Monday, June 1, 2009

A Woodworking Krenovation...

This weekend, after finishing a serious amount of exhausting outside work, I decided to sit down in the seldom-used hearth room and read a bit. After perusing my ever-growing library of woodworking books, I settled on a favorite of mine, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, by James Krenov.

I adore well-written books and I love the feel of a solid book in my hands. My copy is a very nice hardback second printing (1977) with the dust jacket. It was a 2007 Christmas present from my mother-in-law. I'm quite pleased with the book, though there is a bit of a musty smell to it when first opened. I'm hoping that will go away with time; indeed, the smell is much less noticeable than when I first got it.

Interestingly enough, I call this one of my favourite books, though I can't honestly say I've made it all the way through it yet. I have, however, read the first half several times over. I don't know why I've never gotten any further - I always get sidetracked with some project or another and lose my place or put the book back on the shelf thinking I'll pick it up the following day or some such thing. Maybe the first chapter is just enough to rekindle the motivation I needed to get back in the shop and do something.

But that's OK. To me, reading James Krenov is a little like reading James Herriot or Robert Fulghum. It isn't something you can just read in one sitting. Yes, it is an enjoyable read, but if you don't take the time to take in and absorb what he is saying, then you'll most likely miss the finer points.

As he states in the very first column of the very first page, this book isn't intended for professional cabinetmakers. Mr. Krenov understands that most woodworkers who truly love the craft are not doing it for the money; we do it for the process and the creative expression and the joy we get just from applying our determination to take one object and shape it into another. This book is written for the woodworker who can spend days, weeks, months, or years, putting all of his heart and soul and knowledge into a project. And this book is written for the woodworker who can go into her shop and spend an hour just planing a piece of wood for the sheer joy of it, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut pine.

I think one of the reasons I'm so drawn to Mr. Krenov's woodworking philosophy is because of how I approach each new project. In some ways, it is obsessive-compulsion to the extreme. I pull out a spiral notebook where I keep notes on all of my projects and I list out my requirements for the piece. Then I start calculating exactly what those requirements mean for the project, from the kinds of wood I'm going to use based on how well they compliment one another to the exact height, length, and width it will need to be while still providing a pleasing look. I obsess over the littlest details, like the proportions of the mitered keys or a chamfer detail on an edge. Over a period of hours and days, I document the perfect finished piece according to the requirements I've been given.

This process never gets figured into billable time; it isn't necessary for the project. It really only takes me 15 or 20 minutes to come up with the actual dimensions I'll need; the rest is some twisted form of artistic design I've allowed myself to develop over the years.

What this does is allow me to do is go through the building process in my mind several times before I ever put blade to wood. I get to work through the problems I might encounter and come up with solutions to those problems without stressing about deadlines or ruining a perfect piece of wood I had set aside for the project. By the time I get to that part of the construction process, I'm so familiar with what I need to be concerned with, it no longer bothers me.

And when my OCD has been satisfied, I start working on my project in the really real world. My hard, exact dimensions suddenly become nothing more than strong guidelines. I might get to the point of planing my chamfer and then decide not to do it. I could (and have) screw up the measurements on a hole and have to improvise a repair technique to cover it up!

(Every woodworker makes mistakes; the true craftsman turns that mistake into a design opportunity.)

In the end, my finished piece has usually taken a bit longer than intended. It mostly resembles the initial drawings and dimensions I started out with, but not everything is the same. I might have added a detail here or dropped a feature there or found out that a particular piece of wood I had in mind isn't going to work and so I need to switch it out for something else. What I've done is open myself up to the fact that I'm working with wood, a kinetic object that doesn't care what dimensions I have written down in my notebook. It always retains the right to do what it will do.

It is my job as a woodworker to develop an understanding with the wood, to use the inherent properties of the wood in my favor and work in harmony with it.

It is my job as an amateur woodworker to constantly be aware (and cautious) of the impulse to make a production run to save time and labor and make a better profit.

It is my job as a young woodworker to perpetually strive for higher quality and always try to learn from those around me as well as from my own experiences.

I think that's what I've been missing the past few weeks. My last project was probably one I shouldn't have taken; I got a little caught up in the monetary gain and didn't think to give myself the developmental time I require on each project. As a result, I didn't enjoy myself as much and it almost became a chore.

Sitting quietly and reading James Krenov talk about the art of woodworking and the necessity to listen to the wood and work with the wood is just what the Dr. ordered for my woodworking slump. It is what I needed to restore in myself the desire to create, simply for the process of creating. It is what I needed to charge my batteries and reset my focus. It is what I need to remind myself to listen to the wood and not exploit it.

I've only made it to page 59 in this last session with Mr. Krenov. I don't know if I'll get much further because I already feel the ideas building up; projects I have been perfecting in my mind that are waiting to be tested in the real world.

Some day, I'll actually get to the point of reading about James Krenov's shop and some of the tools he uses. Until then, I'm completely satisfied with a renewed sense of connection between me and the wood I use.


The Village Carpenter said...

Ethan, your write-up makes me want to finally getting around to reading Krenov's book. I read like you do--with the tendency to get sidetracked. And also like you, I prefer to have an actual book in my hands. I'm not sure I'll ever like to read a book online or on a kindle.

"It always retains the right to do what it will do." What a great phrase. And so true. Wood's nature forces us to be flexible--that's the beauty and challenge of it.

And thanks for the reference to the woodworker who enjoys planing a board for an hour. ; )

Ethan said...

I've thought about that story you told (going out into the shop and just planing a board) several times since I first read it.

I think it is something anyone with a true love for the hobby would be happy to do on a Saturday afternoon.

I won a Kindle here at work, just two weeks before this past Christmas. I sold it on eBay and used the money to help pay for the Chris Schwarz hand plane class I took in April. :)

The other day, I was leaving work very late and happened to walk out with our VP of Human Resources. She was one of the people who set up the contest I won. She asked me how I liked my Kindle.

It was a pivotal point - do I lie or tell the truth? I went with, as I always do, the truth. I told her I much preferred the feel of a book in my hands and pages to turn, so I sold the Kindle on eBay and used the money to attend a class on using hand planes. I told her I thoroughly enjoyed the class and learned a great deal of useful information.

She stopped and smiled and said, "I really enjoy your honesty. Thank you."


The Village Carpenter said...

Telling the truth comes easily for me...because I'm not clever enough to lie. lol

I would have done something similar with a Kindle. That, or regifted.

Luddites Unite!