Design Matters: The Soup-can Curve

DM_Aug_2015We’ve all done it – but speed does have disadvantages.

by George Walker
pages 18-20

We 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. 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 important, a compass layout helps ensure that the arc has an organic feel to it, and is not static and mechanical looking.

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

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 August 2015 issue

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Popular Woodworking Magazine August 2015 Cover