Woodworking Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Pieces

Let’s take a look at potential woodworking mistakes – and opportunities – in designing and developing pieces. These design issues are especially important in woodworking and many relate particularly to the wood itself. In an earlier post, I offered woodworking advice, urging woodworkers to take the effort, risk and time to actively design, so now let’s look deeper.

Respect the mockup

Sketchbooks, the drafting board and CAD are convenient tools for design but there is another element of the process that usually must also be used: mockups. It is difficult if not impossible for even the most conceptually agile among us to fully appreciate the key spatial relationships within a prospective piece without the aid of a mockup.

The mockup should be quick, expedient and easily modified. Scrap wood, cardboard, glue, tape and so forth are just fine. It can be a simplified version of the whole piece or a more realistic rendition of only critical parts. For example, when designing a leg that has gradual curves, a mockup allows you to observe it from many angles, to see how light plays on the curves, and get an appreciation for the mass of the wood. A finished piece that is a previous version of a design may also serve as a base mockup.

Mockup of a Furniture Wood Table

In the photo above, a mockup with just one of four legs and a cardboard top starts to give me a better sense of the most important feature – the legs – and the overall size of this occasional table. Later, I may want to add three more very rough legs just to get an idea of how they will spatially relate.

Most woodwork pieces such as chairs, tables, beds, cabinets and even a simple box interact with the human body. A mockup can help us sense the real size of these objects relative to our surroundings and to us. As an example, maybe a 48″ tall bookcase looks great in the scaled drawing but disappointingly small in the room where it will be placed, and the top shelf isn’t high enough to bring to eye level those ceramic pieces you plan to display there. A quick cardboard full size mockup of a skeleton bookcase would be enough to avoid these sorts of problems.

The wood matters

Just as the orchestration is an essential component of a symphonic composition, the choice of wood is essential to a woodwork design. For an effective finished piece, wood selection ought to develop along with the other aspects of the design, rather than as an afterthought.

Wood is not an amorphous material like moldable plastic waiting to be injected to fill out a design. It has its own character in infinite biological variety that must work with a design by mutual enhancement. What looks good in pine may look awful in lacewood.

This matters not only visually but also for practical construction. A table component that works in hard bubinga may not be physically sound in soft butternut. Cabinet components in mahogany may need to be redesigned for beech, which has a much greater range of hygroscopic movement.

Similarly, it is a mistake to select wood only on the basis of its color. Clients often request, for example, a “light colored” wood. Port Orford cedar, curly maple, white ash and white pine would all meet the color requirement but with very different visual effects and physical properties.

The photo directly below is intentionally unfocused to show only the colors of these four woods. The next photo, focused, shows how grain and texture create different visual effects among the woods. What the photos cannot show is, for example, that the cedar on the left is much less dense than the ash, which is third from left, but has a wonderful spicy aroma.

closeup of wood grain
wood grain

Finally, just as a great musical performer might inspire a composition, very special wood can sometimes be the motivation for a design. For example, a slab of figured bubinga may inspire a table designed specifically for that board of wood.

The details matter too

Treatment of the surfaces, ends, corners and edges of woodwork makes a big difference in its overall effect. These cannot be adequately specified in a measured drawing or CAD rendition. They must be added with the good judgement of the craftsperson, much as a violinist adds tone, nuances of rhythm and volume, and so forth to make a written composition become real and rich. A drawing can never move us as can a real piece of woodwork and this is one of the essential reasons why.

One of the great joys of woodwork is experiencing it with multiple senses. Unlike an oil painting hung on the wall, woodwork is not only a visual experience but also tactile, auditory and even olfactory. There is a cabinet in my living room that I enjoy looking at but I also greatly appreciate feel of the wood surfaces and curves, the sound of doors and drawers, and the scent of the cedar interiors. The late great teacher James Krenov emphasized that no piece is complete without careful attention to such detail.

Below, the contrasts among the visual and tactile silkiness of the pear wood, the shimmering curly maple surface, and the relatively rough live edge are delights to the eye and the hand. Drawings and CAD cannot represent these experiences but they certainly are an important part of this piece.

woodworking mistakes

Ironies

The loveliness of wood gives us other potential woodworking mistakes. With spectacular looking wood, it is easy to get lazy and assume we can show it off without it being supported by good design. However, even a purposefully understated design that features the beauty of the wood needs judicious proportions, consistent elements, and so forth. The design may be very simple but it must be a design, not a use of the wood as an excuse not to design.

Finally, woodworkers, including me, I have to admit, seem reluctant to decoratively mix into a piece other materials such as stone, metals and glass. Maybe it’s because we like wood so much but that shouldn’t cause us to limit our creativity. Other materials just give us more opportunities to make exciting things.

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