Design Tips

Design can be one of the most satisfying aspects of woodworking because it is an opportunity to express yourself, to put your spin on something. But what is design, and more specifically, what is good design? If you ask ten different woodworkers that question, you’ll get ten different answers because design means different things to different people.

Regardless of how you want to define design, there are generally three major considerations when you design something:

1. Function: The product must serve the intended need – it must be useful. For example, if you’re building chairs for children, they must be sized for children rather than for adults if they are to be useful. A basic knowledge of human body dimensions and ergonomics is helpful in designing for function.

2. Appearance: The product should be pleasing to the eye. (Many people equate this to “good” design.)  Issues here include style, balance, proportion, and compatibility of materials.

3. Structure: The product must be properly constructed to be durable. Proper selection of materials, joinery, and construction techniques are the main issues here. The design must account for wood properties such as strength, shrinkage, and decay resistance.


Entire books, classes, and careers are dedicated to the subject of design so I’m not even going to pretend to cover all the bases here. Instead, here are a few guidelines to assist you in designing a woodworking project, particularly a piece of furniture.

Try to define a style.  Pieces that have similar materials, design and construction features are said to share the same style.  Some popular styles include traditional, provincial, modern, Scandinavian,  Norm, and Bob. Once you’ve selected a style, stick with it! This means you don’t round the corners and bevel the edges if you’re building a Shaker chest of drawers.

Use sketches to help you visualize ideas. A sketch is a quick and inexpensive way to see if an idea will work. Experiment, get wild – it’s only paper.

Try a CAD package. If you understand the basics of creating working drawings by hand, computer-aided design has several advantages to offer once you get over the learning curve. For example, it’s easy to stretch a piece on a computer screen to test different proportions. Also, copy and paste saves time when replicating features such as cabinet doors.

Create mock-ups. Sketches and CAD drawings are useful but a mock-up is an excellent way to evaluate the 3-D aspects of a design. Use cheap materials like cardboard and styrofoam, and don’t worry too much about detail. If the piece isn’t too large, go for a full size mock-up.

Use golden rectangles for proportioning. A golden rectangle is one in which the ratio of the width to the length is 5/8. This proportion, which has been in use since ancient times, is especially pleasing to the human eye. If you look around, you’ll see that many pieces of furniture (tables, shelves, cabinets, etc.) are  proportioned as golden rectangles.

Divide wide spaces into a series of smaller ones. For example, consider using multiple narrow boards for the back of a hutch rather than one large piece of material.

Develop a sense of rhythm. Rhythm represents the occurrence of distinct design features at regular intervals. Examples include equal spacing between chair spindles and stair steps of equal height. For vertical structures, unequal spacing is often the way to go. An example is a chest of drawers with deeper shelves at the bottom.

Use emphasis for visual variety. Emphasis is used to focus attention on a particular aspect or feature. It can be achieved in numerous ways including detailing, grain arrangement, and positioning of hardware.

Let the wood have some say in the design. If the wood has pronounced grain or other distinguishing characteristics, it may be worth reevaluating the design to see how the “personality” of the wood can best be incorporated. Some people select their wood first and let the characteristics of the wood drive the design.

Design for wood movement.  Your design must factor in moisture-related dimensional changes in wood. Some ideas: select stable woods, use quarter-sawn lumber, use frame-and-panel construction,  use slotted screw holes. Don’t fight wood movement, incorporate it.

Employ the body test. If you’ve ever sat at a “too-tall” table – one that is almost at chest level – then you can appreciate the importance of test fitting furniture prototypes using real people. This is of particular importance when designing chairs and tables.

Show your design to others. If the general reaction is a wrinkled nose, reminiscent of rotten meat, it might be time to regroup. (This is especially relevant if the test subjects will have to live with the offending design).

Study the work of a master. Or take it a step further and try to actually build a reproduction of a master craftsman’s work. This is a simple, yet often overlooked way, of improving your understanding of good design principles.

Recommended Reading

Furniture by Design: Design, Construction, & Technique
by Graham Blackburn. Hardcover (March 1997)

The Woodworker’s Guide to Furniture Design: The
Complete Reference for Building Furniture the Right Size,
the Right Proportion and the Right Style.
by Garth Graves. (March 1997).
(The chapter on furniture standards is particularly worthwhile).

A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, Woodworker’s Library
(Fresno, CA.) by James Krenov, Craig McArt
(March 2000)

Concept Sketches ->