Tag-Archive for ◊ creating a work in wood – from idea to finished piece ◊

• Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

At this point you very much want the piece to exist, to stand on its own, and so you are driven to build. You want it to “turn out” to be what you envision and hope for. Yet in between the compelling vision and the fulfilling object is the potential chasm of disappointment. This, frankly, evokes some fear.

To your rescue comes the teacher, and ultimately, the teacher is you. Let us consider what the teacher does, followed by an example for each:

  • He charts an effective course. This is the strategic order of the steps of construction. Will you glue up the wall cabinet case before or after building the doors?
  • He points out the critical junctures where you must bear down and get things right. Those last few plane shavings off the drawer sides greatly affect the fit and feel of the drawer.
  • He alerts you to possible pitfalls, many of them sneaky. How will the figure change when a piece is shaped into a convex curve?
  • He keeps a steady perspective on the big picture of the project, maintaining your faith. Are the little errors you’ve made so far going to significantly affect the final piece or should you not worry about them?

The teacher may be another person whose experience you borrow, but in due time (meaning after making your quota of mistakes) you must be your own teacher even as you remain a student. The important thing is to think through the four points listed above. Further exploration of how exactly to avoid that chasm of disappointment in creating a work in wood is a larger topic for another time, but the steps discussed in this series will go a long way to helping your project “turn out” the way you want it to.

As you build, there are still small but important decisions to be made because, as noted in the previous post in this series, drawings cannot fully represent the piece. This is much as a musician uses tools such as phrasing, articulation, and tone color to produce his personal interpretation of written music, staying within the fundamental conception of the composer.

Thus the music, or the woodworking creation, comes alive. You’ve done it, now it is there.

And yes, that is . . . happy woodworking. Best wishes to you as you pursue your ideas!

• Friday, April 30th, 2010

In developing your woodwork creation, you have so far: developed ideas into a strong concept to be made with beautiful wood, researched design, construction, skills, and tools, and used mock-ups to work out various issues. Is it time to make sawdust? Not yet. You should first build the project on paper or CAD with measured drawings.

Drafting the project allows you to work through the specifics of the construction and create an invaluable guide to keep you on course in making the piece. If this step is neglected, if you “wing it,” the odds are high of coming to an impasse in the course of building the project. It is better to use an eraser now than to add to the firewood pile later. Though the drawing process will include plenty of erasing/deleting, backtracking, more work with the mock-up, and some tedium, it is worth it.

Orthographic projection drawings – front elevation, side elevation, and plan views – are the most practical and useful of the pencil-and-paper methods. These are made to scale for the piece as a whole. It is helpful to draw certain key areas full size, especially to work out joinery and other details. It is generally not necessary to codify all of the innards of a piece with a pretty drawing, but it is not wise to leave things to chance and risk getting stuck in the middle of a project. The drawings also serve to plan the wood requirements, and are a record that may be referred to for future projects.

For the wall mirror, the example piece for this series, pictured below are front and side elevations and two modified plan views.

copyright 2010 Robert Porcaro

While it is possible to do some simpler and/or very familiar constructions working from a mock-up without drawings, I believe a woodworker should at least have basic drafting skills. The methods are far beyond the scope of the present discussion. I suggest Bob Lang’s Drafting and Design for Woodworkers as a manual for understanding and making drawings, as well to get going on SketchUp 3-D CAD. Bob now has an extensive set of video lessons, SketchUp for Woodworkers.

A word of context is in order. Valuable though they are, drawings and CAD are never more than graphic representations of a piece and cannot fully define it. They do not contain the workmanship and subtle personal details, such as refined edges and textures, that contribute immeasurably to a piece. This is part of the life that a craftsman imbues into the piece as he works.

And so you must build the piece, which is the subject of the next installment in the series.

• Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I believe a mock-up, a model of the proposed piece, is an essential step in designing original woodwork. It should be full size if at all practical.

The mock-up allows the designer to sense spatial relationships and proportions from various viewing angles, as well as the overall physical impact of the piece with a veracity that cannot be duplicated with a paper drawing or even with a manipulable 3-D CAD creation. Such images cannot give you a real sense of how the size of a chair relates to your body, how a table fills space in a room, how intimate a small wall cabinet might feel, or how a curve flows in a table leg.

Perhaps until we have consumer technology to project a full size hologram in front of us, mock-ups are a must. Make them expediently from wood scraps, cardboard, plywood, tape, biscuits, foamcore, hot-melt glue, and so forth. Use a bandsaw, rasp, drawknife, scissors, marking pens, or whatever else is quick and easy. It should feel like playtime. Make just what you need to put the concept of the piece in front of you so that you can work with it.

Experience the proposed piece as you might approach it in a room. Sense how elements and sections relate to each other and to the whole. You may be pleased or unsettled, so change what you wish, guided by your vision of the concept of the piece. For some woodworkers and some pieces, it might be possible to do minimal drawing and work can proceed almost entirely from mock-ups.

It is often helpful to mock up critical elements of a piece with more precision, for example, a table leg or door handle. Perhaps compare two slightly different legs, one at each side of a mock table top, and glance right and left to see which one you like better. Some elements can be expedited. Drawer fronts might be drawn on a plywood sheet. Sometimes a partial mock-up containing the key elements is all that is necessary.

I find the Goldilocks method helps solve a lot of problems. For example, how much should a table top overhang an apron? I’ll adjust mock-up sections of a top and apron: too much for sure, too little for sure, then work within that range and somewhere . . . it feels just right. Unlike Goldilocks, I routinely revisit the mock-up later in the day or on another day to see if it still feels right.

What you think and feel is right and supports your concept of the piece, IS right. That’s the point! Trust yourself.

For the mirror, the example piece in this series, I bandsawed scraps, worked with rasps and an oscillating sander to get the curves about right, and joined the pieces with biscuits and screws. As you can see, I changed things by elongating biscuit slots and by splicing in center sections. I drew lines to represent beading of which I had also cut a sample section. I scribbled notes on the mock-up. I experimented with keeping or losing the shelf and with a contrasting circular piece in the top center of the frame.

Next in the series: Drawings

• Friday, April 23rd, 2010

So far we have been mostly considering what we would like to do for a project. Somewhere along the way we must consider if it can be done and how to do it. Certainly, those two issues are in the undercurrent of thought all along the way, aided by experience. Now the construction details, functional specifics, and the available skills and tools have to be dealt with for sure.

The discussion of these issues has been intentionally placed here in the sequence, not at the beginning, to encourage free creativity in developing ideas. If we were to start with directions for how tables have always been made, for example, this might inhibit new ideas, especially for one-of-a-kind work. However, the price for this freedom in producing ideas and concepts is that some will, upon research, prove impractical or impossible. Thus, in reality, the creative stages overlap and change order; there is no single correct path.

For research into construction methods and functional features of furniture, there are countless sources. Some of my favorites:

Bill Hylton’s Illustrated Cabinetmaking is a great place to start. Thinking of making a dining table? The chapter on that starts with measurements for leg room, elbow room, and so forth. Then he presents drawings and construction details for 14 ways of making a dining table, including leg and apron, trestle, pedestal, etc.

I also like Taunton’s project book series which includes Chests of Drawers, Beds, Desks, etc. Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking magazines’ back issues (both available on disc) are excellent sources. Will Neptune’s articles in FW are worth their weight in gold. Though I do not do reproduction furniture, I’ve spent many hours in years past studying Franklin Gottshall’s books.

Since I design all of my own work, I’m not following the plans in these publications, but I do try to understand as much as possible about how things were successfully done by others. If a woodworker is going to break from traditional construction, it behooves him to comprehend why it was done that way in the past, and carefully think through, and possibly trial run, any novel approaches.

For the wall mirror, the example piece for this series, I researched mirror glass – quality, thickness, beveling, etc. I also checked into how the mirror was secured into the frame in a few different published plans.

Do you have the skills to make the piece you want? I think it is important to not overreach, get stuck in a project that you cannot handle, and create a disappointment. (Yea, been there, done that.) On the other hand, this is a key stage where you can improve as a woodworker by researching and practicing new skills in preparation for a project. Perhaps you want to learn bent lamination technique, a padded shellac finish, or maybe just a new way to hold work on the bench. Let the requirements of the piece that you envision spur you to be a better woodworker. Here’s how.

Finally, you may have to, ahem, buy some new tools. This is the best situation in which to buy them – the need to use them to actually make something.

Next in the series: Mock-ups

• Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

A design on paper or a monitor can never move us like the presence of the real object. It isn’t a work in wood without the wood. Sometimes a special piece of wood is the genesis of a project, sometimes it follows the design, but either way, the choice of wood is never an afterthought. It goes hand in hand with the design.

I never get past the first idea or sketch without considering what woods might bring them to life. Sensitivity to the wood is essential to creating compelling, personal woodwork. I believe that one reason that a lot of the furniture that comes from non-woodworker design “experts” looks lifeless is that the wood is just “filled in,” like a color of paint.

Unlike stone, clay, glass, or metal, wood carries the exciting variety of biology for us to behold and use! Practically, this requires that we understand and account for its properties, quirks, and even its mysteries. The differences in choosing, for example, butternut versus bubinga will affect almost every aspect of a piece.

Research as to the characteristics, limitations and potential problems of the wood may be necessary, especially if using an unfamiliar species. Here are a few helpful sources: 

Understanding Wood by Bruce Hoadley. If there is any one “must have” book for woodworkers, this is it.

Wood Handbook/Encyclopedia of Wood from the Forest Products Laboratory. All 486 pages are available as a free pdf here. Click on “View” under “Wood handbook – All Chapters” for the 13.90 MB download. Also available from Lee Valley in printed form.

Wood by Terry Porter. A beautiful compendium of pictures and descriptions of woods to whet your appetite.

FPL Tech sheets Look on the right side of the page for “Wood Properties (Techsheets).” Very helpful data such as wood movement values for many species . 

Paul Hinds’ unbelievable website with a gazillion pictures of a zillion species of wood. 

Purdue Cooperative Extension site Select “Hardwood Lumber and Veneer Species” from the drop down list. Practical monographs on domestic species with helpful pictures showing the range of quality and figure within each species.

Most important, you’ve got to get your hands on the particular wood you are planning to use, see how it works, moves, finishes, and watch and live with it a little while before using it in the project.

For the mirror, the example piece for this series of posts, I wanted a densely figured wood that would look good in narrow widths. I held up some pieces next to the bathroom mirror: maple, other light woods, and walnut, just didn’t give the look I wanted. The reddish color and swirly figure of waterfall bubinga were hits. I had false started with some figured makore only to find that I seemed to be sensitive to the dust and I wasn’t as fond of the figure as I first thought. I also had to junk one of the pieces of bubinga that had some stresses in it. That’s wood for you. I love this stuff.

Next in the series: Researching the design and techniques.

• Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

“I change many things, discard, and try again until I am satisfied. Then, however, there begins in my head the development in every direction, and, inasmuch as I know exactly what I want, the fundamental idea never deserts me, – it arises before me, grows. . .”Beethoven

As you play with various ideas, one (maybe a few) seems particularly attractive. It grabs you and demands further exploration. After some development, it becomes a clear, strong, and compelling vision of your project. This is what I am calling the “concept.”

The concept is important because it will be a guiding, unifying vision throughout the rest of the design and building processes. It defines a piece: its look, mood, style, and aesthetic. It sustains you when doubts arise deep into making a project. The concept is a bit like a person you understand, trust, and love.

For most of us, highly skilled and exact drawings are not necessary to represent a concept. What matters is to have enough sketches, graphite or electrons, and a mental sense, to make the concept clear to you. Every detail need not be worked out at this point. Rather, the clarity of the concept is a reference that promotes consistency when deciding later which nuances fit or fight the look of the piece.

Like a song, there will usually be a “hook” – an aspect that draws keen interest within the unity of the piece. The concept need not be grand; a modest, simple theme sharply conveyed with conviction can be quite powerful. There must be a good sense of the size and overall proportions of the piece.

For the wall mirror, the example piece in this series, I wanted a Japanese motif, most significantly with curves contrasting with straight lines and angles. No mitered corners. The top of the frame was the hook for me. The straight line, trapezoidal sides lead the eye up to it. As I experimented with different shapes at the ends of the top piece, it was easy to pick the winner. The straight lines and angles of the bottom piece form a visually solid base. I later reworked the end angles. Later I experimented with adding a little shelf.

I envisioned the surfaces of the top and bottom pieces to be convex in the horizontal and vertical dimensions but I could not draw that. No problem – I worked it out later with a mock-up. I experimented with size and proportions using a medicine cabinet at home and some masking tape. I was not sure of every detail and dimension at this point, nor was everything on paper, but I was sure about the essential look of the piece.

I emphasize the need to have a concept! Some woodworking projects reflect the lack of a unifying, clear vision on the part of the maker. Features foreign to each other may be conglomerated or there may be no focus of interest, no reason for the viewer to care. Sure, we’re woodworkers and we all make pure utilitarian stuff too – I sure do – but if you want to make fine woodwork that excites and fulfills, develop a good concept to get you going.

This is fun!

Next: Wood

• Sunday, April 04th, 2010

An idea is a notion, an inkling. It is not a developed concept of a piece; that comes later. It is what you start with. Many ideas come to mind, some making a quick exit, some lingering, and some shining brightly. Some may gather light slowly, some may later fade, and maybe some will be true love at first sight.

There are two important matters in this. First, get a sketchbook and use it. It is a place to save ideas and to play with them. I like a small (6″ x 9″) book for convenient portability, though larger books offer the advantage of juxtaposing more sketches on one page. Maybe an iPad will do. Second, you must recognize a good idea – one that demands further exploration. Ultimately, that is a personal feeling that you’ve got to trust.

Ideas are found anywhere and everywhere. You may start with a specific functional need, such as a dining table to seat six people, or have some great wood that “tells you” what it can become, or just want to make any kind of fulfilling piece. In any case, look at lots of furniture, old and new, as well as architecture, nature, and more. Visual inspiration may come from sources that are seemingly distant from woodworking – pottery, roof tile, shoes, a doorknob, a turtle, or the dark recesses of your mind.

Go to Google Images and search Mayan art, coffee table, Greek temples, or whatever. Don’t be shy. Einstein said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” True, I suppose, but there should be no guilt involved. If you are designing a dining table, for example, look at more than just dining tables. Maybe a plant stand or a Japanese shrine will generate an idea for the table legs.

Doodle in your sketch book. Drawing ability is handy but not essential. Get something on paper that has meaning for you. I find it more productive to remember what I thought I saw and work with that, knowing that the image or motif has surely been churned in the machinations of my mind before it even becomes a sketch. Fine, I think. Maybe someone out there will make something truly 100% original, but probably not. I would bet all “original” designs are derivative to some extent. Those notions that “pop into your head” almost surely have some external basis.

On the other hand, unless you are doing reproduction work or working from plans, I feel there is no point in trying to copy or “be like” someone else’s style. It will probably be a poor copy because you are not that other person. Besides, why would you want to?

As you redraw your sketches, they become further modified and more your own. The new sketches can modify an overall look or refine only parts or details. Stay with it, explore, reject and develop as you wish. While there is still much work to be done in the design process, you are on your way to producing a clear concept of what you want to build.

I posted this little sign below the handle of my drawing cabinet:

Next: the Concept

• Sunday, March 28th, 2010

This is the introduction to a series of posts that will explore the process of turning an idea into a finished piece. The context will primarily be original work, as distinct from making something from plans or reproduction work.

For woodworkers, understanding the stages of the creative process can help us refine and better utilize it. This is the guts of creative work. For many of those who appreciate fine woodwork, there is a fascination in the development of a piece from something in the mind, to lines on paper or screen, to wood. How does something get to be there?

The outline of the series is as follows:

1. Introduction

2. Ideas

3. Concept

4. Wood

5. Research

6. Mock-up

7. Drawing

8. Building

It should not be inferred from this outline that the process is quite so linear. The stages can overlap, switch order, repeat, and sometimes be skipped. Furthermore, the very nature of creativity can generate endless exceptions to everything involved with it. Nonetheless, there is a generally applicable map that leads a woodworker’s journey from a thought to the existence of a creation that stands on its own. The finished piece reflects the soul of the craftsman/artist as well as the integrity of the process from which it arose.

For me, making things is fun and exciting. Please join me in the exploration! I will reference, as an example, a fairly simple, small piece – a wall mirror. This will avoid unnecessary complexity that might distract from the essential concepts, and it will keep the photography easy. Note that the posts in this series will not necessarily be contiguous because along the way I may get the urge to post on other topics.