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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On tool marks

May 26, 2008

Above: A drawer pull, carved by hand, with the knife marks left behind.

The beauty of a crafted thing is largely in seeing the hand of the maker in the object — for instance, in tool marks left behind.

Now, there is a big difference between tool marks that are the result of sloppiness, carelessness and corner-cutting, and tool marks that are the result of patience and care and skill. The first results in something completely ordinary. The other is what may push a crafted thing toward the realm of art. Say if you took away the brush marks in a Van Gogh — there would be little left that makes the painting so wonderful, nothing that gives it its soul.

The imperfection of those brushmarks take on a perfection of their own. It’s the same with tool marks. What it boils down to, in a word, is skill. It is one of those things (like playing the blues) that is very simple, but not at all easy.

And nowadays I think it is easy to get sidetracked and direct your practice and your work toward achieving a machine kind of perfection — a glass-smooth table top, say.

But I’m of the opinion that a wooden table top ought not to feel like glass. It ought to feel like wood — or even better, like hand-crafted wood. Can you feel the mild undulations left by a hand plane on the surface? Again, this easy to do in a sloppy way, but hard to do in a way that seems both hand-made and, at the same time, elegant.

On making time

April 17, 2008

Recently my former woodworking teacher, Gary Rogowski, wrote on his blog about how life often overwhelms our ability to find quality shop time (see it here).

This is something I’ve been thinking about since my wife and I had a baby in 2006. Before the baby, I used to say that it took an hour, after walking into the shop for the day, just to sweep up, figure out what I was doing, decide on the next step and get back to work on whatever I had going. It took three or four hours before I really had momentum.

Those days are long gone. I never walk into the shop “for the day.” We have a toddler, now, and I still have a day job in addition to my furniture-making. My shop time comes in one- or two-hour blocks — mostly in the early morning, when my wife and child are asleep. I get up at 5:30 or 6, eat a banana, make a cup of coffee and go to the shop. Do not check the e-mail. Do not see if the paper is here. Directly to the shop.

This gives me about an hour and a half, maybe two, before I need to get ready for my job. And I now realize that my earlier notion about taking an hour to get rolling was true only because I made it be true.

I recall reading about a novelist — I think it might have been Hemingway — who said he always quit writing for the day when he knew what the next sentence would say. If he was stumped when he quit, it was difficult to start the next time he set to work. The idea works for me. As I’m nearing the last few minutes in the shop for the day, I decide exactly what I need to do next. When I come in the following morning, I find this makes it easy to get going immediately.

My corollary to this rule is that I now try to avoid setting a goal of how much I want to get done by the end of my daily shop time — partly because I often miss the goal, and partly because it causes me to rush or compromise. I just walk in, try to work steadily until my time is up and then stop. I think this is not a natural or easy state of mind in a culture like ours. But it helps keep me focused on building the best piece I can, as opposed to “getting it done.”

Yes, this means my clients have to be patient. I very much appreciate them for it.

On backsides

March 30, 2008

backkay.jpg

Above: Back of the Crider Nightstand (2006)
Below: Back of the Double Bookcase (2004).

I can rarely bring myself to slap a piece of plywood into the back of a case piece and call it good enough.

bookcaseback.jpgI usually find myself building a frame-and-panel back that I expect will look as nice as the front. “What a waste of time,” some might say! “Why bother? It’s against the wall. Who’ll ever see it?”

Perhaps, but if I’m going put in as much time and care as I do on these pieces, it just feels wrong to cut corners on the back. Better to make the piece complete and well done all the way around.

And should you ever decide you want to position one of my cabinets in a way that its back will be visible, by all means do. In fact I hope you’ll be proud to.

What’s with the blog?

March 11, 2008

For the most part, the blog on this site includes three kinds of posts:

Update: These show works in progress. I usually post them over the weekend. If you have commissioned a piece that is under construction, you can check in each Monday to see what’s happening in the shop with your project.

Portfolio: These show photos of a finished piece, along with a short essay about it. You can get a list of all the Portfolio posts by going to the “Portfolio” page via the menu bar, and from there link to the individual posts. Alternatively, just scroll to the bottom of any page, to the big gray rectangle, and click on the “Portfolio” category (or any category) to see all the posts of that type.

On …: These are brief musings on how I approach craftsmanship and design, or explanations about the techniques and materials I use.

There may be other posts mixed in now and then, probably of interest mostly to other woodworkers:

Published: Items I have written that have appeared in woodworking publications.

Tools: Posts about tools I have made or vintage tools I have restored.