Category Archives: Design Basics

Break the curse of the blank sheet of paper

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly”.

Lauren Bacall

 

I remember a time when a blank sheet of paper had the power to chase away every creative thought. It’s a mind trick. It seemed like a mirror reflecting dead air and silence in my head, with not a whiff or a hint of an idea floating off in the distance.  I call it a trick, because if we could ever behold what our imagination is capable of, we would fall down in awe. Imagination is the thing that get’s you wide awake at 3:30 am rooting around the workshop making a racket and having a great time of it. But we seldom tap it in our daily routine, so a little thing like the emptiness of a sheet of paper becomes a wall too high to breach.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

 

 

I said “remember” because now it’s my privilege and joy to guide many woodworkers past that stumbling block. That was brought home to me the last few weeks teaching a series of design workshops for the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Over and over came the words, “This is awesome! I don’t have to get stuck anymore staring at that blank sheet of paper” , or “This is 1000% better, I can get off square one and get the juices and ideas flowing”.

 

Sure – the first drawings were shaky dead ends and mud pits. And yes, the trash cans overflowed with crumpled paper and the maintenance guy had to vacuum up a bushel of eraser dust. But ideas flowed, designs took shape,  and those designs improved quickly. Best of all, woodworkers who doubted they would ever break free from the blank page came in sleepy eyed on day two, after staying up till 3:30 am.

I’m not sure who was more pleased. Forty six fired up workshop attendees, or Jim Tolpin and myself who had the honor of witnessing it.

 

 

George R. Walker

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What’s in your Tool Kit?

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

I enjoy a trip to an art museum. It’s more than a chance to examine great furniture on display, but to see the interplay between art, architecture, and furniture.  There is a craft element of art that applies directly to furniture building – GOOD WORK IS NO ACCIDENT. Painter Robert Genn offers timeless advise to an aspiring artist about what he really needs in his tool kit. You can read the whole thing  here in his excellent art resources website The Painters Keys. I’ve included parts of it below because it applies directly to our craft. My meager thoughts are added in bold font.

“I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him: 

Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays. No substitutes for just doing it. Whether it’s learning to execute solid joinery or developing your designers eye. 

Space: Find a space that is always yours–where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours. Splurge and make it a secret garden, even if you have to shoehorn it between the washer and furnace.

Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals–say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series. In woodworking your series may be dovetails, or shellac – working the series till you reach a goal of proficiency. Or for design it could be an exploration of a familiar form while experimenting with curves. 

Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration. Select a wood species like quarter sawn white oak, figured cherry,  or maple and explore it until you fully grasp it’s potential. 

Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction. There’s never been a better time than now when it comes learning resources. Books, videos, on-line and in person workshops. Give yourself a boost (Shameless Plug).

Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit. Swim in the shear joy shaping wood with your hands. 

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, tools

Compass layouts on Youtube

Sheraton

Nearly every guide to the building arts going back to the dawn of printing included a series of geometric layouts with a compass. A challenge to the decipher, these lessons were shoehorned together, and made worse with a flurry of confusing text buried twenty pages away.  Our book “By Hand & Eye” was written in hopes of extending our building tradition by making it relevant to the modern artisan. To that end, we put together digital animations of those classic compass layouts. You can access them through this link to Jim Tolpin’s YouTube channel . For those of you that bought our book and had difficulty accessing the layouts, we hope this offers a solution.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, Design Book

Top Ten Reasons

palladio 001-001

Here are the Top Ten Reasons for signing up for the Foundations of Design workshop I’m teaching at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking the week of March 17th – 21st. 

10. You’ll learn proportions as a second language.

9. It will transform the way you see furniture. 

8. Port Townsend is a destination in itself, picturesque with great restaurants. 

7. Be inspired and jazz your passion for furniture building.

6. Learn the truth about mixing plaids and stripes – can it really work?

5. Going forward your furniture will be designated BFD (not what you think – Before Foundations of Design) and AFD (After Foundations of Design). 

4. You’ll walk away with the beginnings of a design portfolio you can build on.

3. Because Jim Tolpin makes great cookies.

2. Because design is rewarding, challenging, surprising, risky, and fun.

1. It’s January for Pete’s sake, treat yourself to something fun. 

George R. Walker

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Free layout tool at WIA

DSCN3612

Stop by the SAPFM booth right by Mike Siemsen’s Hand tool Olympics and pick up this nifty sector. It’s perfect for resizing a molding profile to suit your next project. There is  a catch. You have to build it on the spot. I’ll be there to walk you through it and give you a lesson on scaling moldings up or down.

Look forward to seeing you this weekend.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, designing moldings

Design Intangibles

DSCN3278

horse

Horse study by Leonardo

Beauty is a hard thing to put a finger on. We know it instinctively when we see it, but struggle to put into words. One of the attributes the ancients saw in beauty was ontological. That’s a fancy term for the horse-ness of a horse, the canoe-ness of a canoe, the wine-ness of a wine. Something inside that embodies the essence of the true thing or being. Yet, even the idea of the essence of a thing is not black and white. This essence isn’t confined to a style, culture, or genre. The dog-ness of a dog can come through the brushstrokes of a painting more clearly than the kitschy canine celebrities at a dog show.

'Grouse' by Thomas Eakins

‘Grouse’ by Thomas Eakins

So how does this apply to furniture design? This ontological attribute applies to the built world also. An architectural writer Denis McNamara opined, people like their churches to be recognizable as a church, not to be confused with a pizza hut. Although our ideas about this true essence may evolve, our desire to connect with something genuine does not.

DSCN3406

Windsor Chair by Richard Grell, photo by author

What is that essence I look for in a furniture design? To me it has to speak of home and all that entails. Pulling off cold boots in front of the hearth and warming numb feet, eating a slice of blackberry pie fresh from the oven and the sounds of laughter echoing from the kitchen. It also has to speak of the forest and the craft of woodworking. That’s as far as I’ll venture without trampling all over it.

What’s your idea of the essence of a chair or table or chest design? Can you put it to words?

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Filed under Architecture, Design Basics

Dream Workshop

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Just a stones throw from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the new workshop of chairmaker Richard Grell. I stopped by over the the last year as the walls went up and and shared in the excitement. Richard’s been a full time windsor chair maker for over forty years and he’s finally building that shop he always dreamed about.  Two full stories with plenty of light and storage, and best of all an atmosphere that makes one feel like grabbing a drawknife and slicing into some freshly felled timber. It gets better.

Grell has another dream that’s about to unfold. This year he will begin offering classes in chairmaking and finishing. I can’t say enough about his technical prowess as a maker or his cheerful and enthusiastic approach to craft. Our woodworking community is about to get blessed and I’m excited to see this dream become a reality.

Here’s a link to his website for a peak at his new shop and schedule of upcoming workshops.    Richard Grell

George R. Walker

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Design or engineer?

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

My brother and I looked on as a gunsmith at Colonial Williamsburg expertly fit together a black walnut stock with a metal lock. Without raising an eye the artisan patiently answered our questions as though we were fresh off the boat and in need of a good rifle. That is until my brother volunteered that I was a machinist in a former life.

“A machinist” He said as he set his file on the workbench, and peered over his spectacles at me, “In that case, I’ll…. talk…… slow…. for…. your…. sake.”

I often get questions that are less about design and more about engineering. It’s innocent enough and usually no fault intended. Yet to my mind there is a quite a gap between the world of design and the world of engineering. When I think of engineering I think strength of materials, load bearing capacities, slide rules, and efficiencies. For many, engineering is the default starting point. Our education system and industry is geared towards that approach. Engineering is logical to the core; much of it is expressed in numbers and formulas.

When design comes to mind I think of aesthetics, creating something with a “delight” factor. Yes, a chair has to function and bear the stress as we lean back and rack the undercarriage – that’s a given. But a chair also has to invite us to sit and beckon us to grasp the armrest as though it were a bit of shelter from the wind. Design is about learning to visualize a fair curve and a sixth sense for proportions.  It’s about gaining something I call “spatial pitch” where the eye can sense visual music in a composition.

Capital carving  by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Corinthian Capital by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Jim Tolpin and I are excited about our book “By Hand and Eye” which is just a few weeks away from going to the printer. If you are hoping for a book to help you engineer furniture, you may be a bit confused and disappointed. But, if you ever wondered what it would be like to unlock that inner ability, to gain a designers eye, this book can help you begin that journey. Sure, we do go through some nifty layout tricks with dividers that will make you a better woodworker, but the heart of the book is about learning to visualize, gaining that perfect pitch, crossing that invisible line called delight.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, The Classic Orders, Uncategorized

Underground Railroad Clock

The understated dial gives this clock case a quiet dignity

The understated dial gives this clock case a quiet dignity

I seldom copy furniture designs but this tall case clock is an exception. The original sat in the parlor of an early 19th century farmhouse that was a stop on the underground railroad for smuggling fugitive slaves into Canada. Just a few feet from where the clock sits, hidden within the walls, an impossibly narrow spiral staircase snakes its way from a fire wood box in the basement kitchen to a cramped  secret chamber in the attic three floors up. The Quaker family that lived in the house put together an ingenious ruse to thwart discovery. They installed bee hives in the attic with narrow slots in the gable ends for the bees to enter. If slave hunters demanded to search the attic, it was pointed out that the bees get excited with unannounced guests, but they were certainly free to look. No one decided to risk it.

Secret stairway built into the walls of the house

Secret stairway built into the walls of the house

I copied the original clock and donated it to the historical society to raise funds for the upkeep of the building. It breaks a few rules in clock case construction but in this case, that was what was called for. Not sure if it underwent some heavy handed repairs by someone not familiar with clock construction or was built by a frontier builder with limited knowledge. It’s a bit of a mystery as the original clock has a nice brass 18th century movement with an imported English painted dial.  Copies get a bad rap in creative circles these days and it’s a shame. Here’s a short clip of of renowned architects Alvin Holm and John Blattaeu discussing the role that copying once played in our tradition.  It has some poor audio in the first 30 seconds but their wisdom is worth reflection.

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Hidden Treasure

A pair of child’s writing arm chairs in the white

The workshop sits down a tree lined gravel drive, barely visible from the road. Since 1973, thousands upon thousands of Windsors went from freshly harvested logs to exquisitely crafted chairs by one man in a modest workshop. You’ve never seen Richard Grell’s name in a woodworking magazine, but his chairs are found around the globe, sought after by serious collectors. The big auction houses know to call Richard when a buyer scores that final chair on their bucket list, often commissioning a sister chair or a set based on the prized original. He’s known for museum quality reproductions, as well as his own graceful adaptations of this iconic chair form.

A small sample of one of his painted finishes.

Today when we think about design, it’s often in the context of exploring new ground and novel forms. Yet, our tradition also has a long history of extending and perfecting the past work of artisans. This comes with it’s own challenges. Building on a tradition as rich as Windsor chair making; respecting that tradition while adding to it, requires attention to detail and a practiced eye.  It’s rare as gold to find someone so deeply immersed in a craft. Rarer still is Richard’s open and sharing attitude. With nothing to prove and a true love of the craft, he’s a treasure trove of knowledge.  As we talked chairs in his shop, I noted how he still gets excited about a new detail, using his hands to explain how the lines of a chair converge to make music with wood. Although he’s noted for stunning reproductions, his own Grell chair designs add depth to our American Windsor chair legacy.

Richard in his shop, an artisan you need to know.

One big change is on the horizon, and we all stand to benefit by it. Richard reached the point in his craft where he feels compelled to pass on the knowledge. Starting in 2013 he’ll be offering a variety of workshops on chair making, chair design, and finishing (his painted finishes are second to none).  Whether you are a novice or experienced maker, Richard has much to share from a lifetime making his living with his hands and wits. Details are forthcoming, but for now here’s a link to his commercial site to wet your appetite. Check out the section on finishes.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, design workshops, Resources