Proportions add life to a design

Gaining fresh new insights working on the upcoming Lost Art Press book on design. As often happens when teaching or writing, the process forces you to flip over more stones in the creek bottom to see what might scurry out. I’ve been taken again by the power of proportions to bring a life like essence, or to put it another way, make things believable to our eye. I started this journey years ago looking for some magic bullet or formula that might shed light on this most elusive and shy aspect of the craft . Mostly I found more questions than answers. Like how did pre-industrial artisans work to a level of accuracy that boggles the imagination? This is more pointed when you consider the measuring tools frequently seen in historic tool kits.

A different way to work where dimensions took a back seat

Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

This 19th century wooden square has a hand marked scale in ¼” increments. It’s not uncommon to find similar shop or blacksmith made rules with crude Fred Flintstone like markings. My background is in precision metalworking (think millionths of an inch) and for the longest time my brain could not reconcile the work with the tools. And how did they build oceans of furniture largely without measured drawings? Those questions drove me deeper into the craft and its design language and tradition. It might as well be a whole other world where the sky’s a different color, the contrasts are that sharp. Those crappy rulers worked just fine because aside from the bad lighting, dimensions took a back seat to proportions and fit. The size of one part was based not on a specification from a print or cut list, but how it related proportionally to the parts around it and to the whole form. Would the fingers on your hand look believable to your eye if they all were the same length? The word creepy comes to mind. Yet those artisans worked intuitively with proportions much like a chef builds flavor in a kettle of stew with seasonings and spices. Beyond that, they spoke a design language that with some practice can be visualized with clear spatial images on the blackboard in our mind. This is exciting stuff.

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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4 Responses to Proportions add life to a design

  1. Caleb Dunn says:

    I love that picture of the ruled square! That would actually be a great little project.
    I’m looking forward to the book! I hope there will be an electronic version.

    Caleb D

  2. Marilyn says:

    Love the monk’s hood! Great post, thanks for you insights. I’m looking forward to the book.

    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for the reminder on the Monk’s Hood, couldn’t recall the name but I can still remember clearly the bees working through it feverishly.


  3. badger says:

    The ruled square reminds me heavily of the Rule found in the Mary Rose wreck from the 1500’s.

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