On the surface, basic geometry skills can seem like magic or just a cool trick. We sat down with Chad Stanton to learn why geometry is a crucial skill for woodworkers and not just another “life-hack.”
With the advent of new technology like SketchUp, it’s no longer necessary for woodworkers to look to their compasses or squares to solve problems as they work. Even seasoned professionals rely on software and apps to assist them in finding angles and drawing curves. Sure, understanding basic geometric concepts a hundred years ago would have been a necessity, but with the precise tools modern technology affords us, is geometry still relevant?
According to Chad Stanton, the answer is a resounding yes. Many of you know him from the I Can Do That! series or from his personal channel, Woodchoppin’ Time. Off camera, Chad also owns his own business, Stanton Fine Furniture.
We sat down with Chad to talk about geometry in relation to woodworking, and why basic geometry skills are still relevant and useful to all woodworkers.
What geometry is, and isn’t
“Geometry is an incredibly old form of math that allows you to find intricate angles or missing pieces to a puzzle by use of just some lines, you don’t necessarily need numbers. It’s simple enough that people can still use it today, but it’s accurate enough because it’s been around since the beginning of time.” Chad said.
Yes, geometry is “math,” and the numbers certainly are important, but they’re not always needed. Algebra involves the use of letters and symbols to create equations – geometry is the use of numbers to find actual spatial relationships. Compared to algebra, which deals more with the abstract (data, patterns over time, etc.,) understanding proportions and spatial relationships is the essence of geometry for woodworkers.
Why is geometry important for woodworkers?
While working in his garage one day, Chad was approached by some neighborhood kids who frequently stopped by to watch him work. When one boy pointed at a compass and asked “What’s that?” Chad told him to draw a line on a piece of paper and that using the compass, he could find the exact center of the line without measuring its length.
Of course, the boy accepted the challenge and drew lines of varying lengths and was amazed when Chad could find the exact center of every line.
“To him is was like magic, and yet for what we do, it’s just the basics.” he said.
Finding the center of a line without measuring is just the beginning. Knowing how to perform a few simple geometric exercises can help save you time and solve all sorts of practical problems in the shop.
“I’ve been on job sites where people have to make a big arch, say for a very wide door opening…and they don’t know how to make a smooth, symmetric arch. And I can show them with a couple of long pieces of wood and three nails. To them, it’s a ‘cool trick’.” Chad said.
A basic understanding of geometry is also incredibly useful when designing and creating furniture or large projects. Through understanding proportions like the Golden Rectangle, geometry helps you understand how to create pieces that are aesthetically pleasing at a very basic level.
“When you have that basic knowledge you can start to make a table and it doesn’t have to be fancy; geometry shows you the perfect height, the perfect depth. It’s proportions, it’s for our eyes. And this is something that many beginning woodworkers are not taught.” Chad said.
Once you can understand the relationships, you are free to experiment with the pieces you create while still being confident in the structural integrity and design. Chad used the example of the classic Windsor Chair which has been reproduced time and time again with the exact proportions of the original:
“These chairs can be as light as six pounds and hold up to 500 pounds, and the way it’s done is through geometry. It’s the only way a Windsor Chair can be so light, hold so much and last for hundreds of years without glue, without nails, without screws. Let’s say that I wanna make this chair taller, or smaller, or wider or deeper, I can’t go with those same angles anymore.”
After getting together with a friend to determine the actual degrees behind the splay and rake of a classic Windsor, Chad was able to resize and adjust with confidence.
“Now, instead of being told what my angle has to be I can custom design my own angles. “You need to fully understand why it’s built that way, and it requires learning that math,” he said.
Arcs and curves are another geometric creation that can have a profound effect on your work. Sure, it’s easy to draw a curved line but as with the Golden Rectangle, there are certain proportions that just are naturally more pleasing to the eye.
“A circle or an arc is simple, but it adds a certain element of grace and a little bit more beauty, I think, to every piece of furniture,” Chad said.
“It’s fine if you want to draw a curve and you find a paint can, or whatever, but you’re restricted to the radius of that curve based of the size of that paint can. If you want the curve a little tighter or a little bit more round, a couple of basic exercises with a compass that you can pick up for a buck at the dollar store can do some amazing tricks.”
Freedom to be more creative
With these basic concepts in mind, Chad explained that woodworkers can design their own projects with confidence and have more room to be creative.
“People tell me they’re not creative. You don’t know HOW to be creative. Everyone’s creative, you just have to know how to tap into that. Let’s start with a basic size and dimension that we know is already pleasing, and from there you can add your elements of uniqueness.”
Improve Your Knowledge
No matter the skill level, woodworkers of all types (yes, even digital) can benefit from brushing up on their geometry. Watch Chad’s video on basic geometry below and check out his recommended book, “Woodworker’s Essentials: Facts, Formulas and Shortcuts” by Ken Horner.