Apprentice Sketchbook Feb 2011

 This is something I’m really excited to share with you. Corresponding with each new issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, I’ll be supplementing my “Design Matters” column with a series of what I call the Apprentice Sketchbook. A throwback to period design books that encouraged apprentices to uncover the design knowledge hidden in architecture and the classic orders. The well worn path to unlock this treasure trove is found by drawing models from classical architecture. Confession time, when I first attempted this years ago, my own drawing skills were on par with something Thag scratched on a limestone cave wall with a charred stick. But this isn’t about becoming a skilled sketch artist or draftsman (though that may happen unexpectedly); it’s about learning to see. These drawing exercises help the mind understand how forms are made up of combinations of simple shapes, and how proportions can work together to create harmony. I’ll also throw in a little geometry that’s helpful, stuff you learned from eighth grade math but probably forgot long ago. In reality, much of my drawing at the workbench is freehand. Layouts for mouldings are often so small that drawing tools become cumbersome. But because I’ve drawn these shapes at a larger scale on paper, I can visualize what I’m after and able to guide my pencil with more confidence.

This first installment is a series of three complex molding profiles redrawn from Plate LIII, in James Gibbs 1732 classic “Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture…” Gibbs describes them as, “These five sorts (I’m reproducing three of the five) of mouldings are for smaller panels, to be placed over doors, or between larger panels, to bring them to a just proportion when they are too broad.”

To your eye these mouldings may seem a bit bold. That’s because these are architectural profiles meant to stand out on a large interior wall space. The original plates also illustrated some carving patterns appropriate for each profile. For example, an egg and dart pattern on the ovolos, and rod and berry carved into the bead at the bottom of each profile. For now, this is a good introduction using dividers to lay out the proportions in each profile. Once you have completed a drawing. Take a moment and see how many simple ratios are layered into the design. I like think of these as a small assemblage of musical notes.

A little geometry lesson that applies to drawing arcs for ovolos and coves on these profiles. You will often find when drawing mouldings that curves are an odd section of a circle. To generate an arc for less than a quarter circle, extend a compass out from each terminus of the arc (A & B) and sweep a pair of intersections 180 degrees apart. Connect those intersections with a line to locate your center point (C) for your arc.

In coming months we’ll progress through a series of drawing lessons that will help develop your eye and build a library of models that you can draw inspiration from. Click on the link below for a full sized drawing you can print out to use for a guide.

Moulding profile 1

Moulding profile 2

Moulding profile 3

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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17 Responses to Apprentice Sketchbook Feb 2011

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    George, capital idea! Did you mean 2011 by chance?

    Happy New Year,


  2. Mark says:

    This is a terrific idea George. I’m anxiously awaiting the February issue. The idea/topic might be an excellent idea for a future book? What a great way to learn and truly understand classic design. Much thanks in advance.

    • walkerg says:

      I’ve often thought that a series of design exercises updated for todays furniture builders would make a nice addition to a book about traditional design. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. George Hambleton says:

    I looked at your geometric solution and want to add a comment. The center of the arc, “C” will lie on the horizontal line through “A” only if the arc is perpendicular to that horizontal line at “A”. The tangent at “A” must be vertical. A general arc that is less than a quarter circle may not meet that restriction.
    Thanks for the contributions you’re making.
    George Hambleton

  4. Pingback: Popular Woodworking - Introducing 'The Apprentice Sketchbook'

  5. Bill says:

    A book sounds like a great idea. Maybe you could teach a class at the Marc Adam School of Woodworking in the near future???? I know I’d sign up for it.

    • walkerg says:

      I’m not on the schedule at MASW this year but have a few other things in the works. Will share more in the next few weeks. Thanks for asking.

  6. John says:

    This is very cool. A free design and drawing class all in one. Thanks George.

  7. Pingback: Introducing ‘The Apprentice Sketchbook’ | Table Saw

  8. Pietro says:

    Great information-thank you!

    -Not to detract from your post, but could you please offer some information about the leather case you have pictured?

    Thank you.

    • walkerg says:

      The leather case is my sketchbook that I often carry with me. It’s a basic folder with a couple of pockets for pencils. Instead of a legal pad I usually include a plain white artist pad or graph paper. I bought this from a leather artisan at a craft show a few years ago. Sorry I can’t supply his name as he was working out of the the back of a pickup. Anyway, you bring up something that a talented friend reminded me of recently. “Surround yourself with an atmosphere that will keep the creative juices flowing” That even works in the small things like paying a few extra bucks for a sketchbook that feels good to hold.

  9. Jerry says:


    First let me say thanks for doing this. I have a growing interest in designing furniture to build in my shop, but I have no experience with design. I’m an engineer, who tends to be more technical than interpretive. I need this exposure.

    Now, I’ve printed the 3 molding profiles and purchased a few pairs of dividers. I can easily enough step off various ratios, but it seems as though I’m just selecting random insignificant points to invent ratios without meaning. What am I missing here? Should I be doing something else?


    • walkerg says:

      You might be making this more complicated than it need be. What we are doing with these exersizes is to build a design language in your mind to help you visualize a form. This traditional approach uses simple proportions (2:3, 1:2, etc) and simple shapes (combinations of squares and circles) to give your inner eye something you can imagine. Much the same way as you can close your eyes and hear the happy birthday song, your mind can be trained to see how a design is organized. Can you close your eyes and envision two squares stacked together? Jim Tolpin has written and spoken recently about how at the onset of the industrial revolution we adopted numbers (and specifications)as our chief means of communicating design in the workshop. This fueled our ability to make machines mass produce, but killed our ability to visualize. In the machine age, workers were not expected to design anyway so losing this ability wasn’t a priority. Right now these drawings are just baby steps to begin to visualize simple proportions.

  10. Kurt says:

    You sold me on my need for a pair of dividers in your PW article but could you show us how to “step off repeat elements” like the egg-and-dart patterns–the elliptical shape of the egg really throw me as a bi-product of dividers.

    • walkerg says:

      Two things, I’ll put together an egg and dart pattern as a drawing exersize at some time in the future. This really helps to unpack them visually. As far as stepping them off with dividers, any type of repeat carving element has some primary reference points that that a carver or painter for that matter would use for layout. The layout of the design can be shrunk or stretched to a small degree so that it comes up to a corner nicely. Sometimes also an ornament is intentionally aligned with another element above or below it. For a long run of carved elemements, although the ideal repeat (from a proportional standpoint) may be 1.5 inches, the actual span may work better spaced a 1/32 under that. By stepping it off through trial and error you can quickly find the repeat that will get the desired result. Often patterns like an egg and dart stop short of a corner and use a flowing leaf pattern to ease the transition, still even when doing that, you don’t want the egg and dart to end with a partial egg on one end. Hope this wasn’t confusing.

  11. Mike Doughty says:

    Hi George,
    I have had a long interest in design and the classical orders, particularly Paladio and the Seven Orders of Architecture. Was browsing the internet for some other design information and came upon Michael S. Schneider’s web site regarding design and of particular interest was his analysis of the Herter Brothers cabinet built for Oliver Ames of Boston around 1886. It is an interesting analysis built on the Square Root of Two proportion. His web site is This is an interesting read and it definitely captured me.

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