I'm saddened to write that James Krenov passed away this week at the age of 88.
"When we discover what wonderful things our eyes and hands are as they seek fine lines and use sharp tools, when we listen to wood and not just use it, then cabinetmaking can take on a new meaning." JK
Almost six years ago I quite literally stumbled over a small pile of books in a Halifax library. Looking down I noticed one of them had some furniture shots on it so I picked up the hardcover book and read the title: The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking. The front cover photographs, three rather unique looking pieces immediately grabbed my attention enough that I decided to borrow it.
James Krenov eh?...never heard of him but the title alone seemed to conjure up a kind of curious discovery into some alternate path through the craft that I was only beginning to discover and understand. I had been building wooden boats at the time and had come off of about 8 years of set building. Screws and glue, some plywood and lots of smoke and mirrors I'd never felt any connection between working wood and art. I was an established writer and musician and was fortunate to have been exposed to all forms of art and craft growing up on the East coast of Canada but for some reason never felt the connection between the two. This Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, again suddenly hit me like a hard maple mallet; Krenov eh?
I read the book from cover to cover and then started to read it again and again. I wasn't aware of any 'on-line' wood working community at the time and the name Krenov really didn't mean all that much to me. I certainly didn't know about any of his unique philosophies nor had I ever heard of the College of the Redwoods; all I knew that as someone who has always enjoyed writing and was starting to begin my own personal journey into wood craft that the words that curled up and out of the pages were more powerful than any of his pieces ever could be. Yes, his cabinetmaking is second to none but it was his words that pulled me into this new path of working wood.
Not too long after that I noticed Lee Valley Tools were selling strange little plane irons and again the Krenov name rang a bell. That's him, that's the guy who wrote the book! I ordered an iron and following the chapter on making a wooden plane I built my first Krenov style hand plane. I think it was that same year that I really started to notice this Internet world of wood working and soon discovered his web site. This would have been around 2006 I believe and there I read that Jim's eyes were failing and while he would no longer be making his cabinets, he would continue working with his hands and making his hand planes available for order. I immediately sent off a letter and waited for a response.
In my mind at the time, still not realising just what kind of man Jim was I suppose I was expecting to get a letter back from perhaps a secretary or something with an order form or a credit card bill. I figured maybe he had an office somewhere at the college and someone would be answering his hand plane requests but this couldn't have been any further from the truth. If not the following day then it was indeed the same week I checked my e-mail to find a letter.
Tom, Thank you for the nice e-mail. I know the plane you need for building your boats. Before all: don't send payment before you have the plane and like it. If you want to call me, my telephone number is......best wishes, Jim Krenov
I can still remember the feeling I had after reading this letter, I ran down and told my wife about it and she also thought it was pretty cool that this author and seemingly famous cabinetmaker had written back to me himself. This was who he was and the kind of personality he had. The plane arrived a few weeks later carefully wrapped up in Californian news papers and packaged inside an old sneaker box. Perfect! I've used the plane ever since and I'm happy to say that I still 'like it'
Fast forward a few more years when I started to write my own book on working wood and I again contacted Jim. This time it was to show him my 'Cabinetmakers Tool chest' design. While drawing the chest I wondered if he used to lug around a tool box with him, full of his hand planes from client to client. I wondered how he would have built it and if he spent any time on it? I wondered if he would have just tossed his tools into a make shift box too busy to waste time on something as utilitarian as a tool chest?
I told him that my design was indeed inspired by his work, from the split dovetails down the front to my choices of hardwoods for the carcass. "I don't recall ever being much of a tool box man" he told me! This made me laugh. We corresponded again in February this past year about the design and he always found the time to answer my letters and take time to consider my questions and thoughts. "It's a very beautiful piece." I'm proud to say he wrote. I asked him about his writing and if he was planning on any more books. "I'm an old man now" he wrote and I left it at that but again it brought a smile to my face when I read it. He's a funny old crank that has influenced thousands of wood workers all over this planet, myself being included in that list. He is missed already. I'm happy to have connected with him those few times through this 'on-line' platform and I'll think about him and his words again when I hold his plane in my hands while I work. Perfect indeed.