Monthly Archives: January 2010

Humility, Part II

I finished Krenov’s plane today.

After gently trueing and squaring up the mouth opening, I still needed to remove a small bit of material from one of the inside walls.  That adjustment permitted me to gently tap the plane iron parallel to the mouth opening, allowing the plane to remove the same thickness shaving across the width of the iron.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the iron needed a little touch-up as well.  This was a good opportunity to flatten the water stones in advance of the sharpening process.  I got another smile out of my order of work: Krenov was not a stickler for flattening stones; in fact, his writings would have you believe he was not the least bit obsessive about sharpening.  I believe I have adopted his sensibilities about sharpening.  You sharpen when you need to – when your tools are telling you they need attention.  Beyond that, you keep the tools working productively.  It’s the way I teach, and it’s the way I work.

I looked carefully at the plane iron as I sharpened it.  Krenov used Hock irons in his planes; in fact, Ron Hock’s business (as a maker of fine hand plane irons) got started largely because of Krenov’s CR program and his need for good irons and chip breakers.  The iron in this hand plane is really massive, more like a Japanese hand plane than an Western-style tool.  The back is polished behind the bevel as it should be, but not as high as I would have done it.  The grind angle places the bevel nearly parallel with the sole of the plane.  I didn’t measure it; I should have, I suppose.

As I took the iron to the stones, I wondered if Krenov sharpened it himself.  I doubt it.  Perhaps he ordered enough irons for his plane making that he could convince Hock to flatten, grind and hone them to his wishes.  More likely, he had help from someone at CR or from a former student.  In any case, the thought occurred to me that this was the first time, and most likely the last, that a tool came to me already sharp.  It’s awfully uncommon for that to happen.

After a short sharpening session, the iron is sharp again.  Before I get all the parts back together again, I decide to tune up the wedge a little bit.  The bottom is a bit ragged, and too close to the mouth for shavings to exit easily.  While I’m at it, I thin the bottom so shavings can slide past just a bit easier.

Krenov signed the plane, but you have to look pretty hard to decipher what you’re seeing as his signature.  I’m almost tempted to try a light coat of shellac over the sides of the plane in a modest effort to preserve the marks.  I’m going to use this tool, and I fear that over the years, my hands will gradually erase the signature.  One more time I imagine him laughing at me for the sentiment; this time I’m not sure I care.  (I wouldn’t tell him that I saved his shipping box.  And his newspaper.)

I mentioned that along with the plane he sent a note.  In it, he urges me to adjust gently with the hammer: “Tap, tap, tap, NOT BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.”  With his hand planes, like all wooden planes, subtlety is the key.  You want to adjust them slowly and patiently until they’re set just right.  As long as the humidity doesn’t change too drastically in the shop they’ll stay that way.

Finally everything is back together again, and it’s time for a few passes on the board I keep under my bench just for use when I adjust a hand plane, a piece of sweet cherry I bought from a sawyer in Albany.  I used most of the board for a cabinet (a Krenov-style cabinet, in fact) and I had this short left over piece with a bunch of splits.  So I use that for plane adjusting.  I took a few passes along an edge: the shavings were too thick.  Tap, Tap, tap.  Another few passes, and it’s cutting just a bit heavier on the left.  Tap, tap.  One more tap.

A Krenov Hand Plane

Now it’s dialed in pretty well.  A few more passes.  The shavings are thin enough to read through, and the edge of that sweet cherry board is as smooth as wood ever gets.  The plane is a joy to use, and use it I will.

If I listen closely, I can hear the music.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

Categories: Woodworking | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Note by Note

Last week I watched a movie called Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.  It is the story of a piano.  More, it is a story of hope for all of us woodworkers.  I recommend it highly.

A brief synopsis.  This is a film about the making of a piano, and of the people who made it.  The movie begins with the glue-up of the rim of a Steinway concert grand piano, and follows the piano – and the craftsmen and women – through the yearlong build.  If you’ve ever played piano or any other instrument, for that matter, you’ll appreciate this movie even more.

For woodworkers, though, the movie carries a few special and powerful undercurrents.  From the buyer who travels to Alaska to select the spruce for the soundboard to the cabinetmakers who carefully assemble the case and frame to extraordinarily tight tolerances, this is the story about craftspeople who care about their work.  They have an obvious and personal investment in every single piano that Steinway builds.

The pianos that come from this factory are handmade.  Machines help with the grunt work, to be sure, but there is a ton of handwork in these musical instruments.  Keys are adjusted to within fractions of millimeters to be the same height.  Tuning is done over a number of weeks and months to permit stresses on the cast iron plate to gradually equalize.  The rim and frame are set aside after glue-up for a month, allowing the glue-up to cure before any additional work is done.  It is an amazing process to watch.

How does all of this translate to hope for us?   Simply this:  all of the work on these magnificent creations is done by people just like you or me.  One fellow used to play in the Steinway yard as a child, running around the stacks of stickered maple and spruce.  Now he works there.  The managers and supervisors at this company make a point to stress that the skills that are needed to work there are handed down from the old-timers to the new-comers.  Generation after generation, the skills are passed along.  Most of the important work is done the same way today as it was one hundred years ago.  Here’s the point:  very few of the folks who put their hearts into these pianos were cabinetmakers, sound technician, or piano tuners – let alone piano players – when they walked through the doors of the plant for their first shift.   The skills they have today, they learned.  Time, patience, and hard work.  They started out as novices, and turned into craftsmen building the finest pianos in the world.

If they can do it, we can, too.

See the movie.   It’s on DVD, and it isn’t new (2007) so there shouldn’t be a long wait for it.  Let me know what you think.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon.  He is a frequent woodworking instructor at the Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, Oregon.

Categories: Woodworking | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments


James Krenov’s first work, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, was published in 1976.  Shortly after its publication I obtained a copy. I would say that was one of the gateways I passed through on this journey.  (Others include the day I learned how to sharpen, and the gradual transition from a mostly-power-tool woodworker to a mostly-hand-tool woodworker.)

Among others, Krenov had a big influence on the way I’ve developed as a furniture maker.  His attention to detail and his sensitivity to working with what the wood gives you really opened my eyes.  For the first time, I saw commercial furniture for what it was: a lot of compromise without much care or attention to harmony or balance.

I followed Krenov’s move to the College of the Redwoods with great interest, and secretly aspired to attend there one day.  Living in Wisconsin at the time, the CR program was a dream, out of reach.  I’m physically closer now, but it’s still a dream.  Even though Krenov retired from CR several years ago, and died this past September the Fine Furniture program remains among the finest in the country.

Some time after his retirement, his website indicated that he had stopped making cabinets due to failing eyesight, but that he continued to make hand planes.   Readers familiar with Krenov will recall his wooden handplanes, and how he made music with them during his work.  I was amazed to learn that one of those handplanes could be obtained for the price of a new Lie-Nielsen.  I jumped at the opportunity, and added my name to the waiting list.  To my surprise, Krenov wrote back to me.  Told me he was old, and the list was long.  Told me not to get my hopes up.  I didn’t; time went by, and I guess I gave up.

Lo and behold, a year later he wrote to me again.  Told me he would build a plane for me if I still wanted one.  I did, sent him the check, and a month or two later, a box arrived at my home.

I smile now as I think back to that delivery.  Here was a box that came from JK’s home.  Nice little preprinted return address label on it, what you’d use on Christmas cards or to mail bills with.  The plane was wrapped in some of his old newspaper.  There was a handwritten note with it, written by a man whose eyesight was clearly failing, and whose hands were not as steady as they once must have been.

The plane was shaped just as I would expect, having seen many of his in books and in magazine articles.  And it fits my hands just right.  It is shaped much differently than a Stanley or a Lie-Nielsen.  It’s comfortable.  It was also pretty rough.

It needed to be tuned up.  And I was afraid to touch it – after all, this plane was made by Krenov.   Who was I to mess with it?  I used it a bit, now and again, but it didn’t perform the way I knew it could.  The iron wasn’t parallel to the mouth opening.  With a metal plane you can adjust the iron with the lateral adjustment lever.  On a wood plane, you tap the iron one way or another.  Trouble was, the mouth opening in the sole was out of square just a wee bit, but enough that the iron would never take the same amount of wood on both sides.  It needed adjustment.

Today I started the process.  I own a few plane floats and some very small files.  Using these carefully, I removed little shavings of wood here and there, and the iron slowly snuck up on flat and parallel.  I’m not done yet but it is better.

I stopped halfway through to think about what I was doing.  Not the technical part of the adjustment – just that I was correcting the fit of a plane made by James Krenov.  It made me feel extremely humble.  I want to do right for this plane, and for the man who made it.  I think Mr. Krenov would probably laugh at my sentimentality; if this plane were his, and his eyesight was better, he’d fix it himself and then get back to work.  Or perhaps he would call this plane “cranky”, set it aside on top of his tool cabinet and make a new one.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to the shop and finish it up.  The iron could stand a little tune-up – just a touch or two on the stones.  Then it will sing, just like Krenov intended.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

Categories: Woodworking | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: