Smoking out proportions…

Chest on Chest, Goddard school, Cleveland Museum of Art

Years ago I wrote an article (issue 186) for Fine Woodworking Magazine about documenting a piece of furniture in a museum. It actually was meant to help open doors with woodworkers at local historical centers and gain access to furniture that might otherwise be off limits. I did receive feedback from a curator at the Yale University Art Museum

praising my methods. Something interesting happened behind the scenes that never made it in print. The local historical center we used in the article was very strict about picture taking, touching, even breathing around their collection. During the camera shoot the caretaker let his cat loose since visiting hours were over. It was an overweight tabby that looked sort of like a seal with legs. Kitty proceeded to climb up on a chair back and circle the room. She strutted across the back of a settee, overtop a piano, and across a desk. Without letting her delicate claws touch the floor she finally came to rest on an upholstered chair that had a tape across it to keep galoots like me from using it. Obviously rules don’t apply to cats.

Now I actually approach exploring a furniture piece a little differently than I did then. Now I’m more interested in uncovering proportions than documenting every dimension. Today I might take a few views with a digital camera but instead of gathering a series of dimensions with a tape and tranfering them to a drawing, the information I’m after is collected on a story stick. I use a thin strip of poplar and make tick marks with a sharp pencil along the edge that align with elements on the piece. It’s quick accurate and best of all, the poplar story board is great for useing  dividers to smoke out the proportional scheme underneath a design. It allows  non-invasive exploratory surgery with sharp divider points while doing no harm to the patient.

I do this also with pictures of furniture. Instead of damaging the glossy pictures by walking all over it with dividers, I transfer the major boundaries on a paper story board and then use dividers to unlock the design. This is a great exercise to train your eye and help you to think proportionally.

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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4 Responses to Smoking out proportions…

  1. Audie says:

    Mr. Walker,

    I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your blog. I have been following your writing for some time and had yet to post, but this holiday season I decided I should let people know how grateful aspiring craftsman, such as myself (a nascent one at that), are for all of the time and energy you spend in sharing your knowledge with you.

    Happy Holidays from Michigan and thank you!



  2. Josh Parker says:

    I have to say that your blog is like a breath of fresh air to the woodworking world. It is something that I at least have not seen or thought about before.

    It has also made me realize how woefully unequipped I am to deal with proportions or design. I was wondering if at some point you will post maybe a basic set of tools one needs to pull of some of the things mentioned here. I know I need a pair of dividers (any suggestions about who makes a good pair).

    I have relied on the story stick for quite a few years. What a great tool and inexpensive.


    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for your encouragement. That’s a great idea for a future post about a sketch and drawing kit. I’ll put that together. Concerning dividers, (also could be a future post) I like those made by Starrett which are still available. You can purchase them through Lie-Nielsen or any dealer who offers machinist layout tools. I always like to have two pair and prefer if they are different sizes. A 3″ and 6″ are nice. Inevitably you end up setting one to some module and leaving it there and the other you constantly adjust as you pick over a photo or drawing. You also may be able to find used dividers as they once were a part of many trades. Stick with something that has a screw adjustment when starting out.


  3. Jim Crammond says:


    I want to add my thank you to you for writing your blog. I am always amazed at the fresh information that you expose. As others have said, it is an area of woodworking that is often overlooked. Your explanations seem so obvious after they are pointed out.

    Thanks again and Merry Christmas,


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