Category Archives: The Classic Orders

Design or engineer?

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

My brother and I looked on as a gunsmith at Colonial Williamsburg expertly fit together a black walnut stock with a metal lock. Without raising an eye the artisan patiently answered our questions as though we were fresh off the boat and in need of a good rifle. That is until my brother volunteered that I was a machinist in a former life.

“A machinist” He said as he set his file on the workbench, and peered over his spectacles at me, “In that case, I’ll…. talk…… slow…. for…. your…. sake.”

I often get questions that are less about design and more about engineering. It’s innocent enough and usually no fault intended. Yet to my mind there is a quite a gap between the world of design and the world of engineering. When I think of engineering I think strength of materials, load bearing capacities, slide rules, and efficiencies. For many, engineering is the default starting point. Our education system and industry is geared towards that approach. Engineering is logical to the core; much of it is expressed in numbers and formulas.

When design comes to mind I think of aesthetics, creating something with a “delight” factor. Yes, a chair has to function and bear the stress as we lean back and rack the undercarriage – that’s a given. But a chair also has to invite us to sit and beckon us to grasp the armrest as though it were a bit of shelter from the wind. Design is about learning to visualize a fair curve and a sixth sense for proportions.  It’s about gaining something I call “spatial pitch” where the eye can sense visual music in a composition.

Capital carving  by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Corinthian Capital by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Jim Tolpin and I are excited about our book “By Hand and Eye” which is just a few weeks away from going to the printer. If you are hoping for a book to help you engineer furniture, you may be a bit confused and disappointed. But, if you ever wondered what it would be like to unlock that inner ability, to gain a designers eye, this book can help you begin that journey. Sure, we do go through some nifty layout tricks with dividers that will make you a better woodworker, but the heart of the book is about learning to visualize, gaining that perfect pitch, crossing that invisible line called delight.

George R. Walker


Filed under Design Basics, The Classic Orders, Uncategorized


I hardly leave the house without a camera. This was not always the case. For the longest time I took snapshots while on vacation, or to record family memories. Barb and I have boxes full of out of focus pictures of places I can’t recall. It’s different now since I learned to see. Now my “conceal and carry” little Nikon coolpix is starting to look a bit distressed with bits of masking tape holding parts in place and I’m slowly learning how to take advantage of an awesome Cannon 5D thanks to my brother who’s an amazing outdoor photographer( Walker photography.) But this isn’t about photos, this is about seeing. And the oddest thing about seeing is the way it came about – heeding the advice passed down from our craft tradition and exploring a series of classical standards with pencil and dividers. Now I take pictures because I see so much and I just can’t help myself. Even a walk in a fallow hayfield on a rainy morning turns up the unexpected. I push design because to the woodworker, it’s a marvelous passage into the richness of our craft. Yet every day I’m reminded that learning to see is a reward in itself.

George R. Walker


Filed under Design Basics, The Classic Orders

Crossing the Line

Have you ever winced when someone admired your work and declared you an artist? I take it as a sincere compliment, but I think of my work as craft. If done well it extends our craft tradition, a reward in itself. Yet that “Art” compliment seen in a historical context offers insight that may just help you do your best work. Pre-industrial design literature is filled with references to art.

In the broadest sense the world was split into two large buckets – things that occurred by the forces of nature and things art-ificial, or things made by the hand of man. Thus the word art was tacked onto any activity where we transformed a thing into something else. Art was used to describe the work of the trades such as the art of joinery or brewing.

“Three Pairs” oil on canvas board by Barb Walker

Art was defined as “A system of knowledge which makes the things a man undertakes succeed.” Art was further divided into many branches, but for our purposes the fork that separated art and craft was the distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts. Liberal being defined as arts involving the mind, what we today call fine art, and included: painting, music, poetry, sculpture, and architecture. Oddly enough Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia circa 1728 described the liberal arts as the noble branch worthy of being cultivated without any regard to lucre. As opposed to mechanical arts (craft) which furnishes us with the necessities of life and largely involved hand and body such as: weaving, clockmaking, joinery, turning, and cabinetmaking.

Yet even though separate branches, both liberal and mechanical shared some common threads. They both recognized that the best work crossed a line that often defied words to explain. Whether that came after centuries of refinement handed down through generations and resulted in the pleasing lines of a boat hull, or the stunning image of a painting that captures the essence of life. There was always the sense that both craft and art has the potential to cross that mysterious line.

Both arts also understood that there was a “craft” element to be mastered. The painter studied brush techniques, color, values, and perspective, while the cabinetmaker learned joinery, sharpening, and the properties of wood. Yet cabinetmaker and painter also learned the “craft” element of design. In the cabinetmakers case, the craft of design involved simple geometry; mastered not just for layouts, but also to nurture the inner eye, and something even more odd to our modern way of thinking. They held tightly to a rite of passage that shows up over and over again, learning the secrets of the classic orders. These ancient architectural standards helped the mind to understand space and proportions, improve judgment and confidence, and provide the ability to cross that line that defies explanation.

This ancient design standard is a textbook on applied proportions, Drawing by author.

That design skill element is what I’m interested in mastering. I know it doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s the gateway to crossing over that line.

George R. Walker


Filed under Design Basics, proportions, The Classic Orders

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

The human connection

It’s full blown spring here in Northern Ohio. Barbie’s Hostas are coloring the brown garden beds with pure hues of green. The leaves are perfect and clean and create a miniature forest for migrating birds. Wood thrushes, Towhees, and white throated sparrows flip over bits of leaves in the soft ground searching for a meal. New songs break through the rainy morning air. We keep binoculars handy in case a Kentucky warbler or some other winged jewel pauses at our rest stop. You can’t help feeling a connection with nature when spring flips the switch and everything goes from bleached out February gray to May Technicolor.

I think about connections a lot. Essentially that’s what successful design is all about. There’s a three legged stool that makes up a design: function, sturdiness, and beauty. The first two fall into the realm of engineering. That last leg – beauty is about connections. It’s a slippery thing. The photos we take are never as good as the moment of being there and breathing it. Those ancient petro glyphs on the cave wall never capture the actual excitement of the hunt. But they do possess some magic. They hold the power to jog the mind and connect back to that moment when a hundred thousand buffalo blackened the prairie like a sea.

For much of our western design history the classic orders were used by designers to organize a design. Corinthian collunm with base shaft and capitalYou may notice that often designs are laid out differently on the vertical axis than on the horizontal. Horizontally we may use symmetry (mirror image) to lead the eye to a focal point or satisfy our internal need for order. A door on one side of a fireplace unconsciously begs for a door on the other. We also may employ asymmetry to lead the eye to a garden view. But vertically we often do something different. Here we often establish a beginning, middle, and ending. That beginning, middle, and ending is an echo going back deeply in the way we connect with nature and our place in it. The columns that are at the heart of each order with their base, shaft, and capital were held to be based on the proportions of the human form. The Doric reflects a powerful masculine form while the Ionic and Corinthian are more slender and shadow an idealized feminine image. That base,shaft, and capital or beginning, middle, and ending shadow the feet, body, and head of an idealized human form.

Fireplace employs the classic orders

When we step into a room, the first thing we comprehend is the space itself. The ancients actually thought of space as an entity that effected how we respond to our surroundings. Next we take in the way the room is organized with walls, windows, doors, fireplace, furniture, even pictures and art. In a traditional or classical setting these component parts would employ the proportions in the classic orders. In effect the walls themselves, windows, and furniture would echo the human form. In a strange way the room could be filled with idealized human figures. At its core, that’s the connection we have with the classic orders. It’s not that Greek Temple image we have in our pigeon-holed mind, but the humble figure of our kind surrounding and reaching out to us.

George R. Walker


Filed under Architecture, proportions, The Classic Orders

Use proportions to punctuate

We can use proportions to create a hierarchy 2:3 or to create a beginning 1:5

Which of the three scenarios should make your heart skip a beat while canoeing? 

A. The river takes a sharp bend up ahead and you cannot see beyond the where the water turns a corner. 

B. You spot rapids ahead with whitewater tumbling and roaring through a maze of boulders. 

C. The water is calm in front of you except the river is interrupted by a horizontal line that stretches from shore to shore. You stand up in the canoe but mysteriously still cannot see the river beyond that horizon line. 

If you answered C, you’d be frantically thrashing your canoe to the shoreline before tumbling over a waterfall. Maybe it goes back to our hard wiring associated with drowning, but we instinctively look for a shoreline bordering a river, a picture frame around a painting, or a margin around a page of text. Visually we balk at running over a cliff. Border elements can be an important part of a design. They provide a beginning and a clear ending. They also help us to recognize the different parts in a form and alow our eye to know where one part ends and another begins. Proportionally establishing a beginning, ending, or border is accomplished using punctuation. I’ve shared a good deal in previous posts about using proportions to create a hierarchy. Typically these proportions are simple whole number ratios such as 2:3, 1:2, 3:5 etc. They create a major and minor with one playing off of and complimenting the other. Punctuation is created when one part dominates another. We may divide a part into five or six equal parts and have the first or last unit act as punctuation. This is often expressed as 1:5 or 1:6. 

Pedestal is one fifth the entire height on this Doric classic order establishing a beginning, drawing by author.

On a classic order a pedestal is one fifth the overall height and thus punctuates the entire structure above it. Looking closer at the pedestal you can see a base molding at the bottom that punctuates the pedestal itself. This should help you realize that you may have layers of sub elements in a form which may benefit by having a clear beginning. When placing a border that runs around the perimeter of a rectangle like a drawer front or an inset panel, use the narrowest span to establish punctuation. In the case of a drawer, use the height of the opening, in the case of a tall panel, use the width. 

Use the narrowest span to establish a border on a long panel. In this case the border is one sixth the opening.

Using a fifth or a sixth to establish a border or a beginning will create a fairly bold architectural look. You may want to back away from that and tone it down on a furniture design. I have to admit though, I often find bases and feet on period case pieces one fifth the height of the case they support. Knowing this it’s a good idea to begin to take mental notes of how border elements punctuate on designs you admire. Even on a classic order you may discover a variety of proportional schemes to establish a border. Understanding how they work and the effect they create can help  guide your own designs.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, proportions, The Classic Orders

Get the proportions right

Stair baluster Gunston Hall, HABS photo

Weekend before last Barbie and I went up to Lake Erie in hopes of seeing the waterfowl migration. Starting in late Feb through March, large flocks of ducks, geese, and swans congregate in the wetlands between Sandusky and Toledo Ohio. On a good day you can see a thousand tundra swans take to the sky. A writer’s yet to be born that can capture with words the sight of those wings flashing white against a rainy gray sky. It’s as though a new kind of light has just been born and your eyes are the first to behold it.  

We weren’t so lucky to see the flocks in big numbers but I did catch a glimpse of a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Cranes are uncommon for this region so it was a rare treat. I was reminded of a show I saw recently on PBS. It was one of those “how to paint” programs and the artist was using a Sandhill Crane as a subject. He started by saying

“In order for this to work you must get the proportions right”.

He then proceeded to demonstrate how to paint a crane without giving a single word of advice about proportions. I hear this all the time about furniture. Descriptions about how proportions are pleasing, or how proportions are important, then quickly moving on. I find this frustrating. It’s like learning to cook and being told “spices make food taste better” and then leaving the spice box locked up. There is scant practical information in woodworking literature about learning and applying proportions. That really get’s to the heart of what I write and teach about – how to think proportionally.

Thinking proportionally is not so much about finding answers. We may outwardly long for some ABC approach that can unlock our design strengths but it simply doesn’t work that way. Instead of answers we are looking for connections. How can we begin to see the connections we have with nature, great art, architecture, and masterworks of furniture. Proportions are the essence that permeates a great design and if we can somehow begin to grasp them we open a whole world. Yes, the form of a Sandhill Crane is governed by proportions that give it a unique identity and character.

It’s taken a while but I now think proportionally. When I look at a turning like a table leg or a stair baluster, I view it differently. I see how the different elements break up the form vertically and how they are proportioned major vs. minor. I look at the diameter and note of how that relates to the overall height. How does the largest diameter compare proportionally to the smallest diameter?

Best of all, is the knowledge that if the form possesses great proportions, that raw DNA can be applied to other designs regardless of style.

The column height on this Corinthian Classic order is 10 times the diameter of the shaft near the base, The diameter at the top is 1/6 less than at the base, drawing by author

That’s part of what I glean from the classic orders. As I explore them and become familiar with the proportions like musical notes, I find those same notes spilling out of my memory in new expressions. Additionally, learning those notes in the classic orders, helps me to uncover new notes and combinations in places I formerly walked right by. 

George R. Walker


Filed under Design Basics, proportions, The Classic Orders