You don’t have to be formally educated in design; with some basic knowledge, and practice, you can be designing your own furniture in no time. In this article, I will take you through the design process I used for this coffee table, which I built for a recent commission.
Begin With the Obvious
The first step in the design process, identifying what it is you want to build, might seem a bit obvious. However it’s from this standpoint that the direction of your design will take shape. When the client for this project approached me, his initial request was for a ‘coffee table’. After a brief discussion we arrived at a clearer depiction of the client’s needs: “I need a horizontal surface, about 17 inches off the floor to put my television remote, a magazine and my feet while relaxing on the couch”. This more accurately describes the function that this particular coffee table will serve. In my opinion, functionality trumps form. If a coffee table doesn’t do what it is intended to do, it runs the risk of becoming a more sculptural than a functional piece of furniture. When building for a client, it helps ensure that the functional requirements of the client are identified early on, and not subsequently compromised in the design process.
From Function to Form
Once you have a clear idea of the function for your project, you then need to come up with some concepts of what forms the project can take. To do this, I start with some very simple sketching. I always have a sketchbook with me in case an idea comes to mind. I obtain a lot of my design ideas from the existing architecture of the space that the project will live in; it’s important to design your project to suit the space it will be in. There is a lot of furniture in homes that are great pieces but don’t look right because they are in the wrong space.
There are several guidelines that can make your sketching easier and more productive. When I sketch I use an artist’s marker with a brush tip or a 6b pencil. Both of these mediums ensure that you won’t try to put too much detail into the sketches; you want to focus on the overall form at this stage, not the details. For the coffee table in this article, I sketched four pages of simple forms that gave me plenty of ideas to choose from. At this point in the design, don’t think about issues of wood type, construction details, or joinery. Focusing on any of these details will restrict your ideas to your skill level and not let you fully explore all ideas. Design first, figure out how to build it later.
Refine the Form
Once you have a number of sketches done you can begin to narrow them down to a few that you really like. It is these few baseline sketches that you will further develop to arrive at your final design. A good way to do this is with tracing paper, which you can find at most artist supply or craft stores. Draw out different design options on sheets of tracing paper and lay the sheets over your sketch. Because tracing paper is translucent, you will be able to easily see how your ideas will affect the baseline sketch. Don’t be afraid to try different things to develop your design, the only thing wasted is a small amount of paper and lead. It is during this stage that you have to learn to trust your eye. You can very easily see if something doesn’t look right and change it with another drawing layered on to the baseline sketch.
Try to stay away from the shapes and sizes that are commonly used by industry. For example, ¾” lumber is very common in production furniture so try ⅞” or ⅝” instead. Avoid the temptation to think in strict linear terms; this is the time to consider using curved elements in your design. Commercial furniture companies tend to stay away from curves because it costs more to produce. Working with these less common aspects will add some originality to your design.
From Model to Final Drawings
Once you have settled on a particular design, another helpful tool is to make a ¼” scale model (or maquette). A model gives you an invaluable look at what the final construction will look like. I tend to use ¼” scale for my models because it allows me to visualize them at a reasonable size while still getting a good idea of their overall form. I usually use an architect’s scale to measure things out for the model. You can make models using cardboard and styrofoam or scrap wood. Use a felt tip pen to draw features like exposed joinery, drawers and doors.
Having a ¼” scale model also makes it easier to make full size drawings. I only make full scale drawings for details like joinery, edge profiles and curved elements, such as aprons. These full size drawings make layout of the joints much easier. When dealing with compound angle joinery, a drawing allows you to accurately measure the angles on paper and transfer them to machines or jigs.
Careful Selection of Lumber
Now you have taken a concept, developed it into a refined sketch, and made a model and detailed drawings. The next step is lumber. I usually make a cut list for a few reasons. A cut list allows me to figure out how much lumber I will need. It also allows me to work out the types of materials that I need (i.e. plywood, veneer or solid wood). Most importantly, a cut list provides an accurate shopping list when you head to your local wood store. I generally add an extra 30 to 50% to my lumber list to allow for extra material for machine set ups or to replace a piece that may have hidden checking or internal flaws. As well, if you botch a part (it happens to us all) you’ll have extra material to get you through.
As for the lumber itself, there is plenty to consider. The first thing I look for is colour. I don’t like to use stains or dyes on wood, so I pick wood that is in the colour palette that I need. Some woods are quite homogonous in regards to their grain, like mahogany, while woods like zebrawood and oak have very strong grain lines and patterns. Wood selection can make or break a project so choose carefully. Again trust your eye. If the wood colour or grain is loud and outrageous then you should probably use it sparingly.
Before you start constructing your project in the shop, you should ‘build it’ on paper. I always make a list that outlines, in detail, the order of operations for the project. The benefit to doing this is twofold. First, having all the build steps laid out helps you to determine what steps come in which order. For example, if you’re going to use a tapered leg you should cut the joinery in the leg first before cutting the taper so that you’re mortising a square piece instead of a tapered one. Second, an order of operations allows you to discover any build problems before you’re cutting into wood. The list will also keep you on track if you have to leave the project for a period of time or if you’re having trouble staying focused.
Now it is just a matter of following your order of operations, going through the steps and completing the project. This is when you decide on the construction techniques you will use and the jigs you will need to make. All through this process, I haven’t thought very much about how I’m going to build what I’ve designed. Chances are I won’t know exactly how to build what I’ve drawn. If I can’t figure it out, I turn to years of documented woodworking techniques. There are many books and articles available in bookstores, libraries or on the web. One of my favourites is “The Encyclopaedia of Furniture Making” by Ernest Joyce. This is an excellent reference that I turn to often when I can’t figure something out for myself.
Building a piece of furniture that you have designed yourself is a gratifying journey. Going through the process isn’t difficult as long as you go through the same steps every time. I follow these steps entirely when I design and build a piece of commissioned furniture. With some practice, you will soon experience the joy of seeing your uniquely designed project move from concept to completion.