Old giant of spoken wood

Book: The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking

Author: James Krenov, 1977

Before I start in with anything of my own, let me type in the first few sentences of this gorgeous, cold, wry, deeply felt book.

” 1. Wood

Looking for a way to describe our amateur’s relationship to wood, two words come to my mind: one is curiosity, the other is chance. You live in some particular place – let us suppose it is in a small town. There is a local lumberyard with a few stacks of common woods, the usual thing – fir, oak, butternut, maple, a bit of walnut, some pine. The piece you’re apt to end up with has been haphazardly sawn and indifferently stored. Only sometimes in out-of-the-way places you will find just those people who do care, and are friendly, and will take the time to help you find what you want. These persons really care about the wood, though with this reservation: they are in business. Seven customers a day like myself and they’ll go broke.

At any rate, because there are just a few kinds of wood available, you start looking through the piles to find the best in each, becoming aware of the difference between one plank and another: you just have to….”

If you have some love of wood, this book will speak to you.

If you are looking for knowledge, the book has plenty. Do you know which way wood tends to cup? Krenov explains it simply, easily. Many teachers make it complex and easy to confuse. To paraphrase – Wood tends to cup toward its outer, longer rings. Done.

If you are looking for someone to speak of the mysteries of wood, he’ll also do that, aptly, reverently, with the dry cracked smile of regret, and some distrust mixed with humor.

He signed books, in cursive, with a blue ball-point pen.

“Warm well-wishes

Jim Krenov”

Born in Siberia in 1920 in a tribal village north of the Arctic Circle, the child of teachers for the Indian Bureau of Affairs, he settled with his parents in Seattle in the 1930s and did some of his first paid woodworking building yachts that sailed Puget Sound.

He called himself “a pre-Kerouac hippie.” He worked with a round-bottomed plane he made himself. The plane, he said, was “the cabinetmaker’s violin.”

In 1981, he founded the fine woodworking program at College of the Redwoods, in Fort Bragg, California, using his renown and the school’s reach to influence a generation of woodworkers.

When he died at age 88 in 2009, in Fort Bragg, his daughter Katya said he was holding a piece of sandalwood he kept near his bed for its fragrance.

—factual information from The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, also by Krenov, and the New York Times obituary of September 20, 2009.

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