Krenov on Composition

Lately I’ve been rereading Jim Krenov‘s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.  I’m not typically one who rereads books, but in the past few years I’ve found that there are some books that continue to unfold for us with each reading.

When I first discovered Krenov, I devoured his books in quick succession.  In his books I found a kindred spirit, one who would argue that yes, it is important how we feel about the work we’re doing.  In comimg back to him, I wanted to tease out the finer points he has to share.

In particular, his approach to composition is unusual in the world of woodworking.  While many woodworkers begin with the form in mind, perhaps with a measured drawing, Krenov starts from the material: the wood itself.  What does the wood ask for?

One way to go about this is to proceed by stages.  You have looked at the wood time and again.  Regardless of whether you have a definite piece to make, or a first idea, you sense what you are looking for, have a fair image of the colors and shapes, the mood you want.

Here he has been writing at length on the color and variation in wood, and also the texture and movement of wood, how it can warp as you cut into it, depending on its moisture content. 

Develop the habit of caution.  Divide the most important elements of the piece, and the wood for these, into a relationship that makes sense.  Making a cabinet with unbroken surfaces, you’ll be more interested in wood with color than in wood which is plain.  You may envisage the way it should be, the door or doors with ripples of color to enhance surface and shape, the sides in some interesting relation to the front. 

Concentrate on these.  Re-saw first the wood for those doors.  Look for faults; look again.  Then saw what you need for the sides.  Study what you have.  Now, maybe, make those doors–just to be sure this most important part is right.  Take another step: a back piece with frame and panel may be more vital than the top and bottom pieces; choose the wood for the panel with this in mind.  If you are sure all is as you want, go on sawing for the other parts: top, bottom, shelves, etc.

What emerges is a reverence for the mystery of wood, and a process that celebrates this mystery.  Wood in this way is more than simply a material; it is the idea itself, and the form of a finished Krenov cabinet is intended to express the idea in the wood itself.

Getting into this matter of listening to wood, of composing, weaving together an intention with what you and your chosen wood have to say, is an experience difficult to describe.  To me, it is the essence of working with wood.

Krenov has described himself as an enthusiast.  His enthusiasm for wood, its beauty and mystery, has shaped his approach to composition and allowed him to create enduring objects that, in their simplicity, showcase the wood itself.  Although he announced his retirement from cabinetmaking a year ago, his influence endures.

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