Classic Orders to guide proportions

Corinthian capital carving by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

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.

The Doric classic order's most distinct feature is the stylized beam ends above the capital called Triglyphs. Drawing by author.

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.

Large volutes on the capital of an Ionic order, photo by author.

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.

Corinthian order is identified by the ornate acanthus leaves carved on the capital.

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

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
This entry was posted in proportions, The Classic Orders, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Classic Orders to guide proportions

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    Another great post, George. I figured I would have to audit classes at a college nearby to get this information, or spend a lot of time going through books in the library. You’re saving your readers buckets of time and gas, plus delivering it all in fun, easy to digest portions.

  2. Jim Tolpin says:

    George: Seeing these columns again reminded me of a comment that I believe you made a while back–probably in Chicago–that the whole idea of the column as the driving force behind these classic proportioning systems stemmed from the possibility that the columns were representational of trees. I love that idea—that trees may have been the driving force behind the classicist’s design of their buildings (and later the furniture) that they made from them. Seems the honorable, not to mention the sensible, thing to do after the harvesting.

    One thing we should remember too, is the people at the dawn of architecture would have seen old growth–and I mean really old growth–trees. In the millennium before Christ, the Mediterranean area did not look at all like it does now. There were forests close to the edges of civilization that had never, in the life of the planet, been cut by man. Its hard to imagine what those forests must have looked and felt like. To me, its no wonder that the classicist’s architecture would have been deeply influenced by the sight of an immense canopy (a virtual living roof) supported by incredibly massive tree trunks (posts). I’ll wager that their proportions were captured in the earliest reckoning of man-made columns. That’s my 2 cents worth anyway (and worth every penny).

    • walkerg says:


      I’ve had thoughts along those same lines. The account in the Bible of King Solomon assembling material for his building projects refers to the great forests in Lebanon. In the book of 1 Kings chapters 5-7 it outlines his alliance with King Hiram of Tyre to supply woodcutters and timber out of the great forest. Solomon himself supplied 10,000 laborers to assist. In chapter 7 it describes his own palace called the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon which was supported by four rows of cedar columns and was 50’ long by 75’ wide (2:3).
      The idea about early builders being inspired by the canopy of a forest also rings true. I do know that classical builders considered space inside a building not as a void, but as a solid. My thought is that’s why they were so fixated on getting the proportions right on a room interior They actually extended that thought in city planning, that a city space encompassed a solid. One can sense that profoundly under the canopy in old growth timber. I’ve wondered if that concept of space translates down to a micro level when designing furniture. It’s an area I’d like to learn more about.
      Another aspect of the orders that I will be writing about in the future is that there is an anthropomorphic connection between the proportions in the classic orders and idealized human figures. Thus a room interior which is organized around the classic orders, walls, fireplaces, windows, doors, furniture, in a real sense shadows the proportions in the human form. Some would say such a room actually has human figures built into all those elements. Perhaps that’s why these proportional systems strike such a chord within us.

Comments are closed.