Last Friday a woodworking pal of mine stopped by my shop for a little instruction on sharpening plane irons. We went through the basics, how to flatten the back and put a fresh honed edge on the bevel. He was delighted to feel the sharp edge leave a silky smooth surface in its wake. I can’t imagine woodworking without developing sharpening skills. It’s a doorway that allows you to find what a tool is capable of and opens up countless techniques and methods. Sharpening is second nature now, but it took some effort to master. Even though I’m a machinist with extensive background sharpening tools, it’s one thing to touch up a tool for cutting metal, quite another to sharpen a plane iron to cut figured maple without tear out. It took practice to make the connection between my hands and my brain. It took some trial and error until I was able to make a sharpening stone work its magic. The results are worth every bit of effort it took to get there.
I liken sharpening tools to understanding proportions. They are an entry level design skill that opens up tremendous creative possibilities. For my part the skill came at a price as it took some effort to make the connections between eye and brain. I always had strong opinions about what looked right to my eye, but for many years I was unable to actually understand what I saw. I might have a feeling something looked clunky and might even be able to narrow it down to a single element being the culprit. What I could not do was make the connection and see that a leg might be too heavy for its height, or that a molding is too small for the form it’s supposed to highlight. In other words, I had some knowledge of proportions, but was unable to think proportionally. There is a big difference between just seeing the elements in a piece and really being able to see how they connect (or fail to connect) with other elements, and with the whole.
I’ll be first to admit, this isn’t second nature to me yet. I haven’t “arrived” on this, I’m still learning. That’s a good thing. As long as I’m discovering things it stokes my passion. Can’t tell you how fun it is to learn some little proportional sequence found on a building exterior that plays out wonderfully on the design of a table or chair.
The turning point for me was taking a time tested path that artisans have studied for centuries. I took the advice of the old masters and studied the classic orders. This isn’t about learning how to paste classical ornaments on designs. It’s more about understanding how proportions work and how they can tie a design together and give your eye something to feast on. In reality a design can be based on the orders and not have a hint of classical ornament. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the orders themselves. There are five orders: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and the Composite. For furniture design we are primarily concerned with the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The term order is a relatively new concept adopted during the Italian Renaissance. In practice what we call orders are actual families or types that designers codified into the orders we know today. The orders represent thousands of years (and thousands of minds) of experimentation and refinement. Over coming weeks I’ll be sharing information about the orders as they apply to furniture design. For right now it’s helpful to be able to recognize each order or type. The Doric order is most easily recognized by a series of stylized beam ends in the entablature called Triglyphs. If you see triglyphs used as ornaments in a classically designed interior it’s a safe bet the room was organized around a Doric order. The Ionic order has a capital with bold volutes and the Corinthian capital has a vase shape covered with acanthus leaves.
These three orders also cover a range of proportions with the Doric leaning towards the stocky and the Corinthian leaning towards slender. Some writers characterize the Doric as masculine and the Ionic and Corinthian as feminine. In practical terms in furniture building I’m not sure if the reference to gender has much relevance. It is however valuable to have some models of proportions built around “sturdy verses slender” forms. The other important nugget I’d like to leave you with is that every part on a classic order is proportionally linked to every other part as well as to the whole. Understanding this as you begin studying the orders is key to helping you begin to think proportionally. The following link can take you to the Chipstone text archives to a copy of Battey Langley’s workmans guideboook. Langley wrote a series of design books that were in prevelent use by artisans in England and the colonies during the 18th century. Another resource for studying the orders can be found in the Classicist bookstore. I plan on producing some user freindly PDF’s of the classic orders and making them available in the coming months. Keep an eye out for them.
George R. Walker