Photo: Senya Jacobs-Burkin
I recently learned that the incomparable James Krenov died last week. Along with Sam Maloof this year marks the passing of two truly great, hugely influential craftsmen in wood. Others, who really knew these men, will be able to write about them more intimately than I ever could. I knew them only from a distance, primarily through their books, which I poured over with utter devotion when I was younger.
I was just beginning to teach myself some of the basic techniques of woodworking when I stumbled across Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking and The Impractical Cabinetmaker in a public library in the late ‘70’s. Being quite impractical myself, I was totally seduced by the exalted standard of craftsmanship so poetically expressed in these works. Wow! If I could only be disciplined enough and devoted enough, with just a few machines and some well tuned hand planes, I might also make lovely, sensitively wrought objects in wood and find people to give me money for them. Yes, this was how I wanted to make a living!
Like the call of the siren, Krenov’s vision was too irresistible for me. I had no idea what I was doing, and even though I had a young wife with no work experience and a pre-school age daughter, I quit my day job and set off on a holy quest in search of the truth and beauty to be found only in the grain and figure of wood. We were poor, and even though I got work, we got poorer because I was never able to charge enough for what I made because I really wasn’t good enough to charge more.
In the beginning I didn’t even own a jointer or a planer. I made a five-drawer chest for a client out of rough sawn white oak and walnut hand planing all the surfaces front and back with a smoothing plane and jointing all the edges with a jointer plane. Even though I lost my exhausted ass on that and many other projects, I would always return to Krenov’s writings for hope and inspiration. My wife, however, was not at all impressed. With financial help from her father, she entered nursing school hoping to save us from third world poverty, but became pregnant with our second child before she graduated.
She must have been an enabler because she gave me a copy of Sam Maloof Woodworker as a Christmas gift. As I began to read this book and absorb Sam’s take on the craft, however, I could see his approach was very different from Krenov’s. Sam saw no shame in using belt sanders, routers, or steel screws in making his furniture. If he didn’t know how to do something, he came up with his own methods, his own joinery even. He looked sturdy and full of tireless energy. In some of the photos he almost appears to be wrestling his pieces into existence. Being a pretty physical person myself and being self-taught this approach really connected with me.
Photo: Courtesy Sam Maloof
A couple of years later I became a member of The Austin Woodworker’s Guild and our organization brought Sam to Austin for a lecture and slideshow at the University of Texas and then a weekend workshop where he demonstrated how he made his famous rocking chairs. Along with a dozen other people I had dinner with him at a friends home. I sat beside him on a couch before the meal and got to speak with him for about an hour. He was just an incredibly gracious, loving, and precious human being. The man was even greater than his works. He clearly understood that relationships are the most important thing. I will always treasure that evening.
In most areas of endeavor our mentors intend for us to go beyond them, and I know that is what James and Sam would both want from all those they have taught, but I don’t know of anyone in my generation who is having the kind of impact on the future of fine furniture making that these two men have had. Instead, their approach and skills have been multiplied to many. Krenov’s last publication, With Wakened Hands, celebrates the work of some of his students, who are all crafting wonderful objects, and I find this book to be just as inspirational as his earlier writings. Surely we have seen the passing of two giants.
This side table I made a couple of years ago owes a great deal to Krenov both in terms of the care I took in making it and also in the design.
Though very different in style from a Maloof dining chair, I certainly had Sam in my mind when I was hand sculpting this one. The crest rail at the top of the chair is butt joined, glued, and screwed just like a Maloof chair. Thank you, Sam.
To see more of my furniture visit My Furniture Gallery.