Twenty-five years ago, James Krenov started a woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, California. I visited the school a couple of weeks ago to do a story on the anniversary for an upcoming issue of Popular Woodworking. I spent a day and a half at the school, talking to current and former students and faculty members. One of the questions on my mind on the way out to California was, “What is it like to attend the school?”
The Fine Woodworking Program is housed in the building shown above. It’s across town from the rest of the campus, part of the California Community College system. Tuition is reasonable for California residents, less than $500 per semester. Non-residents pay $3766 per semester and the program is two semesters long. There are also a number of summmer courses offered, and a few students are invited to attend for a second year. The school receives four applications for each available bench. Qualified applicants are invited to attend by lottery.
Students come from all over the United States and the world, and spend most of their time in the benchroom. There is also a well-equipped machine room and separate rooms for wood storage and breaks. There was considerable variety in ages and backgrounds of the students I talked to. Some were in their early 20s looking at the beginning of their careers and others were older, retired or in a position to change careers.
What they all shared was a love for working with wood, and the dedication to pursue it intensely for nine months. Classes meet eight hours a day, six days a week, and many of the students spend a good deal of their evenings in the shop. The instructors are all graduates of the program so there is a good deal of continuity from the days before founder James Krenov retired in 2002.
Students start the year with a series of exercises designed to give them basic skills using and sharpening hand tools. Some come to the school with a good deal of woodworking experience and others are nearly beginners. They start by making “The Perfect Board” and go on to a series of basic joinery exercises and finish the first semester by designing and building a project.
Much of the design process as it is taught involves making full size mock-ups of proposed designs. Students tape together cardboard or thin plywood and cobble together pieces of construction-grade lumber in order to get a better idea of how the finished piece will appear, before committing to solid wood.
Once the design has been settled, the real work begins, and the level of quality and attention to detail in the finished work is remarkable. I attended a show of the students’ first-semester projects and was quite impressed with the level of workmanship.
The second semester is devoted to a more complex project involving veneering and/or curved work. When I visited, several students had their pieces well under way while others were still making decisions, modifying their models and puzzling out construction and joinery issues.
There are other intense, high level woodworking programs around the country, but what makes the College of the Redwoods unique is the influence of the style and philosophy of Krenov on the faculty, the structure of the program and the students. This isn’t so much a school where you learn a certain set of skills , it is more like spending a year in a monastery where you learn to think and act like the master.
Krenov’s influence may have lessened slightly since he retired, but it is still pervasive. I was encouraged to see some designs that took Krenov’s signature designs in new directions, and some completely non-Krenovian work, such as this chair in the style of Sam Maloof. Several people commented to me that this type of thing wouldn’t have been seen 10 years ago. There were plenty of dainty little cabinets with exquisitely worked surfaces, piston-fitting drawers and delicate details.
Perhaps the best thing I saw at the school was the camaraderie among the current students and the former students who came by to visit and to see the end-of-semester show. A program like this is an intense one, and going through it in close quarters with a group of congenial, like-minded people could well be one of the most valuable experiences of a lifetime.
To take a year of one’s life and devote it to producing the finest work possible is a rare opportunity for most woodworkers. To work in a pleasant shop with friendly folks, away from the pressures of earning a living for an extended period would be a dream come true for many of us.
More information about the program is available by clicking here: College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking