What Do We Know About Furniture? Rethinking Design Through Building

From the dawn of the Age of Man, furniture design came a long way… and then it went a long way away. Sitting down on a flat log was once considered innovative. In contrast big box furniture design is cheap, ugly, unreliable and expensive. On top of it all they usually expect you to build it yourself. So now every goober with a cordless drill and a Skilsaw thinks she can design and build better wood furniture. Guess what? You can.

What Might You Need Besides an Electric Drill and Saw?

I recommend using a speed square or carpenter square to ensure that factory edges, found edges, cuts and assembled joints are straight and square (90 degrees). If you plan on using angled cuts and joints, the speed square is invaluable. A countersink bit or countersink pilot bit sharpens up the look of simple fasteners such as exposed black drywall screws. Unless you assemble every joint with dowels or carve furniture from a single log, you’ll need to choose fasteners as well.

While we are going over the obvious, it couldn’t hurt to use a tape measure or old fashioned carpenter’s ruler. You could make your own measuring stick(s) – just be sure to have a tool for obtaining and marking accurate dimensions. Which leads to a tool for marking whether it be a carpenter pencil, pencil, pen, or marking blade. Finishing options will be discussed at the end of this article.

If you have more advanced joinery in mind you may be interested in: *electric router for tongue and groove applications and custom edges *biscuit joiner for miters *clamps for setting joints to glue overnight *jointer for pursuing perfectly straight edges *hand planer for pursuing flat surfaces *table saw for multiple clean rips with precision

Tip: keep all of your ideas in a sketchbook dedicated to furniture design. Leave room for notes you want to add once you have tried out some of your designs.

Why do I need electric tools?

You don’t need them, but substituting hand tools makes a simple project much more complex and requires a high degree of skill. If that is your desire, go for it! With time it will make you a far better carpenter. But the fact is, for the rank amateur or hobbyist, electric saws make cleaner, straighter cuts. Only a specialized hand saw can cut a groove at a set depth, but with a circular saw you can set the depth and go. I often like to avoid saws altogether and design with scraps exactly as they are found.

Drilling with a tap and die set is nothing short of ludicrous and the fact is you are still using a tool to drill a (hopefully) straight hole into wood. Putting hand-made furniture together with nails presents many problems. Heavy duty nails, which grip well, tend to split smaller pieces of wood typically used for furniture. Finish nails don’t provide enough strength or grip and are really designed for hiding fasteners on finishing touches. Lower gauge (thicker) casing nails and finish nails tend to be much longer than you would like for furniture applications. But if you are an expert hammer swinger it is certainly possible to use nails.

Rule of Furniture Design #1: Gravity and the Horizon

Gravity determines everything about the way humans interact with objects and space. Gravity is expressed in the vertical line, and without it we wouldn’t have the horizon expressed in the horizontal line. When furniture is designed well, gravity and horizon work in harmony to create a functional plane of rest. This is the simple origin of the right angle. We didn’t discover it; it was simply always there.

Where do we see vertical expression in furniture? Legs bring the forces down towards the center of the earth. In his way, we design furniture in the image of Man. Sometimes gravity is not as obvious: the sides of a bookshelf express gravity, but you usually cannot see the vertical lines when you view the piece from the side. From the front, you see the lines carrying the load down to the ground. Now imagine a wooden pot rack above a kitchen stove: verticality is only expressed in the hooks and cables reaching up for support in the ceiling.

When designing handmade furniture, take great care in locating a place(s) of rest. Then consider the many ways you can express the supporting vertical force. Thin, straight vertical lines create the strongest expression, but this is certainly not the only option. As a point of contrast, hiding vertical forces with horizontal lines can be quite effective. In the most successful design applications, a massive object may appear to float above the ground.

If you want to introduce angles, anything less than 10 degrees from vertical can add a subtle flair to the design. Once a line deviates more than 15 degrees from the vertical, it begins to lose its force as the horizontal is approached. 30 and 45 degree angles go in and out of style as loud flashy design comes in and out of favor. As you think more and more about your own personal feelings, how design relates to you as an individual, you may find that styles are meaningless. Self expression is timeless and does not rely on popular opinion or taste.

RFD #2: Dynamic Resistance holds it all together

Designing by gravity alone does not require any consideration of resistance. Imagine that you assemble a coffee table only by stacking squares of plywood to a desired height (you don’t feel the need to stick your feet under the table). You have designed only by gravity, but expressed only horizontal lines. It is almost un-furniture – only a stack of wood. If horizontal pressure is applied to the ‘table,’ layers will slide and the stack will shift, twist, and deform.

Resistance to horizontal forces is expressed in bracing. Bracing can be supplied by paneling, interlocking joints, traditional angle bracing (at the corners or across planes), or sometimes by heavy use of glue or fasteners.

In the example above if each layer were glued or nailed to the layer below, the needs of resistance would be satisfied at the cost of extra labor and material, leaving the pure expression of only horizontal lines. A panel attached to two adjacent sides would resist lateral pressure in any direction, as would 4 vertical strips wrapping around 2 edges of one face. A hole could be cut in each layer for a single vertical key to hold them all together in alignment (and still retaining horizontal expression). In similar fashion 2 through-bolts (recessed into the bottom layer and top layers) would provide a great deal of stability.

Can you imagine other ways to stabilize the ‘stack table’? Variations on resistance are as endless as the imagination. A common mistake in building diy bookshelves is to leave out bracing. If you just build a rectangular box with shelves suspended between the sides, it only takes a light push to deform the box into a parallelogram. A strong push creates enough momentum to flatten the shelves completely, regardless of the strength of the fasteners. A common way to resist lateral force is to put a sheet of backing across the entire bookshelf, which also serves to prevent objects from falling between the bookshelf and the wall. What if you wanted to see through a set of shelves and access it from both sides? Little right triangles tacked on to each corner would do the trick, or larger triangles at the four outside corners.

As design works to solve more complex problems, the need for special resistances arise. A table with a small base must resist toppling forces which can be both lateral and vertical. A surface of rest can be cantilevered away from its vertical support, subjecting the joints to unusual stress that can lead to failure; such a design must resist the forces of torque. A rocking chair must be balanced to resist tipping backward. Furniture with hinges or over moving parts will provide unique forces that must be accommodated. When designing for outdoor use it is necessary to plan for weather, insects and other forces of nature. It may not seem like this belongs in a discussion of static versus dynamic forces, but what of the necessary resistance to expansion and contraction or freezing and thawing?

Rule #3: Design for Building

There are common sense approaches to assembling furniture. Always begin with a rough layout. The framework must be constructed first (in most cases). Bracing is applied after the structure is assembled, but before it becomes too rigid for adjustment. Finishing touches or cosmetic notions are usually applied as late as possible in the fabrication process. Finishes are nearly always applied last. These ideas should be applied to the design process in this order as well.

Don’t just throw screws into a piece of furniture. Once you have spent quality time on the design, design the placement of fasteners as well. Especially if your design requires fasteners to be exposed, they are a part of the expression of forces. Align them to express vertical or horizontal lines, cluster them to create chunky, punched corners or spread them as thinly as possible for balance and elegance.

I discussed the choice of fasteners earlier, but if you are using screws with large heads you may opt to hide them as often as you can. If most of the structure can utilize hidden screws, it may be that you can use finish nails on finished surfaces to maintain a clean look. Whenever you do use screws, drill pilot holes into the outside surface to ensure it does not crack. I prefer the pilot and a deep countersink. The pilot should be a loose-fit hole. The threads do not need to grip the outside material at all. When the threads grip the deeper material, the head of the screw pulls the two pieces of wood tight.

Pay attention to detail

Make smart choices about your wood and placement of grain. As a rule of thumb, wood grain should follow the lines of force expressed in your design, although there are times when a finessed carpenter will do exactly the opposite with specific intent. Your results will not be perfect at first, but if you take time to design with wood grain in mind you will eventually develop an intuition for working with wood.

Wood can be painted, stained, or left nude. For indoor furniture, these choices rarely have practical implications but there is a big movement against chemical finishes which produce off-gas. These chemicals release unhealthy gases and particles into the air throughout the life of a piece of furniture. I prefer to design heavily for wood grain and leave the wood nude. To protect the wood I use a natural wax product, such as Butcher’s Wax. Of course there are times when the wood at your disposal is simply not attractive. Textures, glazes and contact paper can be lively alternatives to staining or painting.

You can design and build your own furniture

Be patient. The best woodworkers in the world apprenticed for many years before mastering their craft. You will encounter obstacles, but these will help you learn. Your first pieces may not be pretty, but strive to make them functional and strong. You may even discover that ‘pretty’ is not your thing. Sketch and write about your process. Be your strongest critic. These exercises will awaken in you thoughts and ideas that will push you farther along your journey.

Feel free to contact me to discuss projects or share your own experience!

9841 Washingtonian Blvd, Suite 200
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
240-305-0912 | AtlantisMaryland@gmail.com


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