Right up to the edge

Just back  from a week in the Northwest with Jim Tolpin working on our upcoming book on furniture design. I was reminded while eating some amazing king salmon why I never order seafood back home. In the midwest we’ve got pork nailed, but nothing  this delicious was ever swam in the Ohio River. Jim and I managed to get the book outlined, but beyond that revelled in those magical moments when creative ideas flowed in a torrent. Our challenge is to bring that creative excitement right into your woodshop. We are convinced every artisan possesses untapped design skills and our debate was just  how we can help unlock that potential. The week capped off with a design workshop at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

Every woodworking class I’ve been involved in always reaches a point where it veers right up to the edge of a cliff. I remember teaching my first class on tall clocks and feeling the tension build as 15 students prepped their clock cases for glue up. A mad dash for every available clamp, and then that moment of apprehension when there’s no turning back.

This design class was no exception.  Everything  moved along fine until I decided to take a chance and throw a challenge at these budding artisan designers. Now mind you, just 24 hours before we were fumbling  just  drawing some simple circles and rectangles, when I get the bright idea to take a detour into a Doric classic order. Learning to draw the classic orders was design 101 for the pre-industrial artisan, but I’d never actually guided a dozen woodworkers through this tightly knitted design standard. If you are not familiar with the orders, they are a highly refined stylized form used in ancient architecture. From a design standpoint you might think of drawing them as an exercise in achieving perfect pitch.

Doric Classic order

Half way through, I began to have doubts. It forces quite a mind shift from a proportional veiw and it’s compounded by the fact that all the parts have names foreign to modern ears.

A hand goes up, “George, you lost me on that last step. How did you get the height of that thing above the doodad?”

I tried to ignore the puzzled looks, and sideways glances, “No problem, that thing’s called an architrave, and it sits on this doodad better known as a capital. Just divide the space above the capital by four.”

Somehow I hoped that students would see the simple weaving of proportions appearing quietly beneath their pencils. We finished the exercise and I dismissed the group for a short break in the fresh air. They scurried, out looking like they badly needed a smoke, while I kicked myself for pushing too far, too fast.

Back in session I asked everyone to pull out their sketchpads and work up a design for a writing desk. As their ideas took shape my excitement grew. Never doubt that a woodworker will surprise you in a good way. They got it! During the ensuing critique they spoke with a confidence absent just a day before. They explained their designs in proportional terms and questions were not about matters of taste but about, form and proportions. They took a leap into the unknown and it was marvelously obvious the underpinnings were holding. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

You can follow this link to a slide show of the class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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2 Responses to Right up to the edge

  1. Kris says:


    While I wasn’t in your class I spent a good deal of time last weekend studying the orders as presented by Ware and Chippendale. I think I’ve got a much better handle on them then before but I’m having a little trouble seeing how they can be translated to furniture design. While it’s pretty much assured I’ll be purchasing your book whenever it comes out are there any other references you can suggest that have clear examples of how the orders can translate to furniture? What would be most helpful is something akin to your post on 3/8/2010 which talks about using the principles of the orders to size a table apron.


    • walkerg says:

      I liken the classic orders to understanding the color wheel for a painter or basic chords for a guitar player. Studying them gives a greater insight into proportions and how they are used to create a unity in a design. Mack Headley wrote an insightful article in Fine Woodworking about the use of the orders in furniture which can be found in in the FWW book which focussed on period furniture. Beyond that, there isn’t much which addresses the subject directly. I’ve studied enough pre-industrial work and lilterature to be convinced it was an integral part of that design mindset. For the most part the orders are not used prescriptively but rather inform the aproach used to organize a design. Sorry to not be more specific, but it’s not something you can fit in this breif format. I would suggest Steven Semes “Architecture of the Classic Interior” as a good foundation.


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