Thursday, February 4, 2016

Homage to the craftsman

"He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

St. Francis

Jawing with Vern Krahn across a gate he'd remade and just installed

Recently a dear friend of Victoria's heritage community passed away, alas far too soon. He was Vern Krahn, master carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker - an ally of all those who want older buildings to persist with fidelity to their past, an unsung hero of heritage for the many contributions of his creative hands. He worked on a lot of old Victoria during his productive lifetime, reviving things that were neglected and repairing what was damaged. He was beyond good with wood: a 360-degree craftsman who could reliably fashion anything to exact proportions, then fit it seamlessly into a pre-existing scheme. Vern was a true artisan carpenter, an invaluable anachronism who remained modest about his own talents and achievements.

We had the good fortune to have Vern execute projects, big and small, at our house over a period of fifteen years. Like most vintage residences on the west coast, the Savage bungalow is made largely of wood, and wooden buildings have bits that wear unevenly, inside and out. Heavy use means door panels may get broken, new owners may make unfortunate choices of decor and maul original features, sections of exterior board deteriorate in our long wet winters. All buildings that survive also require periodic updating as services change, and those modifications may be done well or crudely. And of course, bathrooms and kitchens get remodeled and they too may be mangled in the process. All of which means there is a great deal of work for capable hands in restoring and replacing wooden components in older homes. Such were Vern Krahn's.

Vern's first door at the Savage house, open in the corner

We first turned to Vern to design and build a replacement for a solid wood door connecting our kitchen to a small utility room. I got his name from friends in the heritage community, and it turned out he lived just a block away from our house, so we were in fact neighbours. We asked him to replace a door whose panels had been cracked in several places and that had warped as well. The idea was to fashion a new door that would be true to the past (stiles, rails and panels identical to the original) but adapted for contemporary wants, so glazed in the upper half. We opted to modify the original design so as to lessen the door's walling effect when closed, feeling a glazed portion would keep a sense of visual connection to the next room while still admitting light when not open. This new door would also become the critical first step in an eventual full kitchen makeover. We really wanted to maintain continuity with the original decor while adjusting the door's effect on space, which is where a craftsman with Vern's skills came in.  

This door retains the past while accommodating new elements

It takes an array of carpentry skills to be able to manufacture a solid door from scratch. Vern fashioned and installed a beautiful one of clear fir, replicating the dimensions of the original door exactly. Over a decade on, that door still fits like a glove and closes with reassuring solidity. The quality of the finished work and the exchange of ideas around its design left us very confident of Vern's ability to do more work on the house. We realized immediately what a privilege it was to have his attention focused on our home's needs. The real challenge would turn out to be getting access to his time for projects, because Vern was always and understandably in great demand. And, he preferred to work solo in a field where there is often a crew, so he could give it his undivided attention.

The replacement mirror and once-damaged frame Vern repaired above the fireplace

The next job we asked him to tackle was repair of some mistakes someone had made in the living room, when a broken mirror integral to a built-in above the fireplace had been replaced with mis-sized glass crudely skived into the existing frame. This had left the room's central feature looking damaged and abused. Vern executed one of his trademark seamless repairs, replacing the glass with a beveled mirror of proper thickness, and mending the damaged lower rail of the frame so flawlessly that one sees no signs of intervention (the earlier replacement glass had been held in place with plastic clips, a classy touch; Vern's painstaking repair employed a thin wood molding to hold the pane in place unobtrusively). As part of healing the built-in, Vern also adapted a couple of book-sized shelves to hold music CDs, with similar deftness. This precision of work and delicacy of touch Vern would characterize as 'museum-quality restoration,' a little joke he enjoyed from a time he'd been employed making precise exhibits for the provincial museum. 'Museum quality' became code for work done with utmost attention to details. He understood that we wanted it, and he capably delivered it.

View to the garden from the corridor room that Vern would repair and rebuild for us

After several rounds of finicky smaller restorations, we asked Vern to tackle the far larger job of repairing and restoring a small but important room off our kitchen. It had suffered indignities over the years and appeared neglected. On plan, it shows as a 'summer tea room', which both let onto the back garden and at the far end housed a small utility cluster sprouting around the original electrical inlet. Little bigger than a wide corridor in scale (below), and with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that allowed its designer to just tuck it in under an extension of the main roof form, this modest space began life partially open to the elements (screened, like a summer sleeping porch) before at some point being enclosed with windows. In the nineties, I'd had some crummy aluminum windows replaced with leaded casements that flanked a tiny picture window. While a distinct gain aesthetically, it only served to make it even more obvious that that rest of the room badly needed attention. It bore ugly scars where the utility room wall had been summarily ripped out in order to inch bulky appliances closer to the services.

End wall rebuilt, new door installed, lino down, built-in yet to appear

The original end wall had come with a door to access a closet-sized space that sequestered the utilities from view. All that remained now were jagged ends of a wall ripped out, framing timbers exposed, the door long gone. This shabby situation left the room feeling neglected, leaving a growing octopus of electrical wiring fanning out from an upgraded electrical panel in full view, alongside a water heater sitting directly on an unfinished floor. For a long time this situation stymied me, to a certain extent out of fear of what might happen without a discerning craftsman to help resolve the design choices and carry out the repair with surgical precision. All those hesitations evaporated once Vern appeared on the scene.

All painted up now, Vern's second door with translucent glass

We agreed he would undertake an adaptive restoration, based on remaking the missing wall where it had been and fashioning a new door similar to the kitchen door, thereby recreating a true utility closet to contain the business end of the home. We determined there was just enough room to squeak in a European washer-dryer set, stacked in one corner of the closet, if we relocated the hot water tank to the corner diagonally opposite it. Vern liked the idea of putting the room's decor back to how it had been while modifying it just enough to accommodate a compact version of modern conveniences. Together we worked out the details of each facet of the restoration, beginning with a new door with translucent glass to admit light while masking the utilities. You can see from the picture above just how well Vern brought that piece of it off - we were and remain mightily pleased with it.

Facing north towards the old cooling closet and the original rear door that Vern repaired

It took some time from commissioning this project to actually getting Vern on site. But that delay in starting was how it had to be, because he was always in demand and insisted on giving every job his best attentions. Somehow he managed to find time for us in that busy schedule and once on site was totally seized of the project and saw the job right the way through. The wall he made consistent with the original finishing of the room, using identical vertical bead boarding so the repair would be invisible. Once that wall and door appeared, the sense of wounds healing was tangible. 

Cooling closet adapted to cabinet use with lovely doors

We also had to adapt and evolve an awkward set of corner cupboards that had been poorly contrived from an original California cooler (a built-in device used to store food in the days before refrigeration, utilizing screened vents to the exterior to capture an airflow). These cupboards were (to be kind) poorly thought out, the base awkwardly accessed via a lid rather than through doors, the upper bank too shallow for much goods storage, the top out of keeping with the base. Vern deepened the upper tier of these built-in cupboards without damage to the ceiling, rendering it more useful and in better balance with the bottom half, and then sealed the lid on the base and opened its facade to accept cupboard doors. Next he fashioned two sets of cupboard doors, employing a light bead board (a tongue-and-groove board) for the panels, which in turn harmonized with the wall treatment. I think these doors are an especially good example of Vern's artistry: unpretentious, light but solid and finely rendered, with a graceful bevel along the inside rails and styles that takes them subtly off rectilinear. I managed to track down some authentic Craftsman hardware for the handles, to reinforce the period feeling of the room. I think you'll agree he did a fantastic job - this was the cabinet-maker at the top of his form, investing creativity in even the most humble work.

Vern fashioned a lovely trio of drawers to utilize the base of the built-in bench

We aspired not just to restore this space, but also to increase its utility and appeal as a room and lessen the feeling of it being a passage-way. That led us to the idea of installing a built-in bench seat under the bank of windows letting onto the back garden. The main roof swoops low at this point, pulling the windows down with it, so a wide view of the garden can only be obtained from a sitting position. We felt that a window seat would open up a cozy intimacy with the garden. At the same time, we wanted the seat to be functional for other purposes, so settled on gaining storage by having deep drawers built into its base (bungalows often provided these multi-use spaces). Vern fashioned us a lovely built-in seat from clear Douglas fir, with clear fir bead board for the drawer fronts. Together we developed a corner detail to supply a bit more
storage space while giving a secure surface on which to set a mug or a book. Vern carried his cupboard door design over into the drawer fronts, reinforcing the overall sense of harmony pervading the room. The drawers were installed with more Craftsman-style hardware, again for period feeling. To our eye, the furnished window seat fits the room perfectly, offering a wonderfully intimate view to the garden room outside. Vern did all the work in that room, from repairing the original back door to making a compatible ceiling for the utility closet to installing the new linoleum. He did a topnotch job and the room has worn-in delightfully.

A window seat makes the room more intimate and inviting

The latest, and trickiest, of the big jobs Vern did for our house came about rather unexpectedly. It happened that the exterior had been comprehensively repaired in the late nineties, before Vern came on the scene. Or at least, we thought it had been. The work done was good quality but it turned out that some hidden rot had been missed at the time. That became evident one day when I chanced to notice
that the soffits under the gable ends across the facade of the house were sagging ominously. After a hundred years of exposure to dampness with little venting, their time was up. And so a new need for heritage carpentry of a high order opened up suddenly. Getting this repair done right was something the building's overall look depended upon, so the stakes were high as we headed towards its centennial year. I knew we needed Vern for this job, but again the challenge would be the long queue for his attention. Luckily for us and for the house, he liked working on our place, so was quite willing to entertain a job that would be very difficult to access and execute. He was no spring chicken at this point and this wasn't anything that could be easily done from a ladder - it needed scaffolding, to create a working platform and have equipment and materials to hand. And this scaffolding would have to be moved along a facade that advances and retreats, on ground that in places falls away sharply. 

Anyway, it took about a year for Vern to be able to fit this work in, but then in the summer of 2012, he arrived on site, set up a working platform on some scaffolding, and began tackling the complex job of repair. It happened that I took lots of photographs over the course of this challenging piece of repair work, which Vern did to the most exacting standards. I've selected a few of these pictures to show him at work in his element, rescuing an important piece of local history and endowing it with fresh life. I think the pictures capture the craftsman at work.

Carefully cutting out the rotten bits

Replacing them seamlessly with new components

Removing no more wood than absolutely necessary

Fashioning replacements up on the platform

Scaffolding erected in an awkward location

Putting it back together, blending old with new

Careful attention to the details, locus of both God and devil

Re-truing posts after inserting a shingle under them

Ready for the electrician now and then the painter to finish up the job

Vern passed away on January 6, 2016, and with that passing a talented craftsman who looked after a lot of Victoria's wooden heritage departed our community. As his obituary notes, he "was a man of immense depth and integrity" and "his many fine works remain as testament to his craftsmanship". It's in that vein that I've tried to document the fine stewardship he gave our 1913 house, in recognition of the skill and discernment he brought to every piece of work he did. This is a rarity in our times, yet essential if we want to keep our landmarks alive. Vern possessed the bedrock skill of the traditional craftsman: the ability to generously invest himself in his work, putting care, attention to detail, and a lifetime knowledge of craft into everything he did, big or small, high falutin' or work-a-day. I had the great boon of knowing him for fifteen years, both as a client and a friend, and the chance to share many probing conversations. The regret I feel so deeply today is that he didn't have longer to express his craft, and that we as a community didn't find the way to transfer some of his insight to up and coming heritage carpenters. Like many I'm sure, I do feel grateful I had the opportunity to know him and the chance to work with him in preserving some heritage. And I feel fortunate to be able see and enjoy his work all around me, every day.

Refinished now, showing no signs of intervention whatsoever.

A service honouring Vern's life will be held on Saturday February 6th from 2 - 4:30 pm at First Memorial, 4725 Falaise Drive.

If you are interested in more about the challenges of restoring heritage buildings and the calling that is heritage carpentry, see my Sourcing Craft Skills For Heritage Preservation (