If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it.

A few months ago on this blog we were discussing links between music and design. One comment struck a chord with me.  

“If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it.”

 That rings true to me and resonates with my approach to training the eye. Aplying that to design it might read.

 “If you can’t see it, you can’t build it”

A big part of training your eye is to build up the library of images (music) in your mind. I look at a lot of furniture, most often in books and whenever the chance avails, revel in person. Architecture is also a constant source of inspiration, a deep pool that continues to offer up surprises and delights in old buildings that often go unnoticed. Nature offers an unending banquet. In my case for most of my adult life it’s been fueled by a keen interest in botany and ornithology. This time of year that’s a bleak source but in a few months I’ll take to the wetlands with my wife Barb to witness the majesty of the spring migration. We’ll head up to the southern shore of Lake Erie where large numbers of colorful warblers pause to rest before jumping across the open water.

It seems the more I study design the more I notice things. These snippets seldom go immediately into a furniture design. Most of the time they get filed away in the library I’m amassing internally. When it comes time to lay in a curve on the front of a chair seat or transition a leg into a case, those tucked away images guide and inspire. The best part is this doesn’t require anything on your part but to slow down and really look.

I do a lot of my work with traditional hand tools; many of them refurbished vintage planes, chisels, etc. Here’s a plane that’s a bit of a wall hanger. It’s one half of a matched tongue and groove set for 7/8 stock. It’s on my list some day to take up the challenge of making the missing partner and putting it back to work again.

 But just look at it.

 This is not all function though it does fit the hand like warm water. Note the graceful elongated way the tote flows back and how it transitions into the plane body as though it sprouted from the earth. Even the metal parts mix function with beauty.

One of my favorite quotes-

 “…what humans have done excellently once they can do again (Demetri Porphyrios, 1982). “ .

Even something as simple as a plane can inspire us to do our best work. What inspires you?

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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10 Responses to If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it.

  1. Jeff Kirby says:

    Once again, a fine post. I don’t have anything particular to say about this one over any of your previous fine posts, but I just noticed a small amount of guilt brought on by enjoying your posts so much but not actually saying anything about it. Like music, it’s a subject so often fraught with confusion, and again like music, needs only practice for improvement. So thanks – I check everyday and your new posts are often a bright spot in my morning.

  2. Corey says:

    This might seem strange, but I do the same sort of thing at the hardware store. Really. Sometimes it’s good to just walk around the tool section (or whatever) and see what’s there. I store new and interesting tools in the back of my head. I know a lot about tools, different kinds, uses, etc. from just being open to the idea that there could be something useful and new on the shelf. And paying attention to it. Now, if you could teach me to pay more attention to design details, that would be something indeed.

    • walkerg says:


      I suffer from the same bug like most woodworkers. Tools have a lot in common with furniture in that they both have this functional purpose that must come first, but they also have the potential to become a thing of beauty. At least if the bean counters can be kept at bay. If you get the chance to attend one of Popular Woodworkings WIA conferences or Lie-Nielsens tool shows you might really enjoy it. I find toolmakers to be some of the most creative and imaginative thinkers from a design standpoint.


  3. tico vogt says:

    When I took a twelve year hiatus from music making and focused intently on become a woodworker I was familiar with the hear/play phenomenon. During those years my truck was deliberately without even a radio so that the driving time could be spent mentally going over every aspect of whatever woodworking project was underway at the time. From start to finish, design issues, cut list, ideal wood selection, tools, all mulled over and visualized in advanced. Eventually the projects felt as though they built themselves.
    Music is back in my life now. In jazz improvisation you have to “hear ahead” or else you’re a beat behind the band. In the woodshop it might be comparable to having to send things to the woodstove instead of to the customer.

  4. Stephen Kirk says:

    George, an excellent post. I am also an avid furniture viewer. In addition, I like to look to architecture, both man made and natural as a source of inspiration. I have also found myself recalling the feelings that I’ve had when seeing a peice, walking through a particular area of forest or what have you, and then trying to make designs capture that feeling. I’m pretty new at designing and very excited to see where it leads.

  5. Caleb Dunn says:


    I was one of the 500 people you met at the WIA conference in Valley Forge, and so you probably don’t remember me. But, I have enjoyed your first DVD, and now your blog. I too am a “birder,” and beginning woodworker in a completely hand-tool shop, although here in Mexico where I live we have a different set of birds and trees.
    Thanks for your blog.

  6. Jim Blue says:

    I am always filled with wonder and gratitude when reading your posts. You convey ideas and concepts very well. I your most recent entry the phrase “fit the hand like warm water” jumped off the screen and into my eyes. 6 words jam packed with meaning and emotion. Please continue educating us on opening our eyes and minds – we surely need it.
    Than you,

    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for your encouragement as well as the other comments from woodworkers. So good to hear this rings true and hopefully fires your passion and creativity.


  7. John says:

    Nice post. The many things put around us are great for design ideas. Satellite solar arrays were designed to unfurl like tree leaf buds (Elm I think). This provided the largest possible surface area for the smallest packaging. Sometimes the best designs are the ones that have been around us all of the time. Training our eyes to see them is the hard part.

  8. Jack Plane says:

    Pre-twentieth century craftsmen were obviously highly atuned to their work and environment. It shows in everything they did, from precise yet flowing writing to their actual work.
    The third picture – the close-up of the handle – makes me all gooey; there’s a plant, an animal and a bird all in there somewhere.

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