Asa Christiana - Portland Oregon

Poplular Woodworking Article

Along with Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and a few others, James Krenov introduced America to the idea of the artist-woodworker. His books inspired a generation to approach wood furniture in a profound and organic way, and the cabinetmaking program he founded in northern California has turned out some of the most masterful makers worldwide. A couple weeks ago I traveled on assignment to a school northwest of Vancouver, where one of Krenov’s most talented and devoted disciples is carrying the legacy forward in an incredible way.

As Krenov was winding down his career at College of the Redwoods, he was being discovered by maybe his most faithful follower. Robert Van Norman, who was teaching shop class to at-risk kids in Saskatchewan, had read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s first and most influential book, and like many was inspired to follow a similar path. He took a chance and called the iconic Swedish-American educator out of the blue.
Known to be alternately crusty and warm, Krenov was nothing but encouraging to Van Norman and they struck up a friendship, talking often as the younger man left teaching and began working with a German cabinetmaker.

But the work was commercial and unfulfilling, off the pure path Krenov had described, so Robert left to make original work. He did commercial cabinetry jobs at first, but soon found that his spec pieces were beginning to sell, like this beautiful double rocker.

Van Norman lived in a series of homes and shops as he built a name for himself, while his ever-supportive wife Yvonne ran a home-cleaning business and helped raise their young family.

Where the story gets really amazing is when Robert fell one day on the ice and permanently injured his back and legs (he recovered but has chronic pain). Looking for answers he re-read the foreword to “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” in which Krenov mused about one day turning to teaching, when he was too old for “hoisting big planks” and other rigors of full-time furniture making.

Van Norman decided to visit Krenov at College of the Redwoods, to finally meet him in person after 12 years of phone conversations. At the school, Robert and Jim hatched a novel plan. Already an incredible craftsman, Van Norman would attend the school for just one year instead of the usual two, with the intent of becoming a teacher in the master’s mold.  It took a tremendous family effort for Van Norman to attend CR, but he did it, and halfway through his year, they were already giving him CR students to teach.

When Van Norman got back to Canada, he took a few unfulfilling teaching positions , eventually ending up at Rosewood Studio near Ottawa, as the school’s “resident craftsman.” His wife and kids made the move too.

The school was a good one, but still not deep-dive program Van Norman was imagining, and he knew the only solution was to start his own. At the same time, Krenov was aging and being forced into retirement, and the cabinetmaking program he started at CR was changing direction slowly. He was captivated by Van Norman’s venture. In fact, Krenov donated every one of his machines, tools, and workbenches to Van Norman’s school, as well as his entire archive of slides and photos, many never before seen.

In Robert Van Norman’s own shop, he has many of Krenov’s own machines, his workbenches, and his entire archive of slides and photos.

In Krenov’s words:
“It makes me happy that this small school intends to return to the traditional. To the values and no gadgets methods which have nourished our craft for a very long time. Dedication, a simple logic in what we do and how we do it. For some, there is a lure; mysteriously elusive wood, tools that follow one’s intention, an awareness that our craft is an intimately timeless education. If you feel even a bit of this… persevere. Enjoy. The journey may change your life.”

What is just as beautiful is the place the Van Normans chose for the school. Northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in a remote section of coastline only accessible by ferry, they found the little town of Robert’s Creek, perched along the Inside Passage, Canada’s vast coastal waterway.

There he and Yvonne bought a little homestead, adding a big mortgage to help build the school. In 2005 their perfect little building opened its doors with a beautiful bench room and nicely outfitted machine room, everything they needed to educate 10-12 students at a time. They have been full from the beginning, drawing students from 37 countries, most inspired by the same books that captivated Van Norman so many years ago.

The story gets even more touching then. Krenov was much older now, losing his eyesight and realizing he would have to stop making cabinets. So Robert asked him to give weekly lectures to the students, over a speaker phone. He gave 300 hours of one-hour lectures to the students at Inside Passage, an hour a week, and they were legendary, ranging from the how to the why.

When Jim died in 2009, Robert was devastated, and couldn’t bear to hear Jim’s voice for a couple years. Then he started using the lectures again, in a beautiful way.

On Friday mornings at the school, Van Norman gives the floor back to Krenov, combining  snippets of the lectures with photos of Krenov’s work and a short Q&A. It is every student’s favorite part of the week.

Students gather every Friday morning for a dose of inspiration and advice from the master himself.

It hasn’t been easy for Robert and Yvonne, but their little school is the embodiment of Krenov’s philosophy and techniques, with Robert’s gentle manner and innovative ideas taking Krenov’s pure path ever higher.

For the whole story, and a lot more pictures, see my upcoming article in Popular Woodworking magazine, and go to the school’s excellent website.

Eric Lavoie - Vancouver British Columbia

I'm just hanging out in the shop being a bit nostalgic at the moment, but I have to say again that everything I've learned here has had such a great impact on my life right now, and I'm super thankful. I've had very few teachers in my life that are able to to not only bestow knowledge but also a real love and joy of the material being taught, and Robert, you are among the very best! I very much look forward to returning in the future.

Jake Maughan - Vancouver British Columbia

"What can I say about my year at this amazing school...this was one of the best decisions I've ever made and one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Robert is not just a true master craftsman, he's an excellent teacher and a wonderful man. 

I came to this school with the intent of building furniture as a career and Inside Passage has more than exceeded my expectations. I started with almost no experience and I'm still sometimes shocked at what I was able to build for my final piece. 

 Composing Piece  'Homage' by Jake Maughan photography by Ingeborg Suzanne

Composing Piece  'Homage' by Jake Maughan photography by Ingeborg Suzanne

It's quite an amazing thing to be surrounded by people from all over the world who were all drawn to learn woodworking in the tradition of James Krenov. Robert and Yvonne have created something truly special with this school and I consider them, and the faculty, my family."

Jake Maughan
Maughan Made Furniture

Katie Billo - Toronto Ontario

Robert, 
I am so grateful to you for your kindness, patience, assistance, and good humour these past ten weeks. 

Coming out to the school was probably the biggest-and best decision I’ve made in my life so far. Thank you for inspiring me and helping to cultivate a passion in me that I know will continue to grow and set me on an exciting path.

Thank you for giving me the knowledge and confidence to become a woodworker despite my distaste for measuring tapes and a poor hand at drawing. And, very importantly, thank you for sharing JK’s wisdom and work with us, and passing on his spirit in your teaching.

I very much hope to return for another term in the not-too-distant future!
Katie Billo

Monroe Robinson - Little River California

Jim Krenov’s machines, the ones written about and pictured in “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” have a new home with Robert Van Norman who operates the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking in Roberts Creek, British Columbia.  Jim Krenov is most known for his use of hand tools and a caring attitude to create fine and creative small cabinets each one a treasure, but because of Jim’s writing about his measured use of these four finely produced machines through his years in Sweden, they, too, are a part of his legacy.   When he moved from Sweden he brought his Stenbergs machines with him and they were part of the machines used by students in the Fine Wood Working Program he started in Fort Bragg, California. As the years passed Jim did not wish this level of use day in and day out on the machines and they were removed as other machines were acquired by the school.

Twenty-nine years ago Jim told me he was thinking of selling his machines and wondered if I wanted any of them.  I told him I thought he should not sell them but keep them for the day he might to longer teach at the Fort Bragg school and would have another shop of his own.  A week later we repeated this conversation and then when asked for the third time I answered that if I were going to purchase his machines that I would like to purchase all of them.  Jim said he was hoping that is what I would say.  When the transfer was made it was with great reverence for these machines but Jim was clear that they were mine with no commitment as to their future.

I have long thought Jim’s machines at their best should be part of student’s inspiration in learning the craft of fine cabinetmaking that Jim practiced and spoke about with such rare elegance.  Using Jim’s machines was a treasure to me every day but they no longer filled my dream of the machines being close to aspiring students.  I knew Robert Van Norman was the right person for these machines and every communication I had with him and his wife, Yvonne, clarified the decision.  Jim Krenov’s wife, Britta, said Jim would love the machines moving to Robert where they would be close to the students at the Inside Passage School.  

My wife, K., and I entered the quaint picturesque village of Roberts Creek along the Sunshine Highway in British Columbia to a reception we will never forget.  Large black and white pictures of Jim working at his bench hung on the walls of the Inside Passage School benchroom as students worked. Robert Van Norman has created a setting where the very best of Jim Krenov’s spirit lives on.  Everyone walked to Robert’s home to help unload the machines. I gave Robert my copy of The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking in which Jim had written a little note to whoever might care for these machines in the future.  I shared memories as his student during the third and forth year of his teaching at the woodworking program in California.  A cabinet on the wall of Robert’s small shop contained many of Jim’s hand tools and I thought it must feel somewhat like Jim’s small basement shop in Sweden.  Robert and Yvonne’s sole use of public transportation reminded me of Britta saying how she had not learned to drive until they moved to California.  Another picture of Jim Krenov had a caption from his writing, "Ours is a simple craft. But it is a rich one, too.  At its best, the simple becomes obvious: a band of small discoveries, strung like pearls of curiosity, lending richness to our work."

Reading Jim Krenov’s first book, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, I knew immediately I wanted to train with Jim who had trained with Carl Malmsten of Sweden who had trained with Edward Barnsley of England.  After graduating from the Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg, California, I felt a part of a linage of fine craftspersons who created their own work while passing the inspiration and skill to the next generation.  Robert Van Norman also trained with Jim at the same program in California and is now dedicating his life to passing his own and Jim’s skills and inspiration to a new generation of fine furnituremakers. Students from around the world work at the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking with the same enthusiasm for their training with Robert that I remembered from my training thirty years earlier with Jim. The machines having moved to this school are now a part of inspiring the next generation.

Monroe Robinson
Woodworker and purveyor of fine old growth redwood lumber in Little River, California

Robert Whelan - Edmonton Alberta

Inside Passage and Roberts Creek has been a life changing experience. A place where I have built dear friendships, beautiful memories and special moments. It is hard to pick just a few to write about. It is not only about becoming sensitive to this craft. It is not only about making your work better. It has fundamentally been about making yourself better. You have to open yourself up to it; let yourself be surrounded by it. It has been about soft spoken memories and kindred spirits of a Scandinavian woodworker and his student who both wanted to let people know that it is possible. That it is possible to to take this passage and be changed forever. 

Craig Johnson — Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA

Transient

I always thought of myself as a woodworker, but spent most of my life not really knowing what was possible in this craft. The Artisan Program changed all that. Studying the fundamentals for six intense weeks at Inside Passage broadened my perspective. I learned a new way of working that opened my eyes to all kinds of possibilities. I had to go back for more!

So, I enrolled in the Craftsman Program. It was a major commitment of time, energy and resources, but definitely worth it. Every day I was pushed to my limit, and then some, but that’s what helped me grow. The support of Robert and Yvonne, and of my fellow students created a welcoming atmosphere at the school that made it a great place to learn. Robert’s teaching, and the James-Krenov-way-of-working that is the foundation for this fine school, brought me to a place of confidence in, and enjoyment of, this craft that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else.

Most recently, I had the opportunity to make a reproduction of Vidar’s chair in the Journeyman Program. This was just what I needed to push my skills to the next level. Chairs are challenging to make, and this chair was no exception. It presented studies in grain graphics, shaping and fitting of complex joinery that demanded my full attention.

Robert, thank you for generously sharing your expertise and for helping me see what was possible. My work will always reflect the huge influence that you and the school have had on my woodworking career. In the beginning, I had high expectations of Inside Passage. Now, I’m happy to say they were all exceeded!

Shane Brown — Sydney, Australia

I completed the artisan program in 2012. I have always been someone who was interested in woodworking but had never spent enough time practicing to get really good at cabinetmaking. I was also alone in my craft and wasn’t aware of what was required to get the kind of results I achieved at the course at Inside Passage. I have a busy job in Australia as the director of a charity helping children and young people in Sydney and after many years in the position decided to take an extended break to follow that passion. I searched online and found Inside Passage; I emailed Yvonne the schools administrator to find out more about the program. I was worried about whether I would qualify for the course. She assured me that I would be fine and that there were people at different skills level attending and I would be able to complete the work. She was right and I felt very confortable in the classroom.

Yvonne also sent me an accommodation list of people in Roberts Creek who are happy to rent a room, I contacted a local and stayed in a beautiful house at a very reasonable cost that was two minutes from the College. I am still in contact with some local people; two visited me in Australia recently.

Robert Van Norman the Resident Craftsman and Teacher made me feel valued and respected as a student and was always willing to help me fix mistakes Id made, “not that I made that many mistakes”.

The course changed my understanding of the craft and I learned so much about how to sharpen tools, appreciate timber and its qualities, use hand tools and machinery and produce a beautiful piece of furniture. It was intensive and very instructive with Robert demonstrating every step of the way. As I said other students were at different skills levels and we often worked in teams, this helped me to build confidence in the work.

Apart from the new skills I learned I also made new friends in the course and am in contact with some of my fellow students to this day. Robert and Yvonne made me welcome and I am deeply indebted to their kindness support and friendship. Roberts Creek is a beautiful place in the forest and on the sea. The experience did change my life and I know that I will return to the School one day for further study.

Now that I’m back in Sydney I have begun to build a number of pieces of furniture including a side table and two chairs. I am also designing a series of pencil cases in Jarrah a native Australian timber.

Raul Favela — Chihuahua, Mexico

Inside Passage, two words that make me feel so many things. I was fortunate in attending the two year program this school has to offer, the “school of life” I will always refer to it. This place is a place in which I learned to respect so many things, the process on working with wood, the hands that make it happen and the state of mind that is required to make work of this quality. I was intimidated when I first got there, I had little experience in working with wood, and the technique I brought to the school was nothing but a confused mind trying to make something happen. I never imagined that so many shapes and processes could be made in such a “simple – complex” way. Once started, I realized how fortunate I was in having Robert Van Norman as my teacher, a true honor for me sharing that space with him. Yvonne and Robert have put together a program in a way that I learned concepts and practical solutions that I couldn't even think about. This program made me be conscious about my skill as a craftsman and as a human being. Roberts Creek is a place in which you will bring your game to the highest possible level, a place in which your mind will flow with the rhythm that nature offers, learning every day about yourself and about your work. Skill is hidden within our selves, and will remain in there if we are not able to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. Mr. James Krenov sends a strong message on each one of his books, messages that will teach each one of us differently. Robert is loyal to the way of teaching that Mr. Krenov will like to see happen in this school; more important to the simplicity of life once you discover yourself. Mr. Krenov wrote on one of his books, "I don’t love working – it is working well that I love." Inside Passage taught me how to work more than well, it will be now time to make my dreams happen, I am prepared to do so.

Melissa Moure Evans — Smithers, British Columbia

When I first applied to the Inside Passage, my knowledge of James Krenov was quite limited. Yes, I had heard of him but had not yet read any of his books. I was unprepared as to how profound of an impact this program was going to have on me.

Already in the four months I have attended the program, I know my life has been affected and changed forever. The learning atmosphere is one that resonates with me. Not only are we divulged into this craft and the qualities of wood but it is also a wonderful journey into the self of every single one of us. This has honestly been one of the most challenging, rewarding, and personal growth journeys I have experienced.

Peter Flaxman — Brooklyn, New York

I can’t say enough good things about my experience at Inside Passage during the 12 weeks I spent at the school over the Summer of 2010. I've attended a few different woodworking schools, and finding a School that instills such thoroughness, integrity and commitment to excellence is very rare. You can tell that Robert really cares not only about the craft of fine furniture making, but also about being a great teacher.

I signed up for the Artisan Program, where I learned the fundamentals of fine furniture making using hand tools and machines, and then immediately followed that course with the six week Resident Artisan Program, where I was able to put my skills to use building a small cabinet.

I was amazed at how high a level of craftsmanship Robert was able to teach to all of us during the program. He never takes short cuts or lets students with less experience fall behind. He was very patient and always willing to answer questions, even those that were asked repeatedly. I appreciated how he would put in extra time for individual attention when anything was challenging and also give extra small projects to people who were moving ahead quickly. When I was working on my cabinet during the second part of the program, Robert was great about giving me the flexibility to design my own piece, but was always available to help me work through problem spots.

The facilities and equipment at the school were excellent and I thought Robert and Yvonne fostered a nice, collegial atmosphere amongst all of the students. Spending the summer 300 yards from a beach with views of snow-capped mountains in the drop-dead gorgeous Pacific Northwest was a treat as well, although I found myself drawn to the woodshop most of the time.

Inside Passage is a really unique school and I consider myself lucky to have had the time to attend their program.

Owen Konski — Fort McMurray, Alberta

To summarize my experiences during the 6 week Artisan Program is daunting. The program was exceptionally comprehensive with an excellent balance of theory and hands-on with the emphasis on developing hand skills and an intimacy with wood. Robert has a gift of reading a student’s ability and nudging it forward in a positive and rewarding manner. I found the atmosphere to be very fresh and energizing and this I think is due to the influences of Robert, the craftsmen and support staff (Yvonne) of the school. The location of The Inside Passage is an experience of its own. The memories and skills I came home with are a gift of a lifetime. My 6 weeks passed by far too quickly!

Jim Astorian — Kronberge, Germany

Driving back gave me lots of time to think about my time at Inside Passage and appreciate the experience. I really miss the time in the shop with all of you. I enjoyed the experience more than I can describe. Being there 6 consecutive weeks makes a tremendous difference in your emotional attachment to the people and to the type of work you are doing. Looking back at my time with you, I know that I made the right decision choosing Inside Passage and spending 6 weeks in Roberts Creek.

I am re-reading The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking and appreciate its sentiments for the first time, especially the first 60 pages. Thanks to you, Robert, and to Jim for the inspiration to spend more time feeling, listening, smelling – just sensing wood. I have no idea if what I make will be any good, but it will be more in tune with the wood itself.

I know first-hand how tough it is to make a start-up operation work financially. I also understand the emotional and physical strain that it brings to the proprietors. I think the way you two work together is impressive. Keep that alive and Robert please stay healthy! In addition to providing kudos for both of you, however, I would like to support the school in some way that makes sense. I was thinking about helping you build out the gallery with student work. I would make available for the next 3 years an amount each year for acquiring student work. The pieces would stay in the gallery for 2 years after acquisition date and then would be mine to leave there or move. The gallery would win, in that it has more work to display. The students would have some income. I would acquire beautiful work at a fair price.

Paul Gort — Whitehorse, Yukon

I really enjoyed my time at the school; it certainly exceeded my expectations. Robert is an excellent teacher and his passion for fine work is evident throughout the courses. Every time the students showed an interest in a topic outside the confines of the course Robert was eager to share additional knowledge and responded enthusiastically to any questions we had. Both Michael and Cody were also excellent teachers and craftsman.

The classes were small enough that even when they were full there was still plenty of opportunity for individual instruction. The shop and the bench room were well laid out and equipped and the tools available for purchase at the school were top quality and well priced. Robert was also very generous with his own tools, so that students could try out a variety tools before deciding to purchase.

One of the biggest benefits of the classes were the presence of the craftsman students in the shop, they were a wealth of knowledge and it was a pleasure to watch them work, to discuss techniques and to see which tools they used. Yvonne was also exceptionally organized and kept the courses running smoothly. Everyone at the school was very open and friendly creating a great environment for learning.

I look forward to taking more courses at the school. Thanks again for your hospitality while I was in 'the Creek'.

Jamie Laturnus — Vancouver, British Columbia

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for a wonderful week in the Dovetails and Tool Making program (Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking). You have shown me how to take a hobby, which I have always enjoyed, to a new level, to something that is now so much more. Your teaching was informative and your words inspirational. Please pass on my gratitude to everyone who had a part in creating such an extraordinary place.

Cody Bradford — Invermere, British Columbia

I had the opportunity to spend 12 weeks in the winter of 2003 at a course Robert was teaching. I can easily say the experience would have paled in comparison had Robert not been the head instructor. His overall woodworking knowledge and unfaltering commitment to craftsmanship was unprecedented and infectious to all his students throughout the three months. I was excited to hear he had the good fortune to open his own school and look forward to taking a course as soon as I have a chance. I’m confident that as well as a fantastic school, Inside Passage will foster a “community” of craftsmen.