I realize the way I work wood is a bit out of the ordinary. It’s also true that the way I write magazine articles is out of the ordinary. Unlike typical articles, the “Arts & Mysteries” column has year-long themes.
This year I intend to explore a simple hand-tool project in never-before-seen depth. Frankly, I’ve been frustrated by the “Build a Chippendale Highboy in three pages” articles. So I thought it would be helpful if you could peer into my shop as I construct something entirely by hand. For it is my understanding that very few of you have experience building projects entirely by hand, but that almost all of you use hand tools to some degree.
I’ve long suspected that there’s a difference between using hand tools for some things and using hand tools for everything. What I see are woodworkers fitting their hand tools into factory-like paradigms. They seek jigs for their hand saws and measure their planes’ shavings with micrometers. I’m not interested in passing judgment or trying to convince anyone that my way is better. Rather, I’m keenly interested in the exploring the difference in the work styles to learn what techniques or methods are the chief contributors to success.
In the article that follows, the first in the series, I’ll explain how I design furniture. I don’t work from fully dimensioned project plans. Like almost everything else I do, the way I design is linked to the methods I use to work wood. I hope you enjoy this article, and the others in this series.
Designing Furniture for Hand Tools
I design my own furniture because I don’t want my woodworking limited by the availability of someone else’s measured drawings. I’ve spent half my life designing and drafting professionally. But I don’t use these skills to design furniture. Frankly, I don’t think I could achieve the dimensional accuracy required to build something “to the print.” In addition, I think it’s easy to get lost in the pursuit of achieving perfect dimensions and lose sight of the beautiful artwork that is period furniture. So instead, I work to proportions. I suspect this is the way most cabinetmakers actually operated in the 18th century.
After years of struggling with this issue, I’ve finally arrived at a way to produce nicely graduated drawers. I can say that no basic arithmetic series works (e.g. make each drawer smaller than the one below by 1/2″ or so). These arithmetic series exaggerate the graduation and give pieces a Sears toolbox look.
To see how I space a four-drawer chest, see the drawing at right.
My method for determining five-drawer spacing is a bit more complicated. We should therefore be suspicious of it. Like everything else in this article, I’m going to share it with you for your consideration. Don’t think this the only way. I can say I laid this template over several pieces from at least two different regions and it fit well.
Mouldings, carvings and hardware affect the composition in different ways. Mouldings explain and punctuate structural transitions. The 18th-century carvings typically draw relations to the natural world, softening a rectilinear design by guiding the eye along acanthus vines to shells or soaring volutes.
Hardware can have a unifying effect, inviting the eye to journey around the piece. In the 18th century, craftsmen clearly used ornamentation to affect composition. I don’t feel qualified to comment on baroque carvings, but it appears to me that mouldings were used for specific applications, had specific shapes and were proportioned similarly. Generally, coves hold things up. Ovolos and ogees ease the abruptness of corners, encouraging you to continue upward. Base mouldings are typically convex, stabilizing the mass above them.
Joinery, therefore, ought to be carefully studied by every one who would excel in this Branch [cabinetmaking], since they are the very Soul and Basis of his Art.” PWClick here to download the PDF for this article.In addition to woodworking, Adam enjoys drawing and painting. He studied art at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia. The Classical column orders can be very helpful for establishing vertical divisions, especially those found on legs. In this instance, this table’s stretcher is located in proportion to the base or plinth of an Ionic column. Its apron is sized to the capital of the column.”]