More than 3 years ago, in May of 2015, I went for it the first time and flew to Canada. I didn´t really know what to expect. A lot of thinking and negotiation had proceeded that step, but the final decision was made when my friend Michael visited his sister Caroline, a teacher at the Inside Passage School, and brought me back a copy of Krenov‘s ''Impractical Cabinetmaker.''
After reading ''Impractical Cabinetmaker'', I ordered more books by Krenov. I started trying out what I read in a cold and rough but charming community workshop in Munich. I made 2 or 3 pieces there and then I flew!
The first term was hard: Everything in English, a high pace, long hours and many skilled people around. I had no training before that and had no scale for this kind of work: how flat can a handplaned surface even be, how square is square?
Luckily Robert and Caroline were amazing, kind and patient teachers and the schedule was set up in a natural progression: starting with sharpening and tool preparation to plane-making (still one of the most enjoyable things about this approach at the school: working with tools you made) and onto a little cabinet that involved all the basic techniques that should sink in over the next sessions/year/a lifetime.
The second term? Even harder, probably the hardest of them all!
Starting off with a certain cockiness (being second term, having done things already once, 4 planes on the toolcabinet), in combination with absolute focus on the school and being side by side with students as motivated and eager as me resulted in regular 12 hour days and working throughout the weekend. It also resulted in the steepest learning-curve so far; pushing my own abilities to the max. Once again, Robert always made sure we would not get too crazy (…) and Caroline was always there with a good eye.
The second term resulted in a beautiful 5 drawer wall cabinet, still one of my favourite pieces. And even though I went to Squamish after, I was too tired for world class climbing…
I came back in spring of 2017, after a year of aquiring machines, setting up a small workshop in Germany and finding out I was simply not ready to work on my own.
For various reasons I would still consider the third term as being my easiest term. Although it didn´t feel like it, during the year I was working on my own in Germany, my handskills definitely improved and some movements and sequences became second-nature to me.
The chair term is pretty much laid out for you: there is a definite sequence of steps, all the angles and dimensions are there and allow you to focus on what this exercise can teach you: a thorough understanding of grain graphics and their possibilities. Every part of Vidar´s chair is carefully selected and rotated to give the best grain orientation that compliments its shape. While this is already important for cabinet work, an (even slight) deviation of pattern becomes even more obvious in the thin, fragile parts of a chair.
The second emphasis of the chair is joinery; joinery in all gradations. From ''simple'' mortise and tenon joinery to mortise and tenon on an angle (..or on a compound angle.. or on a curve.. you get it all!) Still, as technical as it sounds (and sometimes is), the chair also gives you long hours with the spokeshave, the tool you will get most familiar during the third term.
And then, suddenly, it was there: the composing term.
Still not feeling ready for something of my own and having learned to appreciate the advantages a reproduction gives you in a school setting, I decided to attempt a Krenov piece I simply loved from the moment I saw it. (actually there are two that always stuck out for me browsing through the books, but more on that later.) It was a quite timeless, large cabinet, with two facets running down the front over the full height. The top was a showcase with V-shaped glass doors, all the parts veneered and the bottom doors matching the shapes of the top ones.
Pretty soon I was set on some beautiful pieces of English Brown Oak donated to the school by an alumni who passed away less than a year earlier. The planks were purchased by Doug Ives when he was in his third year at the school. I was the very grateful to be first recipient of the scholarship on his name. I decided that I´d use White Oak for the inside of the cabinet, an exceptional piece from Caroline.
Because of the big surfaces of the piece, I spent the first weeks of the project just cutting veneers and making the lumbercore I needed. It soon became obvious to me that this piece was something beyond what I´d ever made before. Veneer, a construction method I dismissed at first, became intriguing to me with this cabinet. But still, working with veneer feels oh so different! Even though it is shop-sawn and about 2mm thick, you have to work the surfaces with great care not to tear anything out. You are still able to work them as we do solid wood, but the tolerances are much tighter.
This piece and all its random angles that needed to match brought me close to a padded cell at times. The cabinet has travelled with me to Germany and I am making friends with it again, but back then it was a love and hate relationship.
But, all this does not say anything about what I learned in this session! As challenging as it was, as many mistakes as I made (and repaired), I still –or maybe therefore– learned so much! I learned about veneer construction and work drawings, about frustration and how to get through it (or rather knowing when to go home sometimes). I learned that it is hard to finish a piece sometimes, but also that one detail can suddenly get you excited all over again!
In this case, this detail was the base or stand: the Krenov original sits on a closed base that neither Robert nor I ever really liked on my piece when we mocked it up: it worked on Krenovs, but on this piece something was missing. So, we started to play around with the possibility of feet. Suddenly the whole cabinet came to life; became light and graceful. This small change really pushed me through the last weeks.
Another change and addition to the program started around that time: the so called „quiet Saturdays“. As nice as the machines in the shop are, there is a special mood when they don‘t run. It is quiet, everyone is relaxed and at times you just hear the very personal rhythm of hand tools.
Every Saturday starts with a Lecture of Krenov, picked according to the weeks topic from a number of phonecalls Robert recorded when the school started.
This sets the mood for the day, and when the decision was made to have no machines on Saturdays, this mood could be kept through the day. It means to think ahead and plan accordingly, to be set up for handwork on the weekend. But these Saturdays were some of the most enjoyable days in the shop!
Because of the Doug Ives Scholarship, I was able to stay longer and complete another piece. I had my eye on another Krenov piece for awhile; a very different and quite unusual one. While it was still quite formal and clean, without many curves and lots of clean, crisp lines, it had a quite unusual open space on top of a biq, square corpus.
More and more I liked the idea of this little open space that is part of the piece while also being a part of the room the piece stands in. It is a transition zone, of some sort, that invites you to interact while passing by. A small stage; a place to put fresh flowers, a picture or (as someone jokingly suggested) an aquarium.
Robert agreed that I could stay on for this piece, and I was so grateful, because everything came full circle! I never had so much fun working on a piece; I felt confident, even while repairing the (inevitable) mistakes. There was solid wood to work with again, and the small but important little steps, like shaping the legs to their slight rounding, it all felt just right. There was some veneering again, but I also enjoyed that. All the joinery was 90°, what a treat!
The combination of wood in this piece made sense, they all go together so well. It could have been because I was just eying them over for such a long time, it could have been luck, but I know for sure that it also was Robert, whose eye for colours and memory of woods (and also just the sheer size of his wood collection) made it possible!
I finished gluing the pulls on the doors about 5 minutes before the machines were turned off on the last day. Back then, now, and I guess, for a long time this piece will be a favourite. I am glad to have it around: for its presence, for its colours, and as a reminder of what I am capable of and how it can feel. The cabinet is also a reminder of one of the happiest times of my life!
Thank you Robert, thank you Yvonne and thank you Caroline for this experience and everything you taught me! I am about to set up my workshop again; this will happen because of you!