29.07-03.08.08: Konrad Sauer and Family

Knocking on the front door of the beautiful brick house yielded no response, so I ventured round the back, to see a lovely garden bookended by another house... no, wait, it's a workshop! And there I found my friend Konrad, half-naked and hard at work. He ran down to open the door (he keeps it locked so that he's not surprised by visitors - be they family (kids and machinery, anyone?) or lanky Englishmen. So it was that I was welcomed by this incredibly intelligent, diligent, plain and warm man. 

Konrad, happy even when he has to wear a shirt. Well, I'd be smiling too if I was 36 and looked this good!

Although Kon and I met last summer at Westonbirt's 'Festival of the Tree', I was a little unsure of how welcome I would be in his home, especially for the best part of 6 days... I think that neither of us knew quite what to expect, which made all of us a little nervous, despite also feeling that we were all reading from the same song sheet. Our fears were, I think, quickly allayed, especially once I had met Jill (aka The Lady Sauer), Riley (elder son) and Lucas (younger son, not named after George - yeah right!) and gotten thoroughly soaked running around with the kids at the water park that first evening. 

Both Kon and Jill look sickeningly young and healthy (not that I'm jealous) and have bundles of energy (as do their boys). Konrad beamed that he had recently been asked for I.D. when buying alcohol, and I could well believe it. I made a noise like Mutley from Wacky Races in response. I have to say I was relieved by two things: how easy-going they both are, and how well we got on. 

My days were spent in the privilege of watching Konrad at work, expertly making his beautiful infill planes. As I saw how he puts these stunning tools together, I realised that this was a master craftsman. He crafts his planes almost entirely by hand, using simple tools: rasps, hammers, files and sandpaper. 

"One man may need many files" (Ancient Chinese proverb)

Much of the time I was thinking, "What!? You're going to do that how?? File the mouth of the plane - with a file?? Oh my.". Konrad embodies what David Pye called the 'workmanship of risk', his process is a refined, quirkily personal on at the centre of which are his hands, eyes and skill. If he slips, or makes a mistake, his work can be ruined. To me, this is what makes him unique. He is, for my money, the best plane maker in the world, and in part this is because every plane he makes is unique. You can't buy two Sauer and Steiner planes that are the same, because no-one can hand make two identical items: but to focus on repeatability is to miss the point. Konrad's planes are the best because he doesn't try to make them all precisely the same - the lever cap 32.5 mm from the sole, etc. - his planes are not measured to a scale, they are balanced to themselves. So it is that they work in harmony with their nature. 

One of Konrad's beauties.

Don't get me wrong, Konrad's planes are made to an exacting standard of bewildering quality, but it is a standard and quality on a human scale, not the microns and nanoseconds of machines. 

When I wasn't watching Konrad at work, I was oggling his timber stack... beautiful, old tropicals for the most part - the sort of thing us woodworkers go doolally over! He's got this board of Brazilian rosewood (on the right of the pic) that's about 3 inches thick, 10ft long and between 2 and 3 ft wide that is ALL figured. Konrad said that he doesn't have the heart to cut it up, and is trying to convince Jill that they should put it over the mantlepiece. I know I'd be in the same position, and my arguments would be equally fruitless!

Mmm... tasty.

I did manage to make myself of some use while I was there too, which was gratifying. I had said to Kon that if there was a project that he had in mind and needed some help with, I'd be very keen to help. So on Saturday we built a dehumidifying kiln! I must admit that I took some convincing that Konrad's ebony needed to be taken down from 9% to 6% M.C., but let's face it, he's the expert! We headed off to the local store and found a dehumidifier (made in Canada too - I didn't realise that we still make things in the Western world?!) and then Kon dragged me along to the dreaded Home Depot (aka the Big Orange Box). It's like B&Q on steroids, for those Brits out there. They even have a similar tag line - instead of, "You can do it when you B&Q it" it's, "You can do it. We can help!". Catchy, eh? Still, they had everything we needed and we hightailed it out of there while we still had the will to live. Two hours later and hey presto! the kiln was done! 

Ain't it a beaut? (Based on Ejler Hjorn-Westh's design in Woodwork no.99)

So, the long and the short of it is that I had a great time with a great family, and how could I not have? I learned a lot about plane making, furniture making, running a successful business and being human. My sincere thanks to Kon, Jill and the boys for being wonderful hosts and kind friends! Até a vista amigos!

26.07-29.07.08: The Big One!

I left Calgary on Saturday afternoon to drive 3,500 km to Kitchener, ON. Writing that now, it seems a little crazy, but I'd never done it before, so it didn't seem so daft at the time...

Day One: Wonderfully hot weather - windows down, music up, cruising along happily through Alberta into Saskatchewan. The prairies were strangely hypnotic, like a green ocean that rolls up in waves to meet you. It is strangely like the sea, actually - the folds in the land are like waves on a stormy day that prevent you from seeing too far, and the constantly moving grasses are reminiscent of the flowing, eddying water. 

As the day turned into night I realised that I should find somewhere to sleep, and failed miserably in that endeavour. I had passed Regina at about 8pm, and was headed into the great space between that city and Winnepeg. The odd thing about the main road across Canada is that it is only really punctuated by large cities - Calgary, Medicine Hat, Regina, Winnepeg, Thunder Bay, etc. with little else in between. For those of you who are Europeans like me, that is a strange reality to be faced with. At home, there is always a town or village on the road, the next stopping point is never more than 25 miles away. Here the next stopping point is about 600 miles away. Oh. 
So I eventually grew tired and managed to pull off behind a truck that was also parked up for the night. I grabbed my sleeping bag and settled into the back seat, with visions of policemen checking the car, or worse... Now, for those of you who don't know me, let me explain something. The back seat of my car is about 4ft 3 across, and I am 6ft 4 tall. Needless to say this was not the height of comfort!

Day Two: Having guaranteed myself an early start (no curtains and little comfort) I set off in yawning earnest. I was now in the thick of it - there was no turning back, only the endless road ahead. Now I know I was tired, but this has to be the most boring drive in the universe! I began at 6:30 am and arrived in Thunder Bay nearly 14 hours later having seen this almost all day:

Now I'm sorry Canada, but there's only so much monotony that even I can take! Once in a while there would be lovely sections of road that cut through the myriad lakes that cover northern Ontario, which I just wanted to stop at and dive into! (Oh, and by the way, after a night on the back seat, I splurged on a Super 8 motel - which seemed like the lap of luxury!)

Day Three: Thunder Bay is on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world by surface area. Now I knew that, and hey! it's a big lake, right? Er, well imagine if you will, coming from a country where if you peer long enough on a clear day you can see from end to end, seeing a lake that forms the horizon of your world. Not the sea, mind, but fresh water. I've never known BIG like it. It took me 5 hours to drive along its northwestern shore for goodness sake! That's like going from Scotland to see my parents near London! I LOVE this country!!!!! (Slight mood swing from yesterday?)

So once I passed Sault-Sainte-Marie I was heading to Mantoulin Island on the northern edge of Lake Huron, to catch the ferry the next morning (thanking God for the advice of my good friend Konrad for suggesting the change of transport!). As with so many places on this whistlestop tour, I only regret not being able to spend more time in this area - Mantoulin seems like it would be the most beautiful place to explore properly. I stayed the night in a charming cabin right on the lake (again foregoing the confines of my back seat) and relaxed into a deep, satisfying sleep. Tomorrow, the end would be in sight...

Day Four: Another early morning, but with a decidedly different tone - relaxing by the lakeside while eating breakfast, sad to leave but eager to conclude this rapid epic. I drove onto the ferry and left the car to cool my heels looking out over this calming tranquility that was Lake Huron.

Once we docked in Tobermory (not the Scottish Tobermory...) I suddenly realised that there were only 3 hours left until I arrived at Konrad Sauer's house and could stop bloody driving. I have to admit that a somewhat fey mood took me, and if I could make it in 2h45, I would! Not to be deterred by slow motorists ahead on the single lane highway (who I steamed past at any available opportunity), I headed south. I then realised that I was mad to be clock-watching, slowed down to a reasonable speed and reminded myself to enjoy the present - "Live in the now, dude!" (Not the only time I found Wayne's World quotes coming to mind). So I ended up driving through Amish country before hitting Guelph (pronounced 'Gwelf' - argh!) and getting a little lost... Anyway, I yet again miraculously managed to arrive safe and sound at the door of Mr. Konrad Sauer - somewhat road-weary, and very glad to see one of the people who inspired me to think of this madcap trip in the first place. 

So long Great Lakes, so long prairie lands... Hello beer and barbeque!

21-25.07.08: "Training the Hand" course with Rob Cosman

My week's work (well most of it): Dovetails, dovetails, dovetails!

Last summer I met two people who really gave me the inspiration for this trip: one was Konrad Sauer (plane maker extraordinaire, who I'll tell you about in another entry) and the other was Rob Cosman. To give you some background, I was on a two-year furniture design and construction course in Scotland which was proving to be less than satisfactory in terms of developing my skills. After some time of looking around for other inspiration, I bought one of Rob's DVDs - "Advanced Hand-Cut Dovetails". It is no exaggeration to say that watching it was like finding water in the desert - it was the first time I had seen such a high level of skill and attention to detail in woodworking (thankfully not the last!). So I began practising dovetailing, and eventually got Rob's other DVDs, which in many ways taught me a workable method of cutting joints well. It was also Rob's influence that convinced me that Lie-Nielsen tools are well worth the money, and although I have since discovered a whole world of fine tools, at the time as a novice (and somewhat due to small-mindedness at college) they were a revelation to me. I was taking baby steps towards becoming a craftsman. 

So when I heard that Rob was coming to the UK for the Festival of the Tree at Westonbirt Arboretum, that the best tool company in Blighty was in charge of the tent (Classic Hand Tools), and that there were going to be others there that REALLY knew their stuff (Konrad, John Lloyd, James Mursell etc.) I knew that I had to go. So I spent four days at the woodshow and chatted extensively with everyone, bought my budget's worth of tools from Mike Hancock (Mr. Classic Hand Tools) and by the end of the show had myself an invite to take one of Rob's courses in Canada. "That would be nice" I thought, "but quite impossible". Despite that I knew that I had to go and visit not only Rob and Konrad, but try to find a way to see all of my furniture heroes, which is how this trip came about. 

Rob showing us how it's done. There were lots of really interesting people there: Mal the dentist (who hooked Rob up with getting a tooth pulled in the middle of the week!), LaRue (in the green tee) the priest, Cosmo (at the far end) who owns every tool known to man, and Paul (far left) who used to be the drummer in The Mavericks!

So, the first confirmed point on my journey were these five days in Calgary with Rob. He runs his courses from the workshops of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (otherwise known as SAIT), which have very extensive workshops. For the machine lovers out there, this would have been a tantalising place to be: massive shops full of the best machinery, on a hand tool course where you can't use any! But for me (who has a general dislike of machines) it was great. Now I should say that this course went through basically the same things as Rob's DVDs: dimensioning boards, dovetailing, mortise and tenons, tool sharpening, etc. all totally by hand. However, although the "curriculum" was familiar, as were the techniques, I found that nothing can have a higher value than the direct experience of seeing something done in real life, being able to ask questions, then doing it yourself with correction and direction from an expert. And that's what Rob is: he's not really a furniture maker, but he is excellent at what he teaches. 

Rob's sickeningly perfect pins...

This was a course for people who want to WORK though. We did about 73 hours in 5 days, which is no mean feat, and I think for most of us it was a bit too much. I was keen to do as much as I possibly could, but I'm young, dumb and full of... passion (by the end of the week I was knackered though). But this is how Rob is: he's tough, plain-speaking and likes to work. A lot. For me the course allowed me to develop: I thought I had sharp tools and I saw what sharp really is, and developed my sharpening. My joints were already pretty good, but I had the time to practise them until they were as good as Rob's (his words not mine) although he can do them in 10 minutes (we timed him) and I can do them in 45. I was saying to my benchmate LaRue (from NC) that it was a real pleasure to have the time to make joints without having to worry about them going into a piece of furniture. If I screwed it up, I just went and got some more timber and started again... It was heaven!

Me, happily cutting dovetails. Check out the hairy arm! And you thought it was just a silly name...

Now I think it would be fair to say that in the world of woodworking Rob has made something of a name for himself, and not always in a good way. I would say that Rob is a man of strong opinions, and I can see how this would not go down well with other professionals. However I also think that he spends a lot of his time teaching beginners, and I think that at the start a strong guide helps you to progress quickly, and I certainly cannot deny that my early progress has been largely attributable to him. It is also true that a significant part of his business is selling tools, which is dangerous water to navigate when you are a teacher of skills, and Rob is not shy in his salesmanship. That said, he doesn't recommend tools that he doesn't believe are the best, so he manages to maintain a certain integrity at the same time as his strong personality! 

Something that I did appreciate was that most of us students were staying in the SAIT residences (as recommended by Rob) which were clean, spartan but most importantly had no fresh air - tiny windows, no fans, no a/c. In Calgary, in July (on the 24th floor). Ouchy. Once we all started saying what it was like though, Rob was straight on the phone to sort it out, and got many people some money back by way of apology. Talk about a pit bull!

One person that deserves special mention is Rob's assistant Tim, who was an absolute legend through the whole week - he was incredibly helpful and supportive, in addition to being a brilliant laugh. We really had a great lark!

The Cosman class: tired, but happy!

20.07.08: Vancouver to Calgary

Hahahahahaha! A whole day driving through the Rockies: a whole day of picking my jaw up off the floor and rubbing my eyes in disbelief!

16.07.08: Inside Passage School and Robert Van Norman

I must admit that I was somewhat nervous to go to the Inside Passage School. Not because of what the name may suggest to those of you with a certain base humour, but because it is a Krenovian school, and I was hoping that Robert Van Norman (who runs the school) would be friendlier than Jim Krenov was. 

Thankfully, my fears were ill-founded, as Robert is a thoroughly engaging, zen-like man, cutting a dashing figure with his long grey ponytail. And his school was the most impressive place. The workshop is very light and airy, divided into bench, machine and timber rooms. The machine room is well-equipped in the Krenovian fashion - mostly bandsaws and planers, and I must admit that I was impressed with how well tuned they were. More important than the place, though, was the atmosphere: somewhat like Robert, it was relaxed, co-operative and excited. The third thing that really impressed me was how much Robert has achieved here - the success of the school is entirely down to his work and that of his wife Yvonne, and they have made it a great place to learn really fine craftsmanship. 

A tidy, clean, well-organised shop is a safe shop!

Once I had been introduced to everyone there and shown round the facilities, Robert took me into his modest bench room to talk. He is a man with an interesting history: he began his journey as a craftsman while working in a youth detention facility, helping one of the prisoners make a guitar. He spent three years working for a cabinet shop before moving to Banff in 1991 and setting up his own shop, which became a co-op with two like-minded makers. He had read a Cabinetmaker's Notebook and described it like a lightning rod - he knew that he wanted to do what Krenov wrote about. I really like the simplicity and reverence of Krenov's method, and it is clear that although Robert believes deeply in it, he feels no need to make anyone agree with him - he is not a combative person, which I greatly appreciate. 

A summer student refining a curve. 

After injuring his back in the shop, Robert made use of his contact with Krenov and finally went to the College of the Redwoods to study under his master. The time indeed was ripe, and his education was slanted toward learning how to teach as well as developing his own already formidable skills. It is now only three years since the Inside Passage School opened, which amazed me - again, I think, the time was right and Robert and Yvonne's energies flowed into that place to make it what it is. 

My criticism of the school is not about the process, but rather about design. I was truly astounded by the level of craftsmanship that the students there learn - Robert was showing me the student work, saying, "This is X's first piece" or, "This is Y's second piece", as in the first or second piece they had ever made. And all of the workmanship was as close to flawless as I have ever seen - just unbelievable application to the crafting of these beautiful objects. I was disappointed though, to see that most of the student work is either a copy of or an homage to Krenov's designs - this is perhaps inevitable in the sense that you are following Krenov's process and will easily follow his aesthetic as well, and I think is somewhat representative of student attitude more than what is taught and encouraged in the school. I say this because Robert and all of the staff have evolved their own aesthetics and made pieces that are distinctly their own. 

However, some of the student work showed that the more mature students had not been content to merely copy Krenov's work, and had internalised his way of working and resultant aesthetic and gone beyond it to their own work and identity. This I think should truly be the aim of any educator - to teach a way of working and to encourage the student to embrace it and then develop it into their own thing. Anyway, the work of Juan Carlos Fernandez and Jason Klager really stood out for me. Photos can be found here

Robert's main piece of advice to me was to do what you want to do and not compromise yourself by doing work that isn't flowing from your soul. He said that he would rather work part-time to earn some money and be able to make the furniture he really wants to do than take on jobs that his heart isn't in, which I think is not only noble, but pragmatic. As I've said before, I think that you get a reputation for doing the kind of work you do, and if you do kitchen cabinets or something to make some cash, you will get more people coming to you to ask you to make their kitchens. It's not that kitchen cabinets are bad and only fine furniture is good, but it's a question of what you really want to do. He also emphasised the truth that variety is a good thing in your work pattern - one cannot make demanding pieces all the time. So make something demanding and then something simple, have some fun in the workshop, play around making a little batch of boxes or something. 

A wonderful realisation I've had here is that making tools and hardware is easy and well within the reach of the average woodworker. It is also something that I really want to try my hand at, and Robert kindly gave me one of their course handouts on metallurgy, which will be very handy when I come to try to make a chisel or something. I love the idea of doing these things not in general, but when nothing else will serve - if you need a tiny chisel or a round plane to make something, you knock it together yourself and end up with all of these idiosyncratic little tools that have direct attachments to your work. 

Another great tip was to practice. Robert was saying how when he has a challenging element like a three-dimensional curve to veneer (!) he'll do test runs and mock-ups to practice before doing the real thing. He swears that this is the secret of high-quality work, and I can well believe it. It is the outworking of Krenov's words about working cautiously - essentially being ready to do something on your real piece, confident and aware. Robert also emphasised using mock-ups and models to design and refine a piece through its arc of production - all the way from initial concept to final components - mocking up different leg shapes for example, to really find THAT curve. 

Finally we spoke about pricing your work. Jason Klager has sold the piece on the school's website for $13,500 CAN which may seem excessive, but you can see that every penny of that has gone into making that piece, so it's a fair price. Let's face it, some of the work you do will be cheap, some will be really pricey because some is quick and simple, whereas other work is immensely complex and time-consuming. So be smart about your pricing - good advice I think!

12.07.08: Dave Brown and Family

So for a week I stayed with old friends in Vancouver - Dave Brown, who was in the theatre group that my grandfather directed way back when in Coventry, his Aussie wife Joanie and their two multi-passport holding daughters, Claire (older) and Emily (younger) or collectively called "Clemily" by Dave (usually when he's not sure who did what, only that he's got less money in his wallet as a result). This is the second time that these lovely people have put me up (or is that put up with me?) - I stayed with them before in the winter of 2001. After spending the best part of a month on my tod, it was great to see some familiar faces and to be welcomed back into the bosom of the Brown family. 

Me acting the fool, Joanie is unimpressed.

Emily, who is clearly really glad I put my arm round her shoulder. Not. 

Claire and I before we went swimming (no I'm not kidding, and yes it was rather cool in the water).

Dave and I in the living room. I tried to put my arm round him too, but he wasn't having any of it. 

09.07.08: Portland/Northwest Woodworking Studio

The Northwest Woodworking Studio was the second school I was to visit, and I arrived at this rambling, somewhat charmingly shambolic space that the school inhabits in the middle of a children's woodworking class. NWS is the brainchild of Gary Rogowski, who unfortunately I didn't meet, but who built the school from the ground up with his own two hands. As impressive a feat as this is, I wondered about the wisdom of going it alone in any endeavour - I thought it would only be successful if you had good support from people who weren't directly involved, otherwise the risk of burnout from shouldering the whole burden seems too great. 

Anyway, it was an unexpected joy to arrive when I did, as I had never seen children working wood before. The class was taught by Brendan Alvistur, who is the first graduate of the school's nine-month course. I had a great time: some time spent talking with Brendan, who is in a similar situation to myself - just graduated, trying to get set up and start working professionally, etc.; some time spent with the class, joining in with what they were doing. Below is a shot of Brendan and the kids!

Brendan and I shared our concerns about the future, and although we had much in common he seemed to be more relaxed about his prospects than I had been. This may be naivety on his part, but I began to see a pattern emerge - that many of the people I have met started on their paths without flapping their feathers; they just got on with it. It's a cliché I know, but there really is a "can do" attitude here that is refreshing - people don't seem to be naive about the risks, but less intimidated by them. I realised that the negativity of the people I have been taught by and in contact with is contagious, and I am relieved to find that those attitudes are not universal. I am also beginning to see that I am only just emerging from the starting blocks, and I should stop expecting that I can/should/must build Rome in a day, calm down and let things flow from me. After all, the stress I have felt is really my own doing. 

Yet again I feel somewhat honoured by the time that someone (in this case Brendan) has spent with me, as I have not found that I am so easily embraced in Scotland. There is a sense of guardedness that I have not found here - people seem generally more apt to share and give than they do back home, which is a phenomenon I struggle to understand. 

Port Townsend

This is the first place I have visited that I have fallen in love with - there is such a wonderful air here. PT is on the north-eastern point of the Olympic Peninsula, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. The place is divided by a bluff into "Uptown" and "Downtown": surprisingly, uptown being on top of the cliff, downtown being along the water's edge. Much more straightforward than my home (Downley being the village on the hilltop, High Wycombe being the town in the valley...). So Port Townsend is happily seated between the mountains to landward on the peninsula and the calm, crystal waters of the Sound leading out to the Pacific. Even better, on a clear day the snowy peaks of the Cascades and Mount Rainier frame the horizon. 

Port Townsend is a beautiful, calm town that has something going on round every corner. Everyone seems to know each other, but there is no sense of the suffocation of privacy that can come from such a situation. I think the people here have invested themselves in the place and the community, so that everyone plays a part in making it the place it is. So there is sailing, rowing, the nascent woodworking school, book presses and publishers, music and film festivals, great bars with locally caught and reared food and locally brewed beer (which is excellent) the wooden boat festival and school, and every kind of craft: furniture, jewellery, pottery,weaving spinning and boat-building. The list seems practically endless. My point is that nobody seems to go to work, come home and watch TV, go to bed, go to work... Nobody is isolating themselves from everyone else, and that is an incredible thing to experience. This is a vibrant community. 

I had arranged to meet Tim Lawson, one of the founders of Port Townsend School of Woodworking, who took it upon himself to be the most extraordinarily generous guide to the place and the people. We met at the school, where I also met Jim Tolpin (as their website says, yes, THAT Jim Tolpin). Jim, Tim and a third founder, John Markworth, who I didn't meet, started the PT School of Woodworking over a year ago, so it is the new kid on the block. The school is still finding its feet (with bench drawers being put in and box upon box of tools to be unpacked) but is functioning in a great space at Fort Worden State Park - the old electricity plant for the fort! They have made an excellent conversion of the space, which is surprisingly light and spacious, despite the some feet thick concrete walls (in case of explosions or fire, of course). It seems to me that the school has been created for all the right reasons: all three founders have come to a point where they wish to teach others what they know, and boy do they have a deep well of knowledge and experience!

Tim is also English, and moved from big software (Lotus) to furniture making only a few years ago. Having seen his furniture in the flesh, I was surprised by this fact, as his work is some of the most ingenious I have ever seen - his bird wing inspiration may be a bit literally translated, but his craft is extremely refined. 

Tim in his workshop.

He and his charming wife Teresa moved to Port Townsend from Cambridge, Mass. and seemingly have not looked back since. It was interesting to talk to Tim as an immigrant to the U.S., and he certainly has no doubts or misgivings about moving stateside - the only things he misses are the Beeb and the Guardian! Given that moving abroad is something that my partner Sophie and I have been giving serious thought to, it was valuable to get Tim's insight. 

Tim calls the deer (which are around in great number) "rats on stilts". They eat his flowers, and he is inclined to hold it against them. I thought they were rather cute though!

Jim is an unassuming man with a razor-sharp philosophical mind. He possesses the extraordinary ability to find the core of a thought or idea and express it succinctly - it was amazing! Within five minutes of meeting him he had summed up why I was on this trip and where I wanted to head with woodwork. He asked me about my trip and I explained the purpose in my somewhat flowing manner, and he said, "So, basically you're..." followed by the best summing up of my motives as I have heard! I wish I could remember the exact conversation... 
When I mentioned my astonishment at his ability to do this, he said that perhaps he was a reductionist: someone who can put complex notions across clearly and succinctly. So it came as no surprise that when I asked him what excites him about woodworking, he said, "If it rolls or floats, I like it." (He has recently completed a reproduction Gypsy wagon, and has built several watercraft). Enough said, really. 

Tim and I outside the Port Townsend School of Woodworking on the morning of my departure. No wonder he looks so happy.

07.07.08: James Krenov

To my mind, there are two names that come to mind when thinking of the most famous and influential makers of the last forty years. The two names that top the list are Sam Maloof and James Krenov. Today I met Krenov. I have left quite some time between meeting him and posting about it, mostly because I want to be fair and accurate, and I've needed time to digest the experience. 

I had read all of Krenov's books, and found his ideas to be inspiring beyond my enjoyment of their romanticism. His reputation precedes him, and he seems to be a man about whom there are divided opinions. Some clearly worship him as the person who expressed real craftsmanship in his furniture and writing, who led the way for a resurgence in intimate, careful work, while others found him to be hugely egotistical, rude and difficult. I must admit that I was a little nervous to meet the man about whom I had heard so many different accounts, and whose ideas I so admired. 

I think it is best for me to describe our meeting and leave opinions for others to form. I arrived at Krenov's home/workshop, and was immediately surprised by its humble size. I eventually found Jim in his workshop, through the trees a little from the main house. He greeted me by saying, "Oh yes, you're the Australian aren't you?" - in a previous phone call he remarked how I sounded like I was from New Zealand, and I assumed that this was what he meant. I told him again that I am from England, and he invited me into his shop, which is an extremely warm (the heating was on in July in California), small, but very comfortable space with a lot of natural light. He invited me to sit down on a stool while he stood at his bench, and spoke for much of the time without looking in my direction, but when he directed his gaze at me I felt the intensity of it. 
Initially Jim asked me about myself and my trip, essentially it seemed reminding himself of our previous contact. When he found that I had been to see Sam Maloof, he said, "Sam Maloof! There's only one thing I have to say about Sam Maloof - he's a very good promoter of Sam Maloof." 
Jim spoke in a somewhat circular manner, in fact remarking that this was what he preferred - not to be too direct about things, but to talk around them. Much of what he said pointed to three things: devotion to your craft, intimacy with your work and love of wood, your material. 
He showed me his planes and explained about how he couldn't make cabinets anymore due to his failing eyesight. In fact, he said that he has had no less than three operations to prevent him from going blind, and that he sees everything in a haze. This seemed to me a very sad occurrence, and not something that Jim has found possible to deal with completely. He told me about how he does a "little song and dance" for the students at the Inside Passage school once a week - giving lectures by telephone, which he seemed to find somewhat amusing but is also something of a lifeline to him after leaving the College of the Redwoods.

At some point he stopped speaking and asked me if I had anything to record our conversation with. I replied that I had brought my notebook, but have a good memory and tend to sit and write about my experiences after they have happened. He took exception to this, saying that "In this day and age there doesn't seem to be a good reason not to have a pocket tape recorder! That seems like a terrible error to me - that you've come all this way so unprepared. I don't mean to be rude, but you can't remember all of the things that I'm saying to write them in a notebook."
Once Jim realised that I had no tape recorder, he quickly became agitated and lost interest in talking to me. I tried to keep calm, and to keep the conversation going, but when I asked for his advice, he said, "I don't teach anymore! I don't like these questions, 'What advice could you give me MR. KRENOV? How do you do this MR. KRENOV?". He proceeded, "I'm sorry but I don't see the point of continuing, I don't think I have anything else to offer." I asked him if he wanted me to leave, and he said that he would never kick anyone out, but didn't see the point of continuing. Continue he did, for a little while, but then I thanked him for his time, "I have found your books and your furniture a great inspiration, and thank you for taking the time to meet me." 
In all honesty I was flustered and somewhat angered by Jim's behaviour, but at the same time recognised that had obliged me by letting me meet him, and that being as kind to him as I could was the right thing to do. I am still baffled by that whole experience, and somewhat divided in my opinions of it and of Jim. In any case, that is what happened. 

07.07.08: College of the Redwoods

Going to the legendary College of the Redwoods, the school that James Krenov founded and directed for over 20 years, has been an ambition of mine ever since I became seriously interested in furniture making. The school is state funded, which is one of the several things that make this place unique. 

I met David Welter in the bench room. He is the "Petty Chief Officer" of the school, which seems to have a somewhat horizontal faculty since Jim Krenov left in 2002. David is a woodworker of experience, having basically been at the College since 1982. He was a student there for two years, returning to become part of the faculty in 1986, and has remained there ever since. I got the impression that he and the other faculty members pool resources to run the school, so he seems to have innumerable roles there. The school began in 1981, so David knows it as well as anyone. 

David is possessed of a wicked sense of humour (his job title, for example), but at first blush is a reserved, quiet man. He first gave me a tour of the school, which is much smaller than its reputation: a large bench room adjoins a machine room which is equipped with simple, well-maintained, reliable machines - of course, in the Krenovian mould: bandsaws, jointers and slot mortisers are the mainstays there. I smiled at the fact that timber is stored in an orderly way, but in several places. It is as if the material, the wood is an all-pervading presence there: it is really what runs the place. Then, of course, there is the ghost of Krenov (still living) who haunts the halls - the whole school has been shaped by his person, his philosophy and ways of working - and I could not help but feel that a void has been left that the school is still trying to move on from, to recover from. 

David and I spoke for quite some time, about the school's history, about my experiences and his, about woodworking, furniture, and of course about Krenov, who I was to meet later that same day. He was very generous in these conversations: giving his honest opinion, even when it was difficult. I got the sense that his experiences were such that he sometimes had to choose his words carefully, and also that he has not escaped unscathed. Towards the end of Jim Krenov's time at the school, there were some difficult times for all, as relationships broke down and the school seemed as though it might implode. When I tentatively asked David whether Jim left of his own accord or not, he responded, "Many of the things that he had said and done made it easy to push (him out)". The school has survived because of this action, rather than despite it. I think that for whatever reason, the wheels had turned and whether anyone realised it or not, Krenov's time at the school had ended. That period must have been particularly hard for David and the other teaching staff, who are mostly Krenov's students. 

On other, perhaps more important (and certainly less salacious) matters, David was a man to be listened to closely. He agreed that it is essentially important to begin - to start working and keep producing pieces in whatever capacity - to allow your creativity to flow out of you. Listening to him, I realised that this has perhaps been the reason for the cloud that seems to have followed me around ever since I was 18: I haven't been letting my creativity really flow, and so in some ways have shrivelled, become flaccid. The mere idea of creating excites me so,     that my soul wakes as if from hibernation: I unfurl to face the new day standing tall. 

The other real point of connection between David and I was the importance of wood in woodwork. I think that if there is one fetish that it's not so bad to have in this job, it's being obsessed with wood. One recurring theme is that collecting a stock of timber is a much better way of working than buying timber for each project: for one thing you have a choice when you come to work. Other benefits are that your material is always ready to be used, as you will have had it in a dry environment for some time, and you can use the material as a starting point for design. Below is one of the graduate pieces on show in the Highline Gallery, Mendocino.

Drivin' (up the coast): Berkeley to Fort Bragg

A fantastic day's driving today. Berkeley was fun (and useful) but it was time to move on. After getting supplies for the next few days I headed off north on the next stage of the trip - to Fort Bragg. The drive along the coast more than made up for missing the Big Sur coast (due to forest fires) - it is a stunning drive which only gives one the problem of keeping the car on the road while gawking at the views that lie around almost every bend. I managed to keep it all together, and arrived in Fort Bragg in the early evening. The azure Pacific is a haunting prescence here, especially when there is fog or haze on the shore, and you only glimpse the endless ocean that you know continues into the infinite horizon. 

I began to see that some of my feeling down here has always been with me when I have travelled: it is a sense of being alone in the big wide world combined with the shallowness of experience that comes with moving rapidly from place to place. I feel that the world is such a wonderful thing to experience, that each town, valley and mountain has a lifetime of experience to offer a person, and that I can only skim the bare surface of the things I am seeing as I journey onward. Travelling brings forward the absolute truth that we see so little here, that our experiences are so tiny a part of the world we live in. I know that I am here with a definite purpose, but oh! how I long to explore everywhere - every facet, every crevice from the lowest valley to the highest mountain top. How I long to investigate, to leap from the hilltops, to make myself immune from busyness, from schedules and darting about. I wish to look long and see into the truth of things, to find their essence. 

Drivin' (around): 05/07/08

To Victor's great pleasure I went on a driving tour of San Francisco Bay today (he had made numerous suggestions as to where I should visit on my first night with him, and found it hard to understand why I hadn't already been everywhere). I have to say in his defence that he was a most excellent guide, as I had a great time!
I went up to Mt. Tamalpais, which has a commanding view of the whole bay area (see the pic). Once at the peak, I kept trying to take self-portraits with somewhat comical results, so I gave up and just enjoyed the view. I find that taking pictures makes an important record and a great aid to memory, but it is also too easy to look through the camera and then not take the time to take in the real views and people. I lunched in the car park, desperately trying to cool down in the clear heat, and drove on to the coast and Muir Beach overlook. 
From there, with the vista of the Pacific calling to me, I went back to Vista Point (where the classic view of the Golden Gate is to be found) which was now clear of fog, and the winding cliff-top road was now littered with dangerously parked cars. I took a couple of pics and went across the bridge to "The City" (very humble of them, no?).  The city was a real treat, as driving around it was like a trip down memory lane - I passed Phil and Alison's old gaff, where Mum, Dad and I had stayed more than ten years earlier. It was a real reconnection with that charming city, and I had quite forgotten a) what a gentle place it is and b) how STEEP the hills really are!

The day was rounded off by the most unusual pizza I have ever had, which made me see why in parts of the US they are called pizza pies (only when the moon hits your eye though). It was basically a filled pizza, that was about 1 1/4 inches deep... The place was Zachary's on Solano. 

Capoeira, Darts and Fireworks: Berkeley on July 4th

I had been along to Mestre Acordeon's capoeira classes on Wednesday night, was aching badly from that, which didn't stop me from going back on Friday 4th for more great capoeira. I met some ghosts from the past there - several people who I vaguely recognised but couldn't quite place until I realised we'd met in Arrial do Cabo, Rio de Janeiro in 2003/4. I also ran into a familiar face from Cambridge - a Russian Israeli called Victor, who kindly offered to put me up in his house. 
The training was hard, enjoyable and informative, and unsurprisingly there are some very good capoeiras there. I had a great time playing in the rodas, particularly with Grilo, a professor who was visiting from Denver. I discovered that explaining my nickname was a great way to break the ice, and got several laughs from slightly stunned people!
So on the 4th July I returned to Acordeon's academy, aching, but keen to get training. So it was that I came to meet Wellington Lima (Palhaço) who aside from capoeira is a trampoline champion and 10-year veteran of Cirque de Soleil. (Check out some of his videos on YouTube - he's the one in red in the show) He took the class for the night, teaching acrobatics. It was honestly the first time I had done acrobatics and not felt overwhelmingly inadequate, scared and unable to achieve. It was amazing - a real breakthrough. Palhaço's style of teaching was very relaxed, without the usual dose of testosterone. He kept saying, "It's simple, so don't make it complicated!". He clearly had an exceptional acrobatic ability: lithe, flexible smooth movement that made anything look effortless. His movement has a real grace. One great tip (for the capoeiras out there) was how many acrobatic moves begin and end in esquiva lateral (like au sem mao, au batido, etc.). The other great thing was that he not only knew the difference between making a movement easy and making it difficult, he could explain and demonstrate those differences - brilliant!

After the class we all headed off to the marina to watch the fireworks, which were blighted by a shroud of the famous fog. We made our own fireworks though: me being a Brit in a group largely made up of Americans, patriotic banter was being fired back and forth, which was great fun. I am sure that you wouldn't find such a sense of humour elsewhere in the country. After the fireworks (which are illegal for an individual to possess - but guns are fine) we went to the Albatross pub (est. 1964, congratulations!) where I was surprised to say the least to find Belhaven Ale on the menu (it is our local brew in Haddington). I was duly challenged to a darts match by Eric, a joyful guy who had lived through the LA riots (yikes!) who said, "Hey limey! You want a game of darts?". How could I say no, especially as the pride of my nation was at stake? At the test though, I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and that in observance of the date the Brit lost and the Yank won. Despite the sore blow to my national pride, I had a great laugh that evening. 

Berkeley Hostel: 01/07

When I arrived in Berkeley I went to find the hostel I had booked over the web, which looked like a very professional place from the site. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not so: the building is an old sorority house and the hostel is run by fate, a group of students and an old hippy called Yao (or Rossko, depending on the weather). Rossko is a very unusual man, who would always give such oblique answers to any question that I never quite knew who he was or where I stood with him. Independence Day coming up seemed to mean that anti-British sentiment had stirred within him, and most of his responses contained some sort of reference to colonialism. Example: "So, Rossko, do you own this place?" "Let me ask you this: when the British were in charge of America did they really own it or were they just under the illusion they did? Well, I'm not under the illusion that I own this place - I am its humble servant." He was kind to me and I loved the mystique that he seemed so keen to maintain about himself, partly because it made me judge him by his actions. 

At the hostel, which was a chaotic jumble of bric-a-brac, I had the extreme good fortune to meet some very interesting people called Dee, Tommy and Vaz. Dee and I in particular had a great connection (she is a writer and plans to come to Britain), Tommy is a musician - quiet, thoughtful and possessed of a great humour, warmth and earthiness. They were visiting Rossko and I joined them in the lounge while we all ate dinner, and we ended up spending hours chatting and putting the world to rights. It was fantastic to have good, solid conversation and after spending time in the mountains. I've always been excited by these philosophical, meaning of life sort of conversations as I feel that they allow people to reveal themselves and be vulnerable with each other, but also have iron sharpen iron - that people sharing their ideas and opinions blends and develops those ideas (and the relationships between people) beyond what they would be in isolation. It is like drinking from a deep well. 

One other thing to remember about Dee was that she really encouraged me on my path, which is something I've not experienced a lot of: she told me not to worry about being a success as a furniture maker as I am clearly passionate about it, and just to do it! She also posited the idea of publishing my experiences. I have started to wonder if there is a book in this trip, but she told me that radio, newspapers (e.g. Sunday supplements) would be interested in my story, which was a real surprise to me. What a wonderful meeting with a stranger that was!

Sequoia and King's Canyon

I have had some wonderful experiences here in this stunning place. I know that it is a cliché, but the sheer scale of the mountains bewilders me. It is interesting to be in a place such as this, seeing how human activity has changed it over time. For one thing, I was surprised at how easy it is to see real beauty (from the road) and how difficult it is to access any real wilderness. I had to alter my plans for backcountry travel (given the distances involved!) to a more modest set of day walks, which turned out to be sufficient to satiate my thirst for nature. 
I first went to Mist Falls in Kings Canyon, which thankfully lived up to their name (given the heat of the day, the mist was most refreshing). It was a dusty, gentle amble along the canyon floor, through thickets of evergreens turned black and desolate by fire, then striking the river that flowed over the falls. Following its course up to the peaks was a little challenging, especially given people's warnings about rattlesnakes (!) but the flora was so intruiging and alien that any difficulties were hardly felt. It is hard to describe in words, but the aesthetic of the Sierra I find to be stirring to my soul: the great boulders of granite, the rich green of the trees, the cold clarity of the rivers - taken together, being surrounded by all of this wonderful nature, is quite overwhelming. 

On the trail I met a father and son who I walked with for a while, and I was again struck by the innate friendliness of many of the people here. It is a curious and heartwarming event, particularly to the single traveller, when you meet perfect strangers who wish to go beyond a simple 'Hello', who without any sense of loneliness or desperation (as may be assumed too often in Britain) want to talk to you, and want you to talk to them. 

On my second day I walked up to Heather Lake (in Sequoia), an altogether more vertical and more breathtaking (physically and spiritually) hike, as I was going up into higher elevations. About halfway up there was a choice of routes with a choice sign showing the way (see the picture) - so not wishing to be classed as one and not the other, I went up over The Hump and back along The Watchtower. 

The Hump lived up to its name, being a bit of a slog over the top, and The Watchtower was a hair-raising trail that hugged the side of the valley - an incredible walk, but not for the faint-hearted! Of course, I wanted to take photographs of the route, but found that I had to stop walking, take stock, get out my camera, take the photo and then re-orient myself with the scale of the view, and the path of the trail before moving. Suffice to say it was quite an experience...

At the lake (which was still surrounded by pockets of snow) I stopped to eat lunch. I also took the unique opportunity of going for a refreshing swim in the water, only to find that once I was in the lake the wind had dropped and there was a swarm of mosquitoes waiting for me to return to the land! Having already experienced the voracity of these buggers, I stayed in the water awaiting the return of the breeze, hoping that no-one would arrive at the lake to see me in all my glory and that I wouldn't freeze in the icy water! Thankfully people were just about spared that particular experience, as the wind blew, I jumped out and just as I wrapped my towel around me, hikers came into view. They didn't have there cameras out, so I assumed they hadn't seen anything untoward...

Carpinteria to Sequoia National Park

An up and down day today, both literally (mountains galore) and emotionally. After hearing that Route 1 was closed due to forest fires, my choice of coast or mountains was made, so I headed through the Los Padres National Forest - a heady mix of hills, dry earth and verdant flora (no ice though!). 

The other side of the forest I hit Interstate 5 which goes along the San Joaquim Valley - a tremendously expedient, if uninspiring road, north. Late in the day I arrived at what I thought was my destination - the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The thing I have discovered about America is that it just keeps going - you think you are in the high mountains, when you are only in the foothills (it keeps on going up!) or that you are nearly there when there are miles still to go. 
After my experience of the campsite in Carpinteria, I was nervous that there would be nowhere to stay in the parks. Although the Rangers do a good job, I had found it nearly impossible to get a clear explanation of how things work, hence when I arrived I was told that the campsites "nearby" (1 hour away) were pre-booked only, and I would have to go to the next site (2 hours away). I am ashamed to say that this news tested my somewhat fragile state, and brought on a spell of negativity and fear that was upsetting to experience, particularly given that I tend to think of myself as reasonably good at going with the flow...

The park itself is quite simply magnificent, which was in direct opposition to some of the people in it - music blaring, self-obsessed, oblivious morons - I could not imagine why they were there. The absolute, unequivocal wonder of this place and the sequoias it is famous for, blithely brushed aside in cynicism. I am sure that some would say that they had been there many times, and the trees were "old hat", but I cannot imagine my breath not being taken away by this place, even if I saw it every day - it is that stunning. 

So it was that I visited the world's largest tree - a sight that leaves me without faculty to describe it. To simply be there in the presence of such a thing filled me with so much awe that I could do nothing but stand and be embraced by it. It was such a shame, I thought, that so few of the other people there did not share this feeling of reverence for the trees, and I could not help but think that they seemed as if they were at Disneyland - simply replacing a photo with Mickey for a photo with "General Sherman" (what such an ancient being as this would think of being named after a general, I have no idea). 

The Day After

After my first ever waffles for breakfast (yummy! Thank you Beverly) and my heartfelt thanks, I said goodbye to the Maloofs. 

Where now? What now? I had no answers, just a (typically) vague plan of camping out and getting to Berkeley by Wednesday. So, after panicking for a while, I realised that my decisions are what make this trip (and my life, actually) what it is - what I decide is important, but I just need to decide - to make a choice and then experience what results from it. 

So, I came across country, up into the mountains (and back again due to road closure) and through Thousand Oaks to end up in Carpinteria, a charming little beach town with a campsite next to the sea. I was lucky to get a space, as the 4th July is coming up and it was Friday, but my luck was with me. So I set up my new and wonderful tent (see the pic), cooked my first meal on an open fire and watched the sun set on the beach.
 A tense morning eased into a satisfying evening, and as I experience more of this place, my worries disappear one by one...
I realised that I needed to relax a bit more as I find the lay of the land, and que sera sera, non?

Sam Maloof

Perhaps the most famous and recognised living woodworker, Sam is also perhaps the kindest, most hospitable man I have ever met. He is 92 years old, still works 6 days a week and still retains a quick-witted vitality that I envy at 28!
I arrived in Sam's beautiful 7-acre compound just in time for a public tour of his original home - an incredibly beautiful, labyrinthine place that Sam built himself - adding each room as he could afford to do so. Sam and his first wife Alfreda filled their home with art and artefacts from many different places and cultures, in addition to being full of Sam's furniture. Sadly, photos aren't allowed, so I can't show you first hand what it is like. You'll just have to visit...

After the tour, the welcoming staff took me through to the workshops to meet Sam himself. I should say that I had contacted them well ahead of time to arrange this, but what followed was entirely unexpected. As I spent a little time with him, he was sometimes tough (as when I said that some of his tables reminded me of Nakashima's work), sometimes forgetful, but at his centre he emanates love: love for his work, for his home and the art that he has filled it with, love for the people who surround him - 'the boys' (the craftsmen who work with Sam), his Foundation staff, and particularly his second wife Beverly; and his love for people in general. 

Like many older people, Sam told story after story about his fascinating life and the people he has encountered. He showed his work with pride and humility - feeling no need to say how wonderful it is, but exuberant about the process, the details and nuances. 

Sam is easily the most prolific person I have ever met - not only does he make over 40 pieces per year for clients, he hand built his first house, design his new private home, and fit it with a beautiful spiral staircase - he has filled them both with a mind-boggling amount of his work (and the work of other artists). He is a force of nature: making things out of wood flows from him, and he is unstoppable (even at 92!). 

As the day began to get late, and the staff had all gone home, I asked Sam if there was a motel nearby where I could stay. Without missing a beat, he invited me to stay with him and Beverly. Jumping directly into my national stereotype, I was full of "Oh, I couldn't possibly" and "Are you sure?" for about five minutes, and then accepted his wonderful offer of hospitality. There was a couple there with us at the time, and the husband (a hobbyist woodworker) couldn't quite believe what he was seeing - neither could I! Me staying with Sam Maloof!? Things only got more unbelievable: after giving the three of us a tour of his new home, that evening Sam and Beverly took me out for dinner at one of their favourite restaurants! Of course I asked if they would let me pay for dinner to say thank you for their extreme kindness, but I was swatted aside firmly by them. In fact, the only thing that they would let me get was 50 cents worth of the ice-cream! I realised that gentle Sam may be, but you don't argue with him. 

So what did I learn from this man? I asked what his advice for me would be, and he said "Ooh, that's a hard one." But four things I learned:

1. Never go into debt. This was a real point of honour for Sam, and a good lesson for me. 

2. Be in control. I felt that key to Sam's success was the certainty that he is in control of what he does, and he will not be dictated to by anyone. If someone wants a piece of his work, then they let him do it - no quibbling about details. He is the artist, it is his work, and if a customer doesn't like his work then they shouldn't come to him. Again, I felt that he is an iron fist in a velvet glove - he is absolutely sure of himself, and doesn't need to project anything. 

3. Work hard. Like I said, Sam is prolific, and has become successful through hard work. He still spends 6 days a week in the workshop, but it is no burden to him - it is his home. 

4. Be kind. Lastly and most importantly, I learned that being generous and hospitable to others is a transformative experience. At the end of the day, that is why Sam has a 6-8 year waiting list - because people love him, and not without reason. As my experience with Sam shows, being kind to others is just a great way to be. So Sam is kind, and has received kindness in return, from most of the people he has met and worked for. I couldn't believe that he has never had a bad experience with his clients - everyone has paid, no-one has ever sent a piece back. And you could say that this is down to luck, but I think that Sam has received what he gives. 

I think that I could best sum Sam up by saying that he doesn't try to be or do anything, he just is who he is and does what he does.