Good eye

Raised panel doorframe configuration

Raised panel door frame configuration

I’ve had the privilege to talk about design with many talented woodworkers. A common thread I see is a design sense, an eye that guides them to make confident decisions. Somehow they know when a design looks too heavy, clunky, or weak.  

I was putting together material for my first installment on my new column in Popular Woodworking Magazine (Design Matters) due to begin in Feb 2010. I discuss how to proportion the rails on a raised panel door. Seems simple enough. If you had to choose between the two frames pictured above, which looks right to your eye? For those new to frame and panel construction the term rail refers to the horizontal frame members. I held up a similar graphic while speaking at the WIA design conference in Chicago and asked several hundred in attendance. It wasn’t scientific but I could tell that all eyes pointed to the example on the right where the bottom rail is visually heavier than the top rail. I agree with that conclusion, but why do we see one more favorably than the other? That’s what this blog and my column is all about. How do we design furniture people connect with, and want to live with in their homes? Many of my posts will be about examples I see in nature, art, architecture, and furniture. Design models that can shed light on proportions and visual harmony. Stick with me on this. Over time your eye or design sense will change. You’ll grow more confident in making solid design decisions and perhaps more adventuresome with your own designs.

By the way, there are several reasons we gravitate to the heavier rail on the bottom. One is that just about every frame and panel door ever made (except modern stock cabinets where efficiency trumps easthetics) has the rail heavier on the bottom. This includes furniture casework, architectural entry doors, even window sashes. So we may just be programmed through pure repetition.  A second reason, and the one I favor is that we frequently see in nature something refered to as pyramidal. It means the visual weight lies heaviest closest to the ground and lightens as it rises up. You find this in tree trunks, mountains, etc.

Doric Classic Order

Doric Classic Order

Finally, this is the way a classic order is configured. The pedestal at the base is weighted heavier than the entablature on the top of the order. My own view is that the classic order and all those examples of door frames stem from the pyramidal in nature. If I lost you at the mention of the classic order, there will be plenty of information about that in future posts.

George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
This entry was posted in Design Basics, proportions, The Classic Orders. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Good eye

  1. George,

    I completely agree with your statement about the pyramidal nature of things.

    One more reason we might prefer bottom rails to be wide: foreshortening. On base cabinets in particular, foreshortening makes the bottom rail appear narrower. Making it wider adds to the visual weight at the bottom.

    Chris

  2. jacob says:

    I’d agree in principle but in practice things often turn out differently:
    It’s very common to find Georgian & Victorian front doors with the lock rail as the widest – 12″ or more. Google Dublin doors for some spectacular examples. Similar detail common in the rest of the UK

    Probably to hold the hardware, large rim-locks, letter boxes etc.

    • walkerg says:

      Jacob,
      Just about everything I’ll be discussing on design will have exceptions, in some cases many. Part of the idea of training the eye is looking at good examples and asking why was it done a certain way. What can we take from that and apply to other design problems? Thanks for pointing that out about the lock rails. I’m looking forward to a lot of lively input as we explore furniture design on this blog.
      George Walker

  3. Jeffrey Matt says:

    The classical orders was the first thing I thought of. The whole thing mimics the doric column. For the columns, the wider base makes a lot of sense. It adds some stability, and having a subtly smaller capital (top-cap of the column) amplifies the foreshortening of the column to make the whole thing look taller and more impressive.

    That’s my take anyway.

  4. Josh Parker says:

    Welcome to the blog world. Have really enjoyed the DVD and look forward to the next one.

    I agree that the the heavier bottom rail is appealing to the eye. Say I design my doors like this with a slightly larger bottom rail. Could I defeat my purpose in drawing the weight down by using an overly figured/active grain pattern in the top rail?

    Regards,

    • walkerg says:

      Josh,
      You bring up an interesting point. You can visually manipulate how heavy or weak the border elements apear by using a contrasting colored wood but that’s a subject for another post. I will say that if you fill the panel with a great peice of wood with dramatic figure, you are better off useing rails and styles with more subdued grain. The contrast between plain grain around the edge and bold in the center will actually enhance the panels, which is usually the objective. I’ve gotten carried away with figured wood and found that sometimes too much actually detracts from what you are trying to accomplish. I used to think that period woodworkers used plain straight grained stock for ease of working. Now I’m convinced they understood contrasting plain vs bold had a greater effect.

      George Walker

  5. Richard says:

    Congrats on your new column and blog! I’ve been enjoying your dvd and its concepts since I picked it up in Indy a few weeks ago and as a result I’ve been thinking a lot about proportions, ratios the concept or relating design to music. Great stuff to wrap your mind around! I’m looking forward to this and all of the future discussions.

  6. AAAndrew says:

    In my opinion, I believe the reason the pyramidal shape is “attractive” is that it appears solid and stable.

    But it also all depends upon the context. You could take the door on the left, and by placing it in the right context of design, it could add lift, and lightness to a design, but I have a feeling that lift would have to be countered by a larger pyramidal shape in the whole. I’m thinking flared legs, for example.

    So, it’s about looking at individual parts, within a larger context.

    I really look forward to your discussions of design and to learning so much.

  7. Jeff says:

    I have made furniture with doors and other elements both ways – with the lower stile the same size all the way around and with a thick lower stile. And I like the thick lower stile better.

    Looking forward to reading your blog.

  8. Jack Plane says:

    Congratulations on your appointment at Popular Woodworking and your new blog.

    I look forward to some good old fashioned sense of proportion on the web!

  9. Glad to see you are going to have a column and blog about this stuff. I’ve been toying with this type of thing (classical proportioning) for just a few years now myself but your DVD and articles have enabled me to refine the way I use these tools quite a bit, and for that I thank you. I actually did a blog post on my own site some time ago on how I designed a tombstone raised panel door for a cabinet I was building using an ionic column order. I’m curious now to find out how different my method was from the article you wrote/are writing. I eagerly look forward to reading the column and future blog posts here. Thanks for sharing your expertise! I think design is a very under appreciated/intimidating topic in our craft and I’m glad to see PW leading the way once again with this column.

  10. J.C. Collier says:

    Bravo! It’s about time the woodworking world got a dose of good sense… er… uh… I mean D•E•S•I•G•N. I can’t wait to see how this blog progresses. I’m sure there will be plenty of hue and cry. Again, it’s about time!

    J.C.

  11. Thom says:

    I am a novice wood worker (wood butcher?) but I have taken several boat building classes. In each case I have heard the term “builder’s eye”. We trust the design but at some point the connected dots don’t suit our eye, so we modify to see if it looks sweeter with a little more sweep or curve. If it does, then it’s right. We don’t want to override the utility of the design, just see if we can’t offer a rendition that appears more harmonic. It is a difficult thing for a beginner to trust his or her eye, and I’m not sure it get’s any easier as time goes on. I am looking forward to your blog because it will lead to new insights into why one favors one version over another.

    • walkerg says:

      Thom,
      You bring up some good points about training the eye. Much of what I write about has to do with just that. Often when I mention a rule or a design principle, it’s not to be taken in the sense like it’s something chiseled in stone. Actually the biggest benefit to learning design principles is how they help you to view great work. You end up seeing what you would otherwise miss and in a sense get a brief chance to see the work from the master’s viewpoint. This goes a long way towards boosting your design confidence and helping you make better design decisions. Glad to have someone with a little boatbuilding background, I look forward to your input.

      George

  12. Teresa Jones says:

    George,

    Congratulations on both the magazine column and the blog!

    It was a pleasure meeting you in Chicago and I have enjoyed the DVD immensely.

    I am looking forward to the design journey.

    TJ

    • walkerg says:

      TJ,

      Sorry that your comment was hung up. Somehow my blog software singled it out as spam and I didn’t get to it until tonight. Thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I look forward to this design journey, hopefully made more interesting with a lot of folks like yourself contributing to the discussion.

      George

  13. George,

    Just dropping a line to says THANKS for the link to http://www.GrandTradition.net.

    I look forward to reading your blog posts! I know it’s going to be good when proportional dividers are involved! 😉

    Please let me know if/how GrandTradition can be of service.

    Thanks again,

    Greg

  14. Jim Tolpin says:

    Thanks George for bringing and continuing this discussion of design by proportion to the net! One of the best things for me about learning to understand and use this ancient system is first, that it makes intuitive sense (as it all ultimately relates to our own human bodies and most other forms in nature) and second, it doesn’t involve math! It boggles my mind how a simple divider and straightedge can be used to produce the most complex (yet ultimately simple and innately pleasing) designs!

  15. Paul says:

    Being a stockmaker (rifle,shotgun,pistol & revolver). The pyramidal design works to improve balance. I find it a challenge to provide designs that please the eye and compliment the grain(figure) as well as the required function and use the grain for proper strength. My apologies, I lost my train of thought!

    • walkerg says:

      Paul,

      Great to hear a comment from a stockmaker. As a teenager back in the 70’s I had aspirations to some day get into custom firearms building. That never played out for me, but some of my earliest experiences with recognizing that some designs really stand out was in antique firearms. To this day I’m always amazed how a utilitarian object like a shotgun or a panel saw for that matter can become a work of art when everything comes together under the trained eye of a master. Hopefully you’ll find some nuggets in future posts you can use. Glad to hear from you.

      George

  16. Russell Bookout says:

    I wonder if this looks “right” to us because of our experience with gravity? Hold the frame near the center and it will try to move to the “correct” orientation.

    Of course this argument falls apart if extended too far, having very little to do with pleasing proportions….

  17. J.C. Collier says:

    I suffered joyfully through old-school drafting classes in middle school and shop classes and architectural rendering in high school. I did this concurrently with as many art classes as permitted at the time [1970’s]. It was in art class that I learned to appreciate architecture. Her name was Debi… but I digress.

    How about y’all?

  18. Jim Tolpin says:

    Just to throw a bit of a firecracker into the discussion: What about our friends and providers of raw material: the deciduous trees? Though they acquire stability through the pyramid form (the roots spread out from the base and cross-link with the soil, providing more mass than the matter above the ground), they don’t appear pyramidal to our eye–in fact, they appear the opposite. (Conifirs do look like thin pyramids). Yet the spherical canopies perched on a thin stalk still look “right” to us…in fact, they seem innately familiar and appealing to us. My thought here is that we do not find them attractive through the appearance of stability of form, but because they trigger an even deeper recognition that they offer us above-the-ground shelter. After all, if it weren’t for trees and the shelter they provided us through the night (we are almost totally helpless in the dark compared to almost all the nocturnal predators) we wouldn’t be here today (to take them down and make furniture out of them!!!). Let the sparks fly…..

    • walkerg says:

      Jim,
      I seem to remember you lobbing this M80 at me in Chicago at the WIA design conference. Ultimately when we unravel the origins of most of what we know about design it has some sort of anchor in nature. This concept of the pyramidal, that the structure should lighten and narrow as it rises is embedded deeply for whatever reason. I have a good friend who has spent a lifetime in the antique bussiness. We were discussing this and he told me about a handfull of cabinetmakers in the 19th century in the Northern Ohio valley region that made wonderful case pieces with the drawer graduations inverted. Not just Empire with a big drawer on top, but actually graduated small to big starting at the bottom. Even though they were wonderfully made, he refered to them as “the kiss of death” for an antique dealer. Let me add one more thing though. This spreading structure we do encounter in the canopy of the forest. We do see this employed when we design moldings, especially the way a cornice on the top of a crown molding pulls our eye up. More on that later.

      George

  19. I am totally excited that you will be a columnist for PW! I have watched your video numerous times and am still picking things up from it. This is valuable information, but not always explained so clearly.

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