Plans vs Proportions | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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Fit a furniture plan with your own eyes.
I think of the plans as a kind of roadmap. They were an important part of my first job as a machinist and later as a carpenter. We had an unwritten rule in the machine shop. Never touch a work unless it is accompanied by a drawing. Of course, what qualified as a drawing was approximate. It could be just a rough scribble on a small napkin or a full-fledged engineered print. Yet the drawings ensure one thing above all. That the manufacturer would produce something exactly as ordered. The correct size, the correct material, all made exactly to specification. When I started working with wood and wanted to build a table, it started with researching projects from books or magazines. It worked well for my first projects, but the idea of ”plan as a roadmap” began to crumble. In real life, a roadmap offers alternative routes if you want to take a detour or go astray. A woodworking plan offers no clues to build something shorter or wider or to change things up a bit. This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that slight changes in part size can have a dramatic impact on the appearance of something.
For most of history, builders had a working knowledge of how to use simple geometric proportions and shapes to create pleasing designs. This gave them the freedom to improvise and make healthy aesthetic choices. In this article I want to explain how I used this approach to design and build a contemporary chest of drawers.
Get a rough idea
We have an atrium in our house and my wife Barb asked me to make a small chest of drawers to fit the space. It had to be tight but with a top big enough to hold a lamp and a place to throw the day’s mail. He also wanted something a little more contemporary but still functioning as a chest of drawers that would provide some storage space. Finally, as it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the front door, it must have been a crash.
She has a good eye for proportions and I asked her to stand where the dresser would sit and help me get rough in the overall shape. With outstretched arms, he indicated how wide it should be and also raised his hand to give me an idea of the height and depth as well. Armed with this information, I established the simple rectangular shape found under the skin of the design. Traditional builders and craftsmen have relied on a small handful of simple rectangles to define the general boundaries of a project. Furniture builders used rectangles to define the facade or front view for house pieces and often used simple rectangles to define the top for tables or cabinets viewed from above. Builders in ancient times favored a small number of simple harmonic rectangles. The Greeks discovered that musical tones have simple harmonic relationships and reasoned that the same proportions that produced harmonious sounds to the ear also created harmonious shapes for the eye. If they wanted something compact, they could use a square with a ratio of height to width of 1: 1. Conversely, a long or tall drawing could use a rectangle of 1: 2. In between are some in-between that cover everything that you care to imagine. All of these are governed by simple proportions, i.e. 1: 1, 1: 2, 2: 3, 3: 4, 4: 5, 3: 5. Also note that they can be arranged horizontally or vertically to define a wide or tall cabinet . If a square shape looks too blocky to your eyes, you can move it a bit in one direction using a 4: 5 rectangle. Not enough? Push it back onto a 2: 3 rectangle. Each step is small, but enough to make a difference in your eyes. These provide time-tested starting points for roughing into a shape.
Turns out, Barb’s description with her hands actually came close to a 36“ square up to the height and width (more on that later) of about 16“ deep. Depth was important because he wanted to avoid crowding the foyer even if it meant the piece was tight as far as the dressers go. With this in mind I used a square as the underlying geometric structure for the facade. This square goes from the floor up and from side to side defines the exterior of the case. Let’s go inside and I’ll explain how I used simple proportions to size the different parts of the facade into a nice composition.
Avoid a static gaze
Proportions are key to creating a design with life and avoiding a static look. Think of them as how one part relates in size to neighboring parts and the whole. Take a look at your hand. Your fingers all refer in size to each other as well as the size of your hand itself and also the size of your entire body. Your fingers would look static (and artificial) if they were all the same size. Conversely, if a finger were half an inch longer or shorter than it is now, it would not go unnoticed. It’s about sizing different elements in a design and learning to compare them to other parts and the whole.
Proportion from top to bottom
Let’s start by dividing our square vertically and establishing the main parts. Our eyes process things from scratch. Perhaps it goes back to the need to measure an opponent to determine whether to approach or flee. Traditional designs often divide a space vertically into a beginning, center and end just like a good story. In our design the beginning is the plinth or base, the center is the case and the end is the top and the molding just below the top. The start and end also serve as edges that define the center or case area that houses the drawers. Think of them as a photo frame that compliments a painting.
To determine the height of the base, use the dividers to reduce the overall height of the square in equal parts and use the lower part to mark the height of the base. In this project my base turned out to be one sixth of the overall height. You can make fun of something with some cardboard and stand back and look at it to judge if it looks too heavy, light or right. Trust your eye. If a sixth feels heavy, divide the overall height into eight parts and use an eight to size it. Still too heavy? Continue dividing the height into 9, 10, or 12 parts. Eventually you will reach a point where it feels right. Next I sized the overall height of the top along with the molding just below the top. It will look heavy and static if you measure it at the same height as the base, so help lighten it up. In this case I made this portion at a third of the height of the base. You can think of the top section as a small crown molding as you might see on a taller cabinet or the top of a wall. If this were a taller cabinet where the crown is seen from below, I could make this section higher than the height of half the base or two thirds. Since this dresser top is viewed from above, the emphasis on the crown is subdued and scaled down much smaller.
Details, details, details
There are actually two aspects of this design that give it a more contemporary feel. One is the use of a light finish on this figured maple rather than using a stain to darken the tone. The other is to simplify the moldings and edge treatments. It employs a simple bevel on the top rather than a more complex curved profile and simple cap and ovolo moldings on the base, drawer edges and under the top. Contemporary or not, it helps to have some moldings for the transition between the base, case and top. With the base and top height defined, we can drill down and process the smaller sub-elements. When using aspect ratio to elaborate a design, always work from large to small. This means we establish our rectangular shape, break it down into main parts, and then work out the details within those main parts. At the top (final) the height is divided into five parts giving three parts to the top and the remaining two to the molding of the bay below. Notice how the top and the molding are different sizes to avoid looking static. The base (beginning) is divided into five parts and the upper fifth is extended by one part to set the height of the molding above it. The base is also divided into three parts and the two lower parts set the height of the cutout that crosses the bottom of the base. All these proportions on the facade turn the corner and repeat on the sides.
Spread out the center
This leaves us with the drawer arrangement taking up most of the space in the case. If we were only interested in efficient use of space and ease of manufacture, it is enough to make all drawers identical. Instead I chose to use a timeless and pleasant graduation arrangement of drawers. Each drawer is shorter than the one below by the width of a drawer divider. I wrote about how to do this layout in the June 2009 issue of Popular carpentry as well as in the Lost Art Press book “By Hound and Eye”. Figure seven illustrates some other drawer configurations to break up a static grid-like design.
Proportions to the rescue!
Once the design was done, I made a cardboard mockup in the lobby to get final approval from Barb. “Time out,” he said. “Now that I see it in full size, it’s too tall and wide.” We’ve lowered the height and length by about three inches. Thankfully, it was a small obstacle on the road, as all the parts were based on simple proportions on our square facade. It was just a matter of coming down from the same proportions on a slightly smaller square.
Due to the space, I haven’t specified all the proportional details in this design. Feel free to explore my designs and see if you can get rid of some of those finer details. This will help train your eyes and will also help you unpack the thinking behind this design. For more practical information on this traditional approach, you can find it in a book I co-wrote with Jim Tolpin “By Hand and Eye” published by Lost Art Press. PW
George is the co-author of three design books and writer of the By Hand & Eye blog (with Jim Tolpin). See more at www.byhandandeye.com.
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