We’ve had Derek Jones in the shop this week teaching six students to build cricket tables. And, he just turned in manuscript for his forthcoming book on the subject. So while Derek and the students are sawing, planing and mortising in the background, I’m giving his manuscript a first read. Below is an amuse-bouche. We expect the book to be available in early 2023.
On paper it might not feel like a big leap, but building with anything other than 90° represents something of a challenge for a lot of woodworkers. It shouldn’t – after all, 90 is just a number like 30 or 60. Although it takes a little adjusting to at first, the moment you set your mind to accept that these are just numbers it becomes less taxing and, with a little practice, soon feels quite natural. If this is breaking new ground for you or you are in any way put off by the idea, here’s a little incentive you probably weren’t expecting. Working with other angles will significantly improve your 90° game as well.
When everything around us in the workshop is calibrated to 90° and flat, it’s no wonder we default to this when designing furniture to build. With the introduction of machines and the need to produce everything – from homes to all the stuff that goes inside them – more efficiently, we’ve lost the desire and ability to think in any ways other than 90°, level and flat. Before we were quite so obsessed with these qualities there was a time when we could build things with other angles and not feel like we’d failed if it came out slightly irregular. Surround yourself with straight walls with doors and windows to match, then set about designing anything to fill that space, and the chances are you’ll arrive at something similar. Behavioural psychologists and neurologists have a word for this: priming. The truth is we’re not as free-thinking and independent of thought as we think we are.
I use a passive form of priming in my teaching of young adults, a majority of whom have little or no experience of making things, let alone woodworking. In short bursts over a period of weeks I introduce them to a broad range of styles and working methods that include the Shakers, Campaign Furniture, George Nakashima, Windsor and stick chairs, Wendell Castle and James Krenov. Strictly speaking, none of these styles are part of the curriculum and in my opinion it’s worse off for that, but there’s a point to it. When I’m happy they’ve received sufficient priming I set them a task to design something that none of these makers have designed or made: a coat hanger. That’s the brief: Design and make a coat hanger from wood. At no point in their exposure to woodworking do I emphasise dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joinery, steam bending or laminating, but these are the methods they seek out and eventually use to fulfil the brief. On a personal level, I feel I’ve done my bit to introduce these genres and their related methods to a new generation of designers. On a broader scale, I’ve encouraged them to look at processes without any sense of hierarchy, and I’m always impressed at how comfortable they are dealing with curves and angles other than 90°. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt – and I’m well aware my opinion of these styles is skewed because of it, but I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to reconnect with them every year through the opinions of a fresh pair of eyes.
There’s a lot we can do by way of priming to steer us away from a default setting of flat, square and straight. Try taking a walk in a natural environment for example, somewhere where the ground is uneven and the path isn’t straight. Then spend a similar amount of time in the mall where all the irregular shapes have been removed. As far as your senses are concerned it’s a completely different experience. When you’re out amongst nature your body has to think a little harder about navigating its way through the environment. The path winds and is sometimes loose under foot and even slippery, so your brain is working hard behind the scenes to make sure you don’t fall over. In simple terms, your brain is exercising the neurological pathways that deal with irregular forms. By the way, the same can be said of the time you spend in the mall, but if this is your usual habitat the workout is less productive. Repetition, while good for honing our skills, can limit growth in other areas.
When it comes to designing from scratch, I find the pursuit of perfection to be a little sterile at times. I’m averse to using formulae to determine an outcome as it seems like a paint-by-numbers kind of approach to me. I think formulae are a great tool to compare what you’ve already done or to trace where things might be going wrong with a design, but otherwise my worry is they’re numbing my senses.
I made my first cricket table with no idea about how the angle of the legs would affect the appearance. I was more concerned with performance related issues such as footprint and stability. After my second or third attempt I started to notice a few things: for a joined-style table, a greater splay angle generally resulted in a smaller area on which to rest the top, especially if you want to keep the footprint within the confines of the top itself. Already it seemed the form had limits to some aspects of the design. Even though I wasn’t trying to reinvent the table it felt like a breakthrough. Soon after that I made a scale model with detachable legs that allowed me to experiment with different angles and the position of the legs in relation to the edge of the top. I played around with it for a while until the irony of the situation smacked me in the face: I had, in fact, created my own paint-by-numbers cricket table formula. And just like when you have to explain a joke to someone it ceases to be funny, I wasn’t amused.
When I build a table now I use a completely different set of rules, one that’s less reliant on numbers and statistics and more in tune with my senses. Don’t worry – I’m not going all feng shui on you (although I believe there is much to be said for the peace and harmony that comes from a well-curated space). Instead I employ a small amount of geometry and what I now know causes a positive spike on my aesthetic radar.