Recently, the crew from Popular Woodworking magazine did a shoot at my workshop for an upcoming article on design. Chris Schwarz looked over some of my work and diagnosed me as having a curly maple problem. Actually to be more precise it’s a figured maple problem. Curly, quilted, blistered, Birdseye, or burled maple can make me take leave of my senses. One of my dreams is to locate a giant premium log with amazing fiddle back grain and have the whole thing quarter sawn to maximize the figure. Curly maple just begs you to put it on display and try to make it stand out as much as possible. Through trial and error I’ve found that there are some situations where the intense figure doesn’t work and may even detract. The two drawers in the picture above are a great example. They both are from the gallery of a secretary I built a number of years ago. The drawer front on the right is made from some maple burl. The surface is flat, and as you can see the figure pops nicely. The curved drawer on the left is one of a series of eight made from some outstanding 6/4 fiddle back maple. I was sorely dissapointed to find as I scraped the curved surface smooth that the stripes were barely visible. What happened? For one, carving the surface into some dramatic curves pretty much killed the figure. In terms of displaying some wicked grain I defeated my purpose. But look at that drawer front again. Even though the figure is not jumping out, the drawer front itself is still quite dramatic. The reason is the curves provide some bold contrast between light and shadow.
This summer I worked on a DVD about designing moldings and came to really appreciate that the visual power in the curved surfaces comes from the play of light and shadow. It’s something you can pick up on immediately from across a room, or in the case of a building something that can jump out from quite a distance.
I always assumed period artisans preferred clear timber for working up moldings because they are more manageable under a plane iron. I slowly came to appreciate that if a curved surface is working right, it doesn’t need any help from figured grain. In fact, figured grain may at times mute the dramatic effect of light and shadow that the curvature conveys. If you have a curved surface, keep in mind that the real action is with light and shadow. Something else to consider, if you have a dramatic figured panel for say a door, it may actually help set it off if the frame around it has plainer figure. The frame will act as a bit of a foil against the figured panel, providing a little contrast that will heighten the whole effect.