Developing the Idea

It all starts with an idea. But how do you develop a general idea into something specific, something that you can build? For example, you know you want to build an entertainment center but you’re not sure if you want it to be freestanding or built into an existing wall. Should it consist of multiple pieces or one large piece? Should the TV be in the center or placed to the side? How formal should the style be? …

James Krenov, the renowned cabinetmaker, once offered this piece of advice when asked how he goes about designing furniture: “You start with a concept of the object you want to make and apply some common sense”. He then went on to explain how the intended use of the object will influence its design. If the object is purely decorative – its primary function is to be beautiful – then the design will obviously emphasize aesthetics. If the object is to be “functional”, then the design needs to take into account human comfort and structural considerations.

To help organize your thoughts, consider drafting a need or problem statement that describes the intended use of the project and any known design specifications. Hopefully, the need statement (I prefer the term “need” to “problem”) will address some of the most general questions related to your project’s design, allowing you to conceptualize its general outlines. If nothing else, the need statement will get your creative juices flowing by forcing you to think about the project.

Here are two sample need statements:

Need Statement 1: An entertainment center that can accommodate a 60″ TV,  six stereo components, and several hundred books and CD’s. It should be free-standing, no more than 6 feet wide, 4 to 6 feet tall, and extend from the wall no more than 24 inches. The preferred wood is cherry.

Need Statement 2: A rectangular kitchen table that can accommodate 6 adults with space for sitting on the ends and sides. A light colored wood that can withstand denting is desired.

The first need statement is fairly specific in that it lists some dimensional constraints and the type of wood to use. Call it a half-baked idea. On the surface, the second need statement lacks  specificity but there’s more to it than meets the eye. It tells you that the table needs to conform to adult body dimensions – using published furniture standards, this translates to a height of 28″ to 30″, a width of about 36″, and a length of perhaps 66″ to 72″.  We also know that the legs must be positioned to allow room for seating on the ends – if you’re building a trestle table, this translates to the setback distance. As for the type of wood, the need statement allows us to rule out woods such as white pine or poplar since they dent very easily. Some viable choices might be maple, white oak, or yellow birch.

Get Inspired and Do Your Research

A need statement will help to jumpstart the design process but you’re bound to have a bunch of questions still running through your mind. For us mere mortals, this is a good time to check out existing pieces of furniture to find ones that are visually appealing and that meet some of the design criteria.  In other words, you’re looking for sources of inspiration.

Hit your favorite furniture stores, do the museum, craft show, and auction tours. Dig through furniture books, magazines, and your grandmother’s musty attic. Search for pictures and plans on the Internet. Tune into the Woodwright’s Shop to see what Roy Underhill is bloodying his knuckles on. Pull your bootleg copies of the New Yankee Workshop off the shelf and see what our buddy Norm’s been making.  (Speaking of Norm, how many times have we seen him traipsing around museums to take measurements of old Shaker furniture?)

Depending on the nature of the project, you may also want to conduct a little background research at this time. If you’re building Shaker furniture, read up on Shaker history to gain an appreciation of how their simplistic lifestyle influenced their furniture design. Get into their minds as it were. If you’re building a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley Morris-style spindle chair, you’ll definitely want to read up on the man and the relevant construction features of a Morris chair. If you’re building a clock with wooden gears, it would be wise to learn about gear ratios, pendulums, and related engineering issues.  If you’re planning to recreate Howard Hughes Spruce Goose, a bit of aeronautical engineering education might possibly be in order. (You might also consider visiting your therapist…)

I recently read an article about a craftsman who was commissioned to restore wooden horses for a 1920’s era merry-go-round. His research activities included visiting other merry-go-rounds and reading old documents to learn about the horse styles, the types of wood that were used, the “wear” points, and carving and finishing techniques.

Wood Selection

You should give some thought to what type of wood to use as you’re developing the idea for your project. The characteristics of the wood will have a direct bearing on the design. A good example of this is designing a bookcase. If you use a fairly stiff wood such as yellow birch, the shelves may only require support at the ends. However, if you use a wood such as white pine, additional support features may be required to prevent excessive sagging. The dimensional stability of the wood also factors into the design. If you’re making cabinet doors out of a relatively stable wood such as beech, smaller door clearances are required compared to a less stable species such as mahogany.

In many cases, the choice of wood to use will be determined by the desired visual aspects. If you already have a house full of walnut furniture, then you would naturally consider using walnut for any new pieces. Just make sure you understand the wood’s physical characteristics as you’re preparing the design.

Tip: Use the Wood Picker for help in selecting the appropriate wood for your project.

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