There is a short list of woodworkers whose work defines a style and is recognizable at first glance. Those on it have undeniably influenced other woodworkers, shaped our culture and molded our tastes. James Krenov is on that list.
Jim (everyone called him “Jim” or “JK”), who died Sept. 9, 2009, in Fort Bragg, Calif., was born in Wellen, Siberia in 1920. He moved to Shanghai as a child before emigrating with his family to Alaska. The Krenovs later moved to Seattle where Jim built and refurbished yachts at Jensen Motorboat, later serving as a Russian Language Interpreter for the Lend-Lease Program before and during WWII.
Then he moved again, this time to Europe where Jim began to build architectural models. He met his future bride, Britta, in Paris; they were married in 1951. He attended the Malmsten School in Stockholm for two years before striking out on his own, gradually building a reputation for innovative design. Following the publication of his first book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Jim began teaching woodworking at schools around the world. His influence as an artisan with a viewpoint and passion reached far beyond his classrooms and his own shop.
During my art school years, a frequent topic of discussion regarded the essential difference between art and craft. Through the years I’ve adopted a simple criterion in my ongoing effort to understand the issues: Craft needs to be functional; art does not.
A chair, no matter how “artful” the design, must perform a certain, familiar function: It must be strong enough for an average person to sit in and comfortable enough to want to. If the “art” part of the chair’s design takes it outside those simple parameters, it may not be a chair anymore. It may be sculpture (art). Art expresses aesthetic elements without concern for function. Craft must include consideration for the utilitarian function of the object: one we can sit on, cover our bed with, or display our treasures in. Memorable craft-works combine exceptional aesthetic design with both hand and engineering skills – skills that do not necessarily constrain the artist. Craft is at its most memorable when it blends aesthetics with the physical, utilitarian demands of the object being crafted.
So it is with the works of Jim Krenov.His iconic cabinets embody a rare synergy of art and craft – genuine artistic brilliance executed with flawless craftsmanship. At the very first glance, Jim’s work is striking and recognizable on purely aesthetic terms. His proportions always satisfy; the materials draw the eye; his passion for the wood is obvious. On closer examination, the fit and finish, attention to detail and flawless construction all combine to further enhance the experience. The wood itself is the dominant design element in each piece, and this initial impression is reinforced as a more intimate inspection reveals beautiful grain orchestrated and harmonized throughout the piece. Added decoration is minimal, a restraint all the more apparent with Jim’s additions of simple, hand-carved pulls and handles. Hardware is just enough to allow doors to open, only what is needed to allow the piece to function as designed. And, it is impossible to stand before one of Jim’s cabinets and not open a door, pull out a drawer, to touch it. The tactile is as satisfying as the visual: Drawers glide with a whisper, doors close with a puff. They are simply magnificent.
While his cabinetmaking had the power to change the world on its own, it is James Krenov (his nom de plume) the philosopher who influenced a global audience through his books: “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” (1975), “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” (1977), “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” (1979), “Worker in Wood” (1981) and “With Wakened Hands” (2000). All are highly recommended. As I peruse the online forums, reading memorial statements from woodworkers regarding Jim’s influences on them, I am struck time and again by how someone’s life was changed by Jim’s writings, how statements like, “His book showed me a new way of working, of looking at wood” are common. How many books about craft in general or any craft in particular have influenced so many so profoundly? In addition to his brilliance as an artisan, Jim’s writings are a remarkable legacy in their own right and will be remembered forever as pivotal treatises on 20th-century craft.
Beginning of a Business, Friendship
I moved to Fort Bragg in October 1981 which, serendipitously, was the very month of the grand opening of Jim Krenov’s Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods. In all my years of art school, I never saw classes as energetic and open, students who are as dedicated and sharing, nor teachers more professional and expert than those in that program. Ideas, skills and tools are shared with enthusiasm, honesty and trust. New work is presented to generous, constructive criticism.
Jim worked at a bench in the classroom and openly shared inspirations and techniques, solved problems, fielded endless questions about his or the student’s work, and presented his finished works to the class, just as the students do. He left large shoes to fill when he retired in 2002 but the instructors had for the most part been there for years, some since the early 80s, working and teaching with Jim. They continue today teaching the “Krenov” approach to – and love of – wood and woodworking. Jim’s legacy lives not only in his works and books, but in the school and curriculum he developed and in the hundreds of students he taught from around the world.
I am surely the luckiest blademaker in the world. I was making knives – a lone craftsman in the woods – one at a time, selling them at craft fairs, when one of the instructors approached me to make some blades for the planes that Jim advocated so glowingly in his teachings and books (he called the plane “the cabinetmaker’s violin”).
At that time there were no decent blades or cap irons available anywhere. So, Jim and his students used mediocre replacement blades from the hardware store and found creative solutions to the cap iron problem. Together, Jim, his assistants and students helped me come up with a blade to suit Jim’s wooden plane. Jim, especially, was pleased with my products and would take my brochures and sample blades when he went to do his “song and dance” around the country. I once asked him if I could say “Krenov-style” to describe the blades in an ad. Without hesitation he said, “Say ‘Krenov-quality.’ It sounds better!”
My friendship with Jim continued from this support in the early 80s until his death. I’d show up at the school’s shop, wares in hand, and he’d shout out, “Hold on to your wallets, Ron’s here!” More recently, when asked how he was doing, he’d often reply with, “Not bad for an old man” or, “We aren’t buying any green bananas!” His thin and scratchy voice still rings in my ears. His 2002 retirement was only from teaching, as Jim continued cabinetmaking for several more years until his failing eyesight prohibited the close detail work his craft demanded.
Though Jim no longer made furniture, his love of woodworking and working in his shop never diminished. He embarked on making planes to keep himself busy. I had the pleasure of providing him with plane irons, which meant that Jim and I kept regularly in touch as he busily made planes (by feel, more than by eye). He’d call me for more blades and I’d sharpen and deliver them to his house. Jim had a reputation for being demanding, sometimes difficult, but he was always grateful and gracious when I arrived, and made sure we caught up about our families and our various endeavors.
As the visual fog of late-stage glaucoma increased, Jim sometimes needed help adapting his shop so he could continue to work. Modifying his grinder with a wider wheel to increase the target area when he ground a blade; adding an additional task light at the band saw to help see what he was cutting. (Yes, in spite of rather severe visual impairment, he still used his power tools in the making of his signature planes. At some point I no longer cringed with fear; who could stop Jim Krenov?) He was always very appreciative of my small efforts to help his work and I always enjoyed visiting with him and his wife, Britta.
I often say that through his writings, teaching and uncompromising dedication to craft, Jim launched the careers of a legion of woodworkers – but maybe just one metalworker. Thanks, Jim. We’ll miss you. PW
Ron founded and owns Hock Tools in Fort Bragg, Calif.