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It seems like December was the start of a lot of projects. I have been working on plans for a dining table, a
sideboard and matching cabinet, a pair of bedside tables, a front porch milk box, a memorial box, a
bathroom vanity, and of course Christmas toys. All this has drawn out a deep appreciation for the
process of design and planning. The initial quick pencil sketch with some key overall dimensions and
concepts, carefully drawn details of alternative design features like feet or molding, scaled-down
drawings of the whole piece to tune proportions, and finally full-scale plans for inlays and woodburning.
On one recent project, I found that at least 25 percent of the total effort occurred before the first board
hit the saw.
I heard someone call the design and planning stage the "dreaming part." Somewhere, someone has an
idea of something they want made. For example, I saw a documentary on penguins and thought, "I love
the cute way they waddle — I want to make a child's push toy that will waddle just like a real penguin." I
can see it in my head. The flippers kind of dangle to the side, the beak opens and shuts as it rolls along,
and the waddle has just the right sway coordinated to the alternating steps of the webbed feet.
Perfect — in my mind. I am also seeing the happy look on my granddaughter's face as she opens this
present on Christmas. Also, perfect.
So, the next step is to try and figure out how to get from that perfect idea to a workable plan. Getting
from your brain to paper and then the wood. Scale drawings can show proportion and overall form.
Solid modeling tools like SketchUp can provide perspective views. However, in many cases it takes a
mock-up to really see a design. My brother, Ken, is also starting a nightstand project. His "dreaming
part" of the project imagined a sort of Art Deco style with boxes suspended between the legs. A full-
scale cardboard mockup helps check scale and proportion as the idea of the thing moves from his brain
to physical reality.
Figure 1 - A cardboard mockup of a nightstand is an image of
something in my brother's head (photo by Ken Rummer)
Figure 2 - Scale drawing for an Empire-style hall table that shows key
esthetic design elements and proportions.
When you move beyond conceptual design you start thinking about functional design. I just bought
Animated Animal Toys in Wood by David Wakefield to look at different kinds of mechanisms for animating toys. I also examined all
the toys in the toy bin to see how things waddle and wiggle. At this point the design of the penguin is still in my
head, but I can see the cam on the axle and the offset wheels and the hinged beak. It works perfectly!
Grandpa Rummer made a series of mantel clocks. He made full-size casework models from plywood and
pine to work out the functionality of his conceptual designs. Would the arched door clear the case?
What kind of joinery would be needed at each connection? Could the clock movement be installed
through the back? Functional design is partly about anticipating and avoiding problems in the build, but
it is also about making sure the idea in your head finds its way into the real world.
Sooner or later the dreaming part of a project must come out of the clouds and down to earth. When all
the plans are drawn, and the wood picked out my penguin will have to take physical form. But will the
reality of my project meet the ideals of my expectations?
Ancient philosophers sought the source of ultimate truth or reality. For example, Plato thought that
things we sense in the physical world are just shadows of more fundamental universal truths. The chair I
build in the shop next week is simply an imperfect embodiment, a shadow, of the one true perfect chair.
This is why, when I finish a project, I will immediately see the defects and have a sense that I could make
it better if I made another. Plato called the perfect fundamental realities of things Forms with a capital
When you do that, when you critique your own work and see where it comes up short, have you
considered what you are measuring against? It is more than just a grade on craftsmanship, how snug
your joints fit, or how fine the finish may be. It is the craftsman's search for the perfect Form. You know
that there is a perfect chair (the Form) out there, you can see it in your mind, but we struggle to achieve
perfection in the reality we create.
This is deep philosophical stuff, and you could spend a lot of time in the shop like this pondering the
meaning of life. Save that for some time when you need to sand a large surface or watch paint dry. Let
me draw this to a close with two key points. First, one reason woodworking is so engaging is that it
always challenges us to do something better. Our skills can improve but ultimately the perfect thing (Plato's
Box, Chair, Carving, Turning) is still teasingly beyond our achievement. I don't think I have seen a single
interview with a master craftsman where they said they had it all figured out and the craft was easy. To
be a woodworker means to anticipate the challenge of the next project.
Secondly, woodworking is a journey in pursuit of a universal ideal. Ask a spoon carver what they are
trying to accomplish, and they won't say, "...a bowl on a stick." They have something in mind that feels
exactly right in the hand, that tips just the right amount for stirring or sipping, the perfect spoon. Plato
thought you can only find that universal ideal in your mind. Your mind isn't limited by the skill of your
hands or the whims of the wood. When you start a project and begin the "Dreaming Part" you are
reaching into the heart of reality and touching Truth — a kind of humbling thought.
The Arts and Crafts Movement around 1900 was more about the philosophy of design and labor than it
was about furniture style. William Morris and others understood that the made objects filling homes
were but poor shadows of true Forms of chairs and tables and cupboards. They also celebrated the role
of craftspeople, woodworkers and others, engaged in a truly noble pursuit. The Holy Grail of Arts and
Crafts was the creation of honest things (perfect Forms to Plato) produced by people who worked with
mind, and heart, and hand. Take that thought into the shop with you next time — you are a noble
craftsman, working to make the world a better place, one waddling penguin at a time.
Figure 3 - Seeking the true perfect Form in a woodcarving.
Can I create what I imagine?
Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.
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