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JOEL Joel's Blog

James Krenov - A Reminiscence


A friend of mine, Pete Segal, sent me the following and I asked if I could post it as our first guest blog. Pete worked at Garret Wade from the very beginning and aside from being one of the builders of the company he was a witness to the nationwide resurgence woodworking over the past 30 years.

This morning I found out that James Krenov passed away after a long, productive and influential life. Like many young woodworkers in the 1970's, I found his work and writings inspirational. A departure from stuffy classical design, but still serious. A reverence for material and process, but still practical craftsmanship. A particular focus on using good, well sharpened hand tools. A point of view that related hand tools to woodworking like sailboats to boating. Elegant, refined, tranquil, even if most of the world "went power" to get anywhere.

I first found Krenov's "Cabinetmaker's Notebook" in the library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. I devoured it, cover to cover. It inspired me to go to work for my distant cousin Serge, a cabinetmaker. Serge grew up in Argentina and learned woodworking and architecture in Paris. He was a short, bald, cynical leftist, with thick glasses. Serge darted nervously through life in a thick cloud of blue smoke from the Gauloise cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips.

Although he was no James Krenov, Serge was a dramatic woodworker himself. Surprising for someone from the European tradition, he rarely used hand tools. His work often employed thick oak slabs with insets of equally thick walnut. And, often as not, the slabs would split in the overheated New York apartments, and we would have to go "on repair." That kind of crazy stuff went on all the time, accompanied by political commentary and much swearing (usually in French which thankfully I did not understand). Eventually I left, started my own shop and finally ended up at Garrett Wade selling tools.

There, we sold Krenov's books. As we and his publisher were both in New York, it developed that James Krenov would be passing through and would we like to do something with him? You bet! I took on the task of producing a James Krenov lecture, one of my memorable projects. I looked for a suitable and reasonable hall, and settled on the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union. I sold out completely, every seat was filled.

James Krenov gave his talk, expounding his philosophical point of view on work and design. It was a wonderful supplement to his book and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Finally, at the end one fellow rose and asked "Mr. Krenov, do you really never use sandpaper?'. A small smile crept across Krenov's face and his eyes twinkled just a little as he said, "Well, I really prefer a plane to power tool and I like to see the polish on wood freshly cut with a sharp blade. But, you know sometimes you have to get-something-done. That's not a compromise, you just have to know were to draw your lines."

And he did, after all, get a lot done.


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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.