College of the Redwoods

Design in three dimensions. The process of creating new designs follows that employed by James Krenov; full-size mockups like this one by Germán Plessi of Buenos Aires, Argentina, supplement drawings to better visualize details from all angles.


One of the problems of getting older is the realization that events that seem recent actually happened decades ago. A conversation with a co-worker about movies or music comes to an abrupt halt as I realize they probably weren’t listening to Buffalo Springfield or watching “Little Big Man” when they were three. The 25th anniversary of the Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods fits neatly into this category for me.

Like many woodworkers who came of age in the 1970s, there are a handful of older craftsmen who influenced and inspired me. Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter and James Krenov were people doing what I wanted to do. They had been doing it well for quite a while by the time I became aware of their work. Hunger for information about this kind of craftsmanship led me to Krenov’s books: “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” and “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” (all published by Linden).

These were the first woodworking books I read that went beyond the meat and potatoes of building furniture and discussed the philosophy and emotion involved. Where Ernest Joyce’s “Encyclopedia of Furnituremaking” discussed the craft in dry detail, Krenov wrote about developing relationships with pieces of wood and tools in a philosophical, almost poetic way. He managed to tap into the unknown stuff deep inside that makes working with wood a basic need for many of us.

Krenov inspired enough interest that he was invited to give workshops for a woodworker’s guild in Mendocino, Calif. This led to the founding of the nine-month program under the auspices of the College of the Redwoods, part of the California community college system. The program was successful from the start, attracting many applicants every year for each of the 20 or so bench spaces. It was, and still is, unique among woodworking schools. Some schools are based on traditions or styles, but the College of the Redwoods teaches the gospel according to Krenov.
 
I spent a day last January talking to faculty members, current students and former students who had come to town for a gallery show of the current students’ work. The facility, curriculum, even the tools, habits and attitudes of students and graduates all bear the imprint of the founder. The wooden handplanes, cam clamps and small sawhorses were familiar from pictures in Krenov’s books.
 
Small items like these and the work in progress was just a bit different from what you see in a typical American shop. In the same way that serving in the Marine Corps will change a person forever, someone attending this school will leave a different person. And, like the Marines, graduates share a fellowship and camaraderie that is long lasting and powerful.

A Step Back in Time
My first experience with graduates of the program came while I was doing art and craft shows in the mid-1980s. The scenario was always the same. A new woodworker would appear with a booth containing only a few objects. Exquisitely crafted and unbelievably priced, there would be small cabinets on delicate stands with doors that swung effortlessly and closed with a satisfying thunk. Closing one drawer with impossibly small and perfect dovetails would force air into a cabinet opening, causing an adjacent drawer to push open.
 
Beautifully grained surfaces had a distinctive texture from being handplaned and scraped, and carved handles and pulls fit in the hand just so. The question, “How’s it going?” would be met with a conversation about design aesthetics or the personality of the wood in a piece. The pieces I saw on my recent visit, and the people I met had these same characteristics.
 
For Love, Not Money
Nearly everyone who sees work like this admires and appreciates it, but those willing to buy it are few. Any handcrafted furniture is difficult to sell, but Krenov-style pieces require so much time to render, that the odds of the maker earning a living wage are slim. But earning a living isn’t really the point of this type of work, and the training at the College of the Redwoods isn’t vocational training. It’s more like a school of philosophy or a seminary than a trade school.
 
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a real and lasting value to the training. Students come to the school from all walks of life, and at different points in their lives. Some are young and seeking direction, and some are at the end of other careers and want to spend time digging into what they enjoy. All agree that experiencing a lengthy and intense period of time devoted to woodworking is an opportunity to take advantage of, regardless of the outcome.
 
Even though Krenov retired from teaching in June 2002, his influence is still felt and is profound. All of the current faculty members are graduates of the program, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Graduates can no longer include the line “trained under James Krenov” in their résumés, but the faculty members and former students assured me that the program has changed little.
 
Students begin by learning to get tools’ edges really, really sharp, make some wooden planes and create “the perfect board.”  Starting with a piece of wood about 1′ wide and 1′ long, edges and faces are planed until they can pass the closest scrutiny for being flat, straight and square.

Perhaps the biggest change since Krenov’s departure is in the area of design freedom that students enjoy. A dominant and powerful personality, Krenov tended to view “good” and “bad” designs in terms of how they compared to his own work. Several people commented to me about non-Krenovian designs that were being made. “You wouldn’t have seen that five or 10 years ago,” was a common remark.

Design is as much a part of the course as building. Students learn to prepare sketches, drawings and full-size mockups as they learn basic hand-tool skills during their first semester. By the end of the term, they are completing work on a small project using the techniques learned. The second half of the course brings the building of more complicated and larger projects. A few students are invited to return for a second year of advanced work. Summer classes and workshops are also offered, and many of the students I met used attendance at these shorter classes as a way to evaluate the school and their desire to participate in the longer program.

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