Too much figure?

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.

Circa 1805 window casing under natural daylight

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.

Contrasting light on moldings highlights the form from 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.

George Walker

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2 Responses to Too much figure?

  1. bpassaro says:


    I agree. Too much figure everywhere, and it’s easy to end up with chaos. A person doesn’t even know what to look at first. I think highly figured wood works best when used with restrain. Have a crazy, wild board for a top on a coffee table?Maybe keep the legs and aprons plain. Or in a case piece, I sometimes think of it as trying to “contain” a really wild piece of wood inside plainer pieces — a figured panel in a plain frame (as you mention) or a figured drawer front in a plainer case. Sort of like putting a piece of art in a frame. I really struggle with this sometimes, with finding the right balance. I’m curious to hear how others approach this.
    — Bob

    • jlsmith says:

      In painting/drawing there is a term for the concept of the play of light and shadows: chiaroscuro, which is Italian and means the treatment and use of light and dark, especially the gradations of light that produce the effect of modeling. Rembrandt is considered one of the masters of the technique.

      In architecture, where this concept is most fully realized, there is this rather famous quote from Le Corbusier: “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”

      Many seem to develop a fetish for figured woods which I have always assumed was fundamentally because of its rarity. Being an architect I have always been more interested in form, and figure can visually destroy form by overwhelming it. But as your example shows form can also visually destroy figure, an interesting dichotomy.

      I am also very wary of figure because it also can visually destroys surface. You commonly hear talk of the ‘depth of the figure’ or its three dimensional qualities. This depth comes at the expense of the surface. I can’t find the reference right now but just recently I was reading about a woodworker explaining why he never used highly figured wood. His claim was that he wanted people to see the form of his designs which he thought figured wood tended to visually destroy or at least be a distraction. I would tend to agree with him.

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