In praise of the humble octagon

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The key stages of planing a tapered octagon (r-l) – square cross secton, tapered square, octagon.

I’ve been octagonalising the legs for the second saw bench, in preparation for carving the tapered tenons. There’s not much to say about the process itself – I followed exactly the same steps as I did for the legs on the first saw bench. Repeating a task is one of the best ways to consolidate the processes, and after working up eight legs now octagonalisation is feeling very much like second nature. As you work the leg from square to tapered to an octagon, the process sinks into your muscle memory, and your movements become that much more efficient. The second set of legs definitely took less time than the first. The risk of course is that complacency creeps in, and stupid mistakes can be made – a little muscle memory can be a dangerous thing after all, and it’s important not to switch off at times like these. The balancing act is to allow the muscle memory to develop and lead the way, but to stay focused. So far these legs are looking rather nice and I’ve maintained my focus.

The ash is lovely to work, and the way the grain patterns bend around the facets of the octagon is very pleasing. I’ve been threatening to make a pair of Roorkee chairs for a while now (another reason to get the lathe up and running this winter) and at this point I’m pretty much set on making them out of ash, with burgandy leatherwork from Texas Heritage. That will be a sweet combination.

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Part way through octagonalising one of the legs

Those winding grain patterns got all manner of synapses firing. I’ve written previously about how The Anarchist’s Design Book democratises the woodcrafts by demonstrating how a very modest tool kit and limited (but effective) set of techniques can be used to furnish an entire home. But there is another striking element to all of this which has been playing on my mind a lot this week, and that is the asthetics of the furniture Chris presented in the book. All of the furniture in The Anarchist’s Design Book is very attractive, but to my eye at least it looks quite unusual. The staked chair, for example, is instantly recognisable as a chair – it has all constituent parts (seat, legs, back, spindles) but for some reason the lines of the piece tickled my frontal lobe as being a little unusual. These designs feel as old as the hills (they have been informed by medieval artwork after all) but also fresh and modern. I think in part this has to do with the combination of straight and curved lines, the subtle saddling of the seat, and also the octagonal legs.

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A completed set of legs for the second saw bench, ready to have the tapered tenons carved

Something clicked for me when I finished the first of my saw benches – the slab top and octagonal legs in front of me suddenly made sense, stopped looking quite so alien, and started to feel more familiar. The octagons are a wonderful shape for legs – all those facets mean that as you move around the piece the light catches and dances across the planed wood, and the grain patterns move in ways you just don’t get with flat work or even square profiled legs. And now I can’t stop thinking about how octagons could be used for other pieces. How about for the legs of a Welsh stick chair? Or even a Windsor chair in place of the more usual bamboo turnings? Or perhaps for the legs of a cabinet stand? And that is all when you have an octagon of equal proportions – how about alternating two sizes of facet as you move round the circumference of the leg instead of facets of an equal size?

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The first of my pair of staked saw benches

This has opened up a new world of design for me, and has really emphasised that making small changes can have a tremendous impact on the overall feel of a piece. There is, after all, no reason why legs should be square or cylindrical, even if those are the most common shapes. And an octagon is hardly an exotic shape. Am I blowing the significance of the humble octagon out of proportion? Well, possibly. But the design possibilites offered by moving away from the more conventional square or cylindrical leg profiles are quite exciting, even if it seems like a less than radical design choice. The other attraction is that  octagonal legs can be a very striking, yet the process to create them is wonderfully simple and requires nothing more than jack and jointer planes (although you could get away with just a jack plane at a pinch). Sometimes the most profound changes to a design can also be the simplest, and that is a worthwhile lesson to hold on to.

I suppose that the other lesson from all of this is that while reading about furniture can help develop your design vocabulary, nothing quite beats building something to really pry open your design eye and to prompt new ideas.

9 thoughts on “In praise of the humble octagon

  1. Hey Kieran,

    It’s no nice to see someone connect with the implied portions of that book. The possibilities with this profile are astounding. If you take a look at the Welsh chairs I’m building now, the legs are tapered octagons with minor and major facets. And I’ve rotated the rear legs so the minor facets are 45° off the front legs. It’s a tiny change with a significant outcome.

    In preparing for the book I also made a lot of legs that didn’t work. Six-sided legs just don’t have the same effect. And I made tapered octagon legs where alternating facets tapered in reverse to the other facets. It looked like M.C. Escher was a Klingon.

    • Chris

      The octagons you’ve described for the latest batch of Welsh chairs sound really interesting, hopefully there will be some detail photos of those elements once the chairs are finished. Changing the orientation of the minor and major facets is something that never occurred to me until you mentioned it, but now it’s got me thinking about how else octagons can be used.

      The Klingon-M.C Escher legs sound insane I kind if want to make one now just to see if I can. The layout sounds mind bending…

      K

  2. The facets on the octagons really do make them look lighter while allowing them to be quite substantial. I think that’s what sold me on them. In the right light, each leg looks like it’s approximately 1/3 the width it actually is.

    • Jim, reducing the visual weight of the legs is definitely one of the reasons the octagonal legs appeal to me. I think the other is the increased number of facets allows the grain pattern to move more, so you get a mores varied surface.

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