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.