The Art of Woodworking

By Natalie Mourton

Note: This is the first in a series of three posts about the highly-rated woodworking program Beech Tree Woodworks owner, Nic James, attended.

artistry [ˈɑːtɪstrɪ]n: artistic workmanship, ability, or quality

craft (krft)n.: Skill in doing or making something, as in the arts; proficiency; An occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or skilled artistry.

Woodworking students

Current College of the Redwoods students in the Fine Woodworking Program learn from each other as well as from their instructors. Photo courtesy of program director, Laura Mays.

True craftsmanship is at the heart an art form. Time, dedication, and the knowledge of one’s medium blend into a unique artistry no matter the craft. For dedicated woodworkers seeking that time and the knowledge to devote to their craft, The Fine Woodworking Program of the College of the Redwoods is in a rare class.

Located near Mendocino in Fort Bragg, CA, the program is a nine-month intensive in woodworking that was created in 1981 by renowned cabinetry-maker and woodworker, James Krenov. Krenov wrote five influential books on woodworking in the 1970s and 1980s and “taught a philosophy that has become a prerequisite for advanced cabinetry throughout the world” (JamesKrenov.com). According to former student and current program director, Laura Mays, he instilled in each student a sense of craftsmanship, tradition, sensitivity to one’s material, and attention to detail.

College of the Redwoods woodworking students

Students spend six or seven days a week in the shop, improving their woodworking skills. Photo courtesy of program director, Laura Mays.

“I learned a lot about little details, how something can become richer as you get closer to it, and it reveals itself at different scales as you touch it and live with it on a day-to-day basis.”

Originally from Ireland, Mays applied to the program after reading several books by Krenov that reflected her own woodworking ideals. She made the move to California in 2001 to work with Krenov and became one of his last students. He retired from the program in 2002, the summer in-between Mays’ first and second year. She credits the program and Krenov’s influence for enabling her to raise her craftsmanship to a level she didn’t realize was possible.

Mays was one of a select few chosen at the end of her first year to stay for a second year in the program. Of the 23 students accepted each year, around six are second-year attendees. According to Mays, the reason there are second-year students at all is in order to help carry-over the traditions and mentor the first-year students.

As the program’s current director, she hopes to continue to pass on the knowledge and ethics taught by Krenov, but with her own influence, as it is a different era in time. In addition, focusing on concepts such as sustainability and locally-sourced materials during discussion is becoming more prominent. They are concepts that were always implicit in the program, according to Mays, but it is now being brought up in lectures and talks in a more explicit way.

female woodworking student and desk

A current student in the program works on the final touches of her piece. Photo courtesy of program director, Laura Mays.

“Craftsmanship at this scale is inherently sustainable. It is becoming more evident that what remains is valuable and we need to value it and explain to other people rather than expect them to understand. So, we are beginning to talk about it in the program. I think that traditional craftsmanship is an important part of the sustainable future and it is keeping skills alive.”

Those skills and traditions continue to be re-discovered by each new student who chooses to take the time to immerse themselves in their work and discover a new, personal level of craftsmanship by attending the program.

Pieces created by current students in the Fine Woodworking Program of the College of the Redwoods will be on exhibit in San Francisco from May 17-25.

More information about the program can be found on their website.

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