had a saying around VNR about Krenov:
“If you hung up a sign in the middle of the woods that said ‘James Krenov will be here to speak at 3 o’clock,’ a few thousand people would be there to hear him talk.”
But I’m getting off track – suffice to say, the book was popular, and what made it popular were the words and philosophy Krenov detailed. So let’s get back to the text. The rest of all of this, the history, the lead-up, the legacy – for that, you can read my biography when it comes out.
One of the first things that strikes me about Jim’s writing is just how informal and stream-of-consciousness it is – in fact, you can practically hear Jim reading it out loud. If you haven’t heard Jim speak before, you’re missing out – say what you want about his philosophy, aesthetics or attitude, he was a remarkable lecturer, and he had a gift for elocution.
This book is, in fact, a collection of transcribed essays or lectures – in 1970, Einar and Kasja Telander (Einar is the silversmith for whom Jim built the veroola kitchen cabinet in 1976, which was photographed for “Worker in Wood”) gave him a voice recorder for his 50th birthday, and he took to it immediately, using it both for correspondence and for the dictation of his essays and books. He worked with both the tape recorder and his written notes at the workbench to write his books, bouncing between them to compose the writing.
The tapes for “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” were transcribed by Rochester Institute of Technology, as a favor to Jim – Craig McArt, the man responsible for recommending him as a teacher at RIT and the person who most encouraged him in the writing this first book, was by 1973 the chair of the Department of Industrial and Environmental Design at RIT. McArt had visited Jim in Stockholm back in 1966 and had carried back with him an essay written by Jim called “Wood: The Friendly Mystery,” which was published by Craft Horizons in 1967 (here’s a copy on the Craft Council’s archive website). If you’re interested, give that article a read and keep it in mind before you do next week’s reading.
So, once we know that the book was dictated, it puts the book in a different context – it might better be looked at as a series of lectures. Knowing that, let’s look more at the first passage, really just nine short pages, and pull a few important moments out.
The first half of the passage is, in effect, an ode to wood as a material. In the opening paragraph, ironically beginning with “It’s always a little difficult for me to begin talking about wood” right before he goes into a very eloquent missive about wood, he relates that he feels that wood, in his own way of thinking, really is alive. Krenov’s daughter remembers her father as being an animist of sorts, ascribing some kind of soul or inner life to the objects and plants around him – Krenov hints at the root of these beliefs in this essay, his childhood “in the North,” and in that context, the serious sensitivity and love he shows for wood as a medium only makes more sense.
The other thing that quickly becomes clear in the book is that it is not instructional – many of Jim’s visiting students, whom he hosted in his home workshop throughout the 1960s and 1970s, remember his advice as always being a bit vague, a trait that carries right through into his lectures from the 1990s and 2000s. Phrases such as “It is still possible to find a few good sources of wood” would, at time, frustrate his visiting students, but here in the book, they serve as anecdotes and a sort of fable about his life as a craftsperson, with their own morals and conclusions presented to the reader. He doesn’t give you a shopping list for the home center, but more of an idea of what has worked for him, and what could work for you, if you happen upon it or go in search of it.
There is a moment of Jim’s past that flashes across the page at one point. On page 13, Jim writes that “Expression in wood, if I may say so, is a bit heavy handed there [in the United States]; oversimplified. So often the emphasis in on form – as in sculpture.” This passage is certainly a reflection on Jim’s dissonant time in his first stint at RIT alongside Wendell Castle – they did not get along, and Jim would, for a number of years, relay his disappointment in the pursuit of furniture as sculpture and the indifference to wood as a medium he found in many of his colleague’s work. “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” largely stays out of the weeds of criticism, though, certainly in relation to the essay’s Jim wrote in Swedish magazines at the same time – articles with titles like “Is craftsmanship boring?” or “Do we care about wood art?” make it clear that Krenov was not always optimistic about the attitudes around him. When the language between the two different platforms is compared, it’s clear that this book is not aimed at the Swedish craft scene, or his colleagues and contemporaries (with whom he often had a strained relationship) – it’s aimed at a new generation, students or curious onlookers, and Jim often speaks using “we” rather than “I.”
Here’s a last selection to look at, before I get into a few questions and comments people posted from their own reading. I’m just going to pull a big quote, because it’s as close to a synoptic manifesto as you’ll get from Krenov.
“I think that what I would like to do before it is too late is to get this across to a few craftsmen-to-be who will work after me, and also to a public which will be there to receive them, because we are living in a time when, I believe, this is important. Fine things in wood are important, not only aesthetically, as oddities or rarities, but because we are becoming aware of the fact that much of our life is spent buying and discarding, and buying again, things that are not good. Some of us long to have at least something, somewhere, which will give us harmony and a sense of durability – I won’t say permanence, but durability– things that, through the years, become more and more beautiful, things we can leave our children. (page 15)
Krenov spent 11 years jumping between various educational institutions, and accepted at least three long-term teaching positions that he either quit within weeks of starting or was encouraged to leave after interpersonal difficulties arose with administrators or colleagues, often caused by his irascible and uncompromising attitude toward craft. This passage is his call for those students, a next generation of craftspeople that might be more sympathetic to his holistic and idealistic way of working, one that he hadn’t found academia or art schools to be sympathetic to. He also makes a form of plea to the public to change or be more aware of their attitudes to fine work (the main subject of his writing in Swedish magazines, though there he chose a decidedly less optimistic or charitable way of expressing it).
When he wrote this book, he wouldn’t have known it, but it was exactly the right step to take in the direction of the establishment of his own school, which would happen just a few years later in 1981.
On to a few comments and questions from the comments section on my post from last week, where I prompted you all to ask or comment away about this first passage. I responded to many comments directly, but there were a few I wanted to share and elaborate on in this post, in keeping with the idea that this might be more of a discussion or back-and-forth between you and me while we read through the book.
Larry Barrett, a good friend who taught me to make greenwood chairs a few years back, wondered what Jim might’ve thought about greenwoodworking, especially the appreciation of materials and the similar thrills of splitting open a log and sawing it open. In fact, Jim Krenov and John Alexander did meet at one point in California – the story isn’t much, but I know that Jim was aware of greenwoodworking as a method and of Alexander’s work. Krenov certainly split open his fair share of wood, being an avid hiker and self-sufficient backpacker in the north of Sweden, and he did often split up slabs that were too wide to fit in the basement or had already begun splitting at their pith. But, perhaps his interest in woods from abroad and the backyard left him more likely to stick with the sawn stuff – though, he did use an Alaskan chainsaw mill quite a bit, and we were still learning to use them at his school when I was there.
Larry also pointed out that the Welsh concept of the “square mile” that Chris Williams wrote about in his new book fits neatly with the mention of Wharton Esherick’s idea that one could work with only the wood in your own backyard. Krenov was quite aware of John Brown – in Krenov’s papers and effects there are a few articles written by John Brown that Jim had saved, with highlighted notes in the margins. There are also definite connections to Slöjd in Wood (Wille Sundqvist, Jogge’s father, also went to Carl Malmsten’s school, and Jim’s reverence for carved pulls and knife-work has some of its roots in his exposure to Swedish crafts). Really, a sensitivity to wood as a material is a common thread through much of the craft, and when you start reading the more philosophic threads of Jim’s writing, it does echo through a number of methods and traditions that were not his. It makes sense that wood and woodworking are intertwined, no matter how many people try to melt clown wigs and pour them into the space between two live-edge slabs – but, did you know, Greg Klassen, who popularized the “river” tables (and made them in a much more interesting and durable way than the epoxy knock-offs that followed, in my opinion), was a student at Krenov’s school?
I really enjoyed the comments and questions that you all sent along for this reading – so, please do it again! Next week, I’ll be writing about the next few passages, up to page 51 of the book, and if you want to join in and read along, please do, and use the comments section below to ask any questions, highlight a passage or make a comment on the next section of the book. Also, I’d encourage you to read the two-page article “Wood: the Friendly Mystery” as well – here’s a copy from the Craft Council’s archive. You’ll understand why once you do the reading!
— Brendan Gaffney
17 thoughts on “Quiet Book Club #1: Wood and the Spoken Word”
He apparently had to ability to look at a board and understand the tree itself. Perhaps he could look at the grain on both sides and determine the patterns inside. Looking at the pictures he liked using book-matched panels a lot. I get the feeling he could tell if a board was stressed just by the grain and avoid using it. For him, it was his wide and long experience that supported his gut feelings. When looking at a board for years, perhaps he was a patient procrastinator?
I had a great remembrance of that skill from one one of Jim’s students, Monroe Robinson, who was in the third class of the school in Fort Bragg. He and Krenov happened to be at the lumberyard at the same time, and he went along with Jim as he looked over the wood. Monroe remembered that Krenov could look just at the end grain visible at the end of the stacks and decide if he wanted to have a second look – he was looking at the spacing of the growth rings, their regularity, the change in grian orientation across the board, and for distortion – and in Monroe’s memory, he was incredibly good at picking out nice boards from just a cursory glance at the ends of dozens in a stack.
To your last point – he would hold onto wood for decades before using it, and brought his wood across the Atlantic with him when he moved. He also talks about “exploratory cuts” he would make into boards, and was attuned to how they moved or behaved when worked. He certainly would wait and consider the boards in his possession for some time before using them. And I think that’s one thign that developed over time – his earliest pieces seems a little elss considerate of wood choices, and it seems like his practice matured alongside his material knowledge.
Krenov is, singlehandedly, the writer that made me interested in hand tool woodworking. I came to woodworking by a circuitous route, being interested first in 18th C. American furniture, then in the tools used to make that furniture, then in how those tools were used and what marks they left behind. If I knew that, I believed, I could tell a genuine period piece from a later reproduction.
Krenov is not remotely useful in this respect, but in reading him in the ’80’s I began to get an inkling of his respect for wood and how the craft of woodworking should demonstrate that respect. Over the years I have returned to his work again and again. After reading about your projected biography, I reread the opening chapter of CN. What struck me this time was his personal voice. His is a committed, passionate voice–I really feel that he is speaking to me, personally, about what he believes and therefore how he has lived his life. I need hardly say that this is rare in any field, let alone in woodworking. Far more than most who write about woodworking, Krenov himself is present on the page, engaged, principled, and convincingly passionate.
What’s inspiring to me is that he found a whole new, and seemingly more “successful”, career at 50. I am 41 and sometimes feel like my best years are (way) in the past.
Without trying to rain on the parade – he did take up cabinetmaking at 36, when he enrolled in Malmsten’s school in the fall of 1957 (just before his 37th birthday, if that eases the blow). But he didn’t write woodworking books until he was in his mid-fifties – but again, he had his first (and only non-woodworking) book published when he was 35 (though the writing is not quite as sweet as it is in “Notebook”). He did come to craft later in life, though, and looking at the students at his school in California also gives a lot of perspective – many of the students that went through the school did it later in life, and some of them went on to second successful careers.
Thanks for linking “Wood: the Friendly Mystery” what a beautiful essay! I’ve owned “A Cabinet Maker’s Notebook” for decades. The first time I read it the point was missed by me. Now older and farther along in my journey as a man and a woodworker it hits the bulls-eye. I can now appreciate the wisdom. Thanks for suggesting this book club.
Thanks for putting this together. I’m a week late to the party, but I’ll catch up on the reading. I do have one question: how many languages did Krenov speak? And what was his native language? The headnote to one of the articles you posted mentioned he went from Siberia to the USA to Sweeden, and then I suppose he made his way back to the USA? His writing in English is very, very good–although not exactly that of a native speaker. He has odd little turns of phrase that I think must be mental translations from another language in which he was sometimes thinking.
Krenov spoke Russian, English and (after a time in the country) Swedish fluently, and the travelogues he wrote in his youth indicate that he must have had some proficiency in French and Italian, as well. His mother, who was his closest companion until he met his wife at 29, was a language tutor most of her life, and was educated in the Empress Dowager’s school in St. Petersburg (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smolny_Institute), so she grew up fluent in Russian and French. She also spent quite a lot of time in England in her youth, so she was proficient in English, too, and her memoir was written in English with no sign of struggle.
Krenov and his mother both appear to have had minor difficulties in spelling, evidenced in their manuscripts (and Krenov mentions his difficulty in spelling in a few interviews), and when the two of them spoke to each other, they spoke Russian. But Krenov spoke Swedish and English at home with his family. So, really, he had no particular native tongue, speaking Russian and English from birth. But his primary language, i.e. the one he wrote notes to himself in and composed his writing and lectures in, was English. His gift with lecturing in English certainly gives me the impression that he was more comfortable in English than most of us.
His speech patterns remind me of a lot of Americans that spend a significant time abroad – my sister, for instance, lived in Germany for about a decade, and came back with some funny mannerisms that she still uses that aren’t exactly American or British English, more like “International” English. So that may be the source of his odd turns of phrase.
Thanks for the reply. I always assumed he started cabinet making in his 20s and writing in his 50s – as you have pointed out, his books are scant on such personal details. It is amazing that he didn’t even start his furniture career until his mid/late 30s.
There are certainly some biographic details in the last bits of “Notebook,” but he did leave a lot out – and thus, I’ve got a good reason to write this book! There’s an incredible richness to his life, and I hope it comes across in my writing. Thanks for reading along!
That makes so much sense now. I went and listened to an interview with him on YouTube and was a little surprised that his accent sounded 100% American (West Coast). “International English” is such a good way to put it. It must make writing about him interesting, though, having to deal with material in multiple languages. You have my respect!
Google Translate is the real hero, it’s amazingly good. I’m now writing about his time in America, so the hurdles are behind me, but there was a long time when I had to transcribe or use OCR on Swedish articles and correspondence before putting it through a translator – it’s a real chore. But, I’ll be handing over a lot of that material to the Krenov archives, so others might be able to see some of the original Swedish and the accompanying translation.
So…the linked article. I had to process for more than a day before writing something. Two little words reached out and slapped my funny bone on the way to my poignant chin: calculated originality. The commentary and conceptual meaning behind that two word gem is huge, to me at least. I have to resist spewing a string of adjectives to try to convey my feelings on this; not quite gobsmacked, but definitely more than riveted. In the woodworking context, the volumes that little phrase speaks…
I’m sure part of it is reading ACN again in conjunction with linked article. The essay that begins “As a perfectionist…”, on page 42 of my edition really complements what I found in “Wood: the Friendly Mystery”. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of the class, but the guy has a knack for really nailing down something.
I still want to know what grabbed me in CN so I’m reading to tease out what grabbed Krenov. On p. 24 he starts a conversation (mostly internal?) about aesthetics and practicality. What was his aesthetic? Malmsted’s School was an influence at the time. Our home was newly furnished in what was called Danish modern. But JK has something else going on when he frets about line, curves, and surfaces (not to mention doubt, fear, risk and joy). Then the craftsman “takes a stand (p. 42).” I’ve always loved the curves on the cherry cabinet (p. 27) and the pipe cabinet (p. 28, combining shape and space). He let the wood speak, and there is the client, and…Something! Tell me, Jim (probably shouldn’t call him that)!
One thing that strikes me about Krenov’s writing is that he seems comfortable speaking in contradictions in order to creep up on the truth. In fact, paradox seems pretty central to his work: perfectionism is a noble urge that “serves best while it is an illusion”; the best way to do “original” work is by letting go of the drive to be original. I think this is part of what makes Krenov compelling. I also wonder if it caused conflict with colleagues at craft schools. Was this a part of the personality clashes he experienced? And a related, but different question, because I simply don’t know: how was Krenov received by critics around the time he started writing? You’ve mentioned that he inspired other woodworkers almost immediately upon publishing A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook. Did the “art world” or the “craft world” (however one wants to distinguish those, or not) share that reaction?
Thank you for including the link to the American Craft Council’s archives where is contained Mr. Krenov’s article “Wood . . . the friendly mystery”. This helped confirm my conclusion that James Krenov was a mediocre writer. This is not to say that his message was wrong or not well thought through. It is that his craft of writing does not stand up to the standard he set for his woodworking. An example is the article in the American Craft Council magazine. The title is “Wood. . . the friendly mystery”. As the reader I expected the article to discuss wood and the mysteries contained in wood. That is exactly what the article does up until the second full paragraph on page 29 in the right hand column. Suddenly the article careens into a political discussion about craft and Mr. Krenov’s disagreements with many of the trends he had observed. No where does the mystery of wood appear in the article after that point including in the closing paragraph. Another similar thing happens on page 24 of A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook. He writes that there is inconsistency in the approach to functional things in wood. One approach is if it’s exotic it is good. The second is just give me a functional piece without regard to quality. Where is the third approach, which I think is Mr Krenov’s recommended approach to keep it functional but strive to make the wood look and perform at its best. Instead of saying that this is his approach the rest of the “chapter” or “essay” discusses the first two approaches with no encouragement to pursue his preferred approach. His writings are full of these deficiencies. This is the basis for my conclusion that he did not demand in his writing the same high standard as in his woodworking. An answer may be that he was a woodworker, not a writer. Oh but contra he did write five may be six books and many essays. Many well respected writers, such as Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee, never produced so much published writings. My comments are not to detract from Mr. Krenov’s woodworking or the philosophy and approach for which he advocated. He just did not expect from himself the same disciple in his writings as in his woodworking.
Thank you Brendan for suggesting this virtual book club. I hadn’t picked up Cabinetmakers Notebook for probably 20 years, when I first was getting a workshop put together. I was reading many books in the library at the time looking for “how to”, what I found in James’ book was more “why to” in my opinion. There were many sections that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, but in reading it again now, things are much clearer and really resonate with me as I restart my woodworking journey.
In the section where he discusses that of all the tools that woodworkers have, knives are the most neglected made me realize that in my work, that is 100% true. I have always come upon some task that I needed to complete, and my selection of tools did not seem to me to have the answer. Reading this passage the other day made me realize that I found my answer.
I know that work you do Brendan is very diverse and not single disipline like many. Do you have any suggestions on the types of knives which would be most useful in general woodworking? I know that chipcarving takes certain types and shapes of blades. I was wondering if you could steer me in a certain direction. The selection of blade types to this neophyte is confusing.
Thanks again for the suggesting of this reading this book. It has been a fun journey so far! I look forward to purchasing your book when completed!
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