The Fine Art Of Cabinetmaking is essentially a “how to” book. But on a deeper level, it is more. The author, James Krenov, illustrates a philosophical style of building a relationship with wood. One that is playful, and any creative person can adopt to approach in whatever our chosen craft. The experience, discipline, and ideas that he shares are a playground for the imagination.
I’m not particularly interested in cabinetmaking (although I do appreciate working with wood), but the way some of his writing comes across in this book is really what captured my attention. There are teachings of care, passion, and wisdom that can be applied to any area of our everyday lives. He reminds us to listen, think, and feel when we’re doing things, and at times, says it with eloquence.
I learned about this book from Ensouling Language, by Stephen Buhner, which could be deceptively described as a “how to” book on writing, but one that stands out in a singular manner in the way that it was composed with profound depth and livingness. In the chapter about “following golden threads”, he referenced Krenov’s book, and specifically highlighted how valuable it can be for one to explore the creative process with verve.
With everything an artisan attempts to shape the process is the same, whether a living tree or a piece of wood or music, or these things we hold in our hands that we call books.
Following a golden thread, irrespective of the craft we practice, starts with noticing something that touches us and captures our attention.
Most often we see only what is in our minds, not what is in our eyes. Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.
To do this work, to develop excellence in the craft, we have to genuinely see whatever it is that we have felt, then follow wherever that feeling takes us.
Golden threads always start with an experience, a moment being lived. They are not something that belong only to those who write. It’s just that some of us work to write them down after we have lived them. It’s possible to follow golden threads behaviorally not just linguistically. It is a skill that belongs to living an inhabited life. Something touches you and you begin to follow it, to find out where it leads. It signals that something important is happening; it captures the attention of the deep self.
A house, a cabinet, a wooden bowl. If these things are crafted with this kind of feeling attention, following the golden threads that reside in the wood, allowing their conversation with you to emerge into form, what you find at the end of the process is a house, a cabinet, a wooden bowl that is filled with feeling and aliveness. Houses that are homes. Cabinets that greet you with joy each time you pass by. Wooden bowls that contain something ineffable.
creativity is evolution in our hands
I’ve gathered a few of my favorite quotes from Cabinetmaking to share here. May they serve as inspiration on your quest in creativity. May we labor with more love, intention, and presence, in whatever craft, project, or task that we’re doing in our lives.
The essence of craftsmanship is about being curious, and moving towards the kind of work that is our very own - no matter where it was learned.
Without a certain attitude to one’s craft, information itself is of little value. It is what we do with what we know that matters, finally; not only the results, but also the doing itself. After all, that is what we are left with after the piece is done and found its owner and we are back working again. What some of us find is an enjoyment we can’t weigh against money, recognition, or artistic aura. By whatever terms others call it, it is the feeling of doing something we want to do - and doing it well, by measures both honest and sensitive.
It is very important in work to keep things going well, so as to not reach that state of irritation. Then one cannot work well. Even the finest ideas, the best materials, and even an initial enthusiasm, can't help us once we get bogged down in a lot of small errors that keep accumulating. So at the first sign of difficulty, stop and back up a bit, think not only in terms of detail, but even more in the light of what it is you want to accomplish, and take the time to get on the right track again.
We are vulnerable: the remark of a teacher or a word from a friend, can make a difference in our lives. If we do not come upon those discoveries and use them, then we may not reach the point where we can - with this first knowledge and early eagerness - be rewarded by the joyous harmony of wholeness in our work.
When one does not have excellent wood, or simply have not enough different kinds of wood, it is easy - a bit too easy - to make excuses for the way one works and blame it on the wood. We ought to be able to work well with the wood we have while simultaneously searching for the wood we'd like to get.
The knowledge that wood cannot be pushed around, so to speak, that it doesn't want to be forced, is sobering for some of us. Wood is a live material, with a will and integrity of its own. It can split, break, bend, buckle, and shrink, all within the boundaries we enforce upon it. That is why it sooner or later reveals whether or not we have listened to it, and cared.
The craftsman works, looking and looking again, from one revelation to another – often by mistakes, listening to the material, coming upon unexpected signals. Good things and bad things: knots that should not be where they are, fascinating colors that appear as if out of nowhere. It takes effort. But it gives us something more in return.
Getting into this matter of listening to wood, of composing, weaving together an intention with what you and your chosen wood have to say, is an experience difficult to describe. To me, it is the essence of working with wood.
Part of this tuning in is a matter of patience. It’s the way one approaches their work, people, and life. If we make things hastily, we’re less apt to consider the future of the things we make. If one does coarse, heavy handed work, then tolerances are less important than for someone who does delicate pieces that have a highly strung temperament of their own.
It takes a long time to do the latter sort of work, but if we do it, then a part of our feeling must be the wish for these pieces to live a good life. One doesn't want to make excuses for them.