Arts & Mysteries: The Soul and Basis of Our Art - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Arts & Mysteries: The Soul and Basis of Our Art

 In Techniques

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
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 Depth
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 Space
Once 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 Spacing
Period 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.

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.

Conspicuously missing from these designs is any sense of how to put the furniture together. I’ve neither defined nor sized the joints. I’m not saving this portion of the design for a future article. This is it. This is all there is. And this is exactly what I see in period work.
There are standard sorts of joints, typically applied to specific situations. Individual workmen would produce those joints according to their stock and their shop practices. Herein, I see a bright line between the “crude” work of a “mechanick” (an 18th-century term for person who worked with his hands) and the elevated artwork of the design.

I find working to proportions allows me the flexibility to create furniture around the stock I can produce with the least amount of effort, without sacrificing the important aspects of the design. It’s an art-focused approach. So I am free to go fast, maybe a little sloppy, and straight to the point. The proportions define what is truly important.

The greater point I’d like to leave you with is the importance of design, and the relative unimportance of piston-fit drawers or perfect dovetails.

I would never argue that finely planed wood isn’t beautiful. But I wonder at the sense of putting so much time and effort into something that may not be noticed from 3′, while sacrificing that which is easily apparent from 50′. By following proportion rules established 3,000 years ago, we have in our power the ability to evoke a visceral human response.

Maybe this is why master cabinetmaker and fashion icon Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) urged his fellow cabinetmakers to develop “an acquaintance” with the classical column orders and their use in art and architecture. He wrote in 1762, “These [proportion rules], 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.” PW

More Arts & Mysteries on Adam Cherubini’s Blog
This year’s Arts & Mysteries column has Contributing Editor Adam Cherubini building a period case piece entirely by hand. As you might imagine, this is a vast and sweeping series, and therefore there’s lots of ground to cover.

So we’ve provided Adam with a blog ( where he will expand on many of the details and themes he touches on here, post photos from the shop, provide progress reports on the project and respond to your e-mails.

There are already several blog entries that relate to this first column on design that you should investigate:

• Form Follows Function, But What Function? Adam discusses why period furniture was embellished with mouldings or carvings.
• A Discerning Eye: Adam discusses how he gets inspiration for his furniture designs and then records them for him to use in the shop.
• Finding the Golden Section: Learn more about the golden section and how it is derived.
• Column Orders: You might have noticed that Adam mentioned “column orders” in this piece. What are column orders? This is where you base designs off the proportions of different classical styles of columns, such as Doric or Ionic. There’s more on this topic now on the blog.

Christopher Schwarz, editor

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