Category Archives: Design Book

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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Down the Rabbit Hole IV

In our newly released book “By Hand & Eye” we promised to post instructions build a sector. Jim put this together.

Making a Sector

Select clear, straight-grained, light-colored stock such as maple. Produce sticks from 4/4 stock, tapering from about 7/8-in. at the base to ⅝-in. at the far end. This taper isn’t necessary, but it looks nice and it brings the balance point closer to where you generally are handling it in use.  Your choice of length: I have one about 2-ft. long for scaling smaller projects and minor components and one about 3-ft. long for dealing with full furniture dimensions. The drawing shows the construction details and nuances—which include the fact that the pivot point of the sector’s legs is not the center of the hinge pin as you might expect, but the back of the hinge.

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Down the Rabbit hole II

Proportioning Systems Outside the Western World

(Your host of this particular rabbit hole is Jim)

One question George and I often get is whether this whole scheme of designing to whole number ratios is limited to the classical (i.e. pre-industrial)  “western” world. What about the vast, and just as ancient, built world of the Orient? That’s a big question, and probably the deepest rabbit hole we would ever want to jump into.

But what I do know from speaking with Dale Brotherton, a classically trained Japanese temple builder; and more recently gleaned from a book on Japanese joinery (“The Art of Japanese Joinery” by Kiyosi Seike), is that the sizing of Japanese joinery elements as well as the overall layout of structures were based on an idealized system of modular (i.e. whole-number) proportions called “Kiwari”. (A Japanese word which literally means: “wood dividing”). According to Seike, the first written evidence of this system has been traced back to the mid 6th century AD, while a five volume set of artisan’s manuals appeared in 1608.

Drawing:  A “four-and-a-half Tatami” room layout

By the 15th or 16th century AD, the module for sizing rooms became the tatami mat, which was a double-square rectangle about 3 ft. by 6 ft. (in our western imperial measurement system). Two of these mats–which together formed a square–were called a “ma”, and I believe served as the module for ceiling heights as well. Rooms were defined and sized by the number of tatami that could be contained in the room. In the drawing AT DIRECTION is a typical room layout for four and one-half tatamis. Other typical room sizes were six and eight tatamis. Essentially, they were growing the rooms in a Fibonacci series.

So what about now? It seems that the ancient artisan ways came to an abrupt end in 1868 with the downfall of the last shogun during the “Restoration of Monarchy” and the subsequent conscious and aggressive opening to industrialized western “modernization”.  (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

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Music for the Eyes

DSCN1715

Renaissance architects saw a clear connection between music and design. They equated proportions with musical notes and often said pleasing proportions were music for the eyes. There’s a rich legacy of this musical/proportional connection going back to ancient Greece, yet to my thinking there’s something more profound lurking beneath the surface.

VISUALIZATION

The ability to imagine is a huge step, possibly the biggest step on your design journey. In fact the question I’m asked frequently is – Can you really teach design? I’m not sure,  but I am certain you can make giant strides in your ability to see. And in the case of woodworking where the tool to visualize (dividers) is also the tool to execute layouts, visualizing becomes intuitive. But here’s where the music comes in. How many times have you heard an annoying song on the radio (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady” by the Marx brothers comes to mind) that you just couldn’t shake from your head?

What’s that have to do with design or visualization? It illustrates our innate ability to visualize. You don’t have to be a musician to have good or bad music playing in your head, though I believe musicians can hear internal sound with more detail. The point is we all routinely visualize music with hardly a thought.

Then why is it we struggle to visualize designs and proportions? Jim Tolpin and I are convinced that we visualize music not because we learned to write notes in grade school but because we fell asleep to a lullabye while still in the crib and took up song before we could talk. The notes were imprinted.

We don’t imagine objects in space because we never imprinted visual notes. With one voice the historical design books emphasized proportions and charged the aspiring designer to draw standards like the classic orders. This has little to do with building furniture fit for the Parthenon and everything to do with learning to make music with proportions. Welcome to the new /old/classic/contemporary way of making music with proportions.

Here’s how – By Hand and Eye

George R. Walker

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Strad form

Can you see a violin body in this jumble? Drawing by author.

Last Friday Jim Tolpin shared a brief teaser about the artisan design language we explored together in our soon to be released book “By Hand & Eye”. In the comments that followed, Jim made a reference to the Rabbit Hole.

What exactly is a Rabbit Hole and what does it have to do with furniture design you might ask? The short answer is that it’s a bucket where we tossed anything that didn’t make it into the final draft. The long answer is that much of the Rabbit Hole material is a playground Jim and I explored during the research phase of this project. This artisan design approach didn’t evolve in a vacuum and a good amount of corroborating evidence came from science as well as the arts. We chased down many a faint trail, often ending in a Rabbit Hole.

The drawing above is a good example. It’s my attempt to draw a historic re-creation of the geometry behind the original violin bodies created in Italy. As it turns out musical instrument makers pulled knowledge from the

Man drawing a Lute by Albrecht Durher

Man drawing a Lute by Albrecht Durher

same wellspring as furniture builders. Here’s a link to a compass sequence that lies behind the form and another link to more information Traite de Lutherie. What’s it have to do with furniture? Well that’s why it ended up in the Rabbit Hole. Yet it is fascinating stuff and it does illustrate that in the hands of a capable master, incredible ideas can spring from a few simple shapes. I can’t help but mention that the form starts with a square and contains several key proportions based on simple whole number harmonic ratios, the same ratios often found in architecture and furniture. Don’t worry, you don’t have to master anything this complicated to design furniture but it does illustrate that we are only scratching the surface of some profound knowledge that’s all but lost.

Jim and I agreed that you may enjoy this as much as we did so I’ll be posting snippets over the coming months. Keep an eye out for Rabbit holes to jump down.

George R. Walker

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Built-in portable, waterproof, hairy, handy ruler.

5th Edition of Handbook for Boys. Your handy ruler may be larger than these.

5th Edition of Handbook for Boys 1957.

Four years ago I sat in the back of a design workshop led by Jim Tolpin. He demonstrated how to design and build a piece of furniture using his hands as a ruler by walking us through a small step stool where every element was based on measurements derived from his hand span. I watched as Jim used both outstretched hands to determine the length, which also happens to coincide with his shoulder width and also happens to give just wide enough of a platform for stable footing. His deceptively simple approach was both liberating and intuitive. It seemed miles away from an “engineered” design process I was all too familiar with. Instead it echoed something in our past and on some level a deeply human approach to designing furniture.

Proportional study of the human hand by Durher.

Proportional study of the human hand by Durher.

I also knew he was re-assembling a big section of a marvelous puzzle I’d been working on myself. Neither of us had a clear idea of what the other was exploring but when we finally got together to talk, more light bulbs popped than when Roy Hobbs hit that homer in “The Natural”.

Ok, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but there were lots of light bulbs flashing.

We also knew if we combined what we were learning it could have profound impact on the craft. I was exploring the traditional design language artisans employed to visualize a design. It just so happened that they used proportions woven into the human body. Jim was using his body as a ruler to intuitively build. None of this is new, but this approach faded from use with the onset of industrialization and curiously the few puzzle pieces that remind us of it are hidden in plain sight in historic design literature.

Take a look at this architectural drawing by Palladio. Note the small human figure at the base of the column. This is not a knome. It’s a portable, waterproof, hairy, handy walking ruler that clearly communicates to any builder the actual scale of this design (which happens to be the front portico of the Pantheon in Rome).

The small guy hold dividers is a walking ruler

The small guy with dividers supplies the scale.

Now in furniture design our scale is much smaller. Your hand span and the distance between your first and second knuckle on your index finger are your built-in portable, waterproof, hairy, handy ruler. My own hand span is 8 & ¾ “, both hands together are 17 & ½” (or just call it a foot and a half). The distance between the first and second knuckle on my index finger is 1 &1/2”.

We have lots more to share about this, but you’ll have to wait till our book “By Hand and Eye” through Lost Art Press comes out in early 2013. Until then, measure your own built-in portable, waterproof, hairy, handy ruler. It comes with a lifetime guarantee.

George R. Walker

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Inch or Metric?

Machinists are spinning in their graves at what I’m about to share and I can’t quite believe it myself. It’s hard to explain the attachment one gets to a measuring system when you’ve made a living dodging hot steel chips streaming off an engine lathe. A micrometer in my hand feels as natural as a warm coffee cup and for decades a 6” Starrett rule was never further than my shirt pocket, ready to flick a hot chip from melting into my forearm or quickly check a dimension. My mind can still rattle off fractions of an inch in thousands. Quick – what’s 3/32nds, or 7/16ths, or 63/64ths? (.093” – .437” – .984”).

For those smugly thinking I went over to the dark side and converted to the metric system, I must disappoint you also. Fact is, neither inch nor metric plays much of a role in my woodworking. I wanted to learn the language of design and looking back, my dependence on precise measurements was actually a hindrance. Some skill sets don’t translate from one endeavor to another. Skills needed for coal mining don’t apply to fly fishing. Even though I spent a lifetime building things with my hands, aided by a precision rule, it did little to help me visualize a design; in fact it got in the way.

So you are thinking Walker is off his nut advocating some leap into the unknown and  I can imagine you quietly patting your tape measure to make sure it’s still within reach. Admittedly this was a gradual shift which began way back in my machinist days. The rigors of piecework forces one to jettison any motion that eats time, so I was always looking for ways to skip measurements. As I explored traditional hand tool woodworking it seemed that many of the techniques also veered away from using numerical measurements (Perhaps for those same time wasting reasons). Why bother measuring a mortise when the dimensions are built into the chisel? The traditional tool-set eased my tight grip on my precision rule and my numbers focused thinking.

Then came the big leap when I dove into the historic design literature from our craft tradition. Everything was about proportions with only the rare reference to numerical dimensions. As I stumbled through the old drawing exercises and geometry tricks, I began to realize that this went far beyond just becoming adept at drawing and layouts. Mysteriously those old drawing exercises revealed some amazing secrets. They taught my inner eye to SEE. Encouraged, I laid aside all measuring tools except dividers and a straight edge to stretch my thinking. It was like taking a wilderness trip and hearing for the first time warblers and thrushes from every treetop. Except in this case it was all about vision, and being able to imagine clearly both in my mind and as the work came together on the bench. In a nutshell, that’s what Jim Tolpin and I have been exploring together and offering to the larger craft community through our upcoming book. “By Hand and Eye”

Simple arcs of a circle that are key to envisioning curves.

In the end I haven’t sworn off measuring like some fire and brimstone vegetarian trying to convert a world full of carnivores. Instead I find myself simply not reaching for that ruler in lieu of something much better.

George R. Walker

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Proportions add life to a design

Gaining fresh new insights working on the upcoming Lost Art Press book on design. As often happens when teaching or writing, the process forces you to flip over more stones in the creek bottom to see what might scurry out. I’ve been taken again by the power of proportions to bring a life like essence, or to put it another way, make things believable to our eye. I started this journey years ago looking for some magic bullet or formula that might shed light on this most elusive and shy aspect of the craft . Mostly I found more questions than answers. Like how did pre-industrial artisans work to a level of accuracy that boggles the imagination? This is more pointed when you consider the measuring tools frequently seen in historic tool kits.

A different way to work where dimensions took a back seat

Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

This 19th century wooden square has a hand marked scale in ¼” increments. It’s not uncommon to find similar shop or blacksmith made rules with crude Fred Flintstone like markings. My background is in precision metalworking (think millionths of an inch) and for the longest time my brain could not reconcile the work with the tools. And how did they build oceans of furniture largely without measured drawings? Those questions drove me deeper into the craft and its design language and tradition. It might as well be a whole other world where the sky’s a different color, the contrasts are that sharp. Those crappy rulers worked just fine because aside from the bad lighting, dimensions took a back seat to proportions and fit. The size of one part was based not on a specification from a print or cut list, but how it related proportionally to the parts around it and to the whole form. Would the fingers on your hand look believable to your eye if they all were the same length? The word creepy comes to mind. Yet those artisans worked intuitively with proportions much like a chef builds flavor in a kettle of stew with seasonings and spices. Beyond that, they spoke a design language that with some practice can be visualized with clear spatial images on the blackboard in our mind. This is exciting stuff.

George R. Walker

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Hatching a design book.

I’ve been hinting about something big  in the works for months, now it’s official. A design book tentatively titled “Divide and Conquer” is in the wings co-written by none other than Jim Tolpin and yours truly. It’s an honor to have Chris Schwarz at Lost Art Press share our vision for an artisan’s design guide, there’s not a more passionate champion of the craft.  I’m sure he’ll drive Jim and I like sled dogs to write not just a good book but a great one. It’s also humbling to collaborate with Jim. He brings a lifetime of building knowledge and writing experience to this project. Our plan is to couple design theory with woodshop practice, every idea and concept  illustrated with shavings and sawdust, an artisans guide through and through. You might like to know how the three of us came together to hatch this book.   

I looked out at the packed auditorium and felt a big knot in my gut. Scheduled to deliver the Friday night keynote address at the 2009 WIA (Woodworking In America) conference in Chicago, it suddenly dawned on me this was a big crowd. That dumb inner voice that’s best ignored, started tossing out random thoughts, “DO NOT trip and fall down… Look, some of these guys have saws and sharp objects tucked under their arms…Please, please old laptop don’t crash now… Can I pull this presentation off doing shadow puppets?” 

 I took deep breath and reminded myself that if the message is solid it doesn’t matter if the messenger is flawed. Everything went great, how could it not? This was a room full of woodworkers eager to learn about design. They chuckled at my story about falling down the grand staircase in the Library of Congress. I could sense the group warming to the idea of a regular woodworker allowing curiosity to lead him where it might go. Off to my right I spied several guys scribbling notes, always a good sign. No one appeared to be nodding off with the occasional neck snap.

            Then I spied Chris Schwarz waving his skinny arm,seeking permission to drop a stink bomb, “So George, seems you intentionally omitted any reference to the most holy Golden Ratio in your lecture tonight, what gives?”

That dumb voice in my head chimed in again. “Here’s the part where they start heaving tomatoes and cabbages.”

The guys with notebooks paused to look straight at me. I’m sure everyone was waiting for a polished sexy answer. The truth is that pre-industrial artisans had well documented simple (i.e. quicker) methods that didn’t include the golden mean. It’s not in the historic literature of the trades, and doesn’t get along with other children on the playground. Note: I’ve learned since then, that no amount of evidence or argument can sway the true believers. Luckily I didn’t come off brash enough to cause the faithful to reach for their sidearms.

Another hand shot up from someone I later learned was Jim Tolpin. I can’t recall what Jim asked, but I do know I didn’t have an answer. It was the kind of question I love, just not in front of 250 people. Jim stuck around after the session and peppered me with more questions I couldn’t answer, things I’d wondered to myself. I vowed then and there to attend Jim’s session the next day.

Saturday I broke free and slipped into the back of one of Tolpin’s design classes. He demonstrated how he designs using the proportions from his body as a template to organize a form. Makes perfect sense; we build beds, and chairs to conform to our frames, yet Jim was going beyond using standard measurements to guide the height of a table. I watched him use his two outstretched hands like a yardstick to lay out proportions on a simple footstool design. Instantly I knew the reason behind those pointed questions the night before. I’d been exploring and teaching about the ancient proportional methods, whose roots can be traced back to the ideal human form, and Jim was using his own body as a form to guide his imagination. We were both rediscovering a timeless ancestral design code long lost to today’s artisan.

That was the start of a friendship and two years of discussions, questions, trading books, articles, pictures, ideas, and sketches. Slowly a larger picture emerged of a design language seamlessly linked to the traditional tools, methods, and natural materials of the pre-industrial artisan. Not a collection of prescriptive instructions but rather a body of first principles that enables an artisan to compose music in wood. Also, a bonus we had not counted on, this design journey is a path of self discovery as it awakens the inner ability to visualize more clearly and work more intuitively. Ideas flow naturally from mind to hand at the workbench.

It was only a matter of time till we asked the question. Should we write a book and share this? Both Jim and I agree that this knowledge will be a game changer for the post industrial artisan. The link that re-connects the crafts scattered parts. This design language marries the time-tested tools and joinery into something far greater.      

Luckily Chris Schwarz agreed that this is a book that needs written. So for the coming year Jim and I will be pouring over historical engravings, digging out gold nuggets, and refining each concept at the workbench. Our goal always is to equip you with that ability to create your own music with wood.

One final note. I have a weekend design workshop at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking Aug 26th-28th.  Actually it’s capping a week working with Jim on our manuscript. My plan is to pour this out on a group of unsuspecting woodworkers and gather some valuable feedback on the best ways to present material. If you would like to play a role in helping “Design And Conquer” come to life, consider signing up. There are still a few slots left.  

Jim and I have lots to do, time to get back to work!

George R. Walker

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