Tool cabinet reborn

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A journeyman’s graduation project
Paul Epp

In 1972, as a very recent design-school graduate, I spent some time as a private student of Jim Krenov. This Russian- born, American- and Swedish- based cabinetmaker had been introduced to me by my design school teacher, who thought that Jim’s approach might prove to be useful to me.

Jim was a traditional cabinetmaker in the truest and even the most restrictive sense. He only made cabinets. They were usually small and kind of perfect. His forms were very basic and geometric and he was very careful in his choice and use of wood. He made a virtue out of the necessity of joinery, featuring exposed dovetails and through mortise-and-tenons. Although he had some machine tools, he worked predominantly by hand, with self-made tools if possible. He hated sand-paper, and his surfaces were the result of his very sharp edge-tools.

He didn’t like manufactured hardware either and his pulls and latches were wooden, but far from clumsy. There was something almost jewelry- like about what he made.

The tool cabinet project.

He was also vain and fussy, so there was no question of my working on his pieces. I was a private student and he assigned me exercises. I was happy to comply, but the question finally arose of what my graduation project would be. There was a tradition in cabinetmaking that the final piece an apprentice would make would be a tool chest that he would carry with him in his new identity as a Journeyman.

His skills could easily be ascertained by any prospective employer as he had with him a kind of practical portfolio. I thought I could work within this tradition by building a Krenovian cabinet for my recently acquired hand-tools. I had made a set of hand-planes and bought the best Swedish chisels and my cabinet could house them.

Jim approved and rummaged around his woodpile until he found a plank of Italian walnut for me. I was to work with hand tools as much as possible, bow-sawing the plank into thinner boards and then hand-planing them six-sides (or even eight) before gluing them together. It was a lovely piece of wood, with only a narrow core of the dark colour we think of as walnut.

Most of the wood was a warm brown, shading from a toffee colour to latte. Fortunately for me, it was also lovely to plane. I joined the bottom corners with through-dovetails and the upper part with through-mortise-and-tenons. The doors and back panel were book-matched to display the stripe of darker heartwood. I added a couple of small drawers, using some Rio-rosewood that I had left over from one of my hand-planes. The interior did not receive any applied finish and the lovely scent of the Italian wood still lingers, almost 50 years later.

One of the most memorable experiences of this exercise was a mistake I made. When drilling (by hand!) a panel, I measured the location from the side that had a rabbet cut into it which threw the location off, as it was referenced to the other side. I was heart-sick and panicked, as there was no more of the plank left. Jim just laughed. He said the difference between an apprentice and a professional wasn’t whether mistakes got made. It was in how they were dealt with. My cabinet has an almost hidden and very faint semi-circular line that locates the very carefully made plug, a useful reminder about the folly of hubris and the ongoing need to handle mistakes.

We were both happy with the finished piece, and I brought it back to Canada. I used it for a few years, hung on the wall behind my workbench, but it was actually not that practical. I didn’t want to always open it when I needed a chisel and it seemed kind of pretentious and even a bit silly. I put it away for quite a few years but I’ve now given it a new life. The interior space is exactly the right height and depth for bottles of single-malt Scotch. It’s hanging in my dining room and I enjoy the warm colour of the Italian wood and the memories it evokes. I usually manage to have a bottle of my favourite Talisker in it and a few others. One of the most satisfying things about it is the wood-against-wood “thunk” it makes when I close the doors, to be held shut by a little wooden catch that is almost invisible.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.