Put Your Best Foot Forward: Foot Design and Proportion - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Put Your Best Foot Forward: Foot Design and Proportion

 In Shop Blog

For years, I gave little thought to what constituted good design aside from holding strong opinions about what I liked or disliked. A graceful Windsor chair could bedazzle me, but if pressed to explain why I found the chair beautiful, I struggled to find words to express myself. It was the same situation with furniture that set off my ugly meter. The siren would go off in my head with lights flashing and horns blowing, but I was dumbfounded to explain what details tripped the alarm. On a practical level, that meant that if I wanted to make even a small adjustment to a design, I was stumbling in the dark guessing without any confidence at what was wrong, unsure if I was moving in a positive direction.

It’s good to begin your design journey by focusing on your strong likes and dislikes. That inner sense, your gut reaction to design, is one of your most powerful tools. The skills needed to become a proficient designer require leveraging your inner likes and dislikes with solid facts about design. As you develop design skills you’ll likely become more opinionated, even downright curmudgeonly, but in a good way. Your opinions will reflect a truer grasp of what works or doesn’t work in a design, and that’s a huge step forward in your design abilities. It means less guessing in the dark. And because your opinions become more defined, when you do begin to home in on a sweet spot, you’ll feel sure of the direction you’re taking.

foot proportion

Find the sweet spot. Finding the sweet proportion on this trestle table foot is a good way to train your eye.

Does This Go with That?

In any creative endeavor there is a set of foundational skills that provide structure to express your idea. For a painter, those foundational skills might be learning about the color wheel or understanding value (light and shadow). For a musician, it might be learning scales and understanding tempo.

Traditionally, in the building arts, the important foundational skills are mastering proportions, learning to draw and developing a working knowledge of artisan geometry. Artisan geometry is not some fancy math, but a practical understanding about how to construct simple shapes using points and lines. Geometry is used to imagine a structure, and then proportions are
employed to tie all the parts in that structure into a harmonious whole. Drawing combines those two skills in rough sketches and more finished renderings to help visualize and sort through ideas.

Of these three skills, mastering proportions is the one that will help you most to harness your powerful inner sense. At the simplest level, proportions express how one part relates to another part and how that initial part relates to the whole. We are acutely aware of proportions in our own human form, and patterns of proportions in our own bodies. This understanding spills over into how we make judgments about the thickness of a chair seat or the width of a door panel.

Patterns of Proportions

We respond to proportions on two levels. On the first level, we look at individual parts and compare how they relate to other nearby parts. With small parts like a drawer pull, we might compare it to the height of the drawer it’s attached to. It wouldn’t help much to compare the drawer pull on the bottom of a chest with the crown moulding at the top of the piece any more than if we compared the size of our nose with our big toe.

On the second level, we compare how major parts relate to the whole piece. We might consider how the thickness of a table leg compares to the entire table. This comparison is completely subjective. A country farm table may call for a stouter leg than what’s appropriate for a more formal table with the same overall dimensions.

proportions comparison

Mind your neighbors. Gauge small parts with the nearest neighbor. How does this pull compare with the height of the drawer?

A Good Beginning

A practical exercise that helps us understand proportions is sizing a foot for a table leg. Furniture often has some sort of foot to establish a beginning to the form. There’s a wide variety in traditional designs from the boldly carved ball and claw to much more subdued feet that can be as simple as a small tapered cuff or even a narrow band of inlay marking the bottom of the leg. All of these design elements are telling a story that the viewer can read with his eyes. The elements say, this is the beginning of this form, and here is where the form transitions to the ground. The main difference between these design elements is that the carving points out the beginning with a strong voice while the band of inlay whispers.

multi-purpose foot design

A multi-purpose foot. This carving makes a bold visual beginning, anchoring the form to the floor and telling a story.

We’re doing the exact same thing when we employ a base moulding on a cabinet. We’re giving it a distinct beginning, and hopefully a good one. The tricky part is getting that base or foot to harmonize with the structure above it.

Sizing a Trestle Foot

Here’s a drawing I worked up to size the foot section for a small trestle table. It consists of a base or foot (beginning), a support structure (middle) and a top bracket (ending). Before I make any decision about the final contours of these components, I block them in with simple rectangles to workout the overall proportions.

foot proportion drawing

Test and refine. Sneak up on the height of the foot until you hit the sweet spot.

In this case, I’m focusing on the height of the base and how it complements the structure above it. I do that by taking the entire height of the trestle and dividing it into equal parts, then assigning one part to the height of the foot. If I wanted to have a stout foot, I might divide the height into four parts and give the bottom fourth to the foot. Yikes, that’s way too clunky, but I’m giving that inner sense of proportion in my head something to actually compare with.

More importantly, by dividing the overall height, I’m making my eye compare the proportions of the base with the height of the whole trestle assembly. Since dividing by four was way too heavy, I tried dividing by six. Then dividing by eight and then by nine, which didn’t work either. For my eye, the sweet spot was dividing by 10.

foot proportion drawing

Use division. To size the upper bracket, divide and then divide again.

Here’s a tip on proportioning the upper bracket on this trestle assembly. You could make it the same height as the lower foot since it’s hidden from view. However, it will complement the entire assembly by making it lighter by decreasing its height. You often see this on the rails of windows or doors; the upper rail is reduced in height, giving it a lighter feel toward the top.

Traditional artisans had a quick way to proportion this top component in comparison to the bottom. Since the bottom is sized by dividing the over- all height by 10, simply dividing the remaining height above the foot again by 10 gives you a top bracket that’s just slightly less in height than the bottom foot.

No matter what sort of woodworking you do, The Workbench Design Book will help you find the tools, detailed information and inspiration to build the right bench for your workshop, your budget, and your projects.

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