Designer’s Alphabet D is for ……

is for dividers, aptly called the tool of the imagination. At it’s simplest it’s a pair of sticks joined at a fulcrum, but this simple tool is one of the most profound of human inventions. Dividers give us the ability to manipulate two imaginary points in space with microscopic precision. They lie at the foundation of everything we know about the natural world. Our curious ancestors used dividers to unlock the proportions in the human form and track the stars and planets as they marched across the night sky.

Proportional study by Albrecht Durer

This ability to plot imaginary points means they have capabilities far beyond mere observation (as if that wasn’t enough). They gave the mariner the ability to navigate the oceans, the builder to design great works of architecture, and to the everyday artisan the tool to create the humble objects that are the stuff of life. Perhaps the most profound function they offer and one that our digital age has all but forgotten, is the unique ability to visualize space. In our hands they are a bridge between the physical world and that blackboard in our minds where ideas take root. As we step off spaces and curves with a pair of dividers in our hands, a picture takes shape in our designers inner eye of the hidden geometry, arcs, and circles.

Dividers are used to strike these arcs but also to unpack the proportions behind each sequence

William Buckland, the designer of Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. Note the dividers in the foreground and the shagreen skin drawing instrument case on the table. Typical of pre-industrial designers, Buckland came from an artisan background trained as a joiner.

They came in a huge variety, from instrument grade works of art wrought in semi-precious metals to hand forged tools fashioned under a smith’s hammer. The classic reference book for the collector is “Drawing Instruments:1580-1980” by Maya Hambly. Out of print and expensive, any good library should be able to secure a copy through an inter-library loan.

Despite our advances in technology, Dividers still have a lot to offer both the artisan and designer. Someone really needs to write a book about unlocking the secrets of dividers. Oh wait… That’s what Jim Tolpin and I have been working on the last year (By Hand and Eye).

George R. Walker

Note – If you have a unique pair of dividers, snap a picture and send it to

I’ll tack it on this post to share with all.

Jim Galloway shared this from his collection of proportional dividers. The lower one is ex-USSR Navy, the other three are shop made. I have found these tools invaluable in photo analysis of pictures of favored antiques. For example the way to proportion the drawers and base of a four drawer chest given the height. This bit of analysis moved forward into both William and Mary, and Queen Anne style High Boys.

Also from Christopher Martyn at

Just in case they’re of interest, here a few photographs of a tiny pair of dividers that I was given more than 20 years ago. The unusual feature is a screw-on scabbard for the tips which, of course, makes it possible to carry them around in a pocket.

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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