On proportions

June 21, 2008

The aesthetic foundation of any crafted thing, I suspect, is proportioning. I can’t prove this, but I’m sure it is (to paraphrase the film “The Big Lebowski”) what really ties a piece of furniture together. Before composition, before texture, before pattern, before color, before details, the proportions have to be worked out.

Sometimes a very simple thing just strikes you as wonderfully beautiful. The work of the Shakers, though very plain and unadorned, I believe is deceptively simple. I am sure they put a good deal of consideration into proportioning their furniture. It usually just looks “right.” I don’t think that happens by accident.

But I find this all very mysterious. Sure, I sometimes use classical proportioning rules, and I think they are often a good place to start. For instance what is referred to in architecture as the “golden rectangle,” which has a long side that is roughly 1.618 times the short side, has long been viewed as almost magical. It is a rectangle that, when divided to make another golden rectangle, leaves behind a perfect square — and so on forever. (The golden rectangle even figures in the book “The Da Vinci Code”).

The bookcase at the top of this post is based on the golden rectangle: the main case, each cabinet door, the placement of the shelves, and the details in the frame around the glass all form golden rectangles and squares — shown by the yellow lines.

That said, I don’t like to be a slave to mathematical ratios. Sometimes you have to trust your intuition. Sometimes, I have found what seems to look best is not a precise ratio, but one that is just slightly off. I have no idea why, but I sometimes find this to be true when I try to decipher the proportions of a classic piece of furniture or a great building.

So, when I design something for you, this where I begin: proportions.

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Note 7/2009: Woodwork magazine was sold to the publisher of American Woodworker. They published one issue of Woodwork. But it now appears to be defunct.

Here is another short item I wrote that appeared in the Tips & Techniques section of the October 2007 Woodwork magazine (No. 107):

I pin a lot of my tenons, using either square pegs or lengths of dowel. But I usually like my tenon-pins to end up a bit proud, with a “pillowed” shape, or perhaps carved to an Arts & Crafts-style pyramid. So a flush trim saw doesn’t work. I need pins 1/16 or more too long and then I shape them with a sharp chisel.

The less excess wood I have to remove, the quicker and easier the shaping is. I don’t like to saw them at all once they are in place. Assuming you use a drill press or a depth stop on a hand drill to assure you get the holes to a consistent depth, here is a simple way to cut pins quickly and consistently to a given length. I built a simple bench hook of pine. Then I cut a kerf in the back fence with the saw I use to cut pin stock, a crosscut Japanese dozuki. Be careful you keep the kerf square both vertically and horizontally. Then I made a short ruler, marked to 32nds, that I laid out on a computer and printed out. You could draw one by hand as well, or use some of that adhesive-backed, flexible ruler that can be purchased for use on chop saw fences and such.

Glue the ruler to the back fence with zero at the kerf and the ruler running off to the right. (If you’re left-handed, you would want to run the ruler left of the kerf.) I sprayed over the paper with a few coats of spray-can lacquer to make it more durable. To cut the pins, simply slide the end of the stock to the distance you want, hold the stock firm against the fence with your left thumb and saw at the kerf. Then you just slide the stock to correct length again and saw again, eyeballing the stock against the ruler each time. You can make quick work of cutting many pins.