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!


  1. "...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...", that has always interested me. how DO they get a price for their work? the typical materials plus hourly rate(aka how much you think your time is worth). could you elaborate more on this?

  2. Hi Amish, good question. I had several points of view from several people, and will talk about them in detail as I blog those meetings.