Design at the Point of a Tool

The February issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine prompted a woodworker to ask if I could give a little detail about the tool rack lurking in the background. Actually this plain but very functional tool storage rack was an early exercise in working with simple proportions right at the bench. Something Jim Tolpin and I are calling “Design at the Point of a Tool”. Essentially it’s bringing the basic knowledge of proportions and simple geometry right to the work itself, sidestepping the need for drawings or even a ruler. Dividers, a marking knife and a square are all that’s required. I built this five years ago basically as an exercise to push me out of my comfort zone. I intentionally put away my tape measure, and just relied on simple proportions to guide the actual build. My requirements were straight forward, I wanted a flexible storage rack for frequently used bench tools,  just one step away from my workbench. It’s made from 1 X 12 pine and a few scraps. The overall form is just a simple rectangle that is 3 parts wide by 5 parts high. To this day I don’t know the dimensions in inches, they don’t matter. To establish the envelope for the  lower section containing the cubbyholes I went up two parts from the bottom. This makes the bottom section to the top a ratio of 2:3. The cubbies themselves I sized around the tools that I store. The whole upper section  tilts back slightly. It acts like sort of like a pegboard (except not as butt ugly).  I simply tap in a wooden peg or nail on a piece of scrap to keep order. I’ve changed the configuration several times as tools change.  Here’s a detail of some cleats I use to insure a plane doesn’t tumble off.

Cleats to keep planes from accidently tipping

side veiw

Although this isn’t some earth shattering design, it confirmed there’s something  liberating about actually designing and building right at the bench.

George R. Walker

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15 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, proportions

15 responses to “Design at the Point of a Tool

  1. Dave

    I believe it was Toplin that recently wrote an article for one of the woodworking mags on building a stool without a ruler. That concept has really caught me, and considering your interest in keeping to proportions rather than numbers measured, I was wondering if a more complete treatise on the concepts would be in the works? I remember in the article that certain “measurements” were all related to measurements taken from the intended users hand span measurement. My thought was: would it be possible to come up with a design for a chair, that in order to fit to the customer, one could simply scale the propotions to that person’s hand span, or cubit, or something else similar? Has there ever been such a system in place historically, or have modern schools of design ever explored this? I’m ignorant in these areas.

    • Dave,
      Jim and I are colaborating on a book on this subject to be published later this year by Lost Art Press. It’s an in depth look at what was once considered the “craft element” of design. Craft defined as practical knowledge of simple geometry for layouts and a deep knowledge of proportions. Yes, proportions from our own bodies are woven all through it. I don’t know of any contemporary treatments of this, thus the reason we decided to get it out there and put it in the hands of modern woodworkers.
      George

  2. I’m going to be taking the Class on this subject with Jim Tolpin this spring. I’m super excited to see what you guys have come up with.

    this tool rack is very interesting, and I really like the approach.

  3. I’m tempted to say “Nice rack, George.”

  4. Jim B

    I built a Greenland style skin on frame kayak a few years back to anthropomorphic measurements. Length was three arms spans, beam= hips plus a fist on either side, height= stacked fists with one extended thumb, etc. That thing fit like a pair of jeans!

    • Jim B,

      Wow, do you have a decent sketch or photo of your kayak? Might make a great illustration of one of the many ways this design language finds creative expression.

      George

  5. dan

    Will the “anarchist” publisher still be interested in your forthcoming book after such a wanton exhibition of a tool RACK? Will it only be available in an offshore printed paperback or possibly encased in Chinese drywall tainted bookboards? Just wonderin’ (and thanks for the great blog).

  6. Rob

    Proof of the rule of thumb: if it looks right, it is right.

    (The rule of thumb is better than the rule of ruler.)

  7. Joe

    Ya’ll should buy this movie and see Chester Cornett build a rocking chair with four rockers all measurments done with hand and fingers. http://appalshop.org/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=23&products_id=185

    Joe

  8. Great little post! The timing is perfect for me. I need to build a similar storage unit, and refuse to spend more than the minimum time needed to “design” and build it. Clean, simple and totally functional. I LOVE it! Thanks for another great post. Cheers!

  9. But…where’s the slot to put the tape measures? (Only kidding!) This is a very nice looking and practical wall cabinet. It has a certain “presence” that few wall cabinets seem to have. I myself have more recently followed the “Anarchists” route (although I have used tool chests in the past as well, so its not a totally new concept). My tool chest, too, seems to have a certain “presence” in the shop that most likely comes from its more or less historic proportions. (None of my previous wall cabinets came close to having the kind of look and feel that your cabinet has.) For anyone interested, the whole story is posted at http://stuartblanchard.com/
    I am looking forward to the publication of your book. It is one of very few that are currently listed as a “must buy” on my 2012 book list. Thanks for all the great work and for this site!

  10. George, I’m looking forward to the book you and Jim are working on. After reading this post I went back out to the shop to look at two small projects I had built using no measurments nor proportions. I used the items the projects are going to house. The projects came out pleasing to the eye, but I had no idea how or why. So I pulled out a pare of dividers and found the proportions. Now I know that I was just lucky. However, the eye knows if its right. Thanks for your post.
    regards, Richard

  11. Bob

    In taking a set of calipers to this picture, it looks like the shelves, it looks like the height lessens such that each is shorter than the one below it by the width of a board. Is that correct? Also, could you comment on how you supported the back so that it can hang (presumably by a french cleat?).

    Looking forward to your book!

    –Bob

    • Bob,

      You are correct, if my memory seves me right I spaced the bottom shelves similar to the way a dresser has graduated drawers. Each opening shorter in height than the one below it by the width of the board that seperates them. I used a pair of French cleats on the back that hang on some cleats screwed to the wall. Two might be overkill but it is quite heavy when loaded up.

      George