Chris Schwarz's Blog

James Krenov: Words and Music

I never got to meet James Krenov, and so last week I hesitated to write anything about his death. But as I drove home on Friday afternoon I forgot to turn on the stereo in my car, and my mind drifted to a long weekend in 2006 when I was sure I knew the man.

That February we had hosted a meeting of many of the makers of modern hand tools, from Veritas to Wayne Anderson to Robert Baker to Bridge City to Lie-Nielsen Toolworks (you can read about it in the August 2006 issue of Popular Woodworking). Blademaker Ron Hock attended , he was one of the pioneers of the recent renaissance of toolmaking , and he brought along a plane that Krenov had made for him.

Krenov’s plane was an interesting contrast to the astounding feats of brass, bronze and steel that these toolmakers had brought along with them. Krenov’s plane was made from an exotic wood, but that was the most exotic thing about it.

It was band sawn to shape , and from the looks of the toolmarks it was done quickly and accurately. The final shape of the tool’s wooden body looked like it was created by a knife, with clean facets on the corners. It was comforting to hold.

Hock left the plane with me for a couple weeks to test-drive it, and that is where the real surprises began. I expected the plane to work well, of course. A sharp, well-bedded blade in a 2×4 can sing. But I was amused to find out how Krenov had tuned the tool.

The chipbreaker was made from some cast-off piece of metal that was painted red I think and was ground by hand and a little rough. The bed of the plane was shimmed with blue painter’s tape to close up the mouth. The blade was a Hock (naturally), and Krenov had written an “H” on the plane’s wedge in what I assume was a black Sharpie marker , “H” for “Hock” perhaps?

In any case, the plane worked brilliantly, as well as any of the exotic infills or high-end production planes I’ve ever used. I used the tool on some of the nasty boards that I keep lying around. These boards aren’t for building stuff , I try never to build stuff with nasty interlocked grain , but for testing the limits of tools. Krenov’s plane handled the wood with aplomb. And at that moment I felt I’d had a nice conversation with the man who wrote “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.”

I was a bit sad to send the tool back to Ron, and I planned to purchase one of Krenov’s planes , planemaking was one of the things that sustained his spirit when his eyesight failed. But I never got around to contacting him. So chalk up another regret.

What I am left with, however, are his delightful books. Like many woodworkers, I was captivated by the ideas inside them. And as a writer, I was struck by his prose. Here was a guy writing woodworking books that contained little in the way of how-to information, the stock-in-trade of people like me. Instead he explored his long relationship with the material and the tools he used to shape it to his liking.

Few woodworking writers have ever managed to capture, bottle and distribute that impossibly compelling but difficult-to-explain relationship that all artisans have with their raw material. That was James Krenov’s gift to us all.

So I’d like to end this entry with my favorite quote from James Krenov, from page 93 his book “With Wakened Hands.”

“The understanding eye sees the maker’s fingerprints. They are evident in every detail …¦ Leave Fingerprints.”

Look carefully, and I think you’ll see Krenov’s fingerprints almost everywhere on our craft.

– Christopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “James Krenov: Words and Music

  1. Mark Holderman

    I was lucky enough to get a similar Krenov smoother as a Christmas present in 2007. My fiancee at the time (now my wife) surprised me by doing her homework and contacting Krenov by email, arranging the purchase and presenting it to me Christmas morning with her parents witnessing the moment. I opened the gift and remarked something like “Wow, this is a nice Krenov-style plane…where’d you get it?” She looked at me and answered at the same second I noticed the “JK” initials on the toe of the plane, “It was made by Krenov.” I stared at her in disbelief and shock while tears welled up in my eyes. I could scarcely speak. I just hugged her hard and whispered, “This is the best gift ever! Thank you so much!” Her parents appeared confused by my reaction, but I wouldn’t expect non-woodworkers to understand. The plane came with two extra wooden wedges and a hand-written note saying "I like this one: used too. It is a sensitive object, treat it gently, be patient, you’ll enjoy it! old JK." Now that James is gone, there won’t be any more planes being made by his hands, so I feel blessed to have been given one from such a thoughtful and loving wife. I’m now planning to make a small wall display case to house the plane and the note. I think I’ll make it “Krenov-style.”

  2. B.L.Zeebub

    I acquired three Krenovian smoothers from a trader who obviously was unaware of what he had, much to my delight. The Hock irons alone are worth three times what I paid for the trio of finished planes. Two of them have been used a little [no, I haven't put them to work myself] and the other is virtually unused. And while I am not privy to their actual provenance, they were indeed created by someone who was intimate with Krenov’s ideals and techniques right down to the carved crosshatching as lands for the fingers.

    So in honor of Mr. Krenov and his acolytes, I will tune a plane and give it a work out this weekend. Godspeed James.

    always,

  3. Gary

    I also have one of Krenov’s planes, made I believe in late (Sept/Oct 2007). It works wonderfully, but since I don’t have the time much anymore to work in the shop, it sits haunting me as to get in the shop more often. In the letter it came with, it says it all (paraphrasing) "a bit crude to look at but it works wonderfully. Old Jim." I’ve been offered a fair amount of money for it, but who could sell it!

    GLY

  4. Michael

    Nice, this really applies to any medium too. In the age of CNC machines, laser cutters, wide belt sanders, Photoshop, etc, it is easy to forget the artist behind the work. Our sense of perfection in this age is extraordinary.
    I suppose this why some art gallery owners are advising their artists to leave traces of their process; whether it is a pencil line not erased on a painting, or hand planed table top that might not be as flat as glass.
    Objects made by hand, and with evidence thereof, seem to garner more respect and value. People naturally feel more connected to the maker. JK’s impact on the community shows this.

  5. David Welter

    A nice tribute. Christopher. You’ve shown a clue as to why Jim”s planes are so comfortable. He instinctively made that extra relief cut at the upper left-hand corner on the back of the plane.

    The feel of the touch was always a part of the way he worked. That sense never failed him, even when his sight did.

  6. tom fidgen

    Chris,
    When my Krenov smoothing plane arrived a few years back all wrapped up in newspaper and packaged in an old sneaker box I immediately took it out and put it to use. I think it was a week or two before I had to re-sharpen the iron! The heft of the Hock iron really makes a huge difference. Lee Valley carries them for anyone interested. Funny thing when I got the plane and ran in to show my wife, the first thing I remember her saying was: "It’s not hard to tell his eyesight is failing!" That made me laugh…
    Although they may be a little ‘rough’ around the edges, they sure do feel good in the hand.
    Cheers.

  7. Alan

    I used Ron’s plane with the shim a year or so back, and agree with your comments. It sure cut well, which was to be expected, but it was most interesting in how he crafted it. Ron mentioned he picked that plan over another as it was a bit cruder looking. It certainly is a great plane.

  8. Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    That was a wonderful salute to JK.

    I particularly liked your line, "And at that moment I felt I’d had a nice conversation with the man who wrote "A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook." In my work shop I have one of JK’s planes, a smoother similar to the one you describe. I use it every now-and-then. At other times it sits on the shelve above my bench. For me it personifies JK, and we have some interesting conversations (mostly he tells me to concentrate on the piece I am building and not on the tool in my hands!).

    About two years ago I wrote a "review" of the smoother I received. This was partly to share my good fortune with others, and partly as my salute to JK. I hope it is OK if I post the link here (just remove it if this is not the case).

    http://tinyurl.com/pugpda

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

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