Category Archives: proportions

useing proportions in furniture design

Crossing the Line

Have you ever winced when someone admired your work and declared you an artist? I take it as a sincere compliment, but I think of my work as craft. If done well it extends our craft tradition, a reward in itself. Yet that “Art” compliment seen in a historical context offers insight that may just help you do your best work. Pre-industrial design literature is filled with references to art.

In the broadest sense the world was split into two large buckets – things that occurred by the forces of nature and things art-ificial, or things made by the hand of man. Thus the word art was tacked onto any activity where we transformed a thing into something else. Art was used to describe the work of the trades such as the art of joinery or brewing.

“Three Pairs” oil on canvas board by Barb Walker

Art was defined as “A system of knowledge which makes the things a man undertakes succeed.” Art was further divided into many branches, but for our purposes the fork that separated art and craft was the distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts. Liberal being defined as arts involving the mind, what we today call fine art, and included: painting, music, poetry, sculpture, and architecture. Oddly enough Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia circa 1728 described the liberal arts as the noble branch worthy of being cultivated without any regard to lucre. As opposed to mechanical arts (craft) which furnishes us with the necessities of life and largely involved hand and body such as: weaving, clockmaking, joinery, turning, and cabinetmaking.

Yet even though separate branches, both liberal and mechanical shared some common threads. They both recognized that the best work crossed a line that often defied words to explain. Whether that came after centuries of refinement handed down through generations and resulted in the pleasing lines of a boat hull, or the stunning image of a painting that captures the essence of life. There was always the sense that both craft and art has the potential to cross that mysterious line.

Both arts also understood that there was a “craft” element to be mastered. The painter studied brush techniques, color, values, and perspective, while the cabinetmaker learned joinery, sharpening, and the properties of wood. Yet cabinetmaker and painter also learned the “craft” element of design. In the cabinetmakers case, the craft of design involved simple geometry; mastered not just for layouts, but also to nurture the inner eye, and something even more odd to our modern way of thinking. They held tightly to a rite of passage that shows up over and over again, learning the secrets of the classic orders. These ancient architectural standards helped the mind to understand space and proportions, improve judgment and confidence, and provide the ability to cross that line that defies explanation.

This ancient design standard is a textbook on applied proportions, Drawing by author.

That design skill element is what I’m interested in mastering. I know it doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s the gateway to crossing over that line.

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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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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Apprentice Sketchbook December 2011

Carving detail on gate, Thuya Garden

Three months ago when I hit the send button to submit the December installment of my Design Matters column in Popular Woodworking Magazine, I did so with a bit of trepidation. The article, “Why Design”, is something of a departure. It focuses on the why we do this, versus the how to. I was half expecting an awkward phone call from Megan Fitzpatrick about the thin branch I’d crawled onto. Instead I was heartened to see in the October issue the sensitive and heartfelt piece by Toshio Odate, “A Teacup & 8 Dinner Plates”. It’s obvious the folks making editorial decisions view readers not as a woodworking consumer group, but rather fellow artisans passionate about the craft. My hat’s off to them.

            Even seeing it in print I still wrestle. My wife Barb said something so profound the other day I had to pull the truck over and write it down.

 “Whenever we use words to describe something we feel deeply about, we always diminish it”

I suppose that’s why we turn to painting or sculpture to express what words cannot.

So here I am, the inept biped trying to put into words that unexplainable thirst to design. How do you explain something that plunges you so supremely into the moment that time seems to stand still? How can you explain what it’s like to have your brain, hands, and eyes step you through a dance you could not have imagined? So forgive me if I fall short on the December article, I’m motivated by a bigger vision. As Jim Tolpin and I forge ahead on the design book project, some ideas are taking shape about design and how it relates to the craft going forward. It’s about creating something of a folk movement of woodworkers embracing design. Not about who will be the next Maloof or Krenov, but rather a much larger body of woodworkers embracing the craft, creating honest furniture because we love it.

This apprentice sketchbook segment is a simple method for scaling an object up or down just using a compass and straight edge. Start by drawing a line and marking off the actual height of the object you want to model from. In this case the height is the distance from F (fulcrum) to A. Leave the compass set to that original height and strike an arc from A upwards. Now use dividers to divide that overall height by the amount you want to scale it down. For this example I wanted to scale it in half so I simply adjusted the dividers until they bisected F A. Use that setting and using A as the fulcrum strike a second arc (dotted line). Use a straightedge to connect F B. From here you can pluck any vertical height from your original and strike an arc from F. The chord between the two lines will be scaled proportionally and will correspond to the height of that part on the smaller version.  

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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Right up to the edge

Just back  from a week in the Northwest with Jim Tolpin working on our upcoming book on furniture design. I was reminded while eating some amazing king salmon why I never order seafood back home. In the midwest we’ve got pork nailed, but nothing  this delicious was ever swam in the Ohio River. Jim and I managed to get the book outlined, but beyond that revelled in those magical moments when creative ideas flowed in a torrent. Our challenge is to bring that creative excitement right into your woodshop. We are convinced every artisan possesses untapped design skills and our debate was just  how we can help unlock that potential. The week capped off with a design workshop at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

Every woodworking class I’ve been involved in always reaches a point where it veers right up to the edge of a cliff. I remember teaching my first class on tall clocks and feeling the tension build as 15 students prepped their clock cases for glue up. A mad dash for every available clamp, and then that moment of apprehension when there’s no turning back.

This design class was no exception.  Everything  moved along fine until I decided to take a chance and throw a challenge at these budding artisan designers. Now mind you, just 24 hours before we were fumbling  just  drawing some simple circles and rectangles, when I get the bright idea to take a detour into a Doric classic order. Learning to draw the classic orders was design 101 for the pre-industrial artisan, but I’d never actually guided a dozen woodworkers through this tightly knitted design standard. If you are not familiar with the orders, they are a highly refined stylized form used in ancient architecture. From a design standpoint you might think of drawing them as an exercise in achieving perfect pitch.

Doric Classic order

Half way through, I began to have doubts. It forces quite a mind shift from a proportional veiw and it’s compounded by the fact that all the parts have names foreign to modern ears.

A hand goes up, “George, you lost me on that last step. How did you get the height of that thing above the doodad?”

I tried to ignore the puzzled looks, and sideways glances, “No problem, that thing’s called an architrave, and it sits on this doodad better known as a capital. Just divide the space above the capital by four.”

Somehow I hoped that students would see the simple weaving of proportions appearing quietly beneath their pencils. We finished the exercise and I dismissed the group for a short break in the fresh air. They scurried, out looking like they badly needed a smoke, while I kicked myself for pushing too far, too fast.

Back in session I asked everyone to pull out their sketchpads and work up a design for a writing desk. As their ideas took shape my excitement grew. Never doubt that a woodworker will surprise you in a good way. They got it! During the ensuing critique they spoke with a confidence absent just a day before. They explained their designs in proportional terms and questions were not about matters of taste but about, form and proportions. They took a leap into the unknown and it was marvelously obvious the underpinnings were holding. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

You can follow this link to a slide show of the class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

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The human connection

It’s full blown spring here in Northern Ohio. Barbie’s Hostas are coloring the brown garden beds with pure hues of green. The leaves are perfect and clean and create a miniature forest for migrating birds. Wood thrushes, Towhees, and white throated sparrows flip over bits of leaves in the soft ground searching for a meal. New songs break through the rainy morning air. We keep binoculars handy in case a Kentucky warbler or some other winged jewel pauses at our rest stop. You can’t help feeling a connection with nature when spring flips the switch and everything goes from bleached out February gray to May Technicolor.

I think about connections a lot. Essentially that’s what successful design is all about. There’s a three legged stool that makes up a design: function, sturdiness, and beauty. The first two fall into the realm of engineering. That last leg – beauty is about connections. It’s a slippery thing. The photos we take are never as good as the moment of being there and breathing it. Those ancient petro glyphs on the cave wall never capture the actual excitement of the hunt. But they do possess some magic. They hold the power to jog the mind and connect back to that moment when a hundred thousand buffalo blackened the prairie like a sea.

For much of our western design history the classic orders were used by designers to organize a design. Corinthian collunm with base shaft and capitalYou may notice that often designs are laid out differently on the vertical axis than on the horizontal. Horizontally we may use symmetry (mirror image) to lead the eye to a focal point or satisfy our internal need for order. A door on one side of a fireplace unconsciously begs for a door on the other. We also may employ asymmetry to lead the eye to a garden view. But vertically we often do something different. Here we often establish a beginning, middle, and ending. That beginning, middle, and ending is an echo going back deeply in the way we connect with nature and our place in it. The columns that are at the heart of each order with their base, shaft, and capital were held to be based on the proportions of the human form. The Doric reflects a powerful masculine form while the Ionic and Corinthian are more slender and shadow an idealized feminine image. That base,shaft, and capital or beginning, middle, and ending shadow the feet, body, and head of an idealized human form.

Fireplace employs the classic orders

When we step into a room, the first thing we comprehend is the space itself. The ancients actually thought of space as an entity that effected how we respond to our surroundings. Next we take in the way the room is organized with walls, windows, doors, fireplace, furniture, even pictures and art. In a traditional or classical setting these component parts would employ the proportions in the classic orders. In effect the walls themselves, windows, and furniture would echo the human form. In a strange way the room could be filled with idealized human figures. At its core, that’s the connection we have with the classic orders. It’s not that Greek Temple image we have in our pigeon-holed mind, but the humble figure of our kind surrounding and reaching out to us.

George R. Walker

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Use proportions to punctuate

We can use proportions to create a hierarchy 2:3 or to create a beginning 1:5

Which of the three scenarios should make your heart skip a beat while canoeing? 

A. The river takes a sharp bend up ahead and you cannot see beyond the where the water turns a corner. 

B. You spot rapids ahead with whitewater tumbling and roaring through a maze of boulders. 

C. The water is calm in front of you except the river is interrupted by a horizontal line that stretches from shore to shore. You stand up in the canoe but mysteriously still cannot see the river beyond that horizon line. 

If you answered C, you’d be frantically thrashing your canoe to the shoreline before tumbling over a waterfall. Maybe it goes back to our hard wiring associated with drowning, but we instinctively look for a shoreline bordering a river, a picture frame around a painting, or a margin around a page of text. Visually we balk at running over a cliff. Border elements can be an important part of a design. They provide a beginning and a clear ending. They also help us to recognize the different parts in a form and alow our eye to know where one part ends and another begins. Proportionally establishing a beginning, ending, or border is accomplished using punctuation. I’ve shared a good deal in previous posts about using proportions to create a hierarchy. Typically these proportions are simple whole number ratios such as 2:3, 1:2, 3:5 etc. They create a major and minor with one playing off of and complimenting the other. Punctuation is created when one part dominates another. We may divide a part into five or six equal parts and have the first or last unit act as punctuation. This is often expressed as 1:5 or 1:6. 

Pedestal is one fifth the entire height on this Doric classic order establishing a beginning, drawing by author.

On a classic order a pedestal is one fifth the overall height and thus punctuates the entire structure above it. Looking closer at the pedestal you can see a base molding at the bottom that punctuates the pedestal itself. This should help you realize that you may have layers of sub elements in a form which may benefit by having a clear beginning. When placing a border that runs around the perimeter of a rectangle like a drawer front or an inset panel, use the narrowest span to establish punctuation. In the case of a drawer, use the height of the opening, in the case of a tall panel, use the width. 

Use the narrowest span to establish a border on a long panel. In this case the border is one sixth the opening.

Using a fifth or a sixth to establish a border or a beginning will create a fairly bold architectural look. You may want to back away from that and tone it down on a furniture design. I have to admit though, I often find bases and feet on period case pieces one fifth the height of the case they support. Knowing this it’s a good idea to begin to take mental notes of how border elements punctuate on designs you admire. Even on a classic order you may discover a variety of proportional schemes to establish a border. Understanding how they work and the effect they create can help  guide your own designs.

George R. Walker

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Get the proportions right

Stair baluster Gunston Hall, HABS photo

Weekend before last Barbie and I went up to Lake Erie in hopes of seeing the waterfowl migration. Starting in late Feb through March, large flocks of ducks, geese, and swans congregate in the wetlands between Sandusky and Toledo Ohio. On a good day you can see a thousand tundra swans take to the sky. A writer’s yet to be born that can capture with words the sight of those wings flashing white against a rainy gray sky. It’s as though a new kind of light has just been born and your eyes are the first to behold it.  

We weren’t so lucky to see the flocks in big numbers but I did catch a glimpse of a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Cranes are uncommon for this region so it was a rare treat. I was reminded of a show I saw recently on PBS. It was one of those “how to paint” programs and the artist was using a Sandhill Crane as a subject. He started by saying

“In order for this to work you must get the proportions right”.

He then proceeded to demonstrate how to paint a crane without giving a single word of advice about proportions. I hear this all the time about furniture. Descriptions about how proportions are pleasing, or how proportions are important, then quickly moving on. I find this frustrating. It’s like learning to cook and being told “spices make food taste better” and then leaving the spice box locked up. There is scant practical information in woodworking literature about learning and applying proportions. That really get’s to the heart of what I write and teach about – how to think proportionally.

Thinking proportionally is not so much about finding answers. We may outwardly long for some ABC approach that can unlock our design strengths but it simply doesn’t work that way. Instead of answers we are looking for connections. How can we begin to see the connections we have with nature, great art, architecture, and masterworks of furniture. Proportions are the essence that permeates a great design and if we can somehow begin to grasp them we open a whole world. Yes, the form of a Sandhill Crane is governed by proportions that give it a unique identity and character.

It’s taken a while but I now think proportionally. When I look at a turning like a table leg or a stair baluster, I view it differently. I see how the different elements break up the form vertically and how they are proportioned major vs. minor. I look at the diameter and note of how that relates to the overall height. How does the largest diameter compare proportionally to the smallest diameter?

Best of all, is the knowledge that if the form possesses great proportions, that raw DNA can be applied to other designs regardless of style.

The column height on this Corinthian Classic order is 10 times the diameter of the shaft near the base, The diameter at the top is 1/6 less than at the base, drawing by author

That’s part of what I glean from the classic orders. As I explore them and become familiar with the proportions like musical notes, I find those same notes spilling out of my memory in new expressions. Additionally, learning those notes in the classic orders, helps me to uncover new notes and combinations in places I formerly walked right by. 

George R. Walker

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Most amazing woodworking tool

I have a good friend whose has spent a lifetime collecting arrowheads. He’s got scores of display cases with wonderfully colored flint tools, and many more boxes of broken cutting tools, stone hammers, axes, and various tools for grinding corn. Here’s a nugget of wisdom. Don’t be too quick to volunteer to help an arrowhead collector move. Anyone, whose collection is primarily made of stone, makes for a lot of heavy lifting. What never ceases to amaze me is how humans were able to take the most basic simple materials and create wonderful and useful objects. This brings me to my favorite woodworking tool, the lowly dividers. What could be simpler? A pair of pointed sticks joined at a fulcrum. No wires, chips, servo motors or sensors. Yet for centuries this simple tool was fundamental to science, art, and building (including crafting furniture).

I was pretty excited when the folks from Popular Woodworking Magazine contacted me about the upcoming Woodworking in America Conference this Oct 1st – 3rd in Cincinnati Ohio. Chris Schwarz wondered if I could put together a session on using dividers in the woodshop. Shazam! That sounds like fun. I’ve got more than a few tricks up my sleeve about how to use dividers to make quick and accurate (math free) layouts at your workbench. Most exciting of all is I plan on assembling some material to help you visualize how to “think proportionally”. After all, what makes dividers really powerful is they can be used to collect data, but not the kind of data we are used to. We are used to collecting numbers with a tape or digital calipers that help us comply with a plan or specifications. Dividers help us collect and manipulate proportions. How is this door frame in proportion to the raised panel? How is the thickest part of this leg proportioned to the thinnest and to the overall height? If sharpening is the touchstone for unlocking hand tool skills, using dividers i.e. thinking proportionally is the key to design.

George R. Walker

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