The following is excerpted from “With the Grain,” by Christian Becksvoort.
It is, above all, succinct, easy to understand and perfectly suited for the furniture-maker. As important as what is in its 160 pages is what is not. It’s not a detailed analysis of cell growth. It is not a heap of tables and equations for figuring truss loads in residential construction. It is decidedly not a scientist’s approach to the material.
Instead, “With the Grain” contains the facts you need to know at the lumberyard, in the woodlot and in the shop. It gives you enough science so you understand how trees grow. It explains the handful of formulas you have to know as a furniture-maker. And it gives you a hearty dose of specific information about North American species that will inspire you. Becksvoort encourages you to use the trees in your neighborhood and makes the case that just because you cannot find catalpa at the lumberyard doesn’t mean it’s not a good furniture wood.
You’ll learn to identify the trees around you from their silhouette, leaves and shoots. And you’ll learn about how these species work in the shop – both their advantages and pitfalls.
Butternut, the closest relative to black walnut, is sometimes called white walnut, oilnut or lemon walnut. It is a rather short, spreading tree growing only to 30′-50′ (9-15 m) in the open, and occasionally reaching 60′-80′ (18-24 m) in the forest. The wood is not as strong as walnut, and branches are subject to wind and snow damage. The trees are short lived, seldom becoming more than 75 years old. Their natural habitat extends from New Brunswick through southern Canada into Wisconsin, south to Missouri and east to Virginia.
Several differences in leaf, branch and fruit structure make butternut distinguishable from black walnut. Butternut has 11-17 light green, sticky leaflets on its compound leaves, reaching a total of 15″-30″ (38-76 cm) in length. The twigs have a long terminal bud and a small, downy pad between the lateral bud and the leaf scar of the previous year. The pith in the twig is dark brown. The nuts have a green husk and are oval in shape, almost like pecans. The bark is gray-brown and ridged.
Butternut has light, creamy sapwood less than 1″ (2.5 cm) wide. The heartwood is medium brown and quite lustrous. It is very soft and light in weight, having a density of 27 lb/ft3 or .42 g/cc at 12 percent MC. The pores of this ring-porous wood are easily visible by eye and are filled with tyloses, while the rays are almost too small to be seen. The wood is used in cabinetwork, paneling, veneer, toys and millwork such as doors, sash and trim. It tools and machines well, and is a pleasant wood to work with. Unlike other woods, which darken or bleach with age, butternut tends to remain a medium-brown color.
Katherine Schwarz and I spent some time this afternoon making a large order of soft wax 2.0 for her etsy store. It was the fastest and most consistent batch she has made since she started making wax several years ago.
After years of using homemade contraptions to heat and dispense the soft wax, we got serious. We now own a commercial mixer (designed for the cosmetics industry) that heats the ingredients to the correct temperature, blends them and allows us to easily dispense the soft wax into jars.
What usually took two days to do was completed in a couple hours.
The first batch made by our new mixer is now in her etsy store. More is to come. The machine worked so fast that we unexpectedly ran out of jars.
Notes on the finish: This is the finish I use on my chairs. Katherine cooks it up here in the machine room using a waterless process. She then packages it in a tough glass jar with a metal screw-top lid. She applies her hand-designed label to each lid, boxes up the jars and ships them in a durable cardboard mailer. The money she makes from wax helps her make ends meet at college. Instructions for the wax are below.
Instructions for Soft Wax 2.0 Soft Wax 2.0 is a safe finish for bare wood that is incredibly easy to apply and imparts a beautiful low luster to the wood.
The finish is made by cooking raw, organic linseed oil (from the flax plant) and combining it with cosmetics-grade beeswax and a small amount of a citrus-based solvent. The result is that this finish can be applied without special safety equipment, such as a respirator. The only safety caution is to dry the rags out flat you used to apply before throwing them away. (All linseed oil generates heat as it cures, and there is a small but real chance of the rags catching fire if they are bunched up while wet.)
Soft Wax 2.0 is an ideal finish for pieces that will be touched a lot, such as chairs, turned objects and spoons. The finish does not build a film, so the wood feels like wood – not plastic. Because of this, the wax does not provide a strong barrier against water or alcohol. If you use it on countertops or a kitchen table, you will need to touch it up every once in a while. Simply add a little more Soft Wax to a deteriorated finish and the repair is done – no stripping or additional chemicals needed.
Soft Wax 2.0 is not intended to be used over a film finish (such as lacquer, shellac or varnish). It is best used on bare wood. However, you can apply it over a porous finish, such as milk paint.
APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS (VERY IMPORTANT): Applying Soft Wax 2.0 is so easy if you follow the simple instructions. On bare wood, apply a thin coat of soft wax using a rag, applicator pad, 3M gray pad or steel wool. Allow the finish to soak in about 15 minutes. Then, with a clean rag or towel, wipe the entire surface until it feels dry. Do not leave any excess finish on the surface. If you do leave some behind, the wood will get gummy and sticky.
The finish will be dry enough to use in a couple hours. After a couple weeks, the oil will be fully cured. After that, you can add a second coat (or not). A second coat will add more sheen and a little more protection to the wood.
Soft Wax 2.0 is made in small batches in Kentucky. Each glass jar contains 8 oz. of soft wax, enough for at least two chairs.
This Irish-inspired stick chair is built specifically for reading and relaxing. With a back that is pitched at 28°, a seat that tilts back at 4° and the sweeping curved backrest, this is one of the most comfortable wooden chairs I make.
The seat is 16” off the floor, which is 2” lower than a chair for keyboarding, though I don’t find the chair difficult to get out of. The overall height of the chair is 31”.
The chair is made from European oak (grown in Germany), which has an oranger tone than American oaks. The seat is a single board of oak, which was the most challenging saddling job I’ve had since I saddled a seat in dry elm. This chair is finished with three coats of super blonde shellac. The chair is assembled with hide glue, which means it will be easy to repair by future generations.
The design is inspired by the Irish chairs I inspected during a trip to the island a few years ago. Lucy and I visited numerous museums and private collections, and measured many examples. Like stick chairs in England, Wales and Scotland, Irish vernacular chairs were made using readily available materials with many ingenious touches of “made do.”
This chair had its challenges. I had only a small amount of European oak, and I struggled to get all the parts out of the boards on hand – and get the color and grain looking good. Surprisingly, it turned out OK.
Purchasing the Chair
This chair is being sold via random drawing. The price is $1,500. (I’m sorry but the chair cannot be shipped outside the U.S.) If you wish to buy the chair, please send an email to email@example.com before 3 p.m. (Eastern) on Friday, April 15. In the email please use the subject line “Irish Chair” and include your:
First name and last name
U.S. shipping address
Daytime phone number (this is for the trucking quote only)
Shipping options: You are welcome to pick up the chair here in Covington, Ky., and also get a free yardstick. I am happy to deliver the chair personally for free within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Ohio. Or we can ship it to you via LTL. The cost varies (especially these days), but it is usually between $200 and $300.
Krenov (1920-2009) was one of the most influential woodworking writers, instructors and designers of the 20th century. His best-selling books – starting with “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” – inspired tens of thousands of people to pick up the tools and build things to the highest standard.
Yet, little is known about his life, except for a few details mentioned in his books.
After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traces Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School).
“James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” brims with the details of Krenov’s life that, until now, were known only to close friends and family. The book begins by examining the noble origins of Krenov’s mother in Russia, and her flight into the wilderness during the country’s revolution. After Krenov is born among the Chukchi at a trade outpost, the Krenovs flee to Shanghai and then the United States. After time in Alaska and Seattle, Krenov heads to Sweden where he works in a factory and tries to get his writing published.
By the 1990s, the students who were coming through the school were, like the wider public, most familiar with the work that Krenov had published. But in the subsequent decades since the publications of his books, Krenov’s work had continued to evolve, and he began pursuing pieces that had features that were novel and outside his previous work. Hjorth-Westh remembered that some of Krenov’s work during his school years pushed Krenov’s own aesthetics to a new place. While his output was exclusively free-standing cabinets, most of which took the cabinet on a stand form, the early 1990s saw the introduction of a number of new techniques into his work, due in part to the exchange of ideas and inspirations he had with students and colleagues at the school. In 1991, Krenov put a small wall cabinet with a painted interior, the “Spalted V-Front Wall Cabinet,” in the 10th anniversary show at Pritam & Eames. The use of paint was a shock to many of his students, though he had used paint on the interior of two other cabinets, the “Bits of Maple Wall Cabinet” in 1962 and the “Birdseye V-Front Wall Cabinet” made in 1972. He also began exploring the use of large laminated panels inside his cabinets, accentuating their unique division of the internal space by placing glass doors on all sides of the cabinet.
A defining example of Krenov’s late explorations of technique was a series of parquetry cabinets, in which he explored a painterly composition of shop-sawn veneers. He made the first of these cabinets in 1993, and took advantage of the emptying out of the classroom at the end of the school year to spread his freshly sawn walnut veneers across several of the benches. Interestingly, the pieces may have found their strongest influence from a series of linen presses Carl Malmsten had executed nearly 50 years earlier. Malmsten’s furniture designs often featured abstract and geometric arrangements of parquetry, and even used walnut veneers in their execution. After this first walnut cabinet, Krenov continued to include parquetry as a central feature in a number of pieces, including “Fire and Smoke,” a rare “titled” cabinet Krenov made with pear and alarice woods in 1994 that found its way to Pritam & Eames. He hinted at this willingness to experiment in his essays published in “With Wakened Hands” in 2000, the book he was working to produce throughout the 1990s to showcase both his and his students’ work.
“I work fairly well, seeing how I have to overcome the arthritis in my right hand,” Krenov wrote. “I am able to work in a way that pleases me, that fills me with a purpose and with a certain secret satisfaction I enjoy sharing with my students … These last few years I have found a new freedom to experiment and do things I have never before dared.”
These parquetry cabinets came to be a favorite among many of Krenov’s admirers, for their deft application of Krenov’s composition skills with wood grain. The use of veneers allowed Krenov the freedom to compose much more complex or rich grain figures. Brain Newell, who saw these pieces come together, recalls that they represented a moment of continuing innovation and exploration.
“The work shows me that one can be dynamic and innovative within a very narrow framework, and that reinventing the wheel in furniture is a game of diminishing returns,” Newell recalls. “Krenov kept his simple, straight forms and let the wood do the talking, and in this sense he remained true to his lifelong philosophy.”
After the painted wall cabinet from 1991, Krenov ceased making any form outside his freestanding cabinets on a stand, though the variety within that format was significant. By the 1990s, Krenov was unburdened by specific demands of his work; those pieces that were not speculative (undertaken completely at his own will and not for an intended customer) were commissioned by an audience that was happy to let the cabinetmaker make whatever pieces he was interested in making. Many such commissions were subject to some short correspondence, in which Krenov might solicit some vague guidance from the client.
“You indicated that sometimes a ‘hint,’ left gently in the wake of a former conversation, would revisit your mind’s eye while you were forming a piece, and you would find yourself creating a work that fit someone’s particular visitation,” one client wrote in 1992, accompanied by photos of a treasured set of cordial glasses the client hoped to store in the cabinet.
Krenov was, as always, more concerned with finding the right clients for his limited output than he was with receiving payment for his work. Where his contemporaries such as Wendell Castle were moving their prices into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars via fine art galleries and exhibitions (while also employing techniques and assistants that allowed for a much larger output from their studios), Krenov was still charging just a few thousand dollars for his pieces, each of which took him somewhere between two and five months to complete. As always, Krenov’s lack of financial drive was rooted not only in his principles but the regular, though modest, income from other sources. Where in Sweden he had been supported by Britta and the artist’s stipends from the Swedish government, in his later years his income from the books, his salary from the school and Britta’s pension from Sweden (which she continued receiving, having been careful not to lose her Swedish citizenship) sustained the Krenovs’ comfortable and small lifestyle. The Krenovs’ modest two-bedroom home on Forest Lane was not the manse that some of his contemporaries built for themselves in their retirement. Tina Krenov recalls having to help her parents rebuff a photographer who wanted to photograph their home for a book about the dwellings of artists. Tina found herself explaining that her parents’ home was not a showpiece but a modest arrangement that suited their quiet life.
After exclusively showing at Pritam & Eames through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Krenov found a second gallery in which he showed some of his work in the late 1990s, a move precipitated by the hassle and risk of shipping his delicate work across the continent. In February 1997, Krenov delivered a lecture at the grand opening of Misugi Designs, a furniture gallery and Japanese tool and materials importer opened by Kayoko Kuroiwa in Berkeley. Kuroiwa had worked for a number of years as an importer of fine Japanese tools and hardware for Hida Tools, a store that Krenov had begun ordering his saws and chisels from decades earlier. The new gallery, not far from her former employer, was intended as a hybrid space of sorts, one that both catered to a clientele of woodworkers with goods from Japan but also displayed the work of Northern California craftspeople. Krenov’s presence at the opening served to drive a significant amount of attention to the gallery when it opened, and attendance at the opening was significant. But Ejler Hjorth-Westh noted that the attendees were largely woodworkers and craftspeople, and not necessarily the wider public audience that could support the gallery aspect of the store.
In the first year of showing furniture, Misugi Designs featured the work of several of Krenov’s students from the school. Hjorth-Westh noted that Kuroiwa was enamored with the work being done at the school, and saw “an almost spiritual connection with the Japanese philosophy of simplicity,” which Hjorth-Westh noted was also apparent in much of the Scandinavian furniture by which Krenov had been deeply influenced. Hjorth-Westh and a number of other recent graduates from Krenov’s school were in the opening show, and continued to show their work at the gallery in the next several years. Krenov sold the first piece he exhibited in the show, his last glass-door showcase cabinet, soon after the opening. This sale was, however, to one of his students, and the gallery’s effectiveness was impacted by a lack of promotion and publicity.
Misugi Designs operated for a decade after its opening in 1997, but its business shifted to selling Japanese hardware, materials and tools early in the 2000s. Krenov’s relationship with the gallery was short-lived. He never completely cut off his relationship with Pritam & Eames, and after showing a few pieces in Misugi he moved to largely selling his work that didn’t go to Pritam & Eames more directly, to visiting customers and friends.
Through his time at the school, Krenov often championed and featured the work of his students in lectures and presentations outside the community. Alan Peters noted that when Krenov presented in London, his slides had included a significant number of student pieces. A record of his presentation in Japan notes that his lecture focused “primarily on his students’ fine works.” He was also an advocate for his students’ work to be shown alongside his own. Krenov’s aim for the program was not designed to prepare students for a career, but starting in the 1990s, he began hoping to be able to connect his students with an appreciative public.
“I worry about these young people,” Krenov told Bebe and Warren Johnson in 1991. “I have this one last task: to build a bridge between fine workmanship done by generous, sincere, and responsible people who have a sense of adventure in their work, and the relatively small but very durable public that must be out there.”
On top of Krenov’s promotion of student work, in 2000 he had a chance to lend his writing to a student from 15 years earlier. David Finck, a student from the classes of ’85 and ’86, published “Making & Mastering Wood Planes,” which expanded on Krenov’s own approach to making his now-signature style of handplane. Krenov lent his own effort to the book’s publication, writing a short foreword to the book that detailed his decades of experience with making and adapting the tool to his approach. While the book was not Krenov’s, it served as another indication of a more material influence of his on the craft: the self-sufficiency and sensitivity that came with the creation of one’s own tools. Krenov’s approach to making the planes had always been, in his eyes, a first step in a sensitive approach to woodworking.
“Really, my simple message is that if you’re going to approach woodworking with sensitivity and maybe refinement, planes are a good way to begin,” Krenov wrote in his foreword. “They’re a start to improving the rest of your tools that need improving. After all, the hand plane is the first part of the woodworker’s aria. And what I’d like to see happen, through this book that David has written, is for you to make a plane or planes that will, in turn, make fine music.”
The following is excerpted from “Honest Labour.”This column was first published in The Woodworker in 1949 – please excuse the gendered terms as a product of their time.
Woodworkers deal in the very kindest of materials, the friendly, living wood. I think there can hardly have been a time when men were not tree lovers, for even if we go right back to the time when cave men piled brushwood on their fires to scare away prowling beasts, the living trees had always something to offer man. It is almost as if some sense of kinship, some sense of “mystery in the trees,” comes to us when we view sturdy trunks bearing witness to lives which long outlast our brief span bearing on them the scars of their own struggle for existence and hidden in their innermost being the life rings which make up the tally of the years. Not without awe does one see them when a tree has been felled and its life secret is bared as we count the annual rings. Two hundred? Why this tree was a slim sapling when Dr. Johnson was rising to fame in the literary world of the eighteenth century, when the Stewart cause was going down in final defeat at Culloden Moor and North America was still only a little group of English Colonies contested with the French. And here in this wide ring was a good year in which the tree grew apace, and here was a wild, cold, hard year when life was a battle for survival and growth was slow, a year which toughened the limbs and sent roots digging down deeply into the soil to keep the tree in heart.
No wonder trees are an ever-recurring theme in literature and art, especially in English literature and art, because here in this miniature land of ours they have a character and individuality which are one with the landscape and yet help to give it an infinite variety. So many trees, those which are native—the oak, the ash, the thorn, beloved of Kipling, the yew of churchyards that bred the mighty bow of Agincourt, the poplars and their “whispering, cool colonnade,” the beech for restful shade and the turned bowl; and those others, imported through the centuries till now they seem at home on our soil as on their own familiar ground—the plane trees which have become such a typical feature of London, the walnut, originally a native of the far Himalayas, the lovely, symmetrical horse chestnut which in the springtime gladdens the eyes of suburban dwellers with its flame-like blossom, the larches and the firs in dreaming blue copses—all have something to give. No wonder that our two great countrymen painters, John Constable and John Crome, responded with such wonderfully intimate studies of trees. No hazy splashes of colour for them, but careful, loving work showing the trees in their own individual character, growth and structure, so that at once one may know them for what they are, elms, poplars, willows, oaks, rejoicing in the light and air, with the wind whispering through their branches.
In one of Hardy’s novels, The Woodlanders, an old man becomes ill through fear of a tree which stands outside his cottage and which, in his sick fancy, he sees threatening him. It was planted on the day he was born, he says, and has human sense and has grown up to rule him and make a slave of him. When reasoning fails, his doctor orders the tree to be cut down, unknown to the sick man, and the elm of the same birth year as the old woodman is brought to the ground as silently as skilful hands can contrive it. But the next morning, when the old man sees the vacant patch of sky where once the lattice of the tree had been he has a stroke and, after lingering all day, dies as the sun goes down. “Damned if my remedy hasn’t killed him,” murmurs the doctor. Although mercifully one need not anticipate quite such devastating results from a tree felling, to see a mighty tree brought low by the woodman’s axe does induce a feeling of regretful sadness. Here was a living sentient thing which could, if we are to believe the poets and our own imaginations, take pleasure in the sun and rain and the life it lived. And now this is the end.
But is it really so? Isn’t the life that is ended only one part of the story? Rather it means that new life is beginning, one which will take a new direction in house or ship or barn or fence. Maybe a century or more of growth has formed the oak which has gone into our gateposts, and they may still be standing when we ourselves are no more. It is a humbling thought, and yet because there is so strange a parallel between man’s life and the life of a tree there is comfort in it too. So often in life we feel that everything for us is over when plans we made and rejoiced in have been axed at the root. But it may be something which only seems the end and is a beginning, opening up new, unlooked-for possibilities at present hidden from us. There is much more of a pattern in life than we are often ready to credit, it unfolds so slowly. That is what makes youth so difficult a time. If its joys are keen, so are its sorrows. For youth cannot abide frustration and takes it so hardly when plans go awry. But if we will but possess our souls in patience, opportunity comes again in full cycle, not the less because it comes along unexpected paths. It is something the woodworker will understand better than most. He knows the living wood, knows how generously it gives in the patient hands of a craftsman, and that the real end comes only with decay. Life is not always a woodland dream, but it has its moments. And if we keep our belief in it to the end, some of them will be great moments.