Editor’s note: After more than two years of work, we are about to send “By Hand & Eye” to the printer. This 200-page book by George R. Walker and Jim Tolpin is unlike any other woodworking book I have ever edited, read or even thought about. It seeks nothing less than to change the way you see the world around you. As you might know, we are not fans of systems of designing furniture that rely on (bogus) secret formulas. There are “formulas” out there, but they are hidden in plain sight. “By Hand & Eye” is the “purloined letter” of furniture design.
In the coming days (perhaps tomorrow) we will offer this book for sale here in our store, with our regular pre-publication offer of free domestic shipping. Until then, here is a missive from author Jim Tolpin on the book.
— Christopher Schwarz
At right is the sign on the door that greets students as they arrive for our “By Hand & Eye” design workshops (which we offer here at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and through Goddard College’s Port Townsend extension). For these folks (and for George and I), one of the most appealing and exciting things about this pre-industrial artisan’s approach to furniture design (as opposed to the typical and ubiquitous Industrial Arts approach) is the absence of mathematics. For many would-be woodworkers measuring to – and deriving divisions or multiples of – fractional dimensions and numbered angles is a huge stumbling block. It takes the fun right out of it in fact! That, and the effort of coming up with proportions – from the overall shape of the piece to the size of its internal elements such as rails and stiles, legs and drawer faces.
But in the artisan’s language of design and layout, if you can count to 12 and divide it up into whole-number ratios (and “12” is very amenable to these operations compared to “10,” by the way), you pretty much have a handle on all the math you’ll need to design anything from a cradle to a coffin to any furnishing in between. All the proportions needed to create durable and appealing wooden structures spring quickly and intuitively from a single dimension that responds to a functional constraint (you can only lift a pot of soup so high to put on a serving credenza) or to fit a certain space – as was the situation with my last project.
I’ve just finished constructing this all-hand-tool project: a Honduras mahogany bookcase to fit between two trim elements in our living room. So how did the design process go? Here’s how:
I started by taking a measurement of the available width. Wait, I take that back. I just stuck a stick across the wall and made a mark on it – I have no idea what the number, is and I still don’t. I then subtracted the overhangs my mouldings would produce (ascertained from a full-scale drawing of them) and that established the outside width of the case. I made the height of the case twice that distance (a 2:1 ratio – a nice, dramatic octave). The height of the base moulding is 1/12th the height, and the side stiles are 1/12th the width as is the top rail showing below the top cornice mouldings. The depth of the case fits the biggest book I intend to put in it, and the shelf spacing is adjustable. That’s it. The design was done. In less that half an hour I was off to the shop to do some woodworking.
This design language is not about magical rectangles; it’s not about arithmetic derivations; and no, it’s not about working to prescriptive formulas, either. It’s just simple, generative geometry that is just as much fun to do now as it was when you first met up with it in first grade! Welcome to the real (and reasonable) world of rational (i.e. able-to-ratio) numbers.
— Jim Tolpin