This page is, and will probably always will be, under construction

This is probably a fools errand. I've tried several times to get a thread going on Design in rec.woodworking, and They sputtered along and died out fairly quickly. But some of the response were really good. I'm going to try and include some of those "discussions" here. If there's something you'd like to say about the topic please drop me a line (please click here to e-mail me your contribution)

Some people seem to have a gift - the ability to come up with good designs right of the top of the head - effortlessly - a couple of lines on a piece of scrap paper and they're off and running. At least so it seems.

I had a sumie (chinese/japanese brush painting ) teacher who related this story to each of her classes. "A client commissioned me to do a painting for her. We agreed on the subject matter, the size and a price. She asked if she could watch as I did the piece for her. I layed out the paper, my brushes, a bowl of water and ground my ink. Eight brush strokes later the piece was done.. The client was pleased but seemed irritated. I asked what was wrong? 'But it only took you a minute or two! Two hundred and fifty dollars for a minute or two!?' - she exclaimed. No - I replied - that's 25 years of experience and training PLUS a minute or two."

The point? Underlying their "gift" are some basic rules of thumb, some core "rules" based on thousands of years of experience. And there are some rules of thumb for good furniture design and you can learn and use some of them. There are also "tricks" which artists and architects utlize regularly (click here to see some of those tricks).

In his class on furniture design, Graham Blackburn stressed the need for developing a plan for each project. Not a set of measured drawings with a parts list and a cut list but a plan that considers what the piece is to do, where it's going to go, how tall, how wide, how deep, is it going to be solid wood or ply, if there are drawers, how many in what space, if cabinet doors, what space is/are it/they to cover, is the piece going to be of light or dark wood, will it be light and airy or heavy and solid looking, how is it going to be lit...? Better to have a thought through consideration of the design issues before cutting the first piece of stock, or for that matter, deciding on what material you're going to use. Even if you're starting with a set of "PLANS", you should consider how it can be modified to fit the need the piece is being made to fill. Just going through the process of "planning / designing" will often, though not always, result in a better piece than if you don't go through the process.

My personal design preference leans heavily towards James Krenov's style - clean, apparently simple, with the wood as the focus, but not overpowering, and all the parts fitting together in a pleasing and coherent way. His pieces seem to whisper to you rather than yelling at you. His pieces would be very easy to live with. They're calm, serene and beautiful. I also like his approach to woodworking and to life - keep it simple, do it very well and enjoy the process.

If you'd like to see the evolution of a design for a Krenov inspired cabinet click here.

The plan is to have this area get into what makes a piece of furniture stand out from all the rest - and why. I'm not talking about a day-glo green table top with bright orange carrot legs, but the wonderfully proportioned, elegant in its execution, hold your attention and piques your curiosity type of piece - that does its job extremely well. Topics I hope to get into are form. function, material selection, joinery, grain, edge treatments, hardware selection and finishes. I've got some images to use as examples of good design and not so good design but it's going to take some time to work out how to structure that part of the site.

FORM - will get into proportions

Phi, The Golden Rectangle - 1: 1.618 - what is it and does it work?

Fibonacci? 1, 2, 3, 5?

Graduated drawer proportions - a formula or two that seem to work

Tapered legs - why and how?

FUNCTION will get into ergo dimensions

  • Dining tables - how much knee room, how tall, how much space per person...
  • Chairs - what's a minimum seat size? how far off the floor should the seat be? if there's arms how far above the seat should they be? ...
  • Kitchen counters - how far off the floor, how deep ...
  • Shelves - how wide is too wide? How deep, how thick, for books, nick nacks ...
  • Sooner or later we're all going to have a disability or two ...


  • Solid wood vs ply vs composite, thick veneer over base wood or ply ..
  • Environmental considerations - solid wood in a bathroom?
  • Eco considerations - endangered, sustainable?


  • Why solid wood furniture requires joinery that allows for expansion and contraction and how it can affect the design
  • Make joints a visual element of the design or hide them?
  • Mortise & tenon, dovetails, dadoes, rabbets, biscuits, dowels or pocket hole screws?


  • When the dominate visual feature of the piece is the wood
  • Wild grain / straight grain / quarter sawn, riff sawn, burl
  • How the wood was sawn affects the visual impact of the wood and how it moves
  • When poor grain selection can screw up an otherwise good piece
  • Open vs closed grain
  • sharp vs soft edges - functional reasons for avoiding sharp edges
  • visual impact of edge treatment - how to make a wide component seem narrower, a means of visually integrating adjacent components


  • Hinges - how they can affect the design - have them be a visual component of the design or go with hidden hinges, magnetic catches ...


  • How does the function of the piece dictate finishing choices?

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