Design Critique

Hand forged calipers, maker unknown, Photo by author

Putting your work up for review takes a bit of courage. After all, you know every small mistake you made or where you had to do some color matching because you ran short on your stash of flame birch. Sometimes I see those small mistakes as a challenge. Can I lay in a patch that’s invisible? But what’s really nagging at you is that feeling that this could have been better. That cornice looked fine on paper but now feels weak and lacks life. Is there too big a jump between the walnut drawer fronts and the maple accents?

Certain people offer feedback whether you request it or not. Mike Dunbar is fond of talking about how your trash talking brother in law will crow about that tiny wedge you used to snug a small gap in a dovetail. You know and everyone in the room knows, the lout can’t open a bag of pork rinds without sloshing beer down his chest. Yet he’s suddenly an expert on the finer points of furniture construction. Even though it’s a worm addressing a horse, why can’t he just shut up?

 Then there are the people we do want feed back from, our peers. They see that knot left purposefully in a table top and raise an eye to you in a look of appreciation. Praise or criticism doesn’t roll off their tongue quickly because they truly want to help you become a better artisan. Often they hold back judgment until they can couple it with some helpful insight. When a peer offers encouragement, it holds weight and can confirm to you that you are hitting the right tone and inspire you to reach even higher.   

 This post kicks off something I hope can become a regular feature on this blog. An open design critique where you can submit your work, finished or in progress. As a group of furniture builders we get the honor of seeing your work fresh from the tree, and the rare privilege of offering constructive criticism.

 If you have something to submit, send me an e-mail with a few photos and comments about what you are trying to accomplish and any questions you might want to throw out there. This may take time to work out the logistics as well as create an atmosphere where we all benefit, please feel free to ofter suggestions to make this a valuable resource.

Our first submission is from Tom Giacchina. He is just starting a commissioned piece and has the germ of an idea for a concept. Comments from here forward are from his notes. I’d like to express my thanks to Tom for taking the first plunge.

The piece is a commission for some friends. Look at his work at . His house is contemporary modern. They have been remodeling and want me to build a hall table. The dimensions for the table are 69 x 28.5 x 12, long and skinny. I designed a bunch of tables in sketchup that weren’t exciting to them. So, I went to my shop and looked at two slabs of black acacia that I have. Neither one was long enough and both were close to 12 inches wide. I looked at them for a couple of days and tried to make decisions on the edges as well as how I was going to join the two. This is where I am now. I made a commitment to cut the two with a jagged edge. Cleaned up the edges and belt sanded the top to see the grain. Now I am struggling with :

1. Do I biscuit join the two and inlay creative dutchmans closing the joint tight?
2. Do I separate the two about an inch and add creative pieces to tie them together. Remember the client can make me  things from brass .
3. Do I continue to go down the road of “designing as you go”? Hard not to in a piece like this.
4. What are the legs and skirt made of and what wood.
5. How am I going to flatten pieces?

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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20 Responses to Design Critique

  1. Mike Siemsen says:

    That looks like an interesting timber.
    Question 1 and 2: this really depends on how the table is to be used. How much input do you want from the customer? They may have strong feelings one way or the other. I see one of the planks in the offset being set higher than the other to accentuate the zigzag line of the joint. I don’t think the joinery there is too critical as long as the top is not self supporting.
    Question 3: Figure out the top joint and design the rest of the piece all the way through. If you don’t I fear the end result will be weaker both visually and structurally.
    Question 4: Since you friend is in the bronze casting business maybe he would like to collaborate on some wall brackets, you could eliminate legs and aprons all together. That might give you a more contemporary look and keep the legs from detracting from the top, there is a lot going on there already and in a hall you can’t get back very far to see the legs anyway. There are a lot of variables here that must be weighed with the style and feel of the site.
    Question 4:
    Good luck!

  2. bpassaro says:

    Hi Tom,

    1 & 2: I think since you’ve gone with that zigzag, you should emphasize it. I think I wouldn’t try to close it up tight. Then it appears that you’re sort of trying to hide it, but not really. I think I’d leave a gap — yeah, maybe an inch or so, maybe a little more. I’m not sure I like the idea of adding pieces into the top to “tie them together.” That might just be a distraction. Perhaps they could simply be tied together by the aprons underneath.

    3. “Design as you go” — exciting … but risky. Maybe that depends on how game you think your client is and how confident you are working that way. I’ve read that Krenov worked that way a lot. But Krenov was Krenov. If it were me, I think I would make a model. Find some little scraps of wood and cut them to roughly the shape of these planks — at say 1/4 scale (so 17-1/4 inches long). Then sketch out a few ideas for the legs and aprons and then build a couple of those sketches as models — cut the pieces and just stick them together with a hot-glue gun. It’s not that time-consuming and I’ve found it to be well worth the time. It gives you a great idea of what something looks like in three dimensions. It also gives you something to show your client. And it tends to give you little more peace of mind as you move ahead.

    4. If you don’t have any more of the acacia, I think it would be best go with something that provides a strong contrast to the acacia, so as to not look like you tried to match the woods, sort of, but not very well. You could go light, with maple, say. But my inclination might be to try something very dark, maybe even outright black — ebonized ash or oak, say. A simple black base might be subtle — which might be what you want. That way the emphasis is on the beautiful planks that form the top. I would be wary of doing anything too fancy with the base, so as not to distract from the top.

    Just my 2 cents! Good luck. Looks fun!
    — Bob

  3. Chuck Nickerson says:

    Question #2. I’m really struck by the idea of a bolt of brass lightening between the two pieces. That suggestion of nature’s power would complement the natural edge – I think.

  4. Tony Strupulis says:

    I really like the way the two boards are arranged on the sawhorses, the space between the boards is just about right. Use that as a starting point for joining the boards.

    I agree with Bob’s comment about putting an ebonized strip in. I think dark would look better than light.

    I’m spitballin’ here, but if you use metal to join the two, I still like the space between the boards (1.5″). Try using a series of brass rods (3/8 – 1/2″) to connect the boards. If you put them in with a random pattern, artistically it could reflect internal stress in the piece – like repelling magnets. I think that could be really interesting. By a random pattern, I mean no two rods parallel and not perpendicular to the joint. Have fun with that glue up!

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks for this input, you really are getting my juices flowing. I think Mike has the nut of this issue. How much do you let the clients dictate the piece? I mentioned that I went through several drawings and a marquette before they saw the idea of joining the slabs. Well I showed them the above photos and they opted for no space between the slabs. I was getting excited about putting in metal into the piece, too. So I reworked the jagged edge to a smooth flowing curve that interlocks nicely. They haven’t seen it yet. I have opted to take it further before revealing any more.
    I now have an idea of the base and apron. I think I will do another marquette to see if it makes sense. Think walnut and two legs only. I will work with George as to how he wants to proceed with this topic.

  6. Olly Parry-Jones says:

    Personally, I like the thought of keeping a gap between the two, to emphasize the shape. Though, this may affect the practicalities in some way and could create a space for dust and dirt to accumulate.

    If you glue an inlay strip in there, would that not prevent the boards from being able to expand and contract the grain, at one end? You could think about sticking with the inlay but maintaining a small gap ( ¼in) either side? Just a thought.

    Do you have any thoughts or sketches on how the frame will look yet?


  7. walkerg says:

    I like Mike and Bob’s take that you don’t want the base to detract from the top. If brackets are out of the equation, I’d opt for dark legs and apron structure that takes a back seat. If you go with curves between the two peices and the curves are mirror image, you might still think about a strip of brass (or any number of posibilities)between them. Shouldn’t require a casting to get some brass or other material to snake around them.

  8. bpassaro says:

    btw, George, this has been a fun and interesting little discussion here. I like this idea. Hope you do more of them in the future.

  9. Dan says:

    I’d be hesitate to continue a ‘design-as-you-go’ approach. In my experience, there’s always a little tweaking that has to occur during construction, but to make major design decisions is dangerous. As you can only see one piece at a time, it’s very hard to appreciate the overall construction. I have regretted doing this in the pass.

    That being said. It looks like an interesting project.

  10. jlsmith says:


    While the posts have been uniformly well considered and thoughtful they (for the most part) do not constitute a critique but would rather be more appropriately described as ‘brain storming’ or a sort of mentoring (‘here is what I would do if I were doing it’), which is in fact what was asked for in the series of questions in Tom’s post.

    The term critique derives from the Greek kritikḗ, which is the art of criticism or skilled in judging. Criticism is the judgment (using analysis and evaluation) of the merits and faults of the actions or work of another individual.

    While there is real value in this type of discussion, it shouldn’t be confused with a critique.

    • walkerg says:

      One of my weaknesses as a writer is to focus more on content than titles. You may be right in the strictest sense. The actual proccess may vary also as submissions dictate a different aproach depending on whether a builder is asking for input at the begining of a project like this one, or seeking opinion on a finished piece. What I do know is that this 2.0 medium has some unique opportunities seldom found elsewhere. The chance to bring work before a large and diverse group of builders is exciting. It’s a rare treat to bring together artisans with years of experiance handling and constructing a wide variety of furniture. I’m not sure you can get that even in a formal classroom setting. Do you have a suggestion for an appropriate name? Also, do you have any work you might consider for review?


  11. leavecincy says:

    I see no one mentioned the calipers. the design is truly clever. they’ll do point to point, and internal and external dimensions as well.

    Since, envy is one of the seven deadly sins, I’m going to fire up AutoCad and see if I can get some CNC time this weekend.

    • walkerg says:

      Are you thinking of making a set of these calipers on your cnc?

      • leavecincy says:

        They look rather straight forward to make though cnc. I’ll probably antique them and make them a display item.

    • Chuck Nickerson says:

      I didn’t mention the calipers, but I did save the photo. I haven’t decided if mine will be all brass, rosewood/brass, or ebony/brass. I guess the first set will be MDF/pot metal.

      leavecincy – care to make a few extra and sell them?

      • walkerg says:

        What started out a simple design critique is now mushrooming into a den of capitalism. If you decide to make from brass, I know a little technique to add patina involving black gunpowder that will do the trick nicely.

  12. Kris says:

    I’d agree with the others about leaving a gap between the two though it sounds like maybe the clients don’t agree. I think a gap would add some interesting tension.

    But, but, but, where’s the talk of proportions or approaches to proportioning? Given the live slab nature of the top, the fact that it’s a hall table, etc. some size constraints are already defined or implied. So what kind of approach would be helpful to sizing the base or parts of the base?

  13. Justin Tyson says:

    I have joined two boards end-to-end using dovetail joints, and they turned out beautifully. Both ends would get tails, of course – no pins. It is a little more work than what you have suggested, but really not that difficult. It would provide a more seamless look than leaving a gap or using biscuit joints.

  14. Tico Vogt says:

    It looks to me that you have a design statement in that lightning bolt shape, a nightly phenomenon set against a black sky, so a small, dark space separating the two pieces would be good with no joinery between them. Can you work with that motif as you develop the other structural elements? Are there other cosmological shapes that can come into play?


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