Category Archives: design critique

Design Critique April 2013


Tom Schaefer offered up a chair design he’s been working on for a critique. You can click on the link above to a PDF that shows his sketches for the design. As always with a critique your comments are welcome, please be specific about what you like or would change. Here is Tom’s description:

Attached is a drawing of a chair I started a few years ago.   I appreciate any feedback you are willing to dispense.  My apologies for the crude drawing, it’s all freehand.

Here is my thinking on some of the design elements.

  • The frame is walnut.
  • The fill wood is zebra.
  • The cushion fabric of wool and cotton with a small square weave.
  • The legs are a long taper.
  • The side profile the back rail works in conjunction with the back cushion to form an ogee.
  • The front view the legs work in conjunction with the top to form another ogee.
  • The arm rest is twisted to form more to the arm and hand.
  • There is a visible space between the cushion and the walnut frame, so the zebra wood is noticeable in that space.
  • The front rail is zebra wood and scooped at the top for legs.  I’m undecided to frame the bottom at least in walnut. I kind of like it without the walnut rail.
  • The back of the chair has a center stile that connects to the bottom rail.  In the sketch it appears to connect to the leg, but does not.
  • There is a dotted line on the side for a possible walnut rail.  I may decide to make the side open from the top of the seat cushion to the bottom of the arm rest.
  • There are two (possible three) stretchers under the cushion and the flush mortise joint is visible on the side bottom rail.
  • My concept was that the lines should blend together as on unit.  Like a wave so to speak.

I look forward to your comments.



In lieu of another written comment, I submit these images of Tom’s chair design.  While the images show only the lower portion of the design (with certain liberties taken), hopefully they will provide him some additional understanding of his current design.  Since the comment section doesn’t provide the ability to post images I have sent them via email to you.  Feel free to post them in any way you deem useful.



Chair Top

Chair Top


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Design Critique Oct 2012

Michael Cran submitted a recent project requesting your input, below are his comments. As always for these on-line critiques, if you share an opinion, please bolster it with the why behind your veiw. Thinking through your conclusions  helps all, even the one offering constructive advise.

This was a small coffee table I made for my sister.  The design constraints were a small living area, a small budget, and the wood available.  I was very fortunate to find a nice piece of figured walnut for the top and legs.  I chose a half blind mitered dovetail for the corner joint, (dovetails visible from the side).  The mitered aspect was chosen for continuity of the grain over the edge, the dovetail aspect for structural integrity and well, because I’d never cut one before.  The stretcher is curly cypress.  I chose it because it had very little commercial value, and plenty of character.  The cantilevered edge was in response to the length of the cypress, and the space the table was meant to fill.  I am pleased with the contrast between the cypress and walnut, in color but mostly form.  What wildness is it that holds this formal world together?

I welcome any critiques but am particularly curious to know how others respond to the proportions.  They were somewhat constrained by the material itself, but mostly it was a matter of right…about…there. Something seems a little off to me.


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Design Critique Revisit

Back in May, Robert Horton asked for help designing an alter table for a church sanctuary. Link to original design critique. It was a unique situation, trying to satisfy the needs of a committee, and in this case explore the re-purposing of some Gothic columns for a small table. Hopefully our input helped Robert solidify his thoughts and in this case, wipe the slate clean and start anew. Given that the table will sit in the foreground with a large Gothic window as a backdrop, I think he struck onto something simple yet powerful. Here are his comments and drawings for the revamped design. Thanks Robert for sharing your thoughts and demonstrating the wisdom of letting go and taking a different tack!

When last we left off, I had sent in a sketch for recycling some old church furnishings into a new altar.  The attempt to recycle the existing neo-gothic carvings produced a Frankenstein’s monster.  It was a curious exercise; but I went back to the drawing board and started with a clean sheet.

End View


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Design Critique Aug 2012

Scott Keith shared some designs for a bench he is working up and asked for your feedback. For those of you new to the Design Matters Blog, this is an opportunity for builders and designers to get constructive feedback and generate ideas about a design. If you have a comment whether positive or negative, be prepared to explain what you are seeing and why. The process of explaining your own thoughts can be as valuable to you as to the builder looking for input.  The following are his comments and questions:

I have been reading your blog for a while now and really enjoy it.  As a mechanical design engineer I spend much of my time designing from a purely functional stand point, but as a woodworker I have been trying to develop more of an eye for “form” in my work.  To that end, I would like to get your thoughts on a design for a simple sitting bench that I have been working on.  

 It’s an Asian inspired piece with a rather heavy (currently about 1.25 thick) slab seating surface and substructure that gives it a floating appearance.  The overall dimensions are 40L x 18H x 15D.  As can be seen in the pictures, the outer two surfaces of each leg flair out as they go up, and the edge of the bench seat is shaped to match the line of that flair if it were to extend upward.  In order to soften the corners of the seat I created a “clipped” surface that again extends downward for a portion of the leg.  I noticed afterwards that when viewed from certain angles this feature give the appearance a strait leg or even a reverse taper depending on how large the corner clip is and how far down the leg it extends.

 I would like feedback on the basic design and proportions, especially of the front rail and legs, and if the exposed tenons of the under-rails make the design too “busy”.  Of course, any other thoughts would be welcome.

Updated addition to this post – Scott followed up with the following plus some new sketches based on feedback from this on-line community.

 The comments have been very helpful and encouraging.  Several of the folks asked for updated sketches of the piece after incorporating some of the suggestion.  Attached are two shots of the updated design, one with the corner clip and one without it, as suggested by “ejcampbell”. “

Revised Design without corner clip.

Original design front veiw

Revised design with corner clip



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Design Critique 08/12/2010

I’ve been away with Barbie enjoying the rugged coastline of Acadia National Park in the state of Maine. We love to grab a sandwich and park ourselves on a rocky outcropping as high tide rolls in. Amazing how that immersion in sound, smells, and light seems to quickly scrub out all the cobwebs inside the scull. It chases out all the competing data flying around in my head and allows me to pause and watch a black guillemot dive for small fish in the frothy surf. It never fails to reignite the creative spark.

I received a note from furniture builder Kate Taylor asking for some help on a hall table she built. She voices a concern that I hear on a regular basis from builders. Somehow she’s not sure that the legs work in the overall design. I’m often asked

“How do I proportion legs to the overall piece?”

Or more often, “I know this just isn’t working for me but I’m not sure where to go with it.”

Comments below are from Kate. I’m certain she’d be grateful for some thoughtful input.

George R. Walker

I have a table that I’m wondering about and thought I’d see if you would be interested in critiquing it. My main question is about the legs. I wanted the table to have more of a flowing feel to go with the live edge. It’s made to go against a wall in an entry way, so needs to be narrow. I’m not sure if the legs work or not. Any comments are welcome.

Thanks, Kate

 Kate Taylor Creative Woodworking


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Design Critique 05/21/2010

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin 1880 (Cleveland Museum of Art)

How about a little twist on a design critique? It’s been a pleasure for me and I hope for you the last few weeks sharing thoughts and comments on previous design critiques. I thought it might be fun to occasionally toss up some images from the work of a past master and generate some discussion. Obviously this is a bit different than commenting on your peers. It might be a good exercise to look closely at a masterwork and tell us what you see. What do you think the designer was thinking? Is there something new you failed to notice before? Is there something you might want to file away and in your design library? With that in mind, here’s the first masterwork I’d like to present for your comments, a cabinet by Greene and Greene.

Try to disregard the moron reflected in the window, just trying to get a shot of the facade. Cabinet measures 82" H X 54" W X 24" D.

            A little background and my initial comment. This impressive cabinet is currently on display in the Cleveland Museum of Art and is described as a secretary designed by Charles Sumner Greene and built by Peter Hall in 1911. The primary wood is mahogany which in itself was a bit surprising to me. One thing that struck me as exceedingly well executed is the subtle use of ornament to emphasize the form. Note the small patches of inlay at each corner of the upper and lower case. It re-enforced the idea to me that ornament (carving, inlay, marquetry, gilding) is at its best when it plays a supporting role and highlights the underlying form. Sorry about the photo quality, museum setting photos can be difficult.

 I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this impressive work.

George R. Walker


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Design Critique 05/12/2010

Steve Millican has submitted plans for a hutch to be used in the kitchen. In this case he has marvelous wood and some functional requirements driving the design. In our house, I tread lightly in the kitchen. Barb is master and commander of that ship and I know not to make stupid remarks about the geraniums she planted in her kitchen window box. The following are Steve’s comments:

 First off, my client is a very important one…she is my wife!  My wife loves to cook and I love to buy her tools for her kitchen.  As a result, even with our decent sized kitchen, the cupboards are full – our boys and I are often confused where something is supposed to go, or how to make it fit! 

 For my day job, I work as an engineer.  As a result, you will find my design of the hutch is very focused on utility.  The hutch will be placed in our galley style kitchen.  The breakfast nook falls inline with the kitchen.  As the cupboards end, there is a 36-37″ space along the wall before the breakfast nook windows begin – that will the future home for our piece.  So the width of our design is set at 36″.  Breaking the hutch down, the lower cabinet has 3 sliding drawers.  The lower two are for pots/pans etc, while the top drawer will get a built-in kitchen knife holder.  Moving up, you’ll see a space between the top of the base unit and the doors.  This space is sized to allow bottles or cookbooks to stored or used as decoration.  Behind the doors will be two levels for holding cookbooks – each shelf has about 14″ of vertical room to hold even my wife’s tallest cook books. 

 For this project, we decided to go with walnut.  We ultimately settled on claro walnut and proceeded to spend a good chunk of money on some really nice claro walnut boards.  Overall the design of the piece follows a less is more concept.  Using frame and panel construction will allow us to place the curly/marbled claro walnut on display in the panels while some nicely matching non-curly western walnut (all of which is quartersawn/rift sawn) will be used for the frames. 


Photo courtesy of Northwest Timber (

I would love feedback on any aspect of the design.  Some specific points of question my be about the widths of the various rails/stiles, the design of the crown molding, the width of the upper cabinet, mortising the ends of the rails into the stiles vs. mortising the stiles into the rails.  Given the frame and panel construction, I’m struggling to decide how best to attach the shelves – sliding dovetails was my first choice but that is compromised by the frame and panel concept I really want to stick with (I was thinking the panel can be flush with the stiles on the inner surfaces and still have a dovetail?).  We don’t know what we want to do for handles/pulls.  Purchase metal ones or make wooden versions.  We are currently leaning towards making handles/pulls from ebony but they won’t be round – they would be some curved shape since the one machine that I don’t own is a lathe (ran out of room in my garage).


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Design Critique 05/07/2010

Furniture designer and builder Bob Passaro submitted this bench for a design critique. Bob poses that age old question that every artisan wrestles with. Like many of us he wonders what he might do differently if he built another. I often pose the same question. When to stop and leave well enough alone? Do you ever stop questioning, experimenting, and playing? I also wonder how many versions did the masters go through before they brought a form to it’s conclusion? It’s obvious looking at the work of the Townsends and Goddards in Newport that their work evolved and changed not just with the styles of the day, but also within those styles. You can definitely see a progression as they perfected a form. 

Your input on this is appreciated. The following are Bob’s comments -

Here are two images of a simple bench I built several years ago while
I was a student at the Northwest Woodworking Studio. I have many
opinions of my own about this piece. Some things I like, some I don’t.
I’m going to keep them to myself for the moment, till I hear what you
all think.

Since the day I finished this piece, I have wanted to build another
version and try to refine the parts I feel didn’t quite work. In fact,
I have some pieces roughed out, sitting in a corner of the shop till I
work out exactly how I want to approach this on the second go-round.
And I would love to hear others’ thoughts as I try to figure that out.
I’m not going to have a thin skin about it, so please feel free to be

By way of background, this idea came to me one evening while I was
having dinner with my wife at one those restaurants that uses big
sheets of plain white paper as table “cloths” and leaves a jar of
crayons on the table. So while we were waiting for our food, I drew
the essence of this design in crayon on the table. I think I ended up
tearing the piece off after dinner so I could take it with me.

– Bob Passaro


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Design Critique 04/07/2010


Inspiration abounds if we have ours eyes open

I have to say I’m delighted at the response to our little experiment with a design critique last week. You exceeded my expectations with lively and interesting comment and helpful criticism. You encouraged me and sparked my imagination. Currently I have a design for a sideboard/server table I’ve been toying with. My thought is I’d make two pieces. One for my wife (very tough customer) which will be a bit conservative, and the second piece a bit more adventuresome. Your ideas from last week are still rolling around in my head and percolating. Thank you. This concept of offering up our thoughts on a project is intriguing. That initial phase when the canvass is blank can be both a bit scary and at the same time exciting. Not sure about you but I find myself going down more than a few blind rabbit holes. That’s ok. Creativity isn’t linear and the detours play a role in the final outcome.

Reading your comments also reminded me of how many places it’s possible to draw inspiration. Some may draw directly from a furniture masterwork, some from a compilation of furniture pieces, some from nature, and a few may draw from a universe in their own head where the sky is a different color. It’s invigorating to hear from all vantage points.

 This week we have a design presented by Jason Young. In this case a piece nearly completed. Thanks Jason for letting us take a peak at your work and offer comment. Text from here forward is from Jason.

The design is largely shaker inspired with some arts and crafts influence through the inclusion of the “corbels” in the center bay.

In the interest of disclosure, I am reproducing this piece off of a picture I found online somewhere but have modified it somewhat to my own taste and ability and have “engineered” the structure of the piece to make it into what in my opinion is “fine” furniture.

Sketchup drawing of design concept by Jason Young

 A couple items of note:

 1. The four drawer fronts will be cut from a single board of either bird’s eye or curly maple. I think this will contrast nicely with the remaining cherry.

 2. I haven’t decided as of yet if I’ll incorporate evenly spaced through dovetails on the drawer fronts. This may be too busy on a figured board. Perhaps you can offer some insight.

 3. All of the panels have been prefinished with dewaxed shellac and three coats of Danish oil. The rest of the piece will receive the same finish, though I may topcoat the top of the table with a gel varnish for added protection.


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The pitfall of ISH

I was out walking Saturday when I came across a mighty oak tree that reminded me of a horse. Not because it looked like a horse but because it’s knarled and deformed trunk had a presence that made the earth holy around it.

 His name was “Step and fetchit” but everyone reverently called him Step. The great stallions coat was ebony black, and shined purple and blue in the sunlight. In his prime he was the shadow your ancestors saw when the word HORSE galloped across their dreams. He was big and strong and though he might let a man ride him, one never forgot there was something untamed beneath the saddle. That would be a great sin. To miss the beauty of a beast like Step and try to tame him, make him safe, make an ”ish” out of him. Ish is my term for anything that is a poor imitation, something that’s lost the original spark. People serious about dog breeding always bemoan what happens to any breed cursed with popularity. Suddenly everyone is out there selling Labrador Retrievers and you begin to see Labradorish things you wouldn’t want to take home to meet your mother. Sadly we see this happen with furniture. Americans rediscovered the wonder of 18th century furniture in the early part of the 20th and copied it to death. I know there are plenty of woodworkers out there that have little use for period work, and my take is that they have had a belly full of early Americanish crap. Clones of clones, many generations removed with no fire, not even a spark of the original genius.

Ball and claw foot detail by Dan Reahard, photo by author

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a tirade against those who do reproductions. On the contrary, a good reproduction usually results when someone goes to the trouble to get close enough to Step, to feel his powerful lungs pushing wind from his nostrils. A good reproduction of a master work is on par with a great orchestral performance.

This tendency to ish by imitation isn’t confined to period work. There’s plenty of Arts and Craftish stuff out there, and we will probably be looking at Krenovish and Malloofish furniture for the next fifty years. There’s a very fine line between copying something and capturing the spirit of greatness that elevates a masterwork. One of the tenants of the historic traditional approach is that a designer should strive to build on what has gone on before, not break but extend the chain of creativity. The highest praise we can offer an artisan is if they can create something that respects the past yet says something new. Sort of one eye glancing backwards, yet looking for new ways to express beauty. That’s actually an ideal I strive for and at the same time feel humbled by. It’s why I keep going back to nature, and old furniture and architecture. I’m looking for that spark, that fire that makes something alive and never quite tame. Step and fetchit is long gone, but somewhere there’s a wild piece of wood waiting to be made into something exquisite and unsafe and wonderful.

George R. Walker


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