Today I had a weird feeling. Not the kind in your pants – the kind in your head.
Because of a combination of odd events this afternoon, I ended up with about two hours of free time. No crushing deadline to meet. No frantic e-mails to answer.
So I designed the next chest for my book on campaign furniture. This one will be made using 40-year-old teak from Midwest Woodworking, which has been sitting in the corner of my shop for many months.
When I design a piece that won’t be painted, I begin by measuring all the pieces of lumber that I have picked out for the project. Unless I’m building an exact reproduction, I let the wood on hand provide the overall dimensions. If I have 17”-wide stock, I’m not going to draw a 20”-deep case.
Most of my teak is 18” wide. I have a 12’-long board and a 10’-long board. Plus three 50”-long boards and a shorter 13”-wide board for the drawers and thick chunks for the legs. These boards encouraged me to draw a chest that is 17” x 35” x 35” and that sits on 4”-tall turned feet.
How do I know that this will look good? I’ve spent the last two years (actually longer) collecting images and dimensions for campaign chests I like. I started looking at their overall sizes and sorting them into chests that were on the wide side and those that had a subtle vertical aspect to them.
This chest is going to be a little taller than it is wide. I pulled out images of about a dozen chests that are taller than they are wide and started sorting them into ones that had drawer arrangements I liked and those that were forgettable.
Then I fired up SketchUp.
When I draw things in SketchUp to build them, I draw only the things I don’t know. I don’t draw the joinery if it’s stuff I know how to make. I don’t draw drawer sides and bottoms and internal guides, runners and kicks. I know how to make all that stuff – drawing it will only slow me down.
If there’s wacky compound joinery, I’ll draw that. But that’s pretty uncommon.
When I work in SketchUp, the major question I want answered is this: Will this project look like something that will avoid the burn pile for the next 200 years? This is SketchUp’s superpower. You can draw a chunk of something and look at it from an infinite number of perspectives. You can put it in a room, by a loom or on the moon.
So I drew a bunch of 17” x 18” x 35” boxes and sketched drawer fronts on them. I drew a bunch of feet. Then I put the boxes together and looked at them from a bunch of perspectives. For a project like this, the entire sketching process took about an hour.
Before I quit SketchUp and fetched a beer (Bell’s Hopslam), I made a cutting list for the major parts and took that down to the shop and confirmed that the lumber on hand will support the design on screen.
And finally, with chalk in hand, I’ll start sketching my cutting lines on the rough stock.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. What about the stuff I draw for magazine articles? That is a totally different process. That’s when I draw everything the reader doesn’t know. So I draw every part, every joint, every assembly. But I do that after the project is complete.