For all Practical Purposes

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The design aspect of every craft has some theory, a bit of myth, and a sprinkling of mystery. But, there’s another category of knowledge,  things that work because – well.. they are just practical and intuitive. The best of all worlds is when theory, myth, mystery, and the practical converge. Best, because that practical thing we reach for has some deep thought behind it along with a bit of mystery beneath the surface.

Here’s an example from Sebastion Serlio’s early treatise on design and architecture circa 1611. It’s a challenge to read since it’s 17th century English translated from a Dutch text, translated from Italian, with  a Gothic font. Ouch!

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It reads:

There are many quadrangle proportions, but I will here set down but seven of the principlest of them, which that best serve for the use of a workman.

Modern paraphrase:

Here are a handful of rectangles, seven in fact, which are useful in design and building.

Then he goes on to show seven simple rectangles, six of which use whole number ratios to govern their width to height, ie 1:2, 2:3 etc. These are practical because you can easily step them off with dividers. Serlio also mentions a specific name for each rectangle. The rectangle below he names in Latin (As though we don’t need another confusing language thrown in)  a ” Sexquialtera ” Translated that simply means a ratio of 3: 2 but it’s also a medieval reference to a fifth in music. That’s the bit of myth and mystery thrown in. He also explains how this rectangle relates to a square,  showing how these all flow from something we can easily picture in our minds.

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Now when I mention myth and mystery in the traditional sense, I’m not talking about the tooth fairy, but more like some deeper reality embedded out of sight. Things that we haven’t the words to explain properly. Like  the way the ancients saw a connection between simple proportions and musical harmonies.

If a solid grounding in theory helps you (and it should), ride it and squeeze every possibility you can from it. If a taste of myth and mystery frees you to experiment and play, drink it deep. But sometimes it’s the simple and practical bits that are most helpful. Like a few simple rectangles that you can use to rough in a form for a desk, a cabinet, or a tool chest.

George R. Walker

Here are links to a couple of older posts where I discussed harmonic proportions:

Harmony

Simple Shapes

Jim Tolpin and I cover a wide range of furniture design theory, myth, mystery, and practical knowledge in our book   “By Hand & Eye”

 

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Shop Geometry that won’t make your eyes bleed

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Recently Chris Schwarz lamented that that much of the historic literature on craft is stuffed with geometry but doesn’t explain how to set up a smoothing plane. And to make matters worse the geometry lessons quickly spin out of control with drawings that look like some freakish nightmare.

Back in the day, books were expensive. A modest book in the 18th century could easily cost a weeks wages so a treatise on things like milking a cow or setting up a smoothing plane, or constructing window sash never entered anyone’s thought. In a village of a hundred souls, ninety-nine knew how to milk a cow and half of them could set up a plane in their sleep. Yet no one in the village, possibly no one in the county might know (let alone share), the knowledge that lies behind the smoothing plane, window sash, or that magnificent cathedral up on the hill. That my friends is geometry. But hear me out. It’s not as devilish as it sounds. This artisan geometry of the trades doesn’t involve memorizing a boatload of theorems and formulas that make you want to light up a cigarette and knock down a shot. Well you might want to do that for the pleasure of it, but not because the geometry drove you there.

I admit when I first explored what the old writers had to say, I complicated it by my own ignorance. I often passed over the simple stepping stones of knowledge and then skinned my shins. Here’s an interesting bit on this path of artisan geometry best illustrated by Plate one, figure one from Roubo’s monumental collection of engraved drawings.

Plate 1, figure 1 from Roubo

Plate 1, figure 1 from Roubo

 

Plate one, figure one starts with a point. Roubo isn’t alone in beginning at this humble starting place. Many similar examples could be cited, often there is a break in forty pages of medieval Spanish text with a single          .           followed by another twenty pages of narrative. Point being you can learn to visualize and build some really marvelous things if you begin at the right beginning. And that beginning is the humble point.

Jim Tolpin and I are at it again, writing a workbook that takes that historic knowledge and walks you through it step by step. Who knows? Maybe there’s some window sash, elegant chairs, or even a grand cathedral inside your head just waiting to be made if you knew what they knew.

 

George R. Walker

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Introducing Othie the shopdog

Jim Tolpin has an incredible woodshop and a shop dog named Othie.  Recently, Jim’s been working with Andrea Love to create a short animated clip of the work that the two of us have been exploring the past six years. Our book By Hand & Eye is the product of that journey into the world of traditional design. Take a look at Jim’s shop and his marvelous shop dog.

Enjoy.

 

George R. Walker

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Design Critique Feb 2015

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It’s been a while since I posted work on this blog for a critique. For those of you new to this, I offer to post pictures of readers projects and invite any and all to offer constructive feedback. By constructive, I mean you can offer up any thoughts you have as long as they are paired with thoughtful reasons. For example, you can say what you don’t like about it, IF you offer suggestions or at least hints at what you would do to improve it. Likewise your thoughts on what you like about a work are welcome, but please expand on why. Critiques can be invaluable to the person offering up their work, but also to those giving feedback as it helps you to think deeply about what does or doesn’t work. With that said I’ll let Tom Morris give a short introduction in his own words. Your thoughtful comments are appreciated. These projects are architectural interior details. I’m posting Tom’s rendering and then a photo of the work itself.

First, I am not a carpenter, I am an painter/artist.  I got this job to help in the design of a large house in the country.  Without going into detail, I have done brick work, interior room design, and even a small outside garden building. On the inside of the house I have designed a lot of finish work as well as built ins.  I think I will be designing some free standing furniture in the future.  So  thought it would be fun to get  response to some of the things I have done which are basically built ins. All the designs where done for specific spaces, i.e. the size and dimension of the spaces already existed.


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Square the circle and see clearly

Note the circles inside this bookcase which offers geometric clues to the proportions

Note the circles inside this bookcase which offers geometric clues to the proportions

Pre-industrial design books frequently employed squares, circles, and simple rectangles to convey the basic proportions in a design. Often these drawings show circles surrounded by squares and rectangles to help the reader quickly grasp the composition. A circle conveys that the space is equal in width and height (essentially a square) and combinations of overlapping circles easily convey a square expanding into a rectangle. The beauty of using these simple overlapping circles is that it’s easy to depict rectangles which have harmonic width to height ratios. Draw two circles where the diameters just touch the focal points and the surrounding rectangle has a ratio of 2 parts high to 3 parts wide ( 2:3 is a fifth in music).

This design uses overlapping circles to reveal a rectangle governing the formthat is 2: 3

This design uses a simple rectangle with overlapping circles to reveal a rectangle that is 2: 3

I often encourage students to draw these simple rectangles to help them visualize harmonic shapes, rectangles with ratios of 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 3:5, and 4:5.

Let’s say you want to draw a rectangle that is 4:5 or four parts high by five wide. Historically this was called a square and one quarter square. Begin by drawing a circle then scribe a horizontal line through the center and extend it in the direction you want to expand. Then use dividers to step off the line into four equal parts inside the circle. Go back to your  compass and draw  an overlapping circle so the circumference of your second circle overlaps all but one quarter of the first. Surround both with a rectangle and you have a nice harmonic shape to use for the opening on a fireplace or the outline of an end table.

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Awesome carved bowls

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Last year I had the pleasure of spending time with Dave Fisher in his workshop. It’s a feeble attempt to try to explain his work with this photo. You only get  this one static look that doesn’t capture the sparkle of sunlight bouncing off the curved forms or the messages only your hands can read.  Dave recently started a blog (Link) about his craft journey. Regardless of your interest in carved wooden bowls, he has a wealth of hard won knowledge about design, especially about incorporating curves in a design. He’s someone I pay close attention to. I must warn you though. After I spent a day in Dave’s shop I came away with more questions than I went in with.

Just a note, I’ll be teaching a design workshop at Richard Grell’s in Hudson Ohio on the 26th & 27th of January and there are still a few spots available. Also, I’ll be in Phoenix in Feb at the Southwest School of Woodworking. Still have a few open spots in that design workshop also. Hope to see you there.

 

George R. Walker

 

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Design workbook coming in 2015!

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Jim Tolpin and I are in high cotton. Even before By Hand & Eye was finished we sensed there was still a critical missing piece. That missing piece was a bridge that linked the head knowledge of design with the everyday practical problems in the woodshop.  Our thoughts kept turning to a down and dirty shop guide meant to hang on a nail over your bench. I’m happy to report we are at it hammer and tongs writing a design workbook slated for release next year through Lost Art Press . It’s a self study guide peppered with drawing exercises to hone your inner eye as well as a boatload of practical layout strategies like a quick and elegant way to space narrow slats on a chair back, or how to draw a sweet curve that bristles with just the right amount of energy.

“With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to make.”

Kasimir Malevich (Early 20th century Russian artist and theoretician) 

This workbook is a natural outgrowth of our own journey as woodworkers but also a product of the many workshops we’ve held over the last few years. Essentially it’s a guided tour back to first principles. We start from a single point          .↶   literally, and progress through lines, planes, solids, and curves. Along the way we explore proportions and patterns found throughout nature and the entire built world with plenty of exercises so you become familiar with the concepts. Armed with just a pair of dividers, a straightedge, and a ball of string, you’ll be able build your own version of the Parthenon, a pie cabinet, or some really snazzy patio furniture.


George R. Walker

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