Category Archives: Apprentice Sketchbook

Apprentice Sketchbook December 2011

Carving detail on gate, Thuya Garden

Three months ago when I hit the send button to submit the December installment of my Design Matters column in Popular Woodworking Magazine, I did so with a bit of trepidation. The article, “Why Design”, is something of a departure. It focuses on the why we do this, versus the how to. I was half expecting an awkward phone call from Megan Fitzpatrick about the thin branch I’d crawled onto. Instead I was heartened to see in the October issue the sensitive and heartfelt piece by Toshio Odate, “A Teacup & 8 Dinner Plates”. It’s obvious the folks making editorial decisions view readers not as a woodworking consumer group, but rather fellow artisans passionate about the craft. My hat’s off to them.

            Even seeing it in print I still wrestle. My wife Barb said something so profound the other day I had to pull the truck over and write it down.

 “Whenever we use words to describe something we feel deeply about, we always diminish it”

I suppose that’s why we turn to painting or sculpture to express what words cannot.

So here I am, the inept biped trying to put into words that unexplainable thirst to design. How do you explain something that plunges you so supremely into the moment that time seems to stand still? How can you explain what it’s like to have your brain, hands, and eyes step you through a dance you could not have imagined? So forgive me if I fall short on the December article, I’m motivated by a bigger vision. As Jim Tolpin and I forge ahead on the design book project, some ideas are taking shape about design and how it relates to the craft going forward. It’s about creating something of a folk movement of woodworkers embracing design. Not about who will be the next Maloof or Krenov, but rather a much larger body of woodworkers embracing the craft, creating honest furniture because we love it.

This apprentice sketchbook segment is a simple method for scaling an object up or down just using a compass and straight edge. Start by drawing a line and marking off the actual height of the object you want to model from. In this case the height is the distance from F (fulcrum) to A. Leave the compass set to that original height and strike an arc from A upwards. Now use dividers to divide that overall height by the amount you want to scale it down. For this example I wanted to scale it in half so I simply adjusted the dividers until they bisected F A. Use that setting and using A as the fulcrum strike a second arc (dotted line). Use a straightedge to connect F B. From here you can pluck any vertical height from your original and strike an arc from F. The chord between the two lines will be scaled proportionally and will correspond to the height of that part on the smaller version.  

George R. Walker


Filed under Apprentice Sketchbook, proportions

Apprentice sketchbook June 2011

I love to read but never would have dreamed that I’d spend so much time devouring obscure historical design texts from the 17th through early 19th centuries. From a writing standpoint the language is obtuse, wordy, confusing, haughty, and just plain difficult to stomach. Even after years of reading and re-reading Batty Langley’s The City and Country Workman’s Treasury of Designs… it still feels like reading a bad translation of a bad translation. Yet, nuggets of gold keep dropping off the pages and I find myself pouring over an engraving late into the night.

Those nuggets are like pieces of a mosaic, a way of approaching design that’s both liberating and quite powerful. One concept that’s slowly emerging is a different way to view objects in space and with it the ability to visualize a design in the minds eye. To explain I have to back up a bit. Period artisans and designers used geometry to visualize and express ideas. Now before I lose you, I’m not talking about the geometry you were bombarded with in grade school. A very different geometry, not a bunch of theorems to memorize but a simple pure form of geometry made up of shapes and lines that helped the mind comprehend reality. Case in point, recently I was reading an English math primer Cocker’s Arithmetick, sort of the McGuffey reader of math for the 18th century. The author kept turning to geometry to explain math concepts. Trying to explain the concept of zero, he stated it’s like a point in geometry, has no size, cannot add or subtract from another value etc.

Why this is important?  From a designer’s standpoint it equips the mind with a vocabularyof simple shapes. We might not be able to easily visualize a rectangle that’s 27” wide X 54” high but we can visualize two squares stacked on top of each other. All those old engravings brimming with a confusion of circles, chords, arcs, and angles are using geometry to communicate how the design is tied together proportionally. Sometimes I find myself driving down the street and imagine buildings with circles and arcs drawn across the façade defining the underlying form. When I get that look in my eye, my wife Barb gets nervous and wants to take the wheel (but that’s another post).

 So that’s part of what I’m trying to convey through this apprentice sketchbook series. Give you a visual geometry library in your mind to construct and deconstruct images in space. When you begin to see the simple underlying shapes that make up a form you will begin to realize how powerful this is. Guess I got a little ahead of myself when I began this in February. Should have begun down at bedrock  just the way most of the historical texts do. Most begin with a series of simple intuitive methods to find a perpendicular from a line. If you follow Chris Schwarz you know doubt have learned how to make your own square. What if you don’t have a square? Actually all you need is two nails and a stick (to fashion a crude set of dividers). Anyway, here’s three methods of finding a right angle from a plane or line.

This first should be self explanatory. From a given point, scribe identical marks on either side. Open up the divers wider and from those two intersections create two more above and below your starting point. Connect all three to find a perpendicular.

Here’s another way(drawing at top of post)Scribe an arc that crosses the line and extends almost to the other side. Leave the dividers on the same setting and starting at point A step off two identical chords. Set your divider point in B & C to locate an intersection above your original centerpoint of your arc. Connect the center of your arc with that intersection. Voila, a perpendicular!

 Finally, what if you need to find a perpendicular near the end of a board (or deck, or cliff)? From point A step off five equal spaces. Set your dividers in point A and adjust them to span three spaces out. Use that distance to strike an arc straight up from point A. Reset your dividers to span all five divisions. Keeping that setting, anchor one leg in point four and scribe an intersection with your previous arc. You have just created a 3,4,5 triangle and a perpendicular with your original starting point.


Filed under Apprentice Sketchbook, Design Basics

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


Filed under Apprentice Sketchbook, The Classic Orders

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


Filed under Apprentice Sketchbook, Design Basics