How I Design

It’s been kind of slow in my shop lately. I haven’t really been working on anything in particular now that the built-in and my shop desk have been done for some time. Summer is always a slow time for me in the shop as my family prefers outdoor activities when the weather is nice. However, I am gearing up and preparing for a major project for the fall once the summer activities slow down some and the vacations are all but over. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some insights on how I design a piece of furniture. I don’t work from pre-printed plans but I will use pictures and/or drawings as inspiration for just about all of my pieces. However, as my wife will tell you, the pictures are merely a starting point.

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So it will be with my newest undertaking as well. Ever since we finished renovating our family room, we’ve been making do with a cheap Walmart TV stand. Other projects and pieces of furniture have been higher priorities up until now so we’ve simply dealt with the ugly plastic veneered particleboard stand, knowing that we would design and build a nicer piece at some point in the future.

My wife had an idea of what she wanted, but I always like her to find a few pictures of ideas that she likes as a starting point. She knows that I won’t build the piece as pictured since the factory made stuff is typically junk, but the concept is really what I’m after, not the design. So for our family room, we found several pictures like the one pictured above.

Now media units like these are obviously not period pieces, however, whether you are into period furniture or modern contemporary styles, the methods of designing and constructing them are no different. At first glance, this might seem like a very intimidating piece. It’s pretty tall and very wide and there are a lot of doors, shelves and possibly some complex moldings. The trick to designing and building pieces like these is to break them down into small manageable steps. In this case, I’ll break this down into 6 pieces of furniture that will later go together to look like one large piece. If you were designing an 8 foot tall Newport style secretary, the process would be no different.

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Now, while my preference for building furniture is to use tools and techniques similar to those used in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it comes to designing, I humbly embrace CAD drawing programs. Not because they can make accurate drawings (which they obviously can), but because it’s so easy for me to scale drawings, proportion parts and move pieces around without having to have a large drafting area and a lot of pencils and erasers. I’m working on my drawing skills, especially when it comes to things like carving, but for rough dimensioning and proportioning and just getting some general ideas about scale and proportion together, CAD is hard to beat.

I like to start by figuring out the general proportions of the piece. In this instance, because I needed to proportion 6 differnt cases, I started with the bottom center case for the TV. My wife and I figured out how high we wanted the case to be based on the height of our seating furniture and the distance that most of it was placed from the TV. With the height of the center case established, just about all of the general dimensions of the six cases were in some way based on the chosen height for the center case. To illustrate this, I’ll describe the process I used to arrive at the general dimensions for each of the six cases for this project.

We decided that the center case for the TV should be about 30″ high. I decided to make the width of this case a 2/3 ratio of height to width. This made the case about 45″ wide, which turned out would be a good width for the TV which is 41″ wide. The side bottom cases were figured out next. Again, the height was set at 30″ to be even with the center case. Using the 2/3 ratio again, this time width to height, resulted in the side cases being about 20″ wide. For the height of the top side cases, I applied a 5/9 ratio (height to width) for the entire area covered by the top cases and the open space for the TV. This entire rectangle has dimensions of about 47″ tall by about 85″ wide, which made the top side cases 20″ wide by 47″ tall. Finally, I made the bridge case about 1/4 the height of the side top cases or about 12″ tall.

After figuring out the proportions for the front of the case, I moved to the top view to determine case depth. A lot of this is dependant upon what will go into each case. I decided on a stepped design for aesthetic reasons as well as practical reasons. Not only does the step back of the top and side cases look nice, it aids in hiding the joints of the moldings.

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The cases are going to be modular to make them easier to move. Therefore, the moldings cannot span more than one case. If the side cases were the same depth as the center cases, the base, waist and cornice moldings would have a visible vertical cut line where each case comes together. This joint would be immediately obvious and not very attractive. However, by stepping the side cases back from the center cases, the moldings can meet at an inside miter, which will hide the joint much better and help it to look like one continuous mitered molding and hence one solid case instead of six separate cases.

So I started with the bottom center case again since that is where the TV and A/V components will be housed. I decided on about 21″ deep for this case. To arrive at the step back for the side cases, I subtracted 3″ from the center case depth to get about 18″ for the bottom side cases. Then to arive at the top case depths, I subtracted 6″ from the corresponding bottom case depth to arrive at a 15″ depth for the top center case and a 12″ depth for the top side cases.

With the front and top views drawn, it was a simple matter to transfer the dimensions to create a right side view of the cases. From a drawing perspective, this is about all I will do. Going through this exercise helps me to arrive at the general case dimensions for each case. From here, I can build all 6 cases and then begin the process of fitting everything out. The doors, drawers, shelves and moldings aren’t really important at this point because their dimensions will all be dependant upon the final dimensions of the six cases. All of those parts will be gauged as I go along. This allows me to make adjustments as I go as opposed to working from a cut list which makes adjustments challenging.

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One final note on designing your own pieces. There are a lot of proportioning ratios that generally look good to the eye, like 2/3, 5/9, 3/5, golden ratio, etc. These ratios can be used as tools for designing a piece’s general proportions. However, they are ultimately just tools and your eye should be the final judge as to whether something looks right or not. Sometimes, what looks right to you just doesn’t fit any kind of “rule”. It just looks right, so you go with it. That’s the best part about designing pieces yourself instead of working from pre-packaged plans. The final piece has your character designed into it, not some one else’s.

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One thought on “How I Design

  1. In my short career making sawdust, I’ve found that I’m more driven to work on and complete a project if I’ve worked out the design myself, versus when I’m following a set of plans. Even if I’m working from a photo, the idea of developing the lenghts, widths, and depths myself really appeals to the math problem-solving half of my brain. Thanks for the tips.

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