Ian Kirby Woodworking Design: Utilizing Form and Space, Sketch-Ups and Mockups
posted on June 1, 2011 by Ian Kirby
Widely Spaced Table Rails and Legs When planning out a project like this table, you must take into account both the aesthetics and functionality of the spacing between the piece's legs, rails, and body

"Visually, the space is more interesting than the form,” was a proposal I offered in the previous article in this series. It was made to get you to pay as much attention to the space as possible — the assumption being that most woodworkers tend to look at the wood, and only the wood. Of course, the form and the space are inextricably linked. If you change the form, you change the space.

Regardless of whether you are fully conscious of space or not, it’s very likely that at some time you’ve taken it into account. For instance, if you have ever made a table or a chair with lower rails, then just where to place them is very much a matter of the space. In deciding their position we would generally ask the questions: are the rails too high, too low or just right? If you think about that, what we are really asking is, “are the spaces right?” Once you have determined the dimensions of the rails, the positioning may be partly structural, but it’s mostly spatial. We earlier asked the question “are the rails just right?” Rail and right are not at all the best words to use here. Try “are the proportions of the spaces in accord here?” Are they in proportion to one another in the same way that the legs, rails and overall dimensions are in proportion?

Of course, you may have never built a piece of furniture with this sort of rail, but you have looked at tables and chairs with lower rails and, even if you didn’t consciously think “those rails are too high or too low,” your subconscious was disturbed enough to think there was something unbalanced about the piece. Look at the series of drawings below. Using sketches of the same table we used as our example from the last article, I placed the lower rail in a variety of positions. It is the same single rail in the first five drawings — but as it is relocated, the space, or you might say the overall “look,”changes dramatically. In the last drawing, another rail is added and you can see immediately that the space becomes even more complicated. In the same way, you would evaluate the legs of a table or a chair and they could be square or cylindrical. We could determine that they are too heavy or too thin for their situation and, in doing so, we would agree that the proportions are “wrong.” But what are the proportions “wrong” against? Is it the space that’s too great or too small or is it the form? Whatever it is, in this case, it’s the wood that you’re going to adjust and that will affect the space.

End Table Rail Space Drawings Changing the height of the spacing on the rails of these tables even slightly, changes the form of the table quite a bit.

Our table’s top rail (also called an apron) is different in that it’s not in space like a leg or a lower rail. Its relationship is much more bound up with the proportion of the top. In our example, the top is flush with the base, but it could have had an overhang, and that would have changed the balance of the form and space significantly.

Full-size Mock-ups
Chair Photo Negative The author suggests thinking of project spacing as a photo negative, the black space in this photo shows the chair's spacing in great contrast.

When you are designing a piece, after getting your ideas and thoughts together, you should make a working drawing. This would best be a full-size drawing that will include the sizes and proportions of both the forms and the spaces. You may be well satisfied with the looks of the piece as shown on the orthogonal drawing. But curiously, it’s not a safe bet that you will like it when it is built. In the translation from the two-dimensional drawing to the three-dimensional reality, spaces become volumes. That is why I always build a full size mock-up — it is well worth the effort. With that said, a recent Woodworker's Journal survey showed that less than 2% of woodworkers make a full-size mock-up as part of their design process. My question is why not build a full-size mock-up? Is it a lack of materials, lack of understanding of the “how-to,” believing you don’t have time or that the return on the effort is too small — what exactly?

As a furniture designer, I think it’s a vital part of the design process and worth every minute spent on it. Furthermore, if you have neither the tools nor the skill to make a drawing, you can begin with a mock-up and it will help you express your design decisions very well.

Table Leg and Rail Spacing Take the time to really plan out the spacing of your project, it completely changes the aesthetics and balance of the project, and is difficult to alter once you're finished.

As you become more attuned to and conscious of spatial relationships, the mock-up becomes more than a tool to determine joints and methods of making. It allows you to evaluate proportion, form and space. Make it accurate in every detail and, when it’s painted white, it will show off its design features to the fullest. Your actual project will be vastly improved as a result of your efforts. Try it, and I am confident that you will agree.

posted on June 1, 2011 by Ian Kirby
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What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012
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