Woodworking Blog

Woodworking Advice: Tips and Solutions for Design Pitfalls

Making useful and decorative things from wood is wonderfully satisfying but there are some distinct pitfalls in the design process, many peculiar to woodworking. To make great woodwork, it pays to be aware of these and their solutions.

Woodworkers have a special opportunity among creative artisans because most of the objects we make maintain a continual visual presence in our lives and we frequently interact with them. A special necklace, however lovely, is worn occasionally and spends most of its time housed in a box. A dining table, cabinet, or bed is on display all the time and interacted with daily.

There's lots of great woodwork out there, no question, but do you think we tend to accept humdrum craft woodwork more than we would boring cooking or unimaginative jewelry?

There is good reason to put effort and awareness in woodwork design. Here is my woodworking advice for typical design pitfalls:

woodwork design

1. Don't neglect design

The first pitfall in designing woodwork is neglecting to really design at all. Yes, it's that simple. Too much woodworking is made unimaginatively adhering to existing examples. For example, you can make a trestle dining table that looks like countless others sold in discount furniture stores. As long as the sizing for seating is correct, the joinery sound and the wood looks pretty good, no one will fault you. It's a table and it works, that's not a bad thing at all. A need has been fulfilled, but an opportunity has also been lost.

Even modest effort spent on adding a pleasing curve to the stretcher or the top, crafting a distinctive functional joint to connect the stretcher to the trestle or tapering key parts to create an uplifted look, can make a much more distinctive piece that is still fully functional. The creation then becomes more personal, more exciting and more likely to be valued for a long time.

So, the solution to not designing is to take the effort, endure the temporary uncertainty and design within the range of what's right for you. Other craftspeople consistently do it, woodworkers should too.

designing woodwork

2. Spend time with the design

Similar to the first issue, it's all too easy to put away the pencil, paper and mockups too soon. You're going to commit considerable time, material and effort to build the piece, and it's hopefully going to last a long time, so why not season and simmer the design before you start making sawdust?

Ideas may come along quickly under the best circumstances, but they always need time to develop. Designing involves many small decisions that must be resolved in harmony with a unifying conceptual vision. It takes time to consider and play with features, then step back and to confirm the aesthetic cohesiveness. Hurrying the design process can result in missed opportunities as well as retention of noncontributory clutter. Unity, economy and clarity take time to work out.

Take the time and effort to get to where the design fully comes together to feel deeply right, because then it is right.

3. Is it over?

Maybe not. The first build of a design may have fulfilled your vision and the concept is realized about as well as it can be. However, consider that there may be more to cultivate from the idea as another version of the piece or as a different piece based on the same idea. An idea that started with a small box may form the basis for a large cabinet.

Designing and building take time and capital, so practical and creative economy are good reasons to exploit your ideas. Much of the best creative work, from cooking to clothing to furniture, while based on very strong ideas, comes after earlier versions.

In this post, I've discussed a general outlook toward design that I believe can benefit woodworkers. In a future post, we'll see how the wood itself, along with our visual and physical interaction with the finished piece present special challenges in woodworking design.

There's lots of great woodwork out there, no question, but do you think we tend to accept humdrum craft woodwork more than we would boring cooking or unimaginative jewelry?

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