Traditional design Vs traditional furniture


Moldings study by author

One woodworker and writer who had an early impact on my approach to woodworking was James Krenov. Back in the 80’s I stumbled on one of his books at the library. His words about making planes and how it allows us to connect with the material struck a chord with me. Krenov, through his writing and teaching re-introduced thousands of woodworkers to this traditional way of working wood. The genius of his work speaks for itself. His own furniture designs were not traditional, but his use of traditional tools and time-honored techniques were an important part of the equation. For some time now I’ve been exploring traditional design. It’s not to be confused with period furniture which is one of the products of this design approach. Traditional design for me is actually a mindset. I approach design from a proportional viewpoint. I’m always intrigued that our forebears in the pre-industrial era saw things and communicated in proportional terms. There’s a part of me thinks the average cabinetmaker from the 18th century forgot more than I know about proportions. I think this because as I examine period work, the underlying proportions never fail to dazzle me. Actually when I do look at period furniture (circa 1680-1830); I’m amazed at how much the styles varied. There is a huge span from the bold turnings of William and Mary, to the slender curves of Queen Anne, to the sometimes wild carving of Chippendale, and finally the sleek geometry of the Federal era.

William & Mary dressing table

Federal style card table

 This broad range of design is underpinned by a design approach with a heavy reliance on proportions. That  range actually proves to me that this underlying proportional approach can guide the design of any style of furniture.  Another one of my woodworking heroes is Roy Underhill. Sir Roy said, “We had a saying at Williamsburg, stop trying to improve  the 18th century.” From the aspect of what the 18th century can teach us about proportions I totally agree. For my part I keep my dividers close by and continue to dig out design nuggets that can enrich our designs at the workbench. A few of you may want to hear about design from a modern perspective with more up to date jargon. I’ll freely admit I’m not well versed in the latest design theories or comfortable arguing the finer points of contemporary design. Krenov knew the lowly hand plane offered creative possibilities that could not be improved upon. I’ll continue to keep searching from our rich furniture design tradition and attempt to bring it forward in a practical way.

Note: These furniture images were taken at a recent regional meeting of SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers). For more information about SAPFM and the wonderful work they do, click the link on the side bar.

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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6 Responses to Traditional design Vs traditional furniture

  1. Christopher Schwarz says:


    It would be a very interesting exercise to pore over some of Jim Krenov’s pieces with dividers and a traditional mindset. Just to see….


    • jlsmith says:

      Architects have a long history of analyzing built and un-built designs. This is how the architectural orders where in fact developed and then distributed throughout the profession. However, except for the very wealthy it is extremely difficult to do this analysis first hand. (while the situation is slightly easier for furniture makers there is still the understandable limit of restricted access). Because of these limits architectural education developed a method of analysis through drawings as a substitute for direct in person measuring. A classic example of this type of graphic analysis of the Parthenon can be seen here :

      This hand drawn method is rather labor intensive due to the fact it first requires an accurate line drawing of the building. But with the advent of CAD software the labor can be dramatically reduced.

      Sketch Up has the built-in capabilities to import a photo and construct a graphic framework that allows a model to be accurately constructed. All you need is a photo and at least one known dimension in the photo. A video demonstrating this technique is here:

      Once someone has mastered this technique a universe of analysis will be open to them. It would be easy to import an image of a Krenov piece and using a readily available width or height of the piece create a computer model that one could spend however much time one wished with a set of digital dividers trying to understand the designs underlying framework.

  2. walkerg says:


    I’ve often wondered about that myself. I wouldn’t expect to see the strong direct connections like is often found in period work, but it would not surprise me to see some aspects of this traditional approach peeking through.


  3. jacob says:

    Interesting. The last thing I would call Krenov is a traditionalist. He seems to carefully avoid familiar trad design and detail in everything he did. I only discovered him recently (I don’t read the mags!) and his very personal ‘original’ approach is what struck (and surprised) me most of all.

    • walkerg says:


      I would agree totally that Krenov was not a traditionalist from a design standpoint. His use of hand tools, especially handplanes is very much a part of a traditional woodworking aproach.


  4. Adam King says:

    Study the past if you want to know how to design for the present.

    The guidelines for pleasing and successful proportion were laid out so long ago that it only stands to reason that the modern woodworker should turn to them as a tool of design. Like you said, it doesn’t mean we have to build period furniture, but using period design can elevate the work to a much more refined level.

    Great post and great work!

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