Chris Schwarz's Blog

Review: 'Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design'

The newest DVD from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” is the most information-packed, lucid and mind-expanding 68 minutes of woodworking footage I’ve ever watched.

Using simple images, dividers and basic ideas, George Walker delivers a compelling crash course in how to develop furniture designs using basic shapes (squares, circles and rectangles), simple ratios and concepts such as symmetry, contrast and punctuation.

He also delves deeply into the so-called “column orders” that some architects and designers used to proportion their work. These five orders can help you scale the plinth, case or pediment of your work so the result is pleasing to the eye.

And while all these concepts sound like they are reserved for designing period furniture, Walker makes a strong case that furniture of any style can use basic shapes and proportions that will result in a harmonious composition.

To prove his point, Walker designs a chest of drawers on camera. The left half he designs in a period style; the right half he designs in what he calls a “studio” style of furniture. At the conclusion of his demonstration, I was completely convinced.

But before you can begin to design furniture using these concepts, Walker insists (and rightly so) that you should train your eye to recognize these shapes and proportions in other work and in nature.

And so Walker demonstrates how these proportions apply to examples of traditional furniture and shows you how to explore a photo or drawing using dividers so you can unlock the proportional system used by the piece’s designer.

He then takes these same ideas of proportion and explores a piece of reproduction furniture that is clearly a masterpiece of harmonious design.

One of the best parts of the DVD (in my opinion) is when Walker explains the use of symmetry, contrast and punctuation in design , I’ve never seen it explained so well.

This is a DVD that bears repeated viewings. Walker presents a wealth of information. And though it is dispensed in a simple, easy-to-understand style, there is too much to take in during one viewing.

To help you digest the lessons, the DVD comes with an eight-page cheat sheet you can print out on the column orders (it will help to have that on your lap as you watch), plus a nicely done glossary so you can remember the difference between a die and a frieze.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the excellent production values of this DVD. It is a lot like watching an episode of NOVA on PBS, with lucid animations, nice set pieces with excellent props and some intimate time at the drafting table.

The DVD is $25 and is available from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.

– Christopher Schwarz

P.S. If you like this DVD and Walker’s work, I have a bit of good news for you. Starting in February 2010, Walker will be writing a regular column on design for Popular Woodworking , a long overdue topic for us to explore in breadth and detail. Ah, and lest I forget the “full discosure” part of this e-mail: I have hosted five DVDs produced by Lie-Nielsen, but I have never received a penny from any toolmaker. All my proceeds go to charity (the EAIA and the Roger Cliffe Fund). And I have purchased all my Lie-Nielsen tools as well (no freebies here).

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8 thoughts on “Review: 'Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design'

  1. Mike Siemsen

    I couldn’t get Larry’s URLs to work so I did a search and came up with these. Very interesting and more like I would expect to see a craftsman use. I can’t see anyone doing much math to build furniture. Do any of these show up in old inventories? Adam? description pictures

    I had still been receiving messages from the mother ship but now realize I had been using the plastic colander. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Rcik Yochim


    Amen and amen. Though I like to build period furniture, what George does in this video (among other things) is establish for the woodworker that these principles and understandings are relevant to any type of furniture one might want to design and build.

    It seems the more I study good and bad design, the correct principles of the classic orders, proportion, light and shadow, color, natural forms and so on, the more I understand why I like one particular piece over another….and the more comfortable I am trying out different decorative elements. (I like that there is a lot of flexibility in executing a period design.)

    Not every woodworking skill is learned at the bench, I guess.

    Kudos for bringing him on staff there at Popular Woodworking.

  3. Christopher Schwarz


    I do all my drafting on a computer. The DVD has nothing to do with drafting, per se. It’s all about the form. How you create the form is up to you.


  4. Thomas Giacchina

    I am trying to do all of my designing on the computer. Would this DVD be for a non drafter?

  5. David Barbee

    I wrote about this dvd in my blog a few weeks ago. I got this dvd at the Popular Woodworking open house a little while ago. Lie-Nielsen was giving away a dvd with a $300+ purchase. Nice…

    You won’t look at furniture design the same after watching this dvd. You always here people say that a piece is a "classical" piece of furniture. I guess I always though classical was synonymous with antique. I knew a lot of furniture design elements were derived from architecture but I didn’t realize to what extent.

    Besides content this dvd seems to be more professional than most woodworking DVD’s. Most woodworking dvds seems like they shot using their cousin, Billy Rae’s, camcorder that he got on clearance last christmas. It’s a breath of fresh air to see professionally shot videos.

    Doesn’t it seem like it’s time for another Chris Schwarz video???

    David B.

  6. tom fidgen

    Well I need no more convincing…I was waiting to hear how this title was.
    (probably could have used it 10 months ago ‘before’ I started writing my book!)

  7. Chet Kloss

    I bought this DVD at the PopWood Open House and I completely agree with you. I’ve been to a number of "Design" classes and most of them are awful. This DVD was one of the best thoughout presentations I’ve ever seen.

    I look forward to Walker as a regular in PopWood.


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