Design Matters: Secrets of the Cyma Curve

Lead PhotoWe might admire a graceful curve in nature without understanding what lends it a sense of spring and vitality. Small details can often make the difference between a curve that sings and one that just seems to plod along.

If you’re like me, you may have reached for a coffee cup or soup can to trace a curve to guide a saw cut. For a smaller arc we might fish out a nickel; for a larger arc we grab a bucket or paint can to trace.

One woodworker shared with me that she used a circular drip pan from a water heater to trace an arc. This method has one primary advantage that cannot be discounted – speed. Just grab that coffee cup off the shelf (being careful not to spill), trace a pencil line around the rim and go.

Yet all arcs traced from a soup can are not equal. There are a few subtle points that lend a natural and organic feel to a curve. In fact, once you understand this, it’s a bit of a curse. You’ll spot an awkward mechanical looking curve and think to yourself, “Soup can curve”

It makes no difference what tool you use, an arc is just a portion of a circle and it doesn’t matter whether you trace the rim of a garbage can lid or draw it with a compass.

I prefer a compass layout for two important reasons. It can be adjusted to any size arc and more importantly, a compass layout helps insure that the arc has an organic feel to it, not static and mechanical looking.

Just how do we avoid a curve that seems forced or artificial?

First, it’s important to realize a few things our eyes naturally key on. We all have an awareness of when things are plumb and level. A slightly titled picture on a wall can drive us batty. Even when we’ve used a carpenter’s level, we still step back and confirm it with our eye.

When it comes to curves, our eye will pick up on any curve that springs up from straight vertical and flows into a true horizontal. This tends to look static and mechanical or what I call “soup can.”

Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In Our Store: “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings,” George R. Walker’s DVDs.

From the June 2015 issue

Buy it here

pwm0615_250