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.


  1. As a student spending 2 summers there, I can tell you it was one of the best experiences of my life. I met some wonderful, passionate people deeply engaged in pursuing excellence and beauty in their work. The community college system is lucky to have such a place.

  2. I have spent five summers taking classes at the CofR Fine Furniture program. Krenov's departure may have left the school without a nationally known anchor 'name,' but its devotion to excellence in craft, and to the principle of creativity guided by the wood, has never changed. It is a testimony to the continuing passion for the school that its graduates regularly return, both as students and teachers of summer classes. Because so many students remain attached to the school and the area, Ft. Bragg has over the last twenty-plus years acquired a large and closely knit community of woodworkers, whose combined talents are doubtless unmatched in any place its size (and probably in any place of any size). The summer classes range from three days to three weeks, and every woodworker would benefit from some exposure to the CofR's approach to work, as well as to its extended family of local woodworkers.

  3. I've enjoyed reading your travels up the west coast, and look forward to more installments. It seems you will be coming up through Oregon and Washington. I'm sure you have your trip planned out, but in case you were aware there are a couple stops you must do. The first is in Portland, where Gary Rogowski has his school. It's a wonderful place and Gary is a pleasure to talk with.(www.northwestwoodworking.com)

    The other stop is in Seattle at the Northwest Fine Woodworking gallery www.nwfinewoodworking.com. It showcases many local woodworkers. There are some very talented woodworkers in the Northwest.

    I hope your journey goes well, and you see a lot interesting a beautiful things.