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

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3 thoughts on “Humility

  1. Wonderful post, I really enjoyed it. I too would struggle with such a decision, but I think you are right, he would do it himself, if he could.

    I am new to woodworking and I am building some saw horses which are of his design. It is a good project for a beginner.

    I look forward to tomorrows post.


  2. Great story! I too stumbled onto his books one day in Moe’s books in Berkley. Through the ’70s I read them all out of the library or borrowed. A couple years ago a young carpenter that worked with me for a long difficult remodel project gave me a fifty buck gift certificate to Powell’s books in Portland, with a note thanking me for showing him so much. The day I went in, there was a complete collection of JC’s books somebody must have sold back. Most in hard back with the covers in perfect condition. I got them all for fifty bucks and have been rereading them every day at lunch a bit at a time. This week I have been reading about making hand planes.

    I forgot what he had to say in the books, and now after all these years I’m blown away how his words and philosophy shaped my own thinking and work. The things I think and do must have come from him because I can’t think where else it would have come from. His words ring so true after all this time and mean so much more with the years of experience.

    About 1990 I reached a point where I had burned out on contracting and remodeling. I saw a article in the paper talking about the woodworking program in Mendocino. I thought long and hard about selling all my stuff and moving there from the Bay Area. A year long estate renovation came along and I made more money that I had before or since. Coulda, woulda, shoulda… so it goes.


    • Jeff

      Yes indeed – and so it goes. A familiar line, and a familiar circumstance, for many of us. Thanks for adding your story.


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