Krenov’s School in the Redwoods

The north wall of the bench room at The Krenov School. The school’s mascot is an elephant, after an early habit of meeting after school to drink Carlsberg Elephant malt liquor. The walls of the school are covered in elephant mementos and decades of memories, jokes and relics. Photo by David Welter.

When I talk with other woodworkers about my own trajectory, nearly everyone asks about what it was like to be a student at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking program (now aptly renamed The Krenov School), so I now have a spiel about my time there. It was an incredible space and monastic in focus on the craft, and I was surrounded by capable instructors, enthusiastic peers and beautiful Northern California.

When I was writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” I posed the same questions I have so often fielded to other alumni, in particular to those students who studied while Krenov was still in residence: from the school’s 1981 inception to his 2002 retirement. There were common experiences from everyone: camaraderie, self-improvement and personal development, and an excitement at prospects of continuing a creative practice. While the book concerns itself with Krenov, nearly 100 of its 300 or so pages are about his time establishing and working at the school. Integral to that research were those interviews with alumni; they not only illuminated their experiences with the school, but also opened a window into its founding and to Krenov’s intentions as a teacher.

I won’t venture to summarize a hundred pages of writing in a few paragraphs; I’ll also avoid my tendency toward voluminous blog posts. Instead, I’ll share a short excerpt from the afterword. In it, I included my own experience – something that I avoided to that point. But the afterword was a good place to help the reader – now versed in Krenov’s life and work – understand how James Krenov, his school and the process of writing the book has shaped my own life as a craftsperson.

From page 245 of “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints”:

Like so many students who attend the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program, I was in my 20s when I upended my life to move to Fort Bragg, California. My father, Robert Gaffney, was an amateur cabinetmaker, and after my stint in academia, I was hoping to explore and train the curiosity in wood that my father had instilled in me. I was also, perhaps, looking for a different path and pursuit than the one I was on.

My classmates in 2014, during a drawing class led by Laura Mays, the school’s director since Michael Burns’ retirement in 2011. Photo by David Welter.

A year or so earlier, when I was home to visit during graduate school, my father and I had talked about my prospects of a formal woodworking education. I had been working with him in his shop for years, but with a harrowing prognosis for his pancreatic cancer, we both wondered if I might be able to work with him when I returned East. Like so many other hobbyists, I had spent years poring over the projects in the “Reader’s Gallery” of Fine Woodworking, and noted that a large number of these projects seemed to come from a small town in Northern California. When my father opened the family computer and saw that I was looking at the admission requirements for the woodworking program at College of the Redwoods, he was thrilled at the prospect. He even helped put the few amateurish woodworking projects I had to show into a portfolio for my application to the school. By the time I was there, he wasn’t around to wish me well, but I had arrived with some of his tools and a knowledge that he had been excited for my next chapter.

Krenov died several years prior to my arrival, but as so many others in the years after his retirement have attested, his presence in the curriculum and the pedagogy of his successors was undeniable. I had picked out my father’s copy of “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” from his books and read it the week prior to arriving. The tool list handed to new students noted it as a requirement. I didn’t read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” until I was a month or two into my schooling, and by then I already found its philosophy and approach a familiar take.

My first piece at the school, the “Madrone Stender,” a flagrant abuse of the guidelines for first projects in complexity and size. Photo by David Welter.
The height/tilt adjustment mechanism inside the “Madrone Stender.” I was thrilled with how it works; I’m not sure I was always thinking about how it looked. Photo by David Welter.

I shudder to think what Krenov might have thought about my first project, a desk that is undoubtedly “engineer art” with a brass and wood mechanism that allows for an adjustable-height worksurface. Or what he’d say about my Tage Frid stool and the odd zither I built later in the year. But just as so many students emerged from the school with differing aesthetics and shared roots, the school and Krenov’s words had shown me what I could make when I held myself to the highest standards and shunned the prospects of efficiency or limitations. It took me years to find a workshop and situation that might allow me to work again with wide shop-sawn veneers (and I still don’t have a proper horizontal mortiser) but I never looked back. Woodworking, more specifically this quiet and mindful flavor, was a new path.

The school I attended was nearly that which Krenov had departed a decade earlier. In the years since Krenov’s retirement, it has seen only a few changes in its staff. When Michael Burns retired in 2011, after 30 years at the school, he was replaced by Laura Mays, who helmed the school during my time there, and still does. A few years after my time, David Welter retired after 30 years; he was replaced by Todd Sorenson, a graduate of the classes of ’01 and ’02. Jim Budlong is still a core member of the faculty and a fundamental presence since joining it in the fall of 1989. Ejler Hjorth-Westh and Greg Smith are there, having taken Krenov’s position in 2002, and they bring their own skills and perspectives to the curriculum. Under Mays’ directorship the school hasn’t missed a beat. A wave of passion, ever-refreshed with new perspectives, meets returning alumni and visitors alike at the door.

Perhaps the most amazing thing I saw in my time at the school was the strength of its community. During my cohort’s midwinter show (a show that has been held every year since the early 1980s), a hundred or so alumni came to see the work on display, some flying from distant cities for the chance to reconnect with old friends and check in on the school. Britta Krenov, then in her 90s, came to visit; she made sure to commune with the student work and encourage the makers. By the year of my attendance, there were more than 500 graduates of the program. I don’t know many schools that can bring back a fifth of its alumni for a yearly gathering.

— Brendan Gaffney

P.S. If you’re interested in reading the experiences of some of the school’s other alumni, the school has collected a number of student blogs through the years, and you can read them for yourself. I highly recommend it.

When I talk with other woodworkers about my own trajectory, nearly everyone asks about what it was like to be a student at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking program (now aptly renamed The Krenov School), so I now have a spiel about my time there. It was an incredible space and monastic in…Read MoreJames Krenov: Leave FingerprintsLost Art PressRead More

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