Recently Chris Schwarz lamented that that much of the historic literature on craft is stuffed with geometry but doesn’t explain how to set up a smoothing plane. And to make matters worse the geometry lessons quickly spin out of control with drawings that look like some freakish nightmare.
Back in the day, books were expensive. A modest book in the 18th century could easily cost a weeks wages so a treatise on things like milking a cow or setting up a smoothing plane, or constructing window sash never entered anyone’s thought. In a village of a hundred souls, ninety-nine knew how to milk a cow and half of them could set up a plane in their sleep. Yet no one in the village, possibly no one in the county might know (let alone share), the knowledge that lies behind the smoothing plane, window sash, or that magnificent cathedral up on the hill. That my friends is geometry. But hear me out. It’s not as devilish as it sounds. This artisan geometry of the trades doesn’t involve memorizing a boatload of theorems and formulas that make you want to light up a cigarette and knock down a shot. Well you might want to do that for the pleasure of it, but not because the geometry drove you there.
I admit when I first explored what the old writers had to say, I complicated it by my own ignorance. I often passed over the simple stepping stones of knowledge and then skinned my shins. Here’s an interesting bit on this path of artisan geometry best illustrated by Plate one, figure one from Roubo’s monumental collection of engraved drawings.
Plate 1, figure 1 from Roubo
Plate one, figure one starts with a point. Roubo isn’t alone in beginning at this humble starting place. Many similar examples could be cited, often there is a break in forty pages of medieval Spanish text with a single . followed by another twenty pages of narrative. Point being you can learn to visualize and build some really marvelous things if you begin at the right beginning. And that beginning is the humble point.
Jim Tolpin and I are at it again, writing a workbook that takes that historic knowledge and walks you through it step by step. Who knows? Maybe there’s some window sash, elegant chairs, or even a grand cathedral inside your head just waiting to be made if you knew what they knew.
George R. Walker
Jim Tolpin has an incredible woodshop and a shop dog named Othie. Recently, Jim’s been working with Andrea Love to create a short animated clip of the work that the two of us have been exploring the past six years. Our book By Hand & Eye is the product of that journey into the world of traditional design. Take a look at Jim’s shop and his marvelous shop dog.
George R. Walker
Jim Tolpin and I are in high cotton. Even before By Hand & Eye was finished we sensed there was still a critical missing piece. That missing piece was a bridge that linked the head knowledge of design with the everyday practical problems in the woodshop. Our thoughts kept turning to a down and dirty shop guide meant to hang on a nail over your bench. I’m happy to report we are at it hammer and tongs writing a design workbook slated for release next year through Lost Art Press . It’s a self study guide peppered with drawing exercises to hone your inner eye as well as a boatload of practical layout strategies like a quick and elegant way to space narrow slats on a chair back, or how to draw a sweet curve that bristles with just the right amount of energy.
“With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to make.”
Kasimir Malevich (Early 20th century Russian artist and theoretician)
This workbook is a natural outgrowth of our own journey as woodworkers but also a product of the many workshops we’ve held over the last few years. Essentially it’s a guided tour back to first principles. We start from a single point .↶ literally, and progress through lines, planes, solids, and curves. Along the way we explore proportions and patterns found throughout nature and the entire built world with plenty of exercises so you become familiar with the concepts. Armed with just a pair of dividers, a straightedge, and a ball of string, you’ll be able build your own version of the Parthenon, a pie cabinet, or some really snazzy patio furniture.
George R. Walker
Nearly every guide to the building arts going back to the dawn of printing included a series of geometric layouts with a compass. A challenge to the decipher, these lessons were shoehorned together, and made worse with a flurry of confusing text buried twenty pages away. Our book “By Hand & Eye” was written in hopes of extending our building tradition by making it relevant to the modern artisan. To that end, we put together digital animations of those classic compass layouts. You can access them through this link to Jim Tolpin’s YouTube channel . For those of you that bought our book and had difficulty accessing the layouts, we hope this offers a solution.
George R. Walker
In our newly released book “By Hand & Eye” we promised to post instructions build a sector. Jim put this together.
Making a Sector
Select clear, straight-grained, light-colored stock such as maple. Produce sticks from 4/4 stock, tapering from about 7/8-in. at the base to ⅝-in. at the far end. This taper isn’t necessary, but it looks nice and it brings the balance point closer to where you generally are handling it in use. Your choice of length: I have one about 2-ft. long for scaling smaller projects and minor components and one about 3-ft. long for dealing with full furniture dimensions. The drawing shows the construction details and nuances—which include the fact that the pivot point of the sector’s legs is not the center of the hinge pin as you might expect, but the back of the hinge.
Proportioning Systems Outside the Western World
(Your host of this particular rabbit hole is Jim)
One question George and I often get is whether this whole scheme of designing to whole number ratios is limited to the classical (i.e. pre-industrial) “western” world. What about the vast, and just as ancient, built world of the Orient? That’s a big question, and probably the deepest rabbit hole we would ever want to jump into.
But what I do know from speaking with Dale Brotherton, a classically trained Japanese temple builder; and more recently gleaned from a book on Japanese joinery (“The Art of Japanese Joinery” by Kiyosi Seike), is that the sizing of Japanese joinery elements as well as the overall layout of structures were based on an idealized system of modular (i.e. whole-number) proportions called “Kiwari”. (A Japanese word which literally means: “wood dividing”). According to Seike, the first written evidence of this system has been traced back to the mid 6th century AD, while a five volume set of artisan’s manuals appeared in 1608.
Drawing: A “four-and-a-half Tatami” room layout
By the 15th or 16th century AD, the module for sizing rooms became the tatami mat, which was a double-square rectangle about 3 ft. by 6 ft. (in our western imperial measurement system). Two of these mats–which together formed a square–were called a “ma”, and I believe served as the module for ceiling heights as well. Rooms were defined and sized by the number of tatami that could be contained in the room. In the drawing AT DIRECTION is a typical room layout for four and one-half tatamis. Other typical room sizes were six and eight tatamis. Essentially, they were growing the rooms in a Fibonacci series.
So what about now? It seems that the ancient artisan ways came to an abrupt end in 1868 with the downfall of the last shogun during the “Restoration of Monarchy” and the subsequent conscious and aggressive opening to industrialized western “modernization”. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Renaissance architects saw a clear connection between music and design. They equated proportions with musical notes and often said pleasing proportions were music for the eyes. There’s a rich legacy of this musical/proportional connection going back to ancient Greece, yet to my thinking there’s something more profound lurking beneath the surface.
The ability to imagine is a huge step, possibly the biggest step on your design journey. In fact the question I’m asked frequently is – Can you really teach design? I’m not sure, but I am certain you can make giant strides in your ability to see. And in the case of woodworking where the tool to visualize (dividers) is also the tool to execute layouts, visualizing becomes intuitive. But here’s where the music comes in. How many times have you heard an annoying song on the radio (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady” by the Marx brothers comes to mind) that you just couldn’t shake from your head?
What’s that have to do with design or visualization? It illustrates our innate ability to visualize. You don’t have to be a musician to have good or bad music playing in your head, though I believe musicians can hear internal sound with more detail. The point is we all routinely visualize music with hardly a thought.
Then why is it we struggle to visualize designs and proportions? Jim Tolpin and I are convinced that we visualize music not because we learned to write notes in grade school but because we fell asleep to a lullabye while still in the crib and took up song before we could talk. The notes were imprinted.
We don’t imagine objects in space because we never imprinted visual notes. With one voice the historical design books emphasized proportions and charged the aspiring designer to draw standards like the classic orders. This has little to do with building furniture fit for the Parthenon and everything to do with learning to make music with proportions. Welcome to the new /old/classic/contemporary way of making music with proportions.
Here’s how – By Hand and Eye
George R. Walker