A Glimpse of ‘By Hand & Eye’

“I appreciate what George is trying to do with his column. His heart’s in the right place. But it’s like pushing water uphill with woodworkers.”

— Anonymous

George Walker’s “Design Matters” column in Popular Woodworking Magazine is one of the publication’s most polarizing. It’s not “love it or hate it” (read “Arts & Mysteries” for that). Instead, it’s more like you “get it or don’t get it.”

For many woodworkers learning to design furniture is as important a skill as learning to accurately sex a fruit fly. They see no need, especially with all the plans out there, beckoning to be built, luring you in with their come-hither cutting lists and scale drawings.

Other woodworkers want to learn the “assembly language” of good design – the architecture of a balanced composition. Like the pivotal scene in “The Matrix,” they want to see the ones and zeros – the straight lines and curves – that are used to create the grand illusion of furniture.

As I’m writing this blog entry, George and Jim Tolpin are finishing up work on a new book for Lost Art Press tentatively titled “By Hand & Eye,” which seeks to decode the pre-Industrial concepts of design and translate them into something we can use and will use in the shop.

Today I got a small glimpse of the work that Jim and George are doing when George made a short presentation on drawing curves at the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at Popular Woodworking Magazine.

He showed us a simple thing. He drew a circle. Then he adjusted his compasses and drew one-quarter of a circle inside that circle along the diameter. He readjusted and drew one-sixth of a circle along the same chord.

Though the final result looked a bit like a laughing PacMan, the individual curves were powerful stuff. If you had even a passing familiarity with furniture you would recognize them. Then George held up drawings of pediments and photographs of well-designed furniture and began pointing out these curves in the work. He showed how cabriole legs could be broken down into just a series of curves and straight lines.

It was, all in all, an extremely cool lesson.

I can’t wait to read the book when the draft is delivered to my desk in June (right George and Jim?).

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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18 Responses to A Glimpse of ‘By Hand & Eye’

  1. Rade says:

    We were taught a number of tricks in boatbuilding school for laying out rather complex curves without resorting graphing calculators or the like. Old books on stairbuilding are another good source for creating curves, my copy of “The Stair Builder’s Guide” by Morris Williams c.1928 has any number of methods for laying out various curves and ellipses geometrically. As does my multi-volume reprint of “The Modern Carpenter Joiner and Cabinet-maker” (which Mr. Underhill is listed as a consultant.
    In any event I am eagerly awaiting Messrs. Walker and Tolpin’s upcoming book!

  2. James says:

    Let the so-called woodworkers stare and drool on their magazines in uncomprehending boredom.

    The first time they modify a drawing and build a finely joined, but dumpy, ugly piece, they’ll understand that they should have paid more attention to the importance of design.

  3. shavemaker says:

    There is only one thing more pleasing than someone asking, ‘Where did you get that beautiful piece of furniture?’ and being able to reply, ‘I made it.’ and that is to also say, ‘… and I designed it too!’ Timeless classics are not only classics because they are well made, but because their design beauty is enduring and immune to fashion. I am in a third category of woodworkers who read George’s column and say, ‘I think I almost get it … show me again.’ Bring on the book!

  4. Sean Pratz says:

    Now there’s a book I can see myself getting into. Plans are nice, and while I was one who voted “yes” to cutlists, I’ve never followed someone else’s plan for more than the basic idea (eg: it should be at least 1/3 thickness from the edge to be strong enough). If this book’ll be about design vs. plans, I’ll be first in line to buy.

    LAP floats my boat.

  5. David Gendron says:

    Can’t wait for that book also! I think we all need the help the George can give us, and even if we don’t get every bit of it, we can still benefit from it!

    Thank you

  6. John Cashman says:

    I’d buy this book even if it were only for the chapter on “Fun with Dividers.”

    • David Pickett says:

      There was a longish thread about dividers in the ‘Hand Tools’ section of the UK Workshop forum just a few days ago. If you’re feeling bored sometime…

  7. lew60 says:

    The Golden Mean was used as a method of design in the Baroque and Rococo. The simple method required only a compass. A recent book described it’s use for integrating the designs elements on the Pennsylvannia-Kentucky Long Rifles: Seeing through the Eyes of Yesterday: The Kentucky Rifle and the Golden Mean, By Patrick E. Hallam.104 pages, $40.00
    Hallam examines many rifles and shows how the designs were made using the golden mean to provide a harmony or balance between elements rather than poorly designed elements placed haphazardly.
    This new work will certainly provide more insight into the practical use of the golden mean by craftsmen. A much welcome addition too the craftsmen who is techncally proficient by feels they lack the eye for composition.

  8. Mark Maleski says:

    I have little to no interest in designing my own furniture but am interested in better understanding what makes the classic pieces so appealing and learning the methods of laying out elements with good proportion (to better reproduce pieces when plans are unavailable or inadequate). I am looking forward to this forthcoming book.

  9. rmcnabb says:

    I love George’s blog, and have used the Golden Mean for years when I built Kentucky rifles professionally, more as a sort of “background hum” of dimensional noise rather than any hard and fast rule that I stuck to, but it’s a wonderful trick to pull out of your hat and never lets you down. The fact that it seems redundant to many today is that their work not only doesn’t require it, but that it can’t be done if you use it. Woodworkers today build from plans they get from books or magazines. They don’t normally design their own furniture from the ground up, plans that don’t take any of this into account. Are you going to change your plans? There goes that holy “cut list” that people clamor for… Plus, much of the time this stuff just doesn’t really matter, and it didn’t “then” either. For every example of a piece that corresponds to the Golden Mean, you can find two that don’t, and still look nice. In fact, lots of time quirky individuality is charming. Too much rule-following leads to monotony.

    • lostartpress says:

      The Golden Mean/Section is *one* ratio. And it’s a modern one that is being applied retroactively to work. Sometimes with hilarious results.

      George and Jim’s work is about *many* different whole-number ratios that provide a musical harmony and variance to design. Their work is the opposite of monotony and the opposite of rule-making.

      It is, like so many other things in woodworking, learning to open your eyes.

      • Mike Mitchell says:

        I had the great fortune to hear George speak earlier this month and was suprised to hear this. It was wonderful to hear about finding the music in the furniture design and the use of the whole number ratio’s you mentioned. I wish I had a better understanding of how it correlated to music but his explanation and instruction was outstanding and very enlightening. I can’t wait to get a copy of the upcoming book.

  10. Rascal says:

    Clearly I need more shop time. I do read George’s column in PW but I need some practical practice (is that redundant?) to get to the point where I ‘get it’. Sooooo… this sounds like yet another excellent book for my library. The comments above made me think of something a wise person told me once upon a time… one is either growing or dying, learning or atrophying. I choose growing and learning.

  11. I’m really looking forward to this one.

  12. Tim Henriksen says:

    Agreed! I’m eagerly awaiting this book as well. I sincerely hope it hits the LAP desk on time!

  13. Jeremy says:

    I love George’s section in the magazine. I have learned so much from it, and I apply it as much as I can. I am looking forward to this book.

  14. NIck says:

    I was fortunate enough to take some classes from Jim Tolpin and learned his method for laying out dovetails with dividers. That skill alone has made me faster, more consistent and more able to vary layout for interesting design in dovetailing than anything else.

    A book that surfaces more of Jim and George’s design knowledge and tricks for application may fundamentally change my woodworking process.

  15. Dave from IN says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the design aspect of woodworking as much as the building, but I have never been very confident in my sense of decorative proportions (like moulding,nbanding, etc.), so I’m always looking for insight into this area of design. I’m certainly hoping that the upcoming book devotes some time to applying the “not design rules” to these areas. I’m also guessing that Matt’s upcoming moulding plane book will hit onthis as well (?).

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