Starting this month I’ll be posting a little feature I call the Designer’s Alphabet. A collection of design related trivia with bits of architecture, tools, wood, designers, and obscure facts about furniture design you can wow your spouse with. I hope to toss a new letter out every other week and think I can get through the design alphabet three or four times, hope you enjoy. I borrowed the idea from Greg Shue from Shue Design Associates. I hope he approves.
Attic Base, Drawing by author.
is for Attic base. A moulding sequence used at the base of a column. It mimics the form a tree trunk takes as it spreads to support the mass above it. It’s made up of two convex torus mouldings, separated by a concave scotia moulding profile. Together they combine to give a play of light and shadow that gives the column shaft a distinct beginning. In this case, attic refers to the region of Attica or Athens. Like all classical forms it can appear in many variations. In the case of this architectural example, it adds a smaller torus in the center.
If you have a picture of an attic base profile used in a furniture project, or woodworking architectural project, send it to me and I’ll paste it in this entry.
George R. Walker
Here are some contributions from the designer community -
Devon shared this - The tapered column is veneered with curly walnut. It’s a historically-accurate taper, by the way… the profile is a gentle curve, not a straight line. Makes for an interesting veneer job.
There are also two proportionately smaller versions on either side of the fireplace. Here are the two sizes, with a panel between them:
Jack Ervin shared this photo from the interior of the Texas State Capital, this illustrates some of the variety incorporated into the form while still retaining the function of supporting the structure.
This molding arangement on the top of a fall front desk is inspired from architecture. The structure above the molding is the attic.
Last summer while filming Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings, our little crew from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks had a unique opportunity to explore the attic in a historic building. Curator Jay Robbins took us up to the fourth floor attic of the Pownalborough Courthouse for a look around. Like many historic museums the attic was chock full of cool stuff. Saddles, ox yokes, paintings, chairs, large things covered with sheets, and a late 18th century fireplace mantle that we actually used in the video to illustrate the classic orders. It didn’t seem at all creepy, more like an adventure.
Yesterday I braved the snowy roads in Northern Ohio to visit the historic community of Zoar. It’s the site of a German separatist community that spanned most of the 19th century. The village has a number of restored buildings and a large collection of furniture made on site. Again I had the unique opportunity to explore the attic in the Number 1 house, the nerve center of the once thriving settlement. Timber framers eat your heart out, the structure itself was amazing.
Triumphal arch Memorial, Newport News, Note section above cornice, this is the attic story.
Huge beams fitted together with German precision and attention to detail. Again it was chock full of furniture in various states of repair. Old primitive German plank chairs, workbenches, baskets for picking grapes, spinning wheels, and wooden implements for turning the fruits of the soil into garments and food. The furniture in Zoar spans a range. An early primitive period, followed by a flourish of prosperity and creativity in the mid 19th
Fall front desk Zoar Ohio
This fall front desk posed a mystery to me. It stands in contrast to the much of the primitive country furniture that is associated with the output of the Zoar cabinet shops. Lavish book matched walnut veneers cover the entire façade and this curious molding treatment crowning the top. Actually this is inspired by architecture. The space above the molding would be called an attic story if it was on a building. I went away with more questions than answers, but thankful I had the opportunity to explore another treasure filled attic.
George R. Walker
Cornice detail by James Lea, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
I didn’t list this in my earlier post on Murphy’s laws of woodworking but I’ve found this to be true. It’s nearly impossible to build just one tall case clock. You start out with the intention of building one for yourself and then Aunt Mildred has to have one and so on. Plan on building at least three. In my case I built a scaled down version of an Erastus Rude Shaker clock about twenty years ago and then six years ago another four based on a clock from a historic home on the underground railway in Northern Ohio. There are several more clocks I’d like to build, but I may have to conduct covert operations so they don’t turn into another five or six.
An imaginary classic order can be used to proportion elements on a wall.
Crown molding treatment on clocks provides a small lesson in proportioning a cornice to terminate a form. Tall case clocks are a bit unusual. They are a cabinet design to house a machine. Not just any machine but a timepiece that requires space for weights to drop to power the movement, and room for a long pendulum to swing without interference. Additionally we have a bulky mechanical movement with a large dial that can be seen from across a room in a boisterous tavern filled with revelers. Yet the crown molding is relatively small compared to the height. I mentioned earlier about how a crown finds it’s origin from a classis order and its size is a function of the overall height. If you pasted a crown from a tall bookcase or high chest it would look way out of proportion. I have not explored this in depth but just by looking at and building a few examples it is obvious designers understood that a tall very narrow vertical form would require a crown molding toned down even further than a cabinet of similar height. I have two theories as to how they might have proportioned it. One is they may started with a cornice proportion taken from a classic order and reduced it by 2/3 or ¾ of its original height. The other approach might be to superimpose a small classic order just against the top hood section itself and use the cornice full sized. This is not farfetched as often in buildings the classic orders can be applied in multiple layers to organize different elements in a design. An example would be an overall room would employ the classic orders to proportion baseboard, chair rail and crown molding, and a smaller classic order would be used to proportion a fireplace surround that is a sub element of the overall room.
While I am discussing crown moldingsI want to call your attention to a post on the Blog Pegs and Tails about creating cross grain moldings. This was a technique used in late 17th and early 18th century casework and can have a dramatic effect. Something you may want to try. George R. Walker
My first job after high school was as far away as I could get from where I grew up in Ohio. In June of 1975 I found myself on a cattle ranch in Western Montana. My older brother was my new boss. I thought I was going to be a cowboy but spent most of the first few weeks doing glamorous work like pulling a chain drag over an 800 acre hayfield breaking up chunks of dried manure. I remember the first day my brother telling me I should wear a hat. I know I must have given him one of those looks only an 18 year old can muster who has concrete for brains. I don’t need no stinking hat. Two days later my face and ears looked like an overcooked potato chip. He was right about the hat. Not being a hat guy, and not being from Montana, I bought a small pitiful straw hat only a rodeo clown could love. It was my brother’s turn to give me one of those looks. He was pretty good about it. Wasn’t mean or cruel, which he had every right to be. After all we are brothers. You just don’t let those opportunities to pick on a sibling slip through your fingers. Two weeks later on the next trip to town I bought this black hat. We went to a branding at the neighbors ranch and everyone got a charge out of seeing my new hat take a beating in the muck and dust of a hard day’s labor. I don’t wear it much back here in Ohio but it’s filled with memories of one great summer.
Crown Molding detail by Bill Evans, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
I’ve been putting together an upcoming article for my Design Matters column in Popular Woodworking Magazine. The article is about how moldings can emphasize a form and includes some tips about sizing a crown molding for a cabinet. I often think of a crown molding like a hat. Get it wrong and it’s one of those things that people notice immediately. A crown molding has it’s origins in a cornice found at the top of a classic order. In its original form it played a functional role. The overhang helped shield the building and occupants from the elements. On furniture the crown or cornice is purely esthetic. It terminates the form by providing a clear border at the top of the case or pediment. Since a crown is such a visible element even from a distance you can vary the visual strength of it to achieve a range of effects. On the bolder end of the spectrum you can use a crown to achieve a strong architectural feeling. Reducing the size of a crown is like lowering your voice. That is often appropriate in an interior setting and if you look at a sampling of period work you will often notice the crown molding is more subdued. I like to use the proportions in the orders as a starting point but often find myself backing the overall height of the moldings by a ¼, 1/3, or even ½. There are proportions associated with each order for sizing a crown molding all based on the overall height of the piece. A quick and dirty way to get a generic envelope to start with is to divide the overall height of the case into 6 parts, then divide the top unit into 3 parts. That top third is your crown. These divisions are giving you 1/18th of the overall height. That’s a place to begin. I usually work up some full sized profiles at that scale and once I’m happy with the molding combinations, I may reduce the scale down from there until it suits my eye.
George R. Walker
Bold Architectural elements border this doorway, Hamilton House, South Berwick Maine
Back in the pre-911 days I took a backpacking trip in Glacier Park with my brother and his wife. We spent four blissful days hiking from the west edge of the park up over Boulder Pass and came out at Waterton Lake. Along the way I think we touched the border of heaven in a campsite called hole in the wall. It was a hanging cirque perched on side of a mountain ringed by a necklace of waterfalls, and a stillness I still carry with me.
I’ve been working on another upcoming article for my “Designs Matters” column for Popular Woodworking Magazine about border elements. Often when a design looks clunky or weak it can be traced back to the way borders or framing elements are laid in. Proportionally borders fall under something called punctuation. I covered punctuation in detail in my first video “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design.” Unlike the ratios used to rough in a simple shape such as 1:2, 3:4, 2:3 etc, when we punctuate or create a border we use ratios like 1:5, 1:6, 1:7. Borders can have a profound visual impact on how a form or shape comes across to our eye. On one end of the spectrum we can totally forgo a border. Sometimes in a grand house, a doorway was blended into a wall space with no borders to provide a discrete way for someone to pass unnoticed from one room to another. At the other end of the spectrum an important doorway could be elevated with the addition of border elements and ornament. On furniture, for elements like drawer fronts, if we forego borders altogether we achieve a sleek look that won’t compete with the overall form. We can add a bead like I discussed last week to give a subtle outline to each opening. Or we can add a border with inlay, marquetry, or even a molded edge. Sizing these border elements is important and will have a profound effect on how it comes across to your eye. Many times a border is the same width all the way around the perimeter.
Border on this drawer front is proportioned one sixth the height.
This is often the case for drawer fronts or on panels set in doorframes. If the element has a horizontal emphasis like a drawer front, the border is proportioned from the height of the drawer opening. If the element is more vertical like a door panel, then the border is proportioned off the opening width. Andrea Palladio wrote about sizing the molding to frame in a door opening. He suggested dividing the width of the opening into six parts and using one sixth as the width for the border around the doorway. I take that as the upper end of how wide a border should be. If you start with one sixth of the opening you will get a strong architectural feel. That may hit it right for your eye. I always want to step back and look at it from across the room. It may be too bold; I personally don’t want a zebra waving at me. Feel free to tone it back from that one sixth proportion but it’s a good place to begin.
George R. Walker
Bead on drawer side narrower than top bead
Unless you have a strong stomach, you never want to get a group of bikers talking about bike wrecks or woodworkers talking about accidents with power tools. I have to admit, the older I get the more squeamish I am about blood and detached digits. Spent way too many years in a manufacturing environment and saw firsthand how easy it is to make a mistake that cannot be repaired. I even knew a guy once who worked in a stamping department and intentionally lopped a finger off so he could collect compensation to buy a new motorcycle. His nickname was “Spot”. I think that says it all.
I’ve been in the shop fitting the beading on some drawer fronts on a reproduction. They present a few challenges. The bead that runs across top and bottom spans the drawer front thickness plus 1/16” to allow the bead radius to cast a shadow. On the ends, the bead is aprox ½” wide. This means that the miter on the top and bottom pieces stops half way across. You might notice on the photo that the top bead has a butt end flush part way across and then mitered where it mates with the side bead. I cut that stopped miter with a block cut at 45 degrees to act as a guide and used a chisel to pare down carefully. I mitered the side pieces the same way till I got down to the narrower drawers.
Precise miters on tiny peices is a challenge
The smallest drawer is only 2” high and that means trying to cut a precise miter on a little piece of beading with nothing to grab. In the old days I would have attempted to make the cuts on a table saw. Bad idea for several reasons. Miter cuts on small work like this is asking for a trip to the emergency room. Secondly, this fine of work requires quite a bit of fine tuning to get the fit perfect. That’s not something a table saw or miter saw excels at. Hard to get a table saw to remove just a small shaving or two.
My solution. Use double stick tape to mount the small bead on a board that’s already cut to 45 degrees.
Shooting board is my solution on small parts
Use a shooting board to get a good clean miter. Best of all I can remove just a shaving or two and creep up on that tight fit I’m after.
Anyone have a better idea? I’m all ears.
George R. Walker