Skip to content

The long cabinet history of the Roberts Creek little library

How the heartwood colour of an Alaska yellow cedar, Swedish hinges, a dear friend and a long-ago cabinet teacher influenced Roberts Creek Community Association's new little library, named a "Labour of Love."
Little library a
Robert Van Norman and Gary Kent with the little library cabinet outside the Roberts Creek Community Library, right next to the Roberts Creek Community Association’s community food pantry.

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

Several years ago, Karen Spicer from the Roberts Creek Community Association inquired if we had a student who might make a little library cabinet. After passing along the request to several students, one eventually agreed to take it on but then life got in the way. When I was sitting down to write Karen, my wife said, “Why don’t you make the cabinet?”   

Since starting to teach full-time, more than two decades ago, I have had little time to pursue my own work. When Karen assured me that there was no real rush, I agreed to make the cabinet. I’m sure neither of us expected it would take nearly four years.  

The Alaska yellow cedar was milled by Billy Davis of Roberts Creek. It had been air drying for a number of years and then brought into the school for final seasoning. The three planks were in sequence and came from near the center of the tree. The heartwood had some wonderful colour and would become the cabinet’s starting point.   

Opening the first plank, I was reminded of a cabinet my teacher, James Krenov, made in 1979. It was Swedish ash, a yellowish wood with coarser grain, but with wonderful colour, which he used in the back panels.   

When mocking up the cabinet, I gathered a few books from our school library to establish 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 a favourite of mine. He made the cabinet as a student of Krenov, more than 40 years ago. While his cabinet was clearly inspired by our teacher’s cabinet in ash, Gary had used wood panels below the glass, a detail I wanted in my cabinet. In both of these cabinets, the doors are set at a slight angle to one another, which eliminates glare from the glass when looking inside from the front. It also gives the cabinet more volume without appearing too deep along the sides. Gary’s cabinet would serve as my inspiration.   

Once the volume of the piece was established, I made the doors. As anyone who works with wood understands, the most precious colour is generally adjacent to defects and the success of a piece is dependent upon the craftsman determining what can be used in a sensitive way while maintaining the integrity of the piece.   

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

I established the thickness of the shelves based on the assumption that the shelves would be fully loaded. This dimension looked a bit clumsy. The lower shelf would be hidden just behind the mid rail of the door, so was not an issue. However, the upper shelf would be in clear view in both of its positions. I planned 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 being made.  

The olive wood used in the carved pulls, latches, and fittings, was brought back the last time my wife Yvonne and I taught in Israel. Oren Feigenbaum, an alumnus from the Roberts Creek school, established 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 coming from another beloved alumnus, Doug Ives, who passed away a few years ago.  

The hinges, handmade in Sweden more than 50 years ago, were passed along by Alan Marks, one of James Krenov’s earliest students.   

In all the years working at this craft, this is the first outdoor cabinet I have made and it has been an education in wood movement. I knew all along that I wanted to leave the cedar untreated. Partially because of its wonderful fragrance, but also because whatever chemical finish used to protect it would occasionally have to be reapplied and would dramatically change the feel of the wood. I was counting on the natural rot-resistant qualities of the 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 acclimatize before making a series of adjustments on the doors so that they would function year-round with seasonal humidity fluctuations. Gary has offered to act as the caretaker of the cabinet, so you may see him from time to time at the cabinet fiddling with the wooden latches.   

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

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

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks