Wood Works

A North Coast school teaches the art of making fine furniture by hand.

woodworking at the krenov school
The Krenov School

Each August, in foggy, rural Fort Bragg, two dozen students arrive to begin their tenure at the Krenov School, the fine woodworking program at Mendocino College’s Coast Center. They work mostly by hand, cutting dovetails with saws and chisels, joining mortises and tenons, and shaping panels with planes and files. Tessa Petrich, a first-year Krenov student pursuing a license in architecture, sees these activities as a bridge between the theoretical and the actual. “I was working in a firm after my degree,” she says. “People had a lot of great ideas, but nobody knew how to build anything.”

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

The students’ schedule is demanding, requiring attendance eight hours a day, six days a week, for two 17-week semesters. To get here—a nondegree program without formal job prospects—they’ve beaten out dozens of other aspiring woodworkers. “We get more applicants than we have spots, definitely. It’s usually two to one, if not more,” says Laura Mays, a former student and a lead instructor since 2011. She thinks the school’s popularity is due to a host of factors, including demographics; Krenov students are generally older, middle-class, and able to take time out of their working lives. And about a third of them come from outside California; China, India, Iowa, and New York are currently represented. “A lot of people come because someone who’s been through the program says, ‘You should go.’ Word of mouth is strong,” says Mays.

The school’s reputation is built on the excellence of its graduates’ skills and the writings of James Krenov. Born in Siberia and raised in Alaska and Seattle, Krenov made his early living in Europe as a boatbuilder and a carpenter before falling in love with the furniture in the window of the Malmsten store in Sweden. After studying at Carl Malmsten’s Stockholm school and spending several decades building a reputation as a master craftsman, he moved to Fort Bragg to open the Krenov School, instructing the first cohort in 1981. In his A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook and other books, Krenov emphasizes “composing” rather than designing, stressing wood choice as a principal factor in the final shape of a project. He discusses the importance of “fingerprints,” or what some might call mistakes—uneven edges, fill-ins, patches—that serve as evidence of the cabinetmaker’s presence. Krenov, a self-described amateur, underscores the importance of keeping a beginner’s open-mindedness and enthusiasm.

The school’s curriculum has remained relatively unchanged since its inception. After an initial set of exercises—in which students build hand planes and complete the “sow’s ear,” a miniature cabinet out of paint-grade poplar—they spend the remainder of the first semester on a single project. Some make side tables or armoires, but most choose a cabinet. The assignment itself is four words long: “small, simple, sweet, solid.”

Yet these initial pieces require upward of 500 hours to complete and are often not so simple. “You come face-to-face with something. It’s your own understanding of what you are able to do, who you really are. What are your abilities, really? It’s an existential awakening that hits some people pretty hard,” says Ejler Hjorth-Westh, a Krenov instructor since 2001 and a former student. Trained as an educator in Denmark, Hjorth-Westh believes that the worth of Krenov’s curriculum lies exactly here, in what it asks of its students. “‘Perfect’ is unobtainable. It’s an illusion. It’s ultimately fruitless, but it’s never pointless. Why? Because we want to run up against our outer limits. That is one of the purposes of going to school.”

Being part of Mendocino College has blessed the Krenov with stability—enrollment at California’s community colleges is at a 30-year low, and the number of students in higher education across the country has fallen 7.5 percent since 2019—and solid financial footing. “Admin is covered. Our salaries are stable. For California residents, our fees are low,” says Mays. In-state tuition at Krenov runs a whopping $1,600 per year. Compared with the Sam Beauford Woodworking Institute in Michigan ($13,200), or Boston’s North Bennet St. School ($25,000), or even the cost for out-of-state Krenov students ($12,400), it’s a deal. For Mike Kilcrease, a retired tech manager and longtime amateur woodworker, paying the in-state rate was critical to his decision to continue with the program’s optional second year. “It’s a factor,” he says. “I’m 62. And I’m pretty comfortable that I’m not going to be eating dog food to stay afloat.”

Krenov doesn’t claim to be a fast and easy route to making fine furniture. “It’s a holistic thing,” says Hjorth-Westh. At Krenov, “there is an integration of a whole series of concepts that have to be each of them mastered to a degree, the tools and the skills and the focus and the patience.”

Sure, there are mechanized gadgets that can cut virtually any joint a carpenter cares to make. But those methods miss the difficulty, and thus the value, in what it means to develop a craft and to explore oneself. “Hand tools are freedom,” says Hjorth-Westh.•

Kailyn McCord writes on the north coast of California, with recent support from the Ucross Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. You can find her recent work at Literary Hub, Plougshares, and The Cincinnati Review, with more at her website. She's on twitter @kkmcwhat. When not writing, she likes to be outside.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Alta Newsletter