Designing Furniture A Survival Guide

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• should be fun, not intimidating, iMmmmr Yet ] know woodworkers who think nothing ofhuilding complicated jigs or mastering difficult finishes but feel lost when it comes to designing a piece offur-nilure truly iheir own.

The most important thing you can do is to train your eye. Look at furniture you like. Look in books, or go to museums, galleries, and new or antique furniture stores. Discover what appeals to you and why. In my article "Designing a Chest ofDrawers" on pp. 1 04-108,1 talk about absorbing ideas from the past and synthesizing them into your own vision..lot down your discoveries as you make them. Measure the back ofa particularly comfortable chair or the height of the seat. Keep a sketchbook of inspiring ideas; you never know how you might use some detail or rough sketch later.

Gaining confidence as a designer is more subtle than, say, learning to cut dovetails, but it'sjust another skill. I'll give you the loose process 1 follow when designing furniture and some tools and techniques that will help you along the way.

Start with What You Know


A good place to start a design is with the givens—there are always some. Say you're designing a piece with drawers. What are you going to store and how much space does it take up? This might mean measuring a stack of sweaters or sizing up particularly useful drawers you already use. If you're designing a table, consider whether it will be used next to a sofa or a bed or worked at while standing or sitting. How large does the top need to be?

Architectural Graphic Standards (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) is one place to get the starting points for a design.This book gives practical dimensions for a wide range of furniture.

WHERETO START. Furniture design books and architectural standard guides are good places to look for practical measurements based on average body types and ergonomie factors.

Golden Ratio Furniture Design


A useful proportioning rule is the golden rectangle, or golden mean, a ratio of roughly 1:1.6. It's a pleasing proportion for cabinet doors, tabletops, the front or sides of a chest of drawers, anything rectangular. You can use it to proportion the panels of a large multipaneled door, as well as the door itself. Arid you can stack multiple golden rectangles together-for example, a cabinet one high and two or three long.

The golden rectangle was used to proportion the doors, II e door panels, and the upper case of this cabinet.

Work Out the Lines and Proportions

Now, armed with (or saddled with, depending on how you look at it) the practical dimensions, work on the overall proportions and lines of die piece.

Proportion is the size relationship of the parts. It's the width of a table compared with its length or the height of each drawer face compared with the ones above and below it. But don't think only about the proportions of parts you can see; the negative spaces formed between the parts are also important.Tables and chairs create lots of negative spaces, interesting ones that can mirror and reinforce the positive, as is the case with the shapely curved back splats of 18th-century chairs.

A useful rule is the golden mean, a ratio of 1:1.618, also called the golden rectangle. It's a classical proportion for anything rectangular, such as cabinet doors, tabletops and the front or sides of a chest of drawers.

Avoid the tiresome stock lumberyard dimensions X in., 1/ in , and y/ in. in door rails and stiles, dividers between drawers, table aprons, and other highly visible parts. A variety of sizes and proportions is the most visually stimulating.

Drawings and mock-ups Typically I make lots of small sketches to get a sense ol my design before making accurate full-scale drawings. Drafting full scale is always best for working out the shape of curves, details, or tricky joinery, and for recognizing potential problems before you get there. It's a useful way to see exactly what you're designing and whether the shapes and proportions are pleasing.

A full sized drawing offers other bene fits.You can transfer angles and dimensions (such as shoulder lines) directly from the drawing to the parts, making fewer errors than reading measurements off a tape. Once you get curves and contours the way you like them, you can make patterns directly from the drawing.

I drawings, however, often aren't enough to help you visualize a three-dimensional piece of furniture. At some stage a mock-up of all 01 part of the piece might he the best way to visualize die design.'Jape together cardboard cutouts or nail together some scraps. Stand back and look at your mock-up (and drawing) from different angles. Work 011 something else and come back to your design with a fresh eye. Use your eyes—not your tape—to work out the dimensions of parts, such as the thickness of a tabletop, the height of the table, or the width of its apron.

Once you know what works, you can break some of the rules. Exaggerate dimensions: I )esign a long, narrow table or a strongly vertical chest of drawers. Instead of a progression of deepening drawers down the front of a case, add a couple of smaller ones toward the middle. Keep 111 mind, however, the balance of the piece. It might be solid 011 its feet but feel unsettling to the viewer.

Keep Construction in Mind

Aside from the practical dimensions that the design must accommodate, construction is another real-world consideration.'1 he most ingenious design is no good if it's incredibly difficult to build. It's better (and more profitable) to build something simple that looks complicated, rather than something complicated that looks simple. So think about construction early in the design process.

Insight into how to design the joinery and build a piece often comes from experience— if you have it. If I had never made a gate-leg table. I'd look at as many examples as possible to see other makers' designs and solutions.'! here is 110 one way to build anything, but there are easier and harder ways to do it. Some ways are stronger, too.

Get Down to Details

While choosing woods, refining proportions, and devising construction strategies are important aspects of a design, the details are the most important— and the most elusive.These are the small touches thai draw your eye and delight your senses. Some details are purely practical: a chamfer to blunt and thus protect an edge from wear. Others are purely decorative: an inlay line around a drawer. Great details can do both; for instance, beads disguise the gap

DESIGNING A BLANKET CHEST Hack works out proportions and details in his sketchbook before moving on to full-sized drawings.

Choose Appropriate Woods

Wood choice is both an aesthetic and technical consideration. Wood color, figure, hardness, how primary and secondary woods enhance or contrast each other, and how your wood will age are all concerns. A piece made of ash or oak, both of which have very strong grain, will be very different from the same piece made of quieter cherry or flashier bird's-eye maple. I larder woods will take fine details and hold up to wear and tear, but you may want the patina that softwoods develop with everyday use.Think through the various parts and the availability of stock wide or thick enough to make them. Of course, wood selection sometimes comes down to what you have 011 hand or what you can get.

NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING These models of edge treatments are for the chest in the sketchbook below.


The challenge is not find ing details you like— they are everywhere you look—but using them in a way that enhances rather than clutters your design.

around a door, round an edge prone to wear, and add a nicely molded outline. Some designs are rich with details. Others rely on beautiful woods and surfaces alone.

The challenge is not finding details you like—ihey are everywhere you look—hut using them in a way that enhances rather than clutters your design. Don't give your viewers so much variety that they feel confused and overwhelmed. Treat details as variations on a theme. Use similar woods, colors, patterns, and repeating shapes and sizes to create unity in the piece. In a cherry cabinet you might use dark rosewood to pin the joints on the doors, for the knobs, and perhaps for cock beading on the drawers. A part of the crown molding could echo the bead shape.

Details are hard to see on paper but easy to mock up. Wondering about a molding shape or how big to make a chamfer? Go cut some. Test samples also give you practice making a difficult detail, can be sent to a client, and can be saved for future reference.

Part of the thrill of making something unique is leaving some things to be discovered as you build. Give yourselfthe flexibility to let the design evolve. Curve an edge that was to be straight, refine a leg to a more pleasing taper, deepen a rail where you can now see you need it. Even mistakes can add something to the fun; they'll force you to come up with creative solutions you just might use again.

GARRETT HACK is a professional furniture maker and contrbuting editor to Fine Woodworking magazine.


Square pegs and rectangular wedges made of ebony work together visually in the base of a trestle table (above). A black-and-white checkered pattern is repeated in the stringing and banding on the legs of the demilune table right, and the motif is echoed in the border of the oval inlay.

Demilune Table With Garrett Hack

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How To Sell Furniture

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