Standing Desk Part I: Soul and Basis of Our Art

Chippendale-style high chest has a 2:1 height-to-width ratio. The result is a nice tall piece that doesn’t look top-heavy or unstable.

Chippendale-style high chest has a 2:1 height-to-width ratio. The result is a nice tall piece that doesn’t look top-heavy or unstable.

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.

Major Mass

This William & Mary-style high chest retains some of the influence of an earlier period with its stouter, squarer shape and it incorporates the golden section into its height.

This William & Mary-style high chest retains some of the influence of an earlier period with its stouter, squarer shape and it incorporates the golden section into its height.I begin each project by establishing the “major mass” – the height, width and depth – of the piece. These dimensions are critically important as they establish the artistic composition. It is this composition that you will see from across the room – not some really great dovetails or a smoothly planed surface. People will largely form their opinion of your work based on your composition. You can develop your own composition by going to art school as I did, or you can simply copy the composition of 18th-century masters.Though 18th-century furniture varies dimensionally, the proportions from one piece to the next are often quite similar. For example: If you divide the height by the width of baroque high chests or secretaries, you’ll find most pieces are close to twice as high as they are wide. Though there are only a few in existence, William & Mary high chests are typically one unit high by the golden section (.618) wide. Chamber tables (minus their tops) and many low chests of drawers are square (1:1). I don’t know if this was intentional. It may be one of those “it just looks right” kind of things. It may be that you can find these relationships where ever you look for them. Frankly, I don’t care. These simple ratios are easy to work with and look great. Departing from these fundamental proportions can work. I have seen Shaker furniture that is taller than 2:1. The result can be an alluringly naïve or quirky piece. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but you’d be hard pressed to find something built in the 18th century, “off proportion” and made of mahogany.Establishing DepthI think the proportions of this little Chippendale-style chamber table are just lovely. It’s almost hard to believe the basic shape is a simple square.Depth is harder to determine. Carcase depths seem to hover between 18" and 24". This may have been a practical requirement, either for drawer function or because of the availability or stability of wide stock. Still, I generally see depths relating to the height, using some kind of recurring ratio. In fact, you may find it’s a good idea to determine the height and width of your piece based on your available stock width.Divisions of SpaceOnce the major mass is established, the next trick is dividing the space pleasingly. I’ve found 18th-century case furniture is divided vertically in various ways. These divisions are the next most important step after the major mass is established. Though I’m showing you period furniture (this is the “Arts & Mysteries” column after all), you can apply these principles to any style.Drawer SpacingPeriod pieces typically have drawers that are graduated in height, tallest at the bottom to smallest at the top. Known in art circles as “forced perspective,” the effect corrects our perception of “near is big; far is small.” Without the graduated drawers, case furniture with equally spaced drawers will look top-heavy.Low chests and dressing tables often have depths of roughly 18" or so. The 18" is roughly a golden section of 30" (the typical height for dressing/chamber tables) so that makes the end a golden section. Deeper dressers may have resulted from making the top a golden rectangle.

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.

Details
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

This Queen Anne-style high chest is divided vertically in half by its upper and lower case. This looks fine for furniture of a man-sized scale. This piece is 76" tall. The Chippendale high chest shown on the far left is divided by the golden section. It is more than 8' tall! That puts its waist mould (the moulding that unites the upper and lower cases) about 3' off the floor. That’s roughly the same height as this Queen Anne’s waist.

COMMENT