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Ian Kirby Woodworking Design: Understanding Form and Space in Woodworking
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End Table form and Space This end table uses the legs and rails to create effective use of the space to give it a unique look, something not usually considered making plans.

In the first installment of this series, the significance of proportion in furniture design was my main theme. A wall-hung bookcase was the focus of the discussion. It was a good subject with which to begin the series since it “falls nicely between the cracks” between stick furniture and case goods.

Stick furniture is not a name I feel particularly good about, but it adequately describes those pieces made up of legs, aprons and stretcher rails. In other words, tables and chairs. What’s of significance about them is that, visually, they are made up of two parts: the legs, aprons and stretcher rails and the spaces they enclose between them. We refer to the wood part as the “form” and the enclosed part as the “space.”

What Do You See
End Table Diagram This diagram shows the spaces you must account for in planning out an end table project.
Center Table Space Start with the center center space instead of the wood itself, determine the height and width and the proportions of the central rhombus.

We have come to expect a woodworking magazine to be dedicated to how the various parts are prepared, the joints cut and assembled, then how the whole is finished — a complete focus on the form of the piece. Thanks to the Journal, I have an opportunity to bring some focus to the space of the piece.

Second Table Space Next, draw out the empty space next to to the center, taking care to measure out the space between them as well as making them all proportional to each other.

It’s quite possible that you have never consciously thought of the space as a design element. In order to get your attention, I’m going to propose that, visually, the space is more interesting than the form. To work with me on this understanding you need to find a small table or a stool which has three or four legs and lower rails — something like the small ash table in the photo above. Put the piece in a place where you can sit and easily revolve or walk around the thing. What you are going to focus on as you look at the piece are the spaces between the parts.

Third Table Space Third, draw the opposite small space, making sure that the space between it and the center space is properly proportional to the space between 1 and 2.

What becomes very obvious as you walk around or rotate the thing is that the spaces change their shape in a much more dramatic, even kaleidoscopic, way than the form. By comparison, the form changes very little. If this conscious observation of the space is new to you, then it takes some time to get used to. No surprise: previously, your focus has been on only one half of what you were looking at. I’m going to suggest something which will help considerably in seeing the space. It takes only a bit of effort and comes from an exercise that I’ve used many times. Again, you need to find the right subject, like the table above. You are going to draw it. If your first response is “I can’t draw,” then this is the best thing you will ever do to dispel that notion. Just try it. But at no time are you going to draw the wood; you are simply going to draw the spaces. Begin by drawing an enclosed space in the middle of the thing. Don’t draw it too big — about the size shown in sketch #1. Then draw an adjacent space. Then another, and so on.

Fourth Table Space Diagram Fourth, you'll draw the center space, taking care to judge how it lines up with the smaller center space, and using the smaller space to determine its eventual length.

Continue the process with the last step being to draw the outside lines. A remarkable thing has just happened, whatever your drawing looks like: it will be better expressed and better seen than if you had attempted to render it by drawing the wood — be assured.

Fifth Table Space Diagram Lastly, draw the side spaces, lining them up with the others you've drawn. Once you have these done, you're finally ready to fill in the gaps with your table.

In any case, if you focused diligently on recording the piece as directed, you are to be congratulated on your first foray into space. By learning how to look and to see space and form, you may have changed your perspective and point of view forever.

As with any learning process, new knowledge is likely to spark new questions. And that is what I hope has happened here. Furthermore, I am hoping that you may be motivated to put pen to paper, or sit at your keyboard and send me those questions. They could very well become a central part of the next installment in this series.

posted on April 1, 2011 by Ian Kirby
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