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