The Long History of the Roberts Creek Little Library Cabinet


How the color of the heartwood of an Alaskan yellow cedar, Swedish hinges, a dear friend and lifelong teacher influenced the Roberts Creek Community Association’s new little library, named “Labour of Love”.

As a creator of things, I am often reminded that it is the story behind the work that gives meaning.

Several years ago Karen Spicer of the Roberts Creek Community Association asked if we had a student who could make a small bookcase. After forwarding the request to several students, one of them finally agreed to accept it, but life got in the way. When I sat down to write Karen, my wife said, “Why don’t you make the wardrobe?

Since I started teaching full time more than two decades ago, I have had little time to pursue my own work. When Karen assured me there was no real rush, I agreed to do the practice. I’m sure none of us expected it to take almost four years.

Alaskan yellow cedar was ground by Billy Davis of Roberts Creek. It had been air-dried for a number of years, then brought to school for final seasoning. The three boards were in sequence and came from the center of the tree. The heartwood had a wonderful color and would become the starting point for the cabinet.

As I opened the first plank, I remembered a piece of furniture that my teacher, James Krenov, had made in 1979. It was Swedish ash, a yellowish wood with a coarser grain, but with a beautiful color, which he was using in the rear panels.

When mocking up the cabinet, I gathered a few books from our school library to establish the size. One of the books was a copy of The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi, adapted by Bernard Leach who I am told has a connection to a few Roberts Creek potters. In the book was a photograph, used as a bookmark, of our dear friend, Gary Kent. On the wall behind Gary is a cabinet that continues to be one of my favorites. He made the cabinet as a pupil of Krenov, more than 40 years ago. While his cabinet was clearly inspired by our teacher’s ash cabinet, Gary had used wood paneling under the glass, a detail I wanted in my cabinet. In both of these cabinets, the doors are angled slightly away from each other, which eliminates glare from the glass when looking inside from the front. It also gives more volume to the cabinet without appearing too deep on the sides. Gary’s office would inspire me.

Once the volume of the room was established, I made the doors. As anyone who works with wood knows, the most valuable color is usually adjacent to the flaws and the success of a piece depends on the craftsman determining what can be used sensibly while maintaining the integrity of the room.

I had wanted the doors to have larger panels with less glass, but the wood told me otherwise. With the wonderful color carried through the door and back panels, I knew I wanted the case itself to be quiet. I pieced it together, the case, with only a whisper of the color used inside one of the sides. Not wanting the color to end abruptly on the shelves, I carried it to each shelf, fading gently as it moved.

I established the thickness of the shelves assuming that the shelves would be fully loaded. This dimension seemed a little awkward. The bottom shelf would be tucked away just behind the center door track, so that wasn’t an issue. However, the top shelf would be clearly visible in both positions. I provided a slight bevel on the bottom front edge of the shelf, which lightened its appearance while maintaining its integrity.

Composing in this way allows the piece to evolve as it is produced.

The olive wood used in the carved handles, latches and fittings was brought back the last time my wife Yvonne and I taught in Israel. Oren Feigenbaum, a former student of Roberts Creek School, founded the school there. Its wavy grain was a challenge to carve but the fragrance a pleasure to experience.

The French cleat used to hang the cabinet is made from Pacific Yew taken from another beloved alumnus, Doug Ives, who passed away a few years ago.

The hinges, handcrafted in Sweden over 50 years ago, were passed down from Alan Marks, one of James Krenov’s first students.

In all these years of working in this craft, this is the first outdoor cabinet I have made and it has been an education in the movement of wood. I knew from the start that I wanted to leave the cedar untreated. Partly because of its wonderful scent, but also because the chemical finish used to protect it would sometimes have to be reapplied and would drastically change the feel of the wood. I relied on the natural rot resistant qualities of cedar to stand the test of time. Not treating the wood allows the wood to “breathe” fully.

After completion, the cabinet was hung in a covered area outside the workshop to allow it to acclimate before making a series of adjustments to the doors so that they functioned throughout. year with seasonal humidity fluctuations. Gary has offered to act as the cabinet keeper, so you can occasionally see him at the cabinet playing with the wooden latches.

One morning, while I was at my bench, making some final adjustments, a student asked me how many hours I had invested in the cabinet. I had no idea. I said it was a labor of love and the firm had a name.

Yvonne and I feel very fortunate to give something back to the creative and supportive community that was our home, was the home of our school, and a place our children and grandchildren continue to call home.


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