solid wood and plywood – design choices, lesson 2

using wood

Remember from Lesson 1 that wood moves. Because of its cellular structure, wood is constantly ‘out of balance’ with its environment. When the air is humid, anything made of wood is absorbing moisture and swelling as it does. Conversely, when the air is dry, wood products are losing moisture and shrinking as they do.

This is a fairly simple law of nature. The difficulty arises when we push the material to do more than what’s natural; like staying straight, flat and not fall apart which are basic requirements for useful furniture and cabinets. Or when we try to prevent wood from moving at all. It’s common knowledge that we make wood products from trees, like lumber, cut the parts to the sizes that we need and glue them together. Is there anything else we really need to know than that?

For most people, no. For anyone who designs a product with wood as the material, though, knowing some basics is essential. In the first place, there are just 2 categories for wood building products: solid wood and plywood.

ven2

wood as veneer and plywood

 

wood as raw lumber

wood as planks of lumber

 

 

 

 

processing solid wood

Some rules of thumb

Generally, plywood is for large panels and solid wood is for making frames. Plywood is ideally suited for economically covering large, flat areas. It’s also much more stable than solid wood due to how it’s made. Unlike solid wood, plywood is a man-made wood product comprised of several layers of veneer that are laid perpendicular to each other. Veneer can be anywhere from about 1/32″ to 1/8″ thick and from 8″ to about 30″ wide depending upon the species and how it’s cut out of the tree. The core part of a plywood sheet is made of alternating rotary-cut sheets which is not very sightly. The faces, which are the visible parts of the board, are made of matching leaves of the best veneer, usually called ‘fancy-face’ veneer. The reason plywood is so suitable for large areas is that it does not expand or contract in width. The downside of plywood is its edge:

plywood core

There are few designs which call for the edge of plywood to be left exposed. It must either be ‘contained’ by a frame or banded with a veneered edge.

MDF, short for medium density fiberboard, is another type of plywood core. In this case, the ‘ply’ is comprised of many layers of paper laid up or glued on top of each other but having no grain direction like veneer core plywood. MDF is arguably the most stable core available but it’s also much weaker than veneer core plywood without the alternated wood layers. It’s also more vulnerable to water damage as it can absorb more than plywood.

 

Here are 2 examples of a ‘fancy-face’ table top:

solid wood and plywood

solid wood and plywood

Notice the frame around the perimeter and the highly figured wood in the center of the panel; both are tip-offs to plywood construction. In fact, a frame containing a solid wood top is not good construction as it would not move with the whole top. It would show gaps in the joints after one year.

 

Another type of veneered top:

patterned veneer top

Marquetry is fancy fancy-face veneer. It could be called the veneer-joiner’s art as it is usually made up of many small and intricate pieces of veneer carefully held together until they can be pressed permanently onto the table top. Then a solid wood frame is built around the outside to protect and conceal the edge of the core.

 

Here are 2 examples of a ‘plank’ style table top

solid wood construction

Notice the ends of the planks are exposed which is a clear indication of the solid wood construction (in some cases, ‘breadboard’ ends are attached as a way of covering up the end grain if it’s objectionable). All of the boards are running in the same direction, usually lengthwise in this kind of a table. Plank tops are more straight-forward, tending to lend themselves to ‘quieter’ or robust designs. There is a certain predictability about them.

 

solid wood and plywood

Solid wood tops are best for this kind of expansion table which has all exposed edges and is intended for less delicate use.

 

Another type of solid wood table:

1 piece plank top

This kind of top is extraordinary because of the width of the plank. In this case, 1 board is wide enough for a full top. The edges are left unworked and if the bark still adheres to them, are called ‘live edge’. The wood is so beautiful by itself – even the ‘flaws’ have a certain wild feel – that very little additional detailing is required. There are not many species of trees anymore that lend themselves to a 1-piece top. Those that are available tend to be relatively pricey.

 

Which one is better, plywood or solid wood?

It’s a common misconception that one kind of material is intrinsically more valuable and desirable than the other. This is partially due to the unsavory reputation plywood has as ugly and common. As we learned above though, neither one is inherently ‘better’ than the other. Each approach has advantages and drawbacks. Solid wood seems to be more durable because its thickness protects it from superficial damage; but, it’s heavy. Veneer can show off the choicest cuts of the rarest woods in intricate and unique patterns; but, its beauty is literally only skin deep.

The best choice for any design is made from knowing what the strengths and limitations are of the materials and from having a sense of how a product might be used in any given environment. Style and personal preferences also play a part in the equation. Plank or solid wood table tops must be carefully held down or restrained both to restrict a tendency to warp and to allow a substantial amount of expansion and contraction across their width. While plywood tops must be structural, they don’t have quite the same movement issues requiring restraint like their solid wood counterparts.

Summary Takeaway

solid wood: simple, robust design. Thickness, length and width of lumber expressed.

plywood: fancy face. Emphasis upon face; available for matching or patterned veneers.    Primarily 2 dimensional.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on solid wood and plywood – design choices, lesson 2

wood for not-woodworkers: part 1/4

understanding wood

 

woodworker source

lumber in disguise

As a material, wood is all around us; we see it everyday.

 

It’s all too easy to look at it without ‘seeing’ it though, giving new meaning to the old saw about the forest and the trees.

 

Almost everyone knows wood is made from trees, but do they know how trees are made?

 

 

lumber core

We all recognize that a tree grows up; it’s less obvious that it grows out as well.

Each year, every tree adds 2 layers or rings outwardly, called early growth or spring wood and late growth or summer wood.

Early is light and wide, late is dark and dense.  Any board, when viewed from its end, will show growth rings which have also come to be known as ‘grain’.

What is grain?

lumber

The photograph above represents what the end of a board would look like if we could see it with microscopic vision. It’s a magnified view of ‘end grain’ in wood.

The cells that form trees fall into 2 major categories: tubes that are hollow and tubes that are solid. The hollow tubes allow the tree to draw nutrients up from the ground as sap and the solid tubes give the mass its structure.

Woods that are known to be ‘grainy’, like oak, have their hollow tubes concentrated in one growth ring, usually the early growth. These woods are called ring porous.

Woods that are known for ‘tight grain’, like maple, are diffuse porous; that is, their hollow tubes are spread randomly throughout late and early growth.

Grain, then, is another term for the wood’s pores as they appear on the surface of the board. How the board was sawn out of the tree and what species of wood it is will greatly affect what its grain looks like.

 

Here’s a quick visual of just how porous wood is:

http://

So What?

If there is one takeaway from this primer on wood and wood science, it’s this:

wood moves.

It doesn’t ‘breathe’ – that’s a misnomer – but it is constantly taking on and giving off moisture through its pores. As it takes on moisture mostly in the summer, lumber expands across its width and in thickness but not in length. As it gives off moisture, mainly in winter when the heat goes on, it shrinks in reverse.

It’s unstable.

Wood is hygroscopic. This means the attraction between dry wood and water is so strong it is impossible to prevent moisture gain, or loss if the environment is dryer than the wood. Wood is a lot like a sponge. It’s in a constant state of imbalance due to its cell structure and how it grew. In a humid environment, wood will absorb moisture from the air and expand. When the air is dry, it will give up moisture it holds and shrink.

This is a fundamental quirk of wood and needs to be recognized and accommodated rather than controlled. There is no finish that permanently blocks its pores nor environment so perfectly controlled as to eliminate variation in humidity.

Accommodation of wood

An unusual concept.

Even so, understanding wood’s inherent instability is critical to designing for its use. A 12″ wide, 3/4″ thick maple board, for example, could expand and contract across its width by 1/8″ during a yearly cycle and perhaps 1/32″ in its thickness. While that might not seem like a lot, such a gap or crack can cause problems if it was not expected. There’s also the potential for warping and cupping as a plank tries to ‘return’ to its former place within the tree. The ‘sap side’ of a plank, that side which was closest to the outside of the tree has more ‘lively’ pores than the heart side. That is, as pores are layered over by succeeding cell growth, they tend to collapse and become less moisture responsive. This can set up an imbalance in a board between one side and the other which is usually evidenced by cupping or warping. A solid wood panel must be contained by a frame to restrict its potential warpage but allow for its expansion.  (The alternative is veneered plywood, which is another kind of accommodation and part of the next lesson.)

Besides the appearance of grain – ring porous tends to look coarser and diffuse porous tends to have more subtle grain patterns – there’s a difference to the touch, too, as ring porous woods feel a little rougher than diffuse porous. By the way, neither is inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Understanding their qualities enables a designer to make an informed choice in pairing wood species to a project.

Ironically, water, the source of a tree’s sustenance becomes the enemy of wood in its next life as furniture or cabinetry. A little water can cause discoloration or distortion and a lot of water can destroy a piece. Aside from enhancing the color of wood grain and lending an attractive sheen to the surface, the primary purpose of finishing is to enable wood to resist damage from both sudden and prolonged exposure to moisture. No finish, though, is going to seal wood off hermetically from moisture.

More on finishing in a subsequent lesson.

One of the keys to effective furniture and cabinet design is making choices driven by knowledge rather than relying upon assumptions or misinformation. I’ve structured this mini-course to empower you with practical information about wood as a material. The tools I’ve provided here are basic – there’s always more. If you have questions or would like to build upon what you’ve learned here, please do contact me.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on wood for not-woodworkers: part 1/4

woodworking course for designers – Intro

pd woodworking course instructorpd woodworking course

furniture 101

 

Ideally, furniture and cabinet design should go hand in glove with fabrication. It doesn’t always work that way in the real world. With malice toward none, on one side are designers and on the other are builders.

There’s often a disconnect between design and construction; that is, many who design don’t really know the particulars of how things are made. Similarly, those who build don’t understand the thought process behind the design that they’re building. It seems that neither school has been taught the fundamentals of the other.

In an effort to bridge at least the design/build part of that gap, I’ve put together a course as a basic manual – 4 ‘pages’ – that I hope will de-mystify the ‘how’ behind making furniture. The goal is to provide tools that will make everyone’s time more productive in getting furniture and cabinets made.

Here’s what I will cover:

1. understanding wood

wood science for the non-scientist

2. materials

solid wood and plywood

3. methods

frame construction

casegood construction

4. finishes

oil

waterborne lacquer

solvent based lacquer

 

This course will be in 4 segments or installments. There is no tuition or qualifying exam or quiz at the end. My intention is that you will find some practical knowledge to take away and apply profitably in your world as it touches wood.

woodworking coursewoodworking course - mortise

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on woodworking course for designers – Intro

What are design details anyway?

A lot has been written about details in furniture, architecture and interior design, but like other words (my last blog), this one’s meaning has become a little fuzzy.

joints details

mortises and tenons

 

example: are these joinery details? Or design details?

 

 

 

Architectural legend Mies van der Rohe had something to say about details:

famous detail quote

 

 

 

 

So did the furniture design giant Charles Eames:

design details

 

 

 

 

 

 

But that doesn’t really make it any clearer what details, or design details, actually are.

 All of these are design details:

  • Edge treatmentmortise and tenon detail
  • exposed joinery
  • the sweep of a leg or shaping
  • an inlaid surface
  • the transition from a rail to a leg or a stile
  • proportions
  • choice of wood
  • hardware

Are they integral, though, or added on? Are the details an expression of the design down to its fingertips or are they slipped on afterward like a flashy dress or sports jacket or shabby bathrobe?

If the design, no matter what it is, has been thought through; that is, have its intent, materials and process (construction) all been resolved and fit with the original concept and need, is its execution ‘true’? Or does something happen in the real world that could cause an abort which then sets a ‘save’ effort in motion.

What’s a ‘save’?

The unforeseen always happens. It’s as much a part of the process of making something new, or custom, as finding out that things take longer or cost more than anticipated/estimated.

A good design allows for this, makes it part of the discovery/development timeline and adjusts to real factors.

A ‘bad’ design has not left room for contingencies, problems or complications. The original plan is rigid and inviolable. Any complication or obstacle during the making phase is met with a compromise – some way to ‘fix’ it or ‘save’ it. The design is not whole anymore.

Any new idea – read design here – needs to be tested before it can be produced, marketed and sold. For most products, that means it has to pass some level of consumer standards that have pretty much been accepted, some written and some are just common practice. A chair must hold someone up; a door must open and close safely and conveniently.

Will anyone get sued if a chair isn’t comfortable or a door doesn’t operate easily? Probably not; but most likely, not many of those varieties will sell very well. That said, there have been a number of chair designs that have sold exceedingly well because of their fabulous look in spite of being rigidly uncomfortable. More on that another time.

Why not wing it?

Testing an idea is slow. Making a mockup, building a prototype all take time and it’s largely ‘unproductive’ time; that is, no one wants to pay for it. The reason is discovery. Something unforeseen always happens between designing ‘on paper’ and building with real materials. With one-of-a-kind projects, the potential glitch or conflict can generally be worked out ‘on the fly’ without compromising the original intent too severely, depending upon how good both the designer and builder are. With bigger projects involving production of multiple similar pieces, ‘fixing’ the design during the making phase can be a bit expensive.

Every design has a core

There is a central idea, concept or vision that has been generated by a particular need. A set of expectations, parameters and a certain knowledge of possibilities sets this train in motion.

Every design has a flaw

There is also some conflict, contradiction or obstacle inherent in every new design – it’s an aspect, circumstance or condition that must be overcome, resolved or accommodated to some degree as the design evolves. Sometimes the flaw only becomes evident after the design has been produced and develops later either through its interface with users in the real world or through the introduction of new technology or an evolving environment.

What is ‘bad’ design?

Everyone probably has several mental images of a product that didn’t work as it was supposed to, looked stupid or failed in one way or another. Oftentimes it’s personal experience that dictates this impression but more often it’s hearsay or kind of a ‘collective consciousness’ that develops. In the ’50s and ’60s, Ford’s Edsel got a very bad rap as an undesirable car, obsolete, out-of-touch, a clunker, a lemon. The Rambler and Gremlin were also tarred with that same brush. Chevy’s Corvair became an overnight albatross because of an engineering/design flaw in the interaction between its steering and rear suspension systems. These are design details in the aggregate with impact.

Bad is also a comparative term; there can be no bad without good. 30 years ago, any furniture smacking of mid-century modern styling or Danish modern was certainly undesirable. Was it bad design because it was then out of style?

What is ‘good’ design?

People often can sense good design, literally when they see, feel, hear or touch it. Apple built its business on making well engineered and well built products that responded to and even anticipated their followers’ needs. Good design is a result that is true to its beginning; that is, it starts as a concept that is then worked through its glitches, shortcomings and problems, is tested in real-life conditions and then re-worked again. It’s prototyped and tested again. Its final version in some ways is a magnification of its beginning while still keeping a connection to all of its defining aspects.

Good design is made manifest in all of its parts as well as in its whole. Design details.

That’s the production model. The greatest challenge for any maker like me is to replicate in a one-off a similar result while shortcutting much of the development process. There are few project budgets that would support production-level design development for a one-off.

So, if a design is good, it’s been thought through, its inconsistencies have been resolved and there’s no trace of a struggle. Nothing is left hanging; all the parts represent the whole and there’s no sense of hurry. There’s a feeling of balance. If a design is good, its details bear up under scrutiny; even further, they invite it. There’s a subtle feeling of being drawn in, to discover more, to find evidence of the thought behind the design in the details that bear witness to the birthing of that design. (custom cherry kitchen)

handmade cherry kitchen details

stove hood detail

handmade cherry kitchen cabinet details

mantle detail, range hood

Posted on by Clark | Comments Off on learn to see the design details in furniture

custom or one-of-a-kind?

one-of-a-kind custom handcrafted table

one-of-a-kind table

Custom or one-of-a-kind or one-off or handcrafted are terms that get bandied about a lot nowadays. They’re so overused that their meanings, well, just aren’t very meaningful anymore. It used to be that ‘custom’ was a derivative of ‘customized’ and usually meant that a standard design had been altered to accommodate some individual need or request. Slight variations in size, color or finish and configuration fit into this category.

Handcrafted usually meant that some of the construction, detailing and finishing was performed ‘by hand’ as opposed to being completely done by machine (in very few cases is it economically plausible to do the more labor intensive operations such as milling, shaping, joinery and sanding without some machining anymore). Nowadays, handcrafted can even be used in description when all that’s been done ‘by hand’ is a final wax rubbing before wrapping and shipping.

Finally, one-off or one-of-a-kind formerly described an original design that was so specialized that it could never be duplicated because of cost or difficulty. One-of-a-kind has come to include more. There is so much furniture coming from so many different sources that it’s not clear what is ‘original’ now. Design, at least as it applies to furniture, cannot be practically copyrighted. Change the dimensions, a detail here and there, add a drawer or a shelf and the proportions and appearance are altered completely.

Is custom the new one-off?

In this particular case, my clients had old bedside tables made of knotty pine. They weren’t all that old but were made to appear so. With a little snooping around, it was easy to identify them as reproductions of a bygone style. My clients liked the basic size and look though, as well as the configuration – the drawer being where the shelf usually is on night or bedside tables. They asked me if I could make them tables like those but ‘updated’ a bit. So I changed the dimensions slightly, made the drawer a tad deeper and put it on undermount slides so that it could be fully extended. I changed the foot detail to a combination I thought would be more ‘articulate’ and I added a bead detail on three sides of the frame openings. Finally, I suggested that the piece be built in birdseye maple. Since the design was relatively simple, such a figured wood could make it pop.

None of those changes was difficult or that costly; however, I learned that the availability of solid birdseye maple these days is unreliable at best. Consequence: some intense ‘custom’ attention from me to locate a source. Luckily, I found one but it meant a road trip to Vermont. Just for the choice of materials, these tables may very well prove to be one-of-a-kind pieces. It certainly turned out to be a custom experience for me.

what’s In Process

one-of-a-kind custom table

raw birdseye end – corner, panel, bead

 

one-of-a-kind custom solid birdseye maple night table

unfinished birdseye drawer front

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on custom or one-of-a-kind?

tailor-made fit in a home office desk

tailor-made design, one-of-a-kind desk

custom home office desk

What’s so special about custom or tailor-made?

Simply put, fitting a design to a client’s special functional, spatial and aesthetic parameters all accomplished by way of an open collaborative exchange between the homeowners, the interior designer – Karen Topjian of MTM Designs – and myself.

An 11-foot long solid curly maple top, pullout trays for electronic components, file drawers, large storage drawers, pull-down modesty panel to conceal electrical cables and a hand-rubbed finish carefully matched to other furniture in the room are a few of the features that distinguish this product as tailor-made to the clients’ needs.

Oftentimes, the best solutions are the simplest but here’s a paradox: what’s simple is not necessarily easy. That said, there is no sign of a ‘struggle’ in the final product. The proportions are right; the lines are clean and consistent; there’s a sense of flow and balance between all of the parts. There’s a presence about this product that creates the sense, a feeling that there’s more to it than meets the eye. The subtle detailing of the drawer fronts, the easy action of the drawers, no unsightly electrical cords and an 11-long solid curly maple top made from matching planks out of the same tree – very rare nowadays – all contribute to that presence.

final ‘raw’ preview prior to finishing

tailor-made fit design cabinetry

the new home office

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on tailor-made fit in a home office desk

getting there by ‘custom made design’

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I make furniture and cabinets from scratch. So what does that mean exactly? The design process is every bit as ‘custom’ as the building and it’s a phase I’d like to call custom made design. I don’t start with a … Continue reading

More Galleries | Comments Off on getting there by ‘custom made design’

completion of a custom cabinet project

I’ve spoken here before about a certain psychological as well as physical let-down that sets in upon the completion of a custom project that’s been months in the making. What I haven’t touched upon is the transition that occurs between projects; that is, how letting go of the old one and ‘tooling up’ or preparing for the new one occurs.

A crucial part of that process is photographing my work. Since just about everything I build is one-of-a-kind, a photographic image is all I have to show for what I’ve created after the piece leaves my shop. Oftentimes, once I’ve delivered an order, there are few subsequent opportunities for me to get back to photograph it. Either I bring my camera and lights along with me at delivery or set aside some time before delivery to shoot the piece in front of a seamless backdrop. In the case of a 28′ long installation , as is often the case for a custom cabinet installation, on site is the only option!

I’ve had to learn a few tricks, mostly the hard way, about doing my own photography over the years. The first and most important is that controlling the light is critical. The second is that the camera doesn’t lie – it shows everything that’s there, whether you actually see it or not – glare, shadows and reflected images are a few examples. Another trick is that images are 2d and while they give the illusion of being 3-dimensional, they aren’t and the magic and art of photography lie in the manipulation of that illusion.

So, one of the biggest tricks I’ve had to learn, and accept, is in using photography not just to document the work that I’ve done, but to create, or contribute to a feeling about it. It may not seem like it, but, as is true for much about creating custom-made furniture and cabinetry, there’s a lot most people don’t see.

Just as I virtually build a piece when I draw it, when I photograph it, I lay the ground work for generating future interest in that kind of custom work.

custom made living room cabinets

Custom built-in cabinets

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on completion of a custom cabinet project

has ‘built to last’ gone quaint?

Last week our microwave errored out. A new one for me.The keypad, which is the link to the brains of the thing, kept telling us there was a short circuit and we’d need to get it serviced. Unfortunately, the way most electronic appliances are built nowadays, the components are not meant to be ‘serviced’ or repaired. It’s far less expensive just to buy a new one than to pay someone to take it apart only to find out you have to order a new part from China, or India.  New, comparably equipped machine: $159. The proverbial no-brainer.

However…..

On my way to the dump, I made a mental balance sheet of the things in our lives that we do repair vs. those we toss. The ‘keep and fix’ side was pretty light: house, car, bicycle and maybe a few major appliances. Very few. Just about everything else is throwaway or headed for Sal’s Boutique (aka the Salvation Army store).

As a society, we’re probably the victims of our own success. We developed and improved manufacturing processes to such an extent that the technology could be exported anywhere. We don’t make as many things as we used to because people overseas can do that for less money. We consume. When something is used up or out of fashion, we come up with the $159 or comparable and move on. For now, it’s less expensive to throw away.

I think, though, there’s a new collective yearning for having and using things with intrinsic, lasting value like high quality furniture because that is now the exception, not the rule. Finding such things is also more and more difficult. Being able to recognize good quality is as much a challenge as finding it. Consistent with our ‘replacement mentality’, readily available, mass produced commodities such as wood furniture and cabinetry have beauty that is only skin deep – just the thickness of veneer or a coat of paint.

One of the tricks for dealing with this rapidly ‘homogenizing’ and globalizing market, where more things are mass produced – less expensively – is to be able to talk to the maker, learn about what goes into a custom table or hand-crafted cabinet and start to get a sense of what’s beyond the appearance. Nowadays, that’s going to take some effort – probably not worth it for a $159 appliance but it just might be for a table you’ll use the rest of your lives and pass down through your family.

 

 

nghtsideTblRawRsz

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on has ‘built to last’ gone quaint?

quality – expensive or priceless?

What makes for ‘quality’ in custom made furniture?

How do you distinguish high quality from mediocre in cabinetry?

Can you really tell the difference between ‘good enough’ and the best?

Does it make sense to pay more for the best when ‘good enough’ is readily available?raw3-4

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on quality – expensive or priceless?