by David J. Marks

Quilted maple display case

Out of all the subjects and diverse categories of woodworking, I believe design is the most challenging.  Woodworking encompasses so many subjects: casework, turning, bentwood lamination, joinery, veneering, finishing, just to name a few, that design is often overlooked.  It is probably the most difficult part of woodworking to quantify.  Anyone can look at a dovetail and see if it is a tight fit or has unsightly gaps.  A child can run his hand over a piece of furniture and feel whether the finish is smooth or rough, but when it comes to design it is a very subjective issue. 

The piece in the above picture is just one subjective example of good design. This was a piece that was commissioned by a Church in Santa Clara, Calif back in 1986.  It measures 8 feet long by 6 feet tall by 2 feet deep. The requirements were a very light wood with 1/4 inch thick glass door panels as well as 1/4 inch thick glass panels for the sides and top to allow natural light to illuminate the interior of the cabinet. They also wanted minimal support underneath the cabinet in order to create a light feel as opposed to a heavy base.

I selected eastern hard rock maple for its fine grained nature as well as its strength. I built a torsion box into the base of the cabinet to support the weight of the very heavy glass.  One of my big concerns was preventing any sagging in the middle of the case which would stop the doors from opening and closing. The doors have a 1/32 inch reveal all the way around their perimeter so I had to maintain strict tolerances. The torsion box worked flawlessly.

For the back panels I selected quilted maple to create a feel of cloud like patterns. I bandsawed the wood to 3/32’s of an inch and veneered both sides of the back panels using straight grained maple for the side that goes against the wall.

For the base, I wanted to have some way of connecting the legs and reinforcing them but the clients specified no supports in the middle and nothing heavy or blocky. I had always admired the work of British Master Craftsman Edward Barnsley who had used bentwood lamination often in his designs. I was inspired by his design of a long hall table which had a bent laminated stretcher that was joined to the inside corners of the legs.

This was an extremely challenging design and I knew it would be the perfect solution so I decided to attempt something similar for my cabinet. 

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

For the doors, Brusso brass knife hinges worked very well to show minimal metal. 

The “piece de resistance” were the escutcheons for the locks.  I used Walrus tusk ivory which I cut into very fine shapes and inlaid into the doors. They were set 1/8 inch into the doors and had another 1/8 inch that was proud (raised) above the surface.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

This piece won Best of Show in 1987 at the Sonoma County Woodworkers “Artistry in Wood” show.

I personally have won many awards for my work over the past thirty years.  I have seen the same piece of furniture that won an award in one show, be rejected from another show.  I strive not to take that rejection personally because on an intellectual level, I realize that the content of a show is a reflection of what the judges like or dislike.  As a matter of fact, people can be defined according to their likes and dislikes.  So, how do we know how to distinguish good design from bad design?  Rather than attempting to answer such a broad question in a black or white framework, my choice would be to approach it from a different perspective.  First of all, as a teacher I believe that students need to be encouraged so that they can progress and evolve.  A musician might struggle for years producing a lot of mediocre songs before it all comes together and he or she has a hit.  The same is true for the craftsperson.

Let’s say that you, as the craftsperson, has progressed in skill level and would like to design a piece to enter a show.  Here is some advice and guidelines. 

  • If you are considering entering your work into a show, the judges will be looking at the overall visual impression of the work first, and then they will look closer to examine the details. As they take a close look, the craftsmanship will be scrutinized.  One thing they will be looking for is tight fitting joinery.  This means no gaps or that gaps have been filled in a craftsman like manner.  For example, a sliver of matching wood, sawdust and glue, or tinted epoxy, are acceptable means of filling a gap.  It does not mean that everything is perfect, but there should be no glaring faults.
  • Snug fitting drawers are another area judges will examine. Ideally, a drawer should open and close smoothly without resistance and perhaps bind up when it is fully extended rather than falling out.  The same principle applies to doors.  The doors should fit snugly with a uniform space around an inset door. 
  • Surfaces that are intended to be smooth as opposed to textured or carved) should have all traces of mill marks removed. For example, saw lines left by table saws and bandsaws, and patterns left by jointers and planers, all should be scraped and sanded smooth.
  • Another big area is finishes.  The finishes themselves should not be muddy; they should enhance the beauty of the wood and allow you to read the grain clearly. 
  • Proportions are another area that judges look at closely. Proportions determine whether a piece is awkward or graceful.  All other efforts concerning design can be ruined by proportions that do not work.  The most well know proportioning system is the golden ratio which is 1 to 1.618 and was developed by the ancient Greeks.  For myself, I rely on lots of sketches and full scale drawings and mock ups.

No matter how you approach design, my best advice is to be persistent, because experience is the best instructor.