The Down To Earth Woodworker

by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin


In this month's column:

• The Corollary Benefits of Good Design

• I Won't, uhhh, Can't Do It Often — Book Recommendations

• Did I Really Use The Word Gestalt?



Corollary Benefits of Good Design...

"Corollary benefit" is an enjoyable term. It rolls off the tongue easily and sounds reasonably intelligent. As applied to a woodworking design, it implies that through the foresight and artistic and functional genius of a design, unintended features and advantages became apparent as the piece is completed and put into everyday use. Truth is, any corollary benefits that occur in any piece I design are, or were, purely accidental.

In building the universal ambidextrous shooting board (see "It's Hip To Be Square" in this month's Wood News), friends, family, and fellow woodworkers have been impressed with the open end of the work support, and that while hanging on the wall, the space thus created serves as storage for the auxiliary fences. "How ingenious of you!" they say. Truth is, I was about to glue the third transverse support into the end of the work support and a light bulb went on. "This additional end piece is not going to provide much additional rigidity, and if I instead glue it flat to the underside of the work support, I will get more thickness through which I can mount fences." No insight, no genius, just a blind squirrel finding a nut... that's me... an accidental corollary benefit.


Last year I built a new lumber storage unit. It is on wheels, like most everything else in my shop, and space limitations require that my radial arm saw be positioned in front of it, also on wheels. My old lumber rack was similarly situated, and periodically I had to roll the RAS forward and spend a half-hour vacuuming up all the accumulated dust that covered everything in the rack. As I was nearing the completion of the new lumber rack, I was enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if I could keep sawdust out of the lumber rack?"




I hastily ordered the Big Dust Hood (Item #192606, $22.99) and built it into the rack. A hose was snaked through to the end of the rack and terminated with a slip-on fitting and reducer for my shop vacuum. It works great, and people marvel at the genius of my design. No genius, no design... blind squirrel, nut... well, you know my design "secrets" by now.

Corollary benefits make me look smart, and unless I admit my lack of foresight and prescience, I can, and will, continue to perpetuate the myth. What are some of the corollary benefits of pieces you have built?



Where Are The "Superhero Woodworkers?"

In my local bookstore the woodworking books are located in the non-fiction section, on the bottom two shelves at the end of the aisle labeled "How To," right across from the entrance to the restrooms, and right under the books on quilting, next to the sewing section. The "how to" woodworking selection is reasonable, but I wondered if I might find any other books in the store that featured woodworking or woodworkers.

In the past year I have read novels that feature spies, FBI agents, doctors, private investigators, Templar Knights, college professors, biologists, lawyers, politicians, soldiers, and even three books that prominently featured librarians. History books full of inventors, captains of industry, explorers, map-makers, and conquerors, biographies of founding fathers, scientists, and leaders, and even a couple of philosophy tomes were also on my reading list. But not one book was to be found featuring an action-hero woodworker. There were no biographies of famous woodworkers, no mysteries built around an heirloom piece of furniture, no ancient legends of secret sects with treasure troves of antique furniture. Years ago I read "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and wondered why there is no "Gestalt Philosophy in Woodworking" or "The Dovetail Code" in modern literature.

I did though, eventually, find a couple of books that every wood working aficionado, pro or hobbyist, should enjoy. The first is from a (very) prolific fiction writer named Stuart Woods. With a name like "Woods," and with forty-three published novels, you might assume he would eventually write about woodworking. His "Hot Mahogany," published in 2008, features a series character named Stone Barrington. Barrington is an ex-cop turned lawyer, turned mystery/problem solver. He is a lady's man, reasonably well-to-do, and a genuinely likeable character.

Barrington lives in New York and hangs out in a local restaurant with his still-cop best friend. He makes a living (usually) doing legal work for a high-end law firm that would rather not get their ivy-league hands dirty with certain cases. In "Hot Mahogany" Barrington gets lured into protecting a former spy with an interesting hobby — he restores antique furniture. But Barrington also finds out that his former spy also builds antique furniture — forgeries that are indistinguishable from the originals. But that may just be the least of what this character is up to.

The method of sourcing and smuggling "original" wood for antique forgeries was fascinating and the furniture construction and details were satisfyingly accurate enough to please even the most knowledgeable woodworkers. On top of that, like all of Stuart Woods' novels, it is a rip-roaring and fun read, with sharp-witted and often sarcastic dialogue, fast action, and endearing characters. Find it, buy it, and read it. Highly recommended!

In a much different style but equally entertaining, and frankly, surprisingly engrossing, is Spike Carlsen's A Splintered History of Wood." Originally published in 2008, and reviewed at that time by other woodworking publications, it had not, at that point, seemed like something that would warrant my limited and precious reading time. I could not have been more wrong.

"A Splintered History of Wood" is actually a collection of essays that are woven together brilliantly to form a narrative of wood history, replete with many surprising uses for our favorite raw material, arcane historical notes, eye-opening facts about wood, and trivia with which you will be regaling your friends and family for months to come. It might best be categorized as a biography, with wood as its subject.

Carlsen makes the case, quite lucidly, that humans might not even exist were it not for wood. Certainly, if the human species survived, life would be much different without wood. Wood has provided shelter, warmth, and the raw material for building thousands of things since the beginning of time, but even the most avid woodworker will learn more about wood and its uses than they ever thought possible. In addition, readers are introduced to a blind woodworker, chainsaw carving artists, and the unattainable quest to replicate the sound of a Stradivarius Violin.

From airplanes to toothpicks and baseball bats to roller coasters, the uses of wood, now and in the past, are recounted. From the nostalgic (there are no more "wooden" woods in a set of golf clubs) to the mystical (a spectacular spiral staircase with no visible means of support built in a chapel in Santa Fe by an unknown craftsman using only a hammer, saw, chisel and t-square), to the high-octane airplane fuel made from pine tree roots during World War II, there is a wealth of solid-wood knowledge between the covers of this treasure.


The Gestalt of Good Design and Execution

When a piece of furniture fits its intended purpose perfectly, is beautiful, exhibits many corollary benefits as a result of its design, and when the "whole" is perceived as greater than the sum of the parts, it might be said to have achieved gestalt (usually pronounced gesh-talt where the "g" is pronounced like the g in "gear"), or more accurately, the person viewing the furniture may experience the "gestalt" of the design.

Gestalt can be most easily defined as a "unified whole" but this definition does not go nearly far enough to describe the perception. Being just the everyday down to earth woodworker, devoid of any special knowledge of music or musical talent, I still experience a deep emotional reaction, and an occasional tear in my eye, when I listen to classic symphonic music live.

While gestalt is (or was originally) intended to describe our visual perception capabilities, some examination of my symphony experiences helps to explain gestalt. Dvorak's Symphony 9, "From The New World" is a particularly emotive piece. In a concert hall, it invariably brings my heart to my throat and a tear to my eyes. At home, however, on the stereo, it does not have the same effect. Play it loud, play it soft, put it through great electronics and speakers or just an iPod, it makes no difference. It simply does not have the same effect. The concert hall provides a more immersive and complete experience.

In a concert hall, the sound does not emanate from two speakers but from each instrument, combining into a sum that is greater than its parts. There is the visual component of seeing the orchestra members and conductor. There are other ambient sounds in the concert hall and the collective shared experience of hundreds of other symphony-goers. Some even claim that the process of getting dressed, driving to the symphony, and queuing up to enter the hall contribute to the entire "gestalt."

A friend in Ohio has spent hundreds of thousands (literally, without exaggeration) in creating a dedicated "music room" in his home, with forty thousand dollar speakers connected to an esoteric tube-filled amplifier with twenty-six hundred dollar speaker wires. Yet he claims never to have achieved the "gestalt" of a live concert.

The gestalt effect is our mind "form forming." When we see a drawing, we see the form, not simply lines, straight and curved. This is regarded as the principle of emergence, and I can best remember this principle by thinking of a child's stick-figure drawing. When we see a stick figure, we see a person, not five lines and a circle.

Someone once told me that great artists say as much through what they left off of the canvas as by what they put on the canvas. Sometimes a shape can be conveyed by inference. In the illustration, do you see a triangle, or three little angled shapes? Most of us see a triangle. Reification is the generative effect of perception. Our minds complete the shape into a form we easily recognize.

Multistability is the ability that some shapes exhibit of being able to be perceived in different ways. This series of drawings demonstrates multistability. The mind can perceive this shape differently.

Invariance is another factor of visual perception. Our minds recognize basic shapes whether they are elongated, deformed, or placed in different lighting conditions. We will always perceive a circle as a circle, no matter how imperfectly drawn and regardless our viewing angle.

In order to achieve greatness in furniture design and allow our viewers to experience the gestalt of the design, we should incorporate certain laws of perception. The first is the law of closure. The mind will tend to "close" an incomplete shape. A three-quarter circle will be immediately interpreted by the mind as a circle, just as the three marks above say "triangle" in our minds.

Our minds also group similar shapes (and colors and wood types) into a collective single entity, following the law of similarity. This explains why a chest of matching drawer fronts may be more pleasing than a chest of mismatched drawer fronts. Please note that I said "may be more pleasing" as there are undoubtedly brilliant designs that achieve excellence through contrast and complimentary colors and tones.

We all use the law of proximity, whether we recognize it or not. Think of built-up moldings that consist of several different shapes that combine, visually and tactilely, into one. The law of symmetry dictates that symmetrical shapes are viewed collectively.

The human mind continues visual patterns, sound patterns and perhaps even tactile patterns on its own. The pattern of waves on the beach is both visual and auditory, and when we close our eyes or leave the beach, we can often continue to see and hear the waves. This is the law of continuity. A continuous grain pattern around the outside of a box may not be a perfect pattern match, but if close, our minds will fill in and make its perception perfect.

There is also a law of common fate. Recently I saw a brilliantly designed and executed cabinet whose sides were of different heights and irregularly curved. But each curved side drew the eye upward to a common fate — a three-quarter round cut out pinnacle in the top rail (that became a circle in my mind) ultimately leading the eye back down the center of the piece. The sweep of the curve and the direction of the sides led the eye to a common fate.

These are the more-or-less accepted laws of gestalt perception, but for me... for furniture design... there is more. Everyone (including non-woodworkers) instinctively wants to touch a beautiful piece of furniture. We are compelled by some cosmic force to open its drawers or doors. We enjoy the sound of solidity when we close those same drawers and doors. We subconsciously register the smell of the wood or the finish, or both, and we see it differently depending upon the lighting conditions and our viewing angle. Great design appeals to the visual, but also appeals to the auditory, tactile, and olfactory. When all those senses are stimulated, the recipient or viewer of our furniture may experience the gestalt of our design.

The point of all this theory is that gestalt does not necessarily confer "good" nor "bad" but instead attempts to describe the perception of the complete — the sum of the parts that are greater than the whole. But gestalt does imply that to experience the whole and achieve the perception of the complete, certain rules must be followed. Good designers will do well to remember that the human mind can perceive complete images from the incomplete, will group similar shapes and shapes in close proximity together, and will subconsciously continue patterns either repeatedly or to a single common focus point.

We should go further, though, with our designs, and remember that to experience the gestalt of a piece, the experience needs to be immersive. I have read of professional woodworkers that invite their customers to the wood shop repeatedly during the "build" process. First, the customer may visit when the lumber has been rough cut and milled to size. They get to feel it, smell it, and see the interesting grain patterns in each piece. Then, on a subsequent visit, the customer may see pieces that have been partially assembled, joinery not quite complete, or perhaps even the process of hand-cutting an intricate joint. When the finished item is finally delivered to the customer, they can, and have, truly experienced the gestalt of the design.

A couple of years ago I built a small furniture piece for an acquaintance. Each day I photographed the steps, from rough lumber to finished product. When the piece was finished, I put all the pictures into a simple PowerPoint Presentation with appropriate captions. Little did I know, until recently, how much impact those pictures had. I discovered that he had printed the PowerPoint slides, put them in a folder, and keeps it with the furniture piece. Every guest to his house gets regaled with the photos and the story of how "This guy I hardly know built this for me!"

Perhaps for him the sum of the parts and process, the gestalt impact, was more significant than just the piece of furniture. Perhaps understanding how that simple piece of furniture can convey much more than just its "look" or "functionality" explains how and why music, over even the very best sound system, will never quite be like a live concert. And perhaps, whether you are a master craftsman, or just a plain old down-to-earth woodworker like me, the things you build can have more meaning if you share the process with others and make every project your "live concert."

Once again, thank you to everyone for your feedback, input, and great ideas. Next month we will have some unusual advice for woodworking hobbyists that want to turn pro. Also next month, we delve into the experience of being completely "in the zone" while in the workshop. We will take a hard look at that phenomenon and more. In the meantime, have fun, be safe, and keep it down to earth!





Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson13@mac.com.

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