Bold Architectural elements border this doorway, Hamilton House, South Berwick Maine

Back in the pre-911 days I took a backpacking trip in Glacier Park with my brother and his wife. We spent four blissful days hiking from the west edge of the park up over Boulder Pass and came out at Waterton Lake. Along the way I think we touched the border of heaven in a campsite called hole in the wall. It was a hanging cirque perched on side of a mountain ringed by a necklace of waterfalls, and a stillness I still carry with me.

I’ve been working on another upcoming article for my “Designs Matters” column for Popular Woodworking Magazine about border elements. Often when a design looks clunky or weak it can be traced back to the way borders or framing elements are laid in. Proportionally borders fall under something called punctuation. I covered punctuation in detail in my first video “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design.” Unlike the ratios used to rough in a simple shape such as 1:2, 3:4, 2:3 etc, when we punctuate or create a border we use ratios like 1:5, 1:6, 1:7. Borders can have a profound visual impact on how a form or shape comes across to our eye. On one end of the spectrum we can totally forgo a border. Sometimes in a grand house, a doorway was blended into a wall space with no borders to provide a discrete way for someone to pass unnoticed from one room to another. At the other end of the spectrum an important doorway could be elevated with the addition of border elements and ornament. On furniture, for elements like drawer fronts, if we forego borders altogether we achieve a sleek look that won’t compete with the overall form. We can add a bead like I discussed last week to give a subtle outline to each opening. Or we can add a border with inlay, marquetry, or even a molded edge. Sizing these border elements is important and will have a profound effect on how it comes across to your eye. Many times a border is the same width all the way around the perimeter.

Border on this drawer front is proportioned one sixth the height.

This is often the case for drawer fronts or on panels set in doorframes. If the element has a horizontal emphasis like a drawer front, the border is proportioned from the height of the drawer opening. If the element is more vertical like a door panel, then the border is proportioned off the opening width. Andrea Palladio wrote about sizing the molding to frame in a door opening. He suggested dividing the width of the opening into six parts and using one sixth as the width for the border around the doorway. I take that as the upper end of how wide a border should be. If you start with one sixth of the opening you will get a strong architectural feel. That may hit it right for your eye. I always want to step back and look at it from across the room. It may be too bold; I personally don’t want a zebra waving at me. Feel free to tone it back from that one sixth proportion but it’s a good place to begin.

George R. Walker

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4 Responses to Borders

  1. Torch02 says:

    When you are framing parts of a piece, when do you reset your measurements? For example, if I’ve created that drawer front pictured above, should I take the 1:6 ratio of its border into account when determining the ratio to use to center the drawer on the case front?

    • walkerg says:

      Not sure if I understand your question. Are you asking if you reset the border if you have different sized drawers, like graduated drawers on a case?


      • Torch02 says:

        I guess I’m approaching it backwards. Let’s say you have a hall table with a front apron where you want to put a drawer. You decide to leave 1/6 of the apron height above & below the drawer. Does the fact that you’ve chosen a 1/6 ratio for centering the drawer on the apron affect what ratio you use for the border of the drawer front?

      • walkerg says:

        torch 02
        I think you are saying you are using the apron structure to frame and punctuate the drawer. In that case if you choose to place a border on the drawer you may want to consider making it smaller to avoid monotony. A lot depends on the type of border you choose, a simple string inlay may come across quite differently than a bolder wide contrasting marquetry veneer. The one sixth again is a starting point. As an earlier comment mentioned the other day, you can use masking tape to play with the look and look at it for a while.


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