Apprentice sketchbook – Drawing a volute

Spring's soon upon us!

I’m writing this with muddy snow still lingering outside but in eager anticipation of the coming thaw. Waterfowl are beginning to dot the horizon in the opening act of a grand play. Locked beneath a carpet of bleached out leaves, all sorts of wonders stir. One of my favorites is the fiddlehead fern appearing as if by magic out of the ooze. This obviously wasn’t lost on our ancestors who borrowed its form for architecture, furniture, even musical instruments. The gentle descending spiral can be found on countless furniture designs and even when rendered crudely, seems to elevate the humblest offering. When applied with care it’s one of those surprises that delights the eye as well as the touch.

 Every period design book offers a detailed and complicated method for drawing a proper volute to crown an Ionic classic order. Much of this complexity is due to the challenge of producing a large carving in stone proportioned perfectly to the overall form. Also volutes at such a large scale often included spiraling fillets flanking the main element. Shrink this down to furniture size and much of this detail is over the top. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to manipulate a compass to create a volute sized for a hand rest. That being said I think there is value in learning to draw a volute with a compass. First off, it’s fun creating this trick of the eye that’s basically a series of quarter arcs strung together. Secondly, I believe strongly that drawing this with a compass really helps embed it in our minds eye. There is something about seeing it come to life both with your eye and your touch  that imprints it solidly in your hard drive. Take a few minutes and draw a few volutes with a compass. Then immediately switch and draw a pagefull of freehand volutes. When I do this, not all my freehand

Really just a trick of the eye, a series of descending arcs laid end to end

volutes look that great, but one or two flow off my hand like magic. I have to turn my head around to see if it wasn’t someone else doing the drawing. In addition, drawing a volute with a compass gives me a sense of how a volute should feel visually and I’m able to better judge what’s produced by my hand. That’s really important not only when drawing but more so when executing in wood.

 I’ll try to simplify my instructions for generating a volute. Draw a vertical and horizontal centerline and small square near the intersection. The corners of the square act as a rotating center point to draw each segment. Place one end of the compass on corner A ( upper right on the square) and set the pencil to the outer boundary of the volute at A on the top of the vertical centerline (12:00 o’clock). Draw an arc counter clockwise to the horizontal centerline at B (9:00 o’clock). Move your compass point over to the left to corner B (upper left) and reset the pencil point to the new radius. Continue walking and resetting the compass for each quarter arc. Experiment with different sized arcs. Small adjustments in size of the square (pivot points) have a dramatic effect on how steeply the volute descends. Again you are embedding the form in your head and exploring it spatially. You are equipping your mind with a new paintbrush. Have fun.

Printable volute

 George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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9 Responses to Apprentice sketchbook – Drawing a volute

  1. pfollansbee says:

    George: thanks so much for this entry…it’s great stuff. When I teach students how to carve an S-scroll design, I like to have them learn the layout with a compass then switch to freehand, just as you have outlined here. Nice to see it’s not just me… now I’ll go draw some volutes.

  2. George,

    I truly enjoy following along with the Apprentice Sketchbook. I’m learning a lot and I eagerly await the next installment. In the meantime, I’ll go draw more volutes!



  3. Tim Castor says:

    Thank you for another great entry. Here is a link for everyone with more on this subject. This is an article from a custom stair builder in the east who draws and carves custom volutes.
    Drawing a volute:

  4. Bill B. says:

    HI George,

    Another GREAT blog post!
    Many Thanx
    Bill B.

    • walkerg says:

      Glad to hear you all are enjoying this. I keep waiting to see someone connect the dots with this historical layout work and some of the new tools out there to do inlay and stringing like the Steve Latta inlay cutter. Pretty exciting possibilities, anyone game?

      • Chuck Nickerson says:

        My prototype of changes to the Latta cutter is on the drawingboard. With any luck a machinist friend will be done by early April.
        I’ll keep you posted.


  5. walkerg says:

    Sounds exciting! I keep running across incredible forms generated with just a compass and think they would be great models to experiment with using an inlay cutter. Why limit the tool to simple circles, when the potential is there to expand into fluid and lively shapes? A volute is just one example of this. Can’t wait to see what you have cooking!

  6. patio design says:

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I am currently doing research to design the patio here in Montreal and it is not easy to find someone that makes beautiful custom wood decks. In an article in Elle Decor I found an article on the guy who does patio design custom red cedar. He call’d Stephan Beaulieu and photographs of its buildings are quite nice.

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