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Journalling for working with wood

Two types of drawing – both for communication

Always I find my pencil drift onto the page to create an image from my mind. I no longer need to see a plane in someone’s hand; I regularly create drawings based purely from what I envisage mentally – but it didn’t start out that way. Over a number of years drawing I began to see things about things I had otherwise missed by merely glimpsing what I hadn’t drawn. Drawing objects, still or living, means that at some point we ‘froze’ the image we had just long enough to convey what we froze onto the page. It’s by this that we ‘capture’ what we see to place it on paper. This is true also of conceptual drawings I need to convey of a piece of furniture to paper. So it’s at this juncture that I, we, identify the two very distinct and separate areas of drawing as art and technical drawing. Two spheres offering methods by which we communicate what we see or imagine onto paper for a record. One sphere usually has more a freeform pencil flow to create organic shape, whilst the other is substantially governed by a series of straight edges to create multiple angles.

Recording our concepts

When I think of how journalling has aided me through the years, I could give dozens of good reasons for keeping one, but one important reason for me is that I am not so much leaving the written and drawn content as a legacy for others, but a record for me. Because much of my content is included in equal measure of drawings, sketches and written account, I see the work as an integral record referencing the important elements of any project whether I actually make it or not. The record will usually include stage planning, initial thoughts sketched before solidifying with more detailed sketches and dimensional drawings, perspective drawings and so on. Almost all planning work for woodworkers begins with a single pencil stroke, builds into an overall sketch and dimensions inevitably result in a working list of materials I need for the project. This then preempts the decision on material choices, the suppliers I might consider using and the costing out for those materials. These elements, along with quotes I may have called around for, are recorded in the journal. With that done, I make an allowance for waste in dimensioning my wood, 25%, work out my estimated time for making the piece, design time if it’s a custom piece and how much profit I want to make from my design itself. This then gives the basis for a quote to my customer.

Where to start

As it is with any design, the opening concept must always revolve around the space it will ultimately occupy, usually unoccupied space, but not always, and then by its functional requirements. These two aspects are the two most critical influences affecting any woodworking design. The space may not be of great significance if space far exceeds the volume of the design. For instance, a seven foot by seven foot bed in a 20 foot by 18 foot room does not mean that the bed must occupy the space and leave a three foot walkway around the bed to access the bed in comfort. If the room were 13 feet by 10 feet, the story is indeed different. Perhaps the bed size needs to be changed or the room extended.

Recording and transmitting – drawings should ensure good communication

A drawing, your drawing or mine, records information on the one hand, and at the same time can be used to transmit that information to others. Your drawings convey a concept. The concept may be yours or someone else’s. Making a sketch shows that we either understand what we think we understand or that we don’t understand what we think we do. Both are equally useful. Though in general my drawings are accepted by a client to be something I will make for them, occasionally someone will tell me that that is not what they want. It’s important that when you are working with a client, you have proportion close to what they will get. You do not have license to exaggerate what they will get so drawings help constrain reality.

Practice proportion visually by looking at the space your project has to occupy.

I often see rooms that have unoccupied corners and imagine a cabinet or furniture piece occupying the space. In my mind’s eye I begin designing a piece and look for obstacles to what I design. Skirting boards and architraves, cornices and widow light all play their part in the creative flow as I imagine how one part or dynamic such as light can compliment the other. This mental training enables me to keep creatively alert and fit and I find gives me the exercises I need to maintain my inclination toward concepts of design.

A sketch is very different than a technical drawing

As I said, my furniture designs begin with a single pencil stroke, usually a base line or a vertical centre point from which half a dozen lines begin to interconnect. Almost everything made from wood begins with a vertical and horizontal line depicting a base line and a corner. Parallel lines soon follow and the cabinet I want to make grows with every stroke. Sub assemblies in my mind ensue in conceptual drawings showing close up detail. This is good for me and my customer. It shows attention to detail customers care about and it shows that you care about the details too.


  1. Andy in Germany says:

    Thanks for this: I’m working my way through a three year apprnticeship to be a cabinet maker in Germany. It’s a very high quality apprenticeship, but sadly thecommercial and mathematical side is emphasised far above the creative and artistic, which is the bit I’m good at, so it is encouraging to be reminded that things I do naturally like sketching and journalling.

    On the subject of mathematical, my teachers recularly torture us with eneldss equations for working out wood wastage while preparing materials. Is the 25% allowance a standard in the UK?

    • Has worked for me ever since I was a boy. I can’t say it’s standard these days because everyone, even the highest high-end makers, moved over to veneered MDF, which naturally reduces wastage. I work out my board footage and add the 25% and usually end up with a little over but not too much.

  2. John says:

    My experience is that of mathematics classes, in wood working by far the most useful is geometry. Also, I’ve discovered that quite often looking at an old piece, I can see how the builder employed geometry in the design and construction. Math also proves useful in other areas. Since I am in the US and we use common fractions in measuring frequently, I find I did great injustice to my 3rd through 5th grade teachers.

    I find I avoid MDF. I’ve never had a piece of furniture of any kind, made of any form of fiber board, that did not fail over a shortish time. My wife and I built college furniture of cardboard. We had a fine old oak table, but the “chairs” were shipping boxes for antifreeze with handmade, cardboard honeycomb, compression bracing (essentially torsion boxes), and the main book case was cardboard neon-light-tube shipping boxes fitted by cutting with a knife and scissors, and bound together by covering it with wall paper. Curiously that bookcase outlasted mdf shelves my wife bought me for my desk. The mdf began sagging after a year. I stretched the life by inverting them every year, but finally they began breaking. We only quit using the antifreeze box stools and neon-light-tube book case when we finally moved. I was later told the book case, which we left behind moved from apartment to apartment as students came and went, until someone left with it. That gives the book case a working life of over 15 years.

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