Get the proportions right

Stair baluster Gunston Hall, HABS photo

Weekend before last Barbie and I went up to Lake Erie in hopes of seeing the waterfowl migration. Starting in late Feb through March, large flocks of ducks, geese, and swans congregate in the wetlands between Sandusky and Toledo Ohio. On a good day you can see a thousand tundra swans take to the sky. A writer’s yet to be born that can capture with words the sight of those wings flashing white against a rainy gray sky. It’s as though a new kind of light has just been born and your eyes are the first to behold it.  

We weren’t so lucky to see the flocks in big numbers but I did catch a glimpse of a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Cranes are uncommon for this region so it was a rare treat. I was reminded of a show I saw recently on PBS. It was one of those “how to paint” programs and the artist was using a Sandhill Crane as a subject. He started by saying

“In order for this to work you must get the proportions right”.

He then proceeded to demonstrate how to paint a crane without giving a single word of advice about proportions. I hear this all the time about furniture. Descriptions about how proportions are pleasing, or how proportions are important, then quickly moving on. I find this frustrating. It’s like learning to cook and being told “spices make food taste better” and then leaving the spice box locked up. There is scant practical information in woodworking literature about learning and applying proportions. That really get’s to the heart of what I write and teach about – how to think proportionally.

Thinking proportionally is not so much about finding answers. We may outwardly long for some ABC approach that can unlock our design strengths but it simply doesn’t work that way. Instead of answers we are looking for connections. How can we begin to see the connections we have with nature, great art, architecture, and masterworks of furniture. Proportions are the essence that permeates a great design and if we can somehow begin to grasp them we open a whole world. Yes, the form of a Sandhill Crane is governed by proportions that give it a unique identity and character.

It’s taken a while but I now think proportionally. When I look at a turning like a table leg or a stair baluster, I view it differently. I see how the different elements break up the form vertically and how they are proportioned major vs. minor. I look at the diameter and note of how that relates to the overall height. How does the largest diameter compare proportionally to the smallest diameter?

Best of all, is the knowledge that if the form possesses great proportions, that raw DNA can be applied to other designs regardless of style.

The column height on this Corinthian Classic order is 10 times the diameter of the shaft near the base, The diameter at the top is 1/6 less than at the base, drawing by author

That’s part of what I glean from the classic orders. As I explore them and become familiar with the proportions like musical notes, I find those same notes spilling out of my memory in new expressions. Additionally, learning those notes in the classic orders, helps me to uncover new notes and combinations in places I formerly walked right by. 

George R. Walker

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9 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, proportions, The Classic Orders

9 responses to “Get the proportions right

  1. I feel your pain. All too often one hears someone wittering on about how they have ‘designed’ a piece of furniture when in reality, what they mean is, they have copied, or reproduced the bulk of it.
    What portion does deviate from the original, leaving the path clear for some personal input, usually appears utterly devoid of any design consideration whatsoever.
    ‘Design’ is a cruelly abused term and a sadly ignored process by the majority of woodworkers – which is why I adhere to producing outright copies! I still appreciate good design though and thoroughly enjoy learning about it.

  2. Hi George,

    Where is Gunston Hall?

    I enjoy how your posts mix personal anecdote with philosophical musing and reflection in just the right… proportion. How about that?

    Best,

    Tico

    • Tico,

      Gunston Hall is the estate of George Mason, and is just 15 miles south of Mount Vernon, George Washingtons home near Alexandria Virginia. Gunston Hall is much more modest than Mount Vernon though some of the same workman crafted both interiors. Both are spendid. The big difference is that Gunston is less frequented by tourists so you get the opportunity to take it in at your own pace. Also really wonderful is a 250 year old boxwood garden facing the Potomac River. It’s a must see if you get down to DC.

      George

  3. Mark

    George, after spending about 20 years on the board doing machines. I retired. Then got into woodworking about 3 1/2 years ago. I started following here at your site and even ordered your DVD, I wish there was a book form but then again I am old school. No matter. The DVD is great.

    In the video you go through a basic design for a chest, using the design elements you have discussed and stressed previously using a pair of dividers. Upon completion, and the chest looks great but I have two questions. When it comes time to built this chest what do you use for dimensions and how do you dimension this piece for construction.

    I even went so far to build ‘your’ wall hanging Tool Cabinet 36 x 60 in fact I liked it so well I built two of them. But on something more intricate like that chest where do you start with dimensions?

    Thanks.

    • Mark,

      There are a couple of considerations for establishing a starting point. First is to establish a functional boundary. This is usually easy for things like chairs and tables as they must be a comfortable fit for the human frame. In the case of a chest it may start with something as simple as a convenient height to toss the newspaper and keys on your way in the door. Note that these functional heights are based on matching with our human anatomy. The second consideration is the room setting. A tall chest should take into consideration ceiling height, you don’t want to croud the ceiling or conversly build something weak for a grand space. I usually begin with a height and then use simple proportions (in relation to that height)to rough in the width. Hope that helps.

      • Mark

        George, thanks for the quick reply. Yes, that makes sense. Since all things are proportionate one should only need one major dimension and the rest will fall into place. Or am I simplifying this too much ?

        Really interesting. thanks again

        Mark

  4. stephen elkins

    George:

    • stephen elkins

      George:

      Not so much a comment on your recent article, as on your new DVD on moldings — very excellent. In particular, I am enlightened with respect to Batty Langley, having wondered why some of the earlier 18th Century stuff was so “Palladian” and literal as to the orders, as compared with those designs later inspired by Old Tom Chippendale. Your illustration in the DVD of the Langley book case sent me to the Chipstone electronic library. W/re discussion of Gunston Hall on the blog: Pretty clearly the architect (Buckland?) had his copy of Langley’s design treatise — looks like it, but would need to check dates. It’s no criticism of either Langley or Chippendale that the former was more literal with the orders and the latter kept the portional scheme but introduced great (shocking?) originality.

      SGE

      • Based on estate inventories, and book store advertising from the period Langley was one of the most widely used design guides for the working artisan. He published a small version that easily fit in a coat pocket. Although he wasn’t the most advanced designer in his era, you could even make the case that he wrote an early version of “classical design for Dummies” he had great practical influence. Benjamen Asher wrote the most telling bit in his early 19th century treatise on building saying he knew it might be difficult for older workmen familiar with Langley and Paladio to take a new path(he was trumpeting what we know today as Greek Revival). Langleys plates give some solid clues as to the application of the orders on decorative objects like furniture.