Perfect Proportions

18th century deskBuild a standing desk tailored to your body.

by Jim Tolpin
pages 24-31

I designed this compact stand-up desk to meet a prescription from my doctor to be less sedentary. “Sitting is the new smoking,” I was admonished.

It was also to give me a challenge: to create a project start to finish almost entirely within the realm of pre-industrial technology, ramping up my education in how traditional artisans got things done.

My goals were to design the desk to human body-related harmonic ratios (a design sensibility predominant through the end of the 18th century), use joinery that negated the need for glue or fasteners for structural longevity and build the project primarily with hand-powered tools.
The desk also had to be perfectly comfortable to work at and to be, at the least, handsome.

The Design Process
The design process began with determining a single parameter: the height of the drawing surface at its front edge.

For me (and for most people) this works out to be about elbow height – which I marked on a stick resting against a cobbled-together mock-up of the desk’s top surface (see photo above). I also used the mock-up to determine a comfortable slope (mine was 1:5).

I continued to develop all the other dimensions as harmonic whole-number ratios to the floor-to-elbow height.

That comfortable working height worked out to be five hand spans from the floor – typical for adults.
I then used one of these hand spans as the common factor (or “module,” as it would be called traditionally) to develop the proportions of the other dimensions.

■ For ample room for drawing, the width needs to be at least a shoulder width (which is two hand spans) plus a hand span. The width-to-height ratio therefore resolves to a 3:5 rectangle
■ The depth of the desk should be at least a forearm from the elbow joint to the middle fingertip (which is two hand spans). So the depth-to-height ratio resolves to a 2:5 rectangle.
The width of the legs is added to the outside of the 3:5 ratio rectangle of the face and the 2:5 ratio rectangle of the side elevation. This adds more breadth to the design and therefore more stability.
■ The top of the desk resolves to a 2:3 ratio rectangle. Note that this ratio also accommodates the size and shape of most drawing papers.

While I included a cutlist for this project, the dimensions listed are from the desk I made using my hand span and elbow height as the starting point. Your desk’s final dimensions can vary according to your own proportions.

Web Site: See more of Jim Tolpin’s work on his web site.
Article: Build a footstool based on your own proportions with this free article by the author.
Web Site: Learn more about the author’s school, Port Townsend School of Woodworking.
Plan: Download a free SketchUp model of this project.
To Buy:The New Traditional Woodworker,” by Jim Tolpin.
In Our Store: Learn more about proportions and measurement in “Measure Twice, Cut Once,” by Jim Tolpin.

From the February 2016 issue, #233