By Ron Layport

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As a kid I was always building something or other, using bent nails, tree limbs, orange crates and gobs of shellac. I'd just get something in my head and figure out how to make it. I'd never heard the term designer.

Even now. I'm a bit intimidated when I consider myself a designer. It's as though I'm supposed to know some great secret that others don't. I'd rather think of myself as a builder of furniture. As a builder, I don't feel that I have to know all the answers before I start— I'm free to discover, to figure diings out as I go along. For me, it's a continuation of the process I started as a kid. It's still the kid in me that creates, only now I use planks of walnut and maple instead of orange crates.

I believe there's a designer in each of us, just waiting to be turned loose. You don't have to be an engineer or a fine arts major to design and build one-of-a-kind furniture. (1 wasn't even a woodworker until about nine years ago.) But you do need to ask yourself two questions before you pick up a piece of paper or a set of plans: "What am I trying to accomplish?" (what's my real purpose) and "With what?" (what arc my materials, tools and skills). The answers will often bring the designer out of hiding

1 built my very first piece of furniture using a set of plans, a few simple hand tools and two beech planks I liad found in an old storage shed. By rescaling the plans to fit the limitations of my wood, I ended up with a piece that was entirely different in scale and proportion from the original, but true to its predecessor in its concept and joinery. In essence, I had begun to design.

In this article, I'll share my thoughts and attempt to remove some of the mystery from the design process. Hopefully this will encourage you to explore and develop your own creative potential.

Detail of hutch hIiowh m'twilivc blending of color. pro|M>rtiou and detailing.

¡his article is the first in a series on furniture design. In coming issues, wc II bring you the insights of a lively an J diverse group of furniture makers and design professionals, on topics of interest to any tvoodworker who wants to design furniture.

It Shirts With a Passion

I've yet to meet a woodworker who isn't passionate about his or her work. We all love the process of woodworking. But all too often we rob ourselves of the most rewarding part of the process. By strictly adhering to someone else's plans, we end up cloning their work, when for the same effort we could create a piece with more personal value.

My design passions hark back to a simpler lime, when more importance was placed on the individual—a time when work was not measured in terms of increased productivity or billable hours, but in terms of creating something useful and of lasting value. I admire the individual builder of the 19ih century, who more often worked in a shed than in a well-equipped shop. Me worked to fill a need, using whatever materials were available, and his creativity was inherent in the building process. For instance, the depth of a cupboard might well be determined by

Ron Layport Furniture
Hand-planed surfaces and chamfer* cut with a drawknife help give this table its primitive look.

the width of an available board.

I've tried to maintain these values in my furniture, using hand tools, traditional, honest joinery and simple oil finishes. My machines do the roughing, then I do the joining and work the surfaces by hand. With their less-than-machine-pcrfect surfaces and their

many idiosyncrasies, my pieces are living evidence someone was there.

I contend that we can develop our sensitivity as a design tool. To me, true design happens somewhere between the hands and the heart. And just as we train our hands and develop our skills, we can also train our eyes and develop our senses.

I've spent countless hours just staring at furniture and other objects—touching, feeling, examining surfaces, memorizing colors— and most importantly, asking myself questions: "Why did 1 stop to look at this piece? Why do I feel this way (about its color, proportions, detail)? What docs it remind me of? Why did the builder do this or that?"

When I design a piece, I always have an individual in mind. Whether it's a real person or just a figment of my imagination, I'm building to fit the specific need (and often specific dimensions) of a specific individual. I have to address these needs if I want the piece to be useful and not merely decorative.

I also have to consider my materials. If there's no way for me to get walnut, I'm not going to visualize the piece in walnut. Likewise, I consider my skills. Until recently, 1 didn't know how to turn wood on a lathe, so I didn't think in terms of round legs.

Wood Colls the Shots

Early in my woodworking experience, I developed the notion that each Ixjard in my possession liad somehow been entrusted to me for a specific use.

Cherry dividers act as a color "bridge" between the maple drawer fronts and walnut carcase.

Author devise« joints and structures to counteract wood movement, using one piece to lock another in place.

Although a board is related to others from the same tree, its individual beauty is not to be taken lightly. My job is simply to reuse the tree, arranging its individual parts to achieve their fullest potential.

I have yet to design a piece of furniture before I have the wood. I buy wood when it presents itself. I hoard wood: I stockpile it until the opportunity to use it comes along. Thus, the wood itself plays an active role in the piece's design.

My obsession with wood has been known to create havoc in my tiny workspace. There have been times when I literally could not get into my shop to work, not to mention the evening I had to be rescued from the far corner of my shop after unstacking my woodpile.

I find it very painful to consider ripping a wide board that has lived more than two of my lifetimes and certainly deserves to be admired awhile longer. Instead, I try to display that board for the appreciation of future observers.

Author devise« joints and structures to counteract wood movement, using one piece to lock another in place.

Right or wrong, I go to great lengths to use a single board where three narrower boards, glued up, might be less likely to cup. Through the use of joints or frames and panels, I can usually figure out a way to "outsmart" the wood—to counteract the movement

Cherry dividers act as a color "bridge" between the maple drawer fronts and walnut carcase.

of one board by the proper use of another. (See photo, left.)

I never prepare measured drawings or work from a cutting list, ripping and planing all the boards from shop "stock.* When I start a piece of furniture, I have a general notion about its size or color or proportion, but I don't know what the piece will look like until I start putting it together, one board at a time. The wood often makes the final design call. The width of a dining table, for example, will probably be determined by the total width of the planks I've selected. I may choose planks to come close to a desired width, but I won't rip them just to match an arbitrary width. This way, I'm designing with the wood's dimensions, instead of designing speculatively on paper. I think that's the way a builder would have done it 150 years ago. It takes a bit of trial and error, but it's far more exciting.

One pleasant by-product of this approach is my less-than-impressive scrap pile. In nine years of building, the scrap I've accumulated wouldn't fill a standard telephone booth.

The color of the wood is a major design element. I try to take advantage of color variations within a given species and of color relationships between different woods. I also consider how a wood's color will eventually change under an oil finish, as light and time work their magic. 1 take into account that the light pinkish hue of freshly oiled cherry will move toward the rich, deep values of walnut and farther from the mellow honey color of maple. I often use cherry as a visual bridge betwee n two woods, as if I were painting on a canvas. (Sec photo, left.) In this case, though, the "painting" isn't actually complete until the wood has aged.

Directional light is a useful tool for composing with color. I usually look at my rough-planed boards both in direct daylight and again under incandcsccnts to sec how different lighting conditions will affect them. I'm sure my neighbors wonder about the madman who stands seven or eight huge planks on end outside his shop at 8 a.m., and then paces back and forth, flipping and rcflipping them, slopping mineral spirits on them (to light up the figure), writing notes and drawing arrows on them (grain direction, this-end-up, etc.), carrying them back inside—only to bring them out two days later and repeat the entire ritual.

I happen to like wood's imperfections. There is a school of thought that believes only perfect, straight and clear lumber is beautiful and that flawed wood should only be found in the scrap bin. On the contrary, imperfections can become major design

Author uses "beads" to enhance the vertical feeling of a piece.

Vertical back hoard- visually li-lllrll illïr» Hill«* llllh'll.

Surfaces and Finishes

Vertical back hoard- visually li-lllrll illïr» Hill«* llllh'll.

I also try make my furniture inviting to the touch—I don't want to be afraid of it. This is partly my reaction to the formal mahogany furniture I grew up with in the 1940s. I lived in dread fear of scratching those perfect surfaces. Today, when someone asks if I put my feet on the table at home. I can, with great pleasure, answer yes.

I want to be able to feel the wood when the piece is finished. When 1 started building furniture, I used to grind surfaces into submission with a belt sander, but now I prefer the textures I can produce with a scraper. I like the way a scraper follows the curly grain of tiger maple—you can literally feel the ripples in the wood. Hand tools allow a bit of my humanity to remain.

The finish is my final design clement. I use an oil finish exclusively—

Form and Detail

When I look at furniture, my eye seems to crave verticality. Maybe it's because that's the way the tree originally grew. Graceful, slender forms appeal to me more than heavier, bulkier ones. I tend to make my cupboards tall and narrow, to give them almost giant scale without massive visual weight.

I can lighten the visual load by dividing wide forms into a series of verticals. (See photo below.) If I'm building a wide, flat table. I try to give the vertical legs a more delicate proportion. Or instead of one wide drawer on a case piece, I'll make several narrower drawers side by side to break up the horizontal visual strength.

I also break up mass and visual boredom with what I call "beading." It might be tiny scratch-beads on the edge of a door or upright, or heavier beaded forms running the entire height of a piece. These beads work to subtly enhance the vertical effect by leading the eye. (See photo, right.)

Details, such as hand-cut beads, delicate hand-cut dovetails, tiny moldings and hidden compartments, reward those who examine a piece closely. But more importantly, they are rewards to the builder himself for spending the time.

Author uses "beads" to enhance the vertical feeling of a piece.

usually three coats of hot linseed oil followed by two or three coats of tung oil—because it highlights the grain yet doesn't cover up the texture of the wood. (See sidebar, page 48.) Each coat is rubbed out with 0000 steel wool after at least a full day's drying time.

The Bottom Line

For me, design is not a "style" but an attitude—an honest respect for myself and my materials, and a desire to push both to their limits. It's allowing myself the freedom to experiment. Most of what I have learned has come to me just short of total disaster. It's all part of the learning process.

I would encourage anyone working from plans to use them only as a general guideline. Take liberties, break rules, change proportions, extend height, eliminate undesirable elements. Do a few trial runs with scrap until you get the effects you're looking for. Consider how the piece will be used and who will use it. Design rather than clone. This is how one-of-a-kind pieces evolve. A

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