In Design Matters

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On the road. This portable drafting table travels with me wherever I go.

Move beyond a measured drawing and let your imagination reign.

My 6-year-old nephew, Ryan, loves to eat cheese puffs and play with Legos. For his birthday, I bought him a set of the colorful plastic bricks to build a Lego attack helicopter, then watched as he meticulously assembled each piece exactly as depicted on the box. For now, Ryan insists that each Lego project be kept separate and put back into its own box so he can reassemble the exact same toy.

Someday he’ll get the idea that he can combine all the sets and build whatever comes into his head, perhaps a giant intergalactic space station. Until then Ryan is confined by his small boxes and limited possibilities. It’s not always easy to trust your gut and let intuition be your guide. Sometimes you have to throw away your box.

Overcome Dependence

I have to admit that I spent many years stuck in a box – creatively speaking – when it came to woodworking. I felt most comfortable working to someone else’s plans, trusting design decisions to another’s judgment and, sadly, shortchanging myself of much of the real fun in the process.

I knew I needed to push beyond my comfort zone and break free of a dependence on printed plans and even – gasp – break free of my heavy dependence on the tape measure.

I want to be clear: This is not a tirade against blueprints or measuring tools. It’s just that for me (and I suspect many of you) they are obstacles to pushing forward. In fact, I use drawings now more than ever – except now they are largely sketches and concept drawings sprouting from my own imagination.

Here’s an example of a portable drafting table I made recently and some of the thoughts behind how the design came together. In this case, I chose to let the function dictate the plan and to force myself to think beyond a measured drawing. I built the entire project without picking up a tape measure or ruler. I find this pushes my imagination and forces me to think about proportions instead of dimensions.

Functional Needs

The list of my needs was simple: I wanted a self-contained drafting kit that I could take to the back patio with a cup of coffee in hand. It needed to have enough space to store my favorite sketch pad and my assortment of drawing tools. I wanted it as light as possible, but still able to take a bump if tossed behind the seat of my truck.

It’s essentially a wooden briefcase with a lid that tilts up to provide a drawing surface. I settled on some dry 2/4 walnut to construct the top and sides and some thin, clear pine nailed to the box bottom to provide a floor.

Determine Dimensions

Two fingers, please. The overall size of the drawing surface was dictated by my largest sketch pad, plus a two-finger margin (my two fingers) all around.

Every furniture project starts out with a reference dimension that’s usually tied to one of three things: the human frame, interior room space or specific objects the piece will contain. In this case, the project is sized to my drawing tools.

The human frame is used when a piece of furniture needs to mesh with our anatomy – the height of a dining table, for example.

Large architectural case pieces, on the other hand, might take their cue from the ceiling height of the interior space they will occupy; a grand room with a tall ceiling dictates that the overall scale of the piece take that into consideration.

Finally, a small specialty item such as a drafting kit might be governed by something as simple as your favorite sketch pad.

Just the essentials. A couple of black artist’s pens (fine and medium), two or three colored markers in earth tones, a pencil, masking tape and some standard drafting tools are what I carry with me.

To determine the size of this piece, I glued up the top oversized then used the sketch pad itself to dictate the overall height and breadth, allowing a margin of two fingers wide all around.

This top then dictates the boundary dimensions of the box sides. I ripped the sides to the width of one handsbreadth, figuring this would allow enough depth to store my drafting tools. The construction is similar to that of a cabinetmaker’s chest, with the sides dovetailed together for strength and two thin pine boards for a bottom, joined with a tongue and groove to allow for shrinkage. Like on many tool chests, these were simply nailed to the bottom of the walnut frame.

Base six. I sized the small base moulding by stepping off the overall height into six parts with dividers; the small bead at the bottom of the moulding mirrors this.

To hide the pine bottom and add a decorative touch, I tacked a small beaded base moulding around the bottom edge. To size the height of that moulding, I used dividers to step off the overall height into six parts and used the bottom sixth as my moulding height. I then mirrored that little proportional sequence in the moulding itself, dividing its overall height into six parts and let the bottom sixth dictate the height of the bead.

Finally, I attached a couple of thin battens to stiffen the top and cut a couple of notches along their length to accept a pair of props to keep the lid tilted at a comfortable angle.

The finish is simply two coats of shellac.

The next time you have a simple project to build, set aside your tape measure and force yourself to work without it. You’ll find it a liberating experience.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

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