The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.”
James 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than 150 interviews, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs.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.
In the fall of 1981, 22 students arrived at the new building at the end of Alger Street in Fort Bragg to begin the first year of The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program. The small shop was equipped with all of the elements Hoke and Kavanaugh had procured to Krenov’s specifications. The northern end of the building housed a wood room with two bays (one for exotic woods and one for locally sourced lumber), a small office, a supply room, a bay of lockers that would be swapped out for a small kitchenette after the first two years, two bathrooms and a neutral entry space that housed a table for informal lunches and the school’s library of craft books. In the middle of the building was the heart of the school, a large bench room, outfitted with 22 new cabinets, stools, bench lights and workbenches. Through the back doors on the eastern side of the bench room was a small field that backed up onto a bluff overlooking Pudding Creek; out of the front doors on the western side was a small yard, in which a volleyball court would soon be installed. Through double doors at the southern end of the bench room was the machine room, housing a number of new machines: a drill press, an 18″ planer, a large jointer, band saws, mortisers and table saws. These were joined by a few of Krenov’s machines from his basement workshop in Bromma: a small planer, jointer, band saw and combination table saw/mortiser.
The school’s layout and arrangement would hardly change in the coming decades. A small outbuilding for storing air-dried planks and a small finishing and storage room attached to the southern end of the building would be the only significant additions to the building’s footprint through the years. The environment built out in that first year remained almost unchanged over the next four decades, visiting alumni often remarking on the time capsule-like quality of the space.
Down the eastern and western sides of the bench room, carefully placed windows and skylights allowed a flood of natural light, raised above the level of the tool cabinets and out of a direct line that would cause unwanted glare. Each source of natural light was outfitted with a shade that could be drawn to cover the window, allowing for slide presentations and more controlled lighting when work was exhibited and photographed. At the front of the bench room, just inside the main entrance, was the teacher’s bench, where Michael Burns, Crispin Hollinshead, Robert Lasso and Krenov would begin lecturing and teaching.
The first cohort to attend the school came from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like Paul Reiber, were local craftspeople, thrilled at the prospect of an affordable education in fine woodworking, not necessarily drawn to the program by Krenov’s presence. Others, like Hoke, had upended their lives to come to study with Krenov on the remote Mendocino coast, and many had been excitedly awaiting the program’s opening. There was an overwhelming feeling among the first class that they were a pioneering group, entering at the ground floor of what was, by all accounts, a new kind of woodworking program. Nationally, the school was novel in its affordability, being a community college education. Furthermore, Krenov’s name and reputation would be a unique draw for the school, one that would save another key expense in opening such a program: advertising. Krenov’s presence would prove to be enough to attract a wide audience, augmented in part by the thriving local craft scene and the craftspeople relocating to the area. Furthermore, the program was affordable. For California residents, the program cost $100 for the two-semester program; for out-of-state attendees, the program was just more than $3,000, well less than the tuition of established programs elsewhere.
In addition to its affordability and high standards, there was also the emphasis on Krenov’s “quiet expression and enjoyment and sensitivity,” as he told a reporter covering the new program. That emphasis was different from other schools. It was more concerned with personal pursuit and enrichment, and acknowledged that it was not strictly vocational training for professionals. While there was an air of excitement and novelty in the introductory year, it was attenuated by the consideration that the school’s faculty and students were still gaining their footing. Hoke, Burns, Hollinshead and Lasso were learning Krenov’s process and peculiarities. There was little disagreement among the faculty about Krenov’s work and philosophy, but each of the faculty members was still learning how to interact with Krenov as a colleague. Krenov could inspire and raise the spirits of a student doing his or her best work, but it was often the other instructors who would bolster those students struggling with the high standards put forth by Krenov’s demanding eye and approach. Krenov made no attempt to disguise his judgment of the choices made by students, and encouraged them to pursue the same rigorous and uncompromising goals he had set for himself.
“A woodworker first must learn the alphabet,” Krenov told the Sacramento Bee in 1986, speaking about his prescribed steps in beginning a woodworking practice. “Then a little spelling, then a little grammar. Then maybe you will write a little poetry.” Krenov was wary of some students’ desire to move too quickly, or to begin exploring less conservative or traditional approaches. To temper this overextension, the first projects were limited in scope; they had to be “simple, small, solid (not veneered) and ‘sweet.’”
Students who arrived with the aim of studying with Krenov had a wide variety of impressions of the man they met. Those with the most idealistic impression of Krenov’s philosophy were often surprised by Krenov’s forceful emphasis on technique and an unwillingness to compromise his standards when applied to student work. In the environment of the Mendocino coast, which proffered an egalitarian philosophy of inclusion, Krenov’s teaching style might have been perceived as an older and more “top-down” approach. Of course, the school had been built around his presence, and he was explicitly placed as the lead instructor and lecturer at the school.
“Some of them clearly had difficulty dealing with Krenov’s sometimes temperamental nature, especially after having formed an image of him based on his writings,” wrote Paul Bertorelli in his 1983 comparison of Krenov’s and Wendell Castle’s different teaching approaches for Fine Woodworking. “‘I think we all went in expecting a guru of woodworking,’ [Ken] Walker said, ‘but we found Jim to be a real person with all the same problems, conflicts and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us.’”
Michael Burns became a source of encouragement for students who had difficulties with Krenov’s critique; while Burns held a high standard and perception of the work the students could attain, he also took on a role of mediator and motivator. When a student encountered resistance or a negative critique of their work from Krenov, Burns often invited them out to the back of the school for encouragement or a beer.
“Most of his students, once past the first terrors of His Judgments, just call him Jim,” Glenn Gordon wrote in his 1985 profile of Krenov and the school for Fine Woodworking. Those who were able to endure Krenov’s demanding standards and frankness in feedback were rewarded by his talents as a lecturer and his “ability to enable students to do their best,” as one alumnus of the school remembers. Many students from the first years encountered a sensitivity and passion in his teaching that bolstered and raised their own considerations of what they could accomplish. In Krenov, they saw the spirited and impassioned craftsperson from the books, no less idealistic in person. Many came with the expectation to work in concert with Krenov’s philosophy and approach, and accepted a narrower focus of aesthetics and processes closely aligned with Krenov. Krenov did not demand that students emulate his exact aesthetic; in fact, he was often most critical or demanding of students who reproduced his designs, which rarely met his standards.
“If you’re going to do something that someone else has done, because you really like it, then maybe the best thing to do is not to tinker with it too much and start from scratch instead,” Krenov would later say in a 1994 lecture. “Just say, well, okay, I’ve got this thing in the back of my head, but what I’m gonna do is going to be different enough, and good enough, to where it will stand on its own and it’s not just a bad imitation.”