This post is a continuation from a series of posts following a “read-along” or book club of sorts. This week, I’ll be discussing a third chunk of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 69. Next week, we’ll read up to page 78, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 70-78 in the comments section below, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post. This is a short passage, but it makes the most sense for dividing up the reading. There’s a lot to talk about in those two passages!
We are halfway into Krenov’s first book – and only just getting into what this book was about. Up to now, we’ve been wrestling with his words, but he was a cabinetmaker. So, maybe we should look at some of his work.
After all, Krenov was as much a cabinetmaker as a writer. It’s a funny thing to say, to split his identity one way or the other. By 1976, he’d been writing since he was just a teenager and had published several stories and travelogue. He’d only been working with wood for 18 or 19 years. In some ways, Krenov was a writer all along, but it’s clear that his life focused on and rallied around his craft once he discovered it. “Cabinetmaker Laureate” is the term I’ve been using for a while, and I think it’s apt. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff.
So, let’s look at some furniture. I particularly like the three pieces that were detailed in last week’s reading, which is why I wanted to draw your focus to his work in this part of the book. They span his career up to this point, they’re aesthetically varied, they’re stunning work and I have some great details and even “fact-checking” for each of the three.
The first of the three is the “Violin Cabinet.” Now, usually, I follow the name of the piece with a date – so perhaps I should have written “Violin Cabinet” (1969), which bears the date Krenov assigns the piece in the book. But look at the image below:
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack in that image. First, on the far right (and cropped off on the far left, maybe) is a bizarre piece I’ve never seen of Krenov’s, a “cabinet on a shelf” form – news to me. And speaking of “news” – in the distance, there are two trios of near identical pieces, in scale and form. Was he making multiples? Once again – news to me. The “No-Glass Showcase of Lemon Wood” (1962) is centerstage out on the floor, and on the left, we can see the “Violin Cabinet.”
The reason I present this photo to you: it was taken in 1965, at Krenov’s first solo show, “Liv i Trä” (Life in Wood), in the Hantverket gallery in central Stockholm. You may recognize the plain walls and nondescript carpet – many of the photos of Krenov’s work in his later books, especially those in “Worker in Wood,” were taken at the gallery, because Krenov held several shows here over his time in Sweden.
But again – the photo is from 1965. You can see the “Violin Cabinet” there on the left wall. There’s even a violin inside it, though I doubt it’s the Guaneri that Krenov mentions in “Worker in Wood,” where he provides some more details about this piece. So, the date is wrong, only off by a few years, maybe five. Not a big deal.
But, knowing that the cabinet is from before 1965, more of its features and peculiarities begin making sense. The simple shaping, almost completely rectilinear, was more common in his “early years” (I might define that time period as before his first solo show in 1965). He also used many more softwoods in these years – this could have been his interest at the time, and he may not yet have found the access to the exotic woods that would dominate his “middle years” (the 1970s or so, in my book). The pulls are simpler, and very smooth, with none of the carved facets his later work would have.
So, while the date hardly matters for the sake of “truth,” knowing that this is actually among the earliest work in the book helps us look for a few trends, and understand a bit of how his tastes and practices matured.
The piece is crisp. Larry Barrett noticed in his reading that the reveal around the doors was askew in one photo, but I’m sure it was either age or the angle – the photo above shows how svelte and careful the shaping and polishing was on this piece. Douglas fir is not as soft as pine – but getting such nice burnished edges, what Krenov would refer to as “friendly,” is not so simple. It’s a favorite piece of mine, in spite of it being so simple. Perhaps it’s because it fulfills a purpose so neatly – I need a place to put my violin, here it is. The fine-grained softwoods complement the spruce top of the violin, which is perfectly displayed above shelves for its accessories. It makes me wish I played the violin, so that I could make a cabinet like this.
The second piece covered in this section of the book is the “Chess Table” (1970). I have no arguments for that date. But, this time there are more details about who designed the piece, not its date. In fact, this is the only piece I know of where another designer worked with Krenov to make a piece of furniture.
Craig McArt was a central figure in Krenov’s career. McArt encouraged Jim to write a book, got his first essay published in Craft Horizons in 1967, and suggested him as a teacher to RIT in 1969 (and again in 1972). McArt had first met Jim in Stockholm in the 1966, while on a Fulbright scholarship to study abroad. McArt worked with Jim in the summer of 1966, in Krenov’s basement workshop. While he was there, he worked on a number of small furniture pieces, including a small piano stool for one of Georg Bolin’s pianos. But, toward the end of his residence in the shop, Krenov asked McArt to design a few pieces. Maybe it was just as an exercise, but McArt was much more technically capable a designer than Krenov was, or wanted to be.
By McArt’s memory, Jim never tried any of his other designs – except for a chess table. None of McArt’s drawings or plans exist any more for this piece, and he didn’t specify which details might be his influence or Krenov’s in this piece – but, this is the only example I know of where Jim solicited any outside design help or work. It’s a vague detail – but nonetheless singular and novel.
There’s a lot to say about the piece, but I think it’s easiest to focus in on the piece as an example of Krenov’s ability to show intention with every decision. There are so many little details. He sorted through the little squares before joining them and find those with the darker tones or color variation and arranged them accordingly. Look at the play surface above. Sapwood in the pearwood squares is arranged just so along the outer edges, the lighter rosewood pieces are in the middle, and so on. Now look at the wedges on the four tenons poking through the top. Two are dark, two are light, again echoing the playing surface.
What’s nice about this isn’t the gimmick – “The wedges are different colors! Cool!” What’s sweet is that every decision about color and grain is intentional, had some thought behind it. I’m never sure where my tastes lie with Krenov’s tables – they are, I would say, the most dated of his work (this is just me talking, not the biography). They tend to be a bit “bell-bottomy,” which I like in some of the cabinet stands, but less so here. But, you can look at every piece making up the table and know that he thought it through. When you start seeing flat sawn and quartersawn legs on the same face of a table (you can’t unsee it now that you know to look for it) you’ll know that not everyone pays attention to it, especially not with the eye that Krenov had. His consideration of grain is exceptional.
Before we look at the last piece, I think it’s important to bring to your attention the writing on pages 58-60. I’d say read it again, if you just scanned. It is, I think, my favorite passage in the book.
But it isn’t my favorite passage because it’s the most inspiring, or the most poetic. I like it because it’s frank. It’s a passage where Krenov shows a side of himself that he didn’t often display in person – nuance and self-reflection. He was famously irascible in his interactions, but a lot of the people I’ve talked with also mention his nuance a reservation, a self-awareness that only a few people really encountered. I can hear some of that in this passage. He’s talking about doubts, discouragement, his own luck, his old age – it’s like a few pages of a memoir, one I wish were much longer. I’ll excerpt a particularly good passage, which was also called out by Merle Hall last week.
“… I am a very lucky person. When I feel lucky in the total sense, I also feel very much ashamed for my weaknesses and the times when I have doubted, the instances when I’ve wasted a bit of what is most valuable in life. Time has passed, and I’m somewhere on a hill now. Anywhere I look around is down. Along the rest of the way, I must be less afraid. And more grateful.”
The last piece pictured in detail in this section of the book is his “Music Stand,” in pearwood. In his larger body of work, this is a piece unique for its specificity in use. Later in his career, when he was able to do speculative pieces without a specific buyer or intended use, he gravitated to cabinets, which provided the forms he may have most enjoyed making. But his music stands, of which he made at least five over his career, are purpose built for a pair of players sitting opposite each other.
The pearwood stand pictured in the book is now in the collection of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, which has the largest number of Krenov’s pieces of any museum. Still, that collection is only five pieces – Krenov never made enough pieces to be collected in a volume that other makers could muster.
Here, while the intention of wood selection and form is just as salient as the chess table, what I see carefully explored in this piece is his penchant for shaping and fair curves. The legs have a complex set of facets that ground them neatly, one he accomplished with his planes and a spokeshave. The drawers can be pulled from either side, with a pull that is carefully shaped and “let in” to the two drawer fronts in a particularly graceful way. It’s a sweet piece.
Music played an important role in Krenov’s life. His mother was a deep appreciator of opera and classical music. Krenov was fond of musical analogies, and it’s clear that, in music, he found a lot of similarities to his own creative practice. “The cabinetmaker’s violin” is what he called his handplanes. In the photo above, Bernard Henderson and Marcia Sloane played for the class of 1987 when Jim made his last iteration of the music stands. Marcia Sloane would also play for Jim in his last days, bring her cello into his hospital room in 2009. His compulsion to make five of these stands must have had some deeper tie to this relationship with music. The intimacy of their design, too, being made for two players sitting opposite each other, shows a preference for the sensitivity and familiarity required when playing in a duet.
As I’ve been writing this biography, it’s been easy to forget to look at his work, not his books and relationships. Krenov’s personality was terrifically complex. His writing makes that clear enough, and his relationship with the world could be both contrarian and optimistic in the same breath. But, looking at his work, his ability to be present in the execution of a piece of work is clear. The presence of mind to carve a pull and position it to be comfortable for a reaching hand shows a consideration of the user that I don’t see present in much furniture. While my biography does not stray too deeply into a critical analysis of his work, his furniture had so much of him in it that it almost makes up a secondary set of primary sources.
I was excited by some of the comments in last week’s post. Scott, I’m thrilled with all of the remembrances and encounters you’re sharing. A lot of the writing in this book is a slow burn – it’s fun to follow along as you read through with us, and I’m enjoying your notes!
Next week, we’ll read just a few pages, up to page 78. It’s a short read, and it features two distinctly different passages – one about cats, one about Krenov’s process. There’s a lot to unpack, and I have a lot to add about Krenov’s life with animals. So, I look forward to the next post! As before – 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 this next section of the book or the photographed works therein.
I hope everyone is doing well with their time at home, or for those working in essential roles in these crazy times (like my amazing wife), a big thank you. Another week down, and another week ahead, with the hopes that we’ll find some silver linings in all of this.
26 thoughts on “Quiet Book Club #3: Three Pieces, A Few Surprises”
This is a Great idea. I love Krenov’s book and look forward the insite.
Brendan- This is a great series, and I appreciate the incredible effort you’re putting into it. I read Krenov a few years ago, but this re-read, with the anticipation of discussion, has motivated me to be more patient with it and to savor his points.
My greatest takeaway so far: how timeless, human, and accessible Krenov’s points are. He talks of craft, value, and mass manufacturing in the same spirit that many of our modern woodworking thought-leaders would. I was particularly taken by his discussion about sitting in his shop, waiting for work to show up. About sweeping the floor multiple times, and about cutting boards for no specific project but with the chance of making them more accessible for when work did arrive. Stunningly humble. And disciplined. And courageous.
Did Krenov simply live in a different time and different place, given his tolerance for any lack of commission? Or did he find a way of existing that involved an overhead unimaginably low to us today? (One thing I like to remember is that with internet costs, iPhones, and certain lifestyle addictions, we’ve systematically made our survival harder and harder by making it more and more expensive to maintain a certain standard of living.)
Another recurring question comes to mind as I read Krenov: why are we reading Krenov today, decades after he wrote? (I accept that we should be, by the way.) Are we reading him because he was an exceptional woodworker? Or was he an average woodworker but one with a sharp pen? Was he an average thinker but one with a knack for finding an audience? Is his popularity driven largely by his talent for providing inspiration to young and aspiring woodworkers? Having spent the last few years studying him, what is your answer? What are his defining qualities?
Another question: what, if anything, did Krenov do that hadn’t been done before? People obviously used planes before. People obviously built cabinets on stands before. People obviously looked at grain and lines before. And people obviously created work of the highest level of excellence. Did he do anything new? Or did he just provide a voice for something that had been happening for generations?
And finally for this post, do we think the audience for excellence has evolved since Krenov wrote this book? Is it getting easier or harder for masters to sustain themselves? Do we simply need more rich people? Or do we think that average households with average incomes should spend thousands of dollars on pieces, finally recognizing the value of an investment in craft?
These are my big-picture questions at this point in our reading. They aren’t necessarily specific to any individual passage, but they reflect themes in my reaction to the book.
And again, I think you for your diligence on this project.
“…average households with average incomes should spend thousands of dollars on pieces…
I’m an introvert and very pragmatic toward life; an argument can be made that I’m still ‘people’, though. I think your posited position performs poorly in the pragmatic sense. Not quite a full alliteration, but pretty close. 🙂 Seriously, in answer to the rhetorical question, people in general know that quality costs, but they also know that cheap ready made solutions are just down the street. Marketers know we know this and muddy the water by conflating price with quality all too often in message, but not in durable goods. Average people support craft in spirit, but when it comes down to buying a new dining set, it is impossible to justify a years worth of college education for a kid in exchange for a table and few chairs.
… do we think the audience for excellence has evolved since Krenov wrote this book?
The internet has created a level playing field for most things on the top of the bell curve of consumption, but is more stratifying when you get to the fringes. I can compare rocking chairs by price from a number of quality manufacturers from my computer. However, if I want a Sam Maloof style rocker, the Internet is a great way to find the folks who can service the need, but shopping by price is a lot more difficult. Individual makers can connect with a wider audience, but the percentage of the population comprising that audience generally doesn’t change. I suppose I could have typed ‘yes’ and left it at that. 🙂
I think, in response to the first point, that we have to keep in mind the environment Krenov was living in. Scandinavia, in the post-war years, was not an over-consuming culture. They had fewer, nicer things. His work wasn’t on the level of college tuition; adjusted for inflation, most of his pieces from the 1970s sold for between $2,000 and $5,000. He chose poverty, not delusion or celebrity, in his pricing. Even so, Krenov did not suppose that everyone could afford his work, but he did but heads with the idea that average people couldn’t, and I might, too.
“We need both anonymous and functional objects, and work that make us feel and experience, things that possess intimacy and all these adventures that are at the core of craft.” (This is translated from Swedish by myself and Google, so it’s not quite right, but the thought is there.)
Krenov amplifies a point that Pye made in his book, that some things are necessarily utilitarian. But, if everything is, you lose out on some of the richness of creativity and craft that some objects can embody. I’m poor, like, actually poor; but if I can stand the fact that the objects of utility in my day to day life, like my wonderful truck with 250,000 miles on it, do the job just fine without needing to be items of luxury or beauty, it let’s me have some items of significant value. In the end, Krenov is advocating for a kind of cultural budgeting of luxury or fine objects; spend whatever capital you have, time or money, on those objects that might bring some richness to your life, and accept the balance that leaves with other objects in your life. In that way, I do think average people can afford a few objects of significant value and quality. If I can, and do in my own life (of, again, pretty meager income), I suspect most people can – and my income is well below the national average.
Also, I’m not approaching the investement of higher quality goods; I also think my $900 chairs are a deal, considering that they’ll outlast anything from Ikea by a factor of ten. But there’s little debate among most of us (I presume), or in Krenov’s writing, that quality is worth paying for, or investing your time in.
We are reading because Krenov was both an exceptional craftsman and an exceptional thinker and story teller. The books also have a nice production value, with the photos shot to highlight details that might be overlooked from a more traditional approach.
Its basically impossible to make a lot of money building high quality furniture one piece at a time – that was true then and it is true now.
Answering a few of your questions:
“Did Krenov simply live in a different time and different place, given his tolerance for any lack of commission? Or did he find a way of existing that involved an overhead unimaginably low to us today?”
He did live in a different time and place; Sweden, a socialist nation riding high on its post-war boom. For many years he received a small stipend from the government for being an exceptional craftsperson, to the tune of a few thousands dollars a year (in today’s money). He also made some money on the work he was commissioned, and I suspect he was generally more busy than the passage you read describes; he was probably his most productive in the early 1970s, which is when the book was written. He also was teaching abroad, at RIT for three summers and BU for a semester, which would have augmented his income. Most of all, he was supported by his wife, a schoolteacher with regular employment that made his more speculative and infrequent income a viable career.
Also, the family lived in a simple home, and his shop was in the basement, just two smaller rooms. He had very little overhead, and kept his business small; no employees, no rented shop space, etc. They were middle class.
“Why are we reading Krenov today, decades after he wrote? (I accept that we should be, by the way.) Are we reading him because he was an exceptional woodworker? Or was he an average woodworker but one with a sharp pen? Was he an average thinker but one with a knack for finding an audience? Is his popularity driven largely by his talent for providing inspiration to young and aspiring woodworkers? Having spent the last few years studying him, what is your answer? What are his defining qualities?”
That’s a whole book’s worth of questions, and I think they’ll be clear in the book. So I’ll pass on addressing every point there; I’ll simply say that he was a good writer, an exceptional craftsperson and a capable, novel thinker, the combination of which makes him one of very few makers that I think will remain relevant and worthy of analysis and consideration in any scenario or craft practice. He was definitely more than an average thinker; I mean, you’re reading the same book, right? It doesn’t strike me as the work of an average mind, whether you agree or disagree with his points.
“Did he do anything new? Or did he just provide a voice for something that had been happening for generations?”
Again, that’s a whole book in two questions. To put it simply; yes, he was novel in a number of dimensions, and the voice he gave was solidly his own, though many took it up after him. He was influenced by many before him, but I think the synthesis of his aesthetics, philosophy and appeal was new, and exciting enough that his first book remains one of the best selling woodworking books, while also talking more about craft philosophy and aesthetics than how to actually make anything. He hit a nerve, and not with people already doing something; he brought a lot of people into the craft.
“Do we think the audience for excellence has evolved since Krenov wrote this book? Is it getting easier or harder for masters to sustain themselves? Do we simply need more rich people? Or do we think that average households with average incomes should spend thousands of dollars on pieces, finally recognizing the value of an investment in craft?”
You’re good at asking big, almost unanswerable, questions! I’ll balk first by saying – the biography I’m writing, I hope, answers these bigger questions in the length of response they deserve.
I dislike the term “masters,” it’s too vague, and elsewhere in the world it’s actually a proper title given to people with very specific (and arduous) accomplishments. But, I don‘t know that it’s easier or harder to support yourself working as a dedicated, qualified and appreciated maker. But, the tack of your line of questioning is a bit shifted from Krenov’s points; he is not talking about how to sustain yourself, in a monetary sense. He’s talking about fulfillment of a passion or pursuit in an uncompromising way, for a maker that’s driven to do so. He also presumes that in the process, you might find a receptive audience.
I would read the passage starting at the bottom of p. 73 again for some clarity on his opinions in this direction. Or, at the back of “Impractical Cabinetmaker,” his third book, he has an essay called “Those People” that might clarify his thoughts for you further.
Thank you, Brendan, for this post and for the many others. Looking forward to next week.
On page 72 is the anecdote about Peder Moos, where a woman wanted a cabinet and was provided a chair–yet she politely said thank you and paid up. That story stuck out in my mind, too. Unfortunately, the rest of the essay highlights where Krenov and I part ways. I can sit back and romanticize his lessons in a fantasy about being a known and sought after woodworker, but at the end of the day, I know I will never be in a similar position.
I do, however, appreciate Krenov’s insight into himself as he reflects on his success.
“I survived by simply refusing to do things because people wanted me to do them…” Wow. Talk about a slap in the face of conventional wisdom that says the customer is always right. Krenov’s customers aren’t right any more than they are welcome to hang on his doorbell all day. OK, so I’m overstating things a bit, but it captures my perception of Krenov as a craftsman in business.
Part of running a business is training your customers how to do business with you. For a dozen years I did consulting to small and medium businesses. You are really selling your philosophy and work ethic above and beyond your skill set. A lot of customers are not a good fit for the way you run your shop and you have to shed them, which means turning down money. Krenov clearly held out for the few folks who meshed well with his customer picture. He freely admits that he would not be able to do so if not for the other person in his life who …is carrying the other end of that plank.
Krenov was more interested in finding an audience that appreciated what he wanted to do, and as you point out, that was a bad business approach. But, it’s hard to say it didn’t work for him; only a few years out of school, he was being featured in juried shows among makers that had been in the practice for decades before him. So, if you have somethign exceptional to offer – if you “have it,” whatever “it” is – you can give this kind of business practice a shot. And you’re right about his having a support network, Britta (his wife) supported the family for years, and his income was meager even after he had been featured in prestigious shows.
But, I do hate the phrase “the customer is always right.” Maybe that true in a coffee shop, but part of the job of those working at the highest level of craft is to hold themselves to standards that exceed a demand in a public eye. And, again, Krenov was distinctly in opposition of monetary concerns in craft; following the money doesn’t bring a fullness to any craft practice. But that’s going down a path to anti-capitalism, and I won’t go there here; suffice to say, making money or being beholden to what a paying customer thought was not how Krenov got where he did.
I remember Chris had a great analogy for this, in terms of content for the magazine. You can be a mirror, and show everyone what they want, or you can be a lantern and show them a new path. Not everyone will like what they don’t know, but those who like what they see will be much richer for having been exposed to new things. If the reader was always right, the magazines would probably have had nothing but workshop jigs, workbenches, measured drawings and dovetails (in my opinion). But if you take a chance on what YOU find compelling, not the customer, you have a real shot to bring something new and exciting to the table. And maybe you turn off a few customers; you can’t please everyone.
Krenov seems like the cat, sitting with one eye on the wood and awaiting his opportunity! “You have an idea about…a certain detail,…that there should be a way for your hands to interpret it. I realized wood contains so much inspiration and beauty and rhythm that if used properly it would result in an individual, a unique object (pp. 67, 73).” I feel drawn into certain pieces he did and I’m realizing it’s such a different way of working than copying plans from books or magazines. Spending time with a tool, just as much as with a piece of wood, creates competence, confidence and then perhaps an expression of what I wanted all along — what Pye calls the “workmanship of confidence”. No short-cuts here! I particularly like the writing-reading table, e.g. the lines under the apron matching the bottom of the stretchers. And I have a question. It looks like the top is glued up from four planks, the bottom being (perhaps) 5/4 stock shaped into that lip. Or was the lip another narrow piece glued on? And I wondered if we know how many pieces he created in his lifetime and how many were different versions of the same design — not that the total matters but just for more insight into how his creative process grew.
In the first few years of his practice, Krenov did make some repeated pieces, nearly identical to each other, though he quickly left that idea behind – I see no evidence of it after 1965 or so (six years after he left Malmsten’s school). He did reapproach old forms a few times; the music stand from the above post, or the “Silver Chest” that’s also in “Notebook” (pages 100-103) were pieces he made a few times. He did not make them from drawings, though, and each version had different woods, shaping or dimensions than previous iterations. How many pieces in his lifetime is hard to say; some years he made a dozen, some he made just three; there are 60 pieces in the books that are given dates, and another twenty or thirty without dates or specifics given, and in the course of my research, I’ve seen a number of pieces from before the books that were never documented formally. So, before 1981 and the publication of the last book, he’d probably made around two hundred pieces of varying size and demand. After the books, his output was much more regular; three or four pieces a year, for thirty years. So, in all, a good rough estimate would be around 300 pieces. Of those, maybe two or three dozen were an iteration of the same form, but by and large (90+%) his work was unique and singular.
As to how his creative process grew; there isn’t enough space here to go into that detail. That’s something to look forward to in the book; it certainly developed over his years.
As to the table top, I would guess that the piece was glued up from several pieces, and the bottom most piece would have been thicker stock with a carved lip, as you describe first.
Brendan, I thought you might want to see–if you haven’t already seen–this interview from David Mark’s old series: https://www.djmarks.com/free-videos/ .Thank you for your posts.
I have seen it, and Megan Fitzpatrick just sent i to me again a month or two ago. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, though! I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts.
The anecdote about Peder Moos was great. I’m going to remember that one for a long time. It seems to me that there are only two kinds of maker who could do such a thing–the Famous Master (the person whose wait-list is years long) and the Amateur (the person who works only for fun and not for profit). Peder Moos was obviously the former, and eventually so was Krenov. Many of us are lucky enough to be the latter. But between Peder Moos and the pure amateur are the many people who rely on their woodwork for some or all of their livelihood and aren’t famous enough or accomplished enough to be Peder Moos (or James Krenov).
I’ve dabbled in the business side of woodworking myself, making things to sell–and you know, it changes the way you work. You have to find ways to be efficient, to economize on time. (Wood is cheap, compared to time.) If that means not sanding down the underside of a table or not trimming the dovetails on the back of a drawer, so be it. And that’s how furniture makers–even the best ones–in past centuries worked. You won’t find an 18th century highboy with a finished back, no matter how ornate the front and sides may be.
But even when I could take the time to finish the backs or undersides of pieces to the same degree that I finish the show-sides, I don’t. I’ve had too much fun in antique shops looking behind and underneath old furniture for the telltale tool marks–the scallops from a jack plane, the nail heads, even sometimes a pencil mark. The back and underside can help tell the story of how the piece was built, and I don’t want to conceal that story from anybody in the future who might care to look. I think I can respect Krenov’s desire to perfect every side of his pieces. Yet I haven’t the slightest desire to go that direction myself.
If I indulge in taking Krenov’s voice to respond to one of your points; you don’t HAVE to find ways to be efficient to sell your work. Krenov’s standards were very different than 18th century makers. He wanted every surface to be as worthy of examination and appreciation, regardless of its likelihood of discovery. He was driven by a force very different than economy or efficiency; he was going to do it his way, every inch to the highest standard, fit and finish. Rather than sacrifice his standards, he sacrificed the practicality of his work as employment; thus, we get his self-imposed (and apt) title of “impractical.”
Everyone that goes into business making things starts thinking of how they can cut corners. But, Krenov always stressed that if you worked without compromise, and continued in a demanding practice, that speed would come. This was true for Krenov (and I find it true, myself); he could whip out some pieces, like the intricately shaped legs for his cabinets, with relative ease and quickness. He found a different path, and encouraged those who could afford the time to do the same. But he was never deluded that everyone could do it; he just presupposed that there were others, like him, who wouldn’t cut corners because of the simple fact that they wouldn’t take the same joy in the work if they did.
If you don’t finish the back of a cabinet with the intention of making it interesting upon examination, or leave your orientation marks or tool marks on the piece as a way of discovering some part of the process in a piece’s construction, I suppose that’s a bit different. But, to offer Krenov’s position: your piece should have your fingerprints everywhere in its making, the form, the lines, the choice of woods, the intended uses. You don’t have to show the literal marks of your process in the piece to “leave fingerprints,” as Krenov put it; the piece should already have plenty of your own character, if you’ve taken the process through from its beginnings.
One of the things that struck me in this book, was how many of the drawers in the various pieces highlighted were constructed with through dovetails even for the drawer fronts. Did Krenov really think this was a better aesthetic than half-blind ones? There are many famous pieces of his that use the more orthodox half-blind construction, so I wouldn’t think so. Somehow having a bunch of rectangular pieces of end grain staring you in the face strikes me as detracting from the fine face grain everywhere else. With his obsession with getting every little detail just right, I am having a hard time understanding why this (dare I say it?) lazy corner cutting in many of these pieces. Was it perhaps a phase he went through in the years highlighted in the book? What do you think?
I think he’d disagree with you about the end grain’s presence as being corner cutting or lazy. I enjoy the appearance of the dovetails, and it’s something he did throughout his career. I think you’re confusing your own aesthetic with a judgement of quality; Krenov, unlike workers from centuries before, was not opposed to the appearance in end grain in his work. Krenov never cut corners, in any of the work I’ve seen, even with my most critical eye. His unwillingness to cut corners was at the core of his practice.
I, too, have wondered about those exposed dovetails on all his drawers. Perhaps it’s just a matter of visual habit, but they look “wrong” to my eye. Almost as if somebody said, “And now I will interrupt the grain lines of this piece by putting a series of dark squares on the sides of the drawer.” Of course it’s all a matter of convention; if the 18th century cabinet makers had all used through-dovetails, we might not notice them in Krenov’s pieces at all. They’re not to my taste, but you can’t fault the integrity of the construction. Those drawers aren’t going to fall apart.
I suppose what I want to know is if Krenov ever explained why he made his drawers that way? He did explain a lot about his aesthetic choices in his pieces. How did he think about drawer construction and placement?
Very much appreciative of the thoughtful posts being made, I’ll offer two additional notes.
First, Krenov and I have little in common as woodworkers (unfortunately for me). He was a master, and my projects have been few and modest. But he struck a chord when he wrote of developing a sense of sadness about his loss of time. He wrote that he was starting to recognize the wood he wouldn’t touch and the pieces he wouldn’t finish because he was aging. I share that feeling to an immense degree. I have an intense career and a house full of kids. My woodworking comes it a few minutes stolen here or there. I’ve started to wonder whether I’ll ever complete my development, due to limited opportunity. I buy wood or read books as a replacement for woodworking. (Thank you
LAP!) I’ve a garage full of wood, and I stare at it for my daily fix. As my kids age, more time will come, but I, like Krenov, feel my potential slipping through my fingers.
Second, a question for Brendan: Krenov promised to stop working when he could not longer hit his standard. Did he actually do that? I’ve read that his sight left him and that his woodworking was limited to plane making for friends. When and how did Krenov pull himself out of commission work? (…or will you make us wait for the book?)
In answer to your second question:
Looking at his last cabinet, which he himself could not complete (having lost most of his sight and some of his hearing) I don’t perceive any slacking in his conviction or quality. He narrowed his forms in his last years, to small cabinets on a stand that might have been well-suited to his aging eyes, ears and strength. But, an accident in the workshop (which shook him but did not cause him any injury) led him to stop working on the cabinets. So, in a sense, he did quit when he was unable to work anymore, but his standards did not drop. He did continue to make hand planes, though, up to just a few months before his passing. These were for purchase, and for friends, though the monetary aspect is minute (he often sent two when only one was ordered).
In terms of commissions – he, generally speaking, stopped taking commissions much earlier in life. He worked on spec pieces, i.e., what he wanted to make, not what a customer ordered. But his cabinets, up to the last, were sold to customers.
I’m late to the party but want to say how much I’m looking forward to your book, especially seeing how much in depth research you are doing. Thanks! And these “book club” posts are wonderful.
Here’s something, admittedly trivial, I’ve wondered about. On the cover of the 1983 Van Nostrand Reinhold softcover edition of Notebook, the close up photo of the box shows what seems to be a mis-marked dovetail baseline right next to the correctly marked line. I guess the publisher chose the cover photo but I wonder if JK or anyone ever commented on that. Ever since I bought the book around 1983, I imagined that the photo was chosen to reassure readers (like me!) that even a craftsman as great as Krenov isn’t perfect. I wonder if there was an intentional message there.
Thanks again for your efforts.
I thought the same! And not just about why leave the second, incorrect baseline. Why leave either one showing?
I’ve wondered the same thing. Krenov was very involved in the book’s design, which was done by Jean Callan King, who I spoke to a month or two ago. I suspect your instinct is correct – he was very encouraging to students about making mistakes, and there are a number of passages across the books about problem-solving being an integral part of the craft. But, I don’t have his actual impression of that particular photo, that I know of.
This brings to mind the chapter Repairing Mistakes? in The Impractical Cabinetmaker. As you know, there JK distinguishes between “two kinds of mistakes: those of the hand and those of the mind.” The latter may make it not worthwhile to even continue with a project, but he seems to accept the everyday slips of the hand as inevitable – presumably even for him. The key, he warns us, is to deal with them at the same level of skill and refinement that you bring to the rest of the project, and he implies that some of these small mistakes should be left alone. Perhaps that explains the cover of Notebook.
Now for some reason, I think I’ve reread that chapter on mistakes at least a dozen times over the years. Hmmm . . .
I have always loved the little chess table. There are several things about it that appeal to me:
1 The individual squares have depth to them. This shows on the perimeter of the board where you can see that each square is a block of wood – it isn’t just veneer. You also see a slight bevel on each individual block and flat surface almost becomes a sculpture. I love that tiny little detail.
2 The side margin of the table allows enough room to place a chess clock on either side of the board. And there is room on the sides for captured pieces too, as the game progresses. This is a very practical and usable surface.
3 The margin is minimal between the player and the board, so you don’t have to lean over very much to reach across the table and move a piece. It would be comfortable to play at this table for hours.
Thank you Brendan, for the Quiet Book Club. When I saw that you were writing about Krenov, I replaced one his books that I had lost. When you asked us to actually read the books, I began reading. My wife saw me reading A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, and said: “I remember when you got that book – forty years ago. You said it was important and that you needed to read it.” I didn’t read it though. Thanks to you, I’m actually reading.
Really enjoying your posts, and appreciate the hard work you’re putting in to this project. Looking forward very much to the book when it comes out.
Regarding the Violin Cabinet and the disparity between the attributed dates, in your images and text above, do you consider there’s any possibility that JK made the cabinet more than once? Probably a long shot, but it would explain the dates and we know that he revisited several cabinets over the years. I have no evidence or even a clue that he did so in this case — just curious what you think.
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