The virtues of the 60 second sketch

Design as a process is something I find simultaneously fascinating and daunting. Much of the apprehension about sitting down to design something comes from the fact that I am terrible at drawing. I mean, most of my stick figures look like they need urgent spinal surgery. One of the most challenging aspects of the rigorous training at Totnes was drawing the outline of our guitars. Those three days spent with a sheet of tracing paper and a pencil, chasing smoothly flowing curves was at times hard going (no templates, no french curves, just freehand drawing and lots of rubbing out). It’s funny, because actually once I move beyond the how do I want this to look stage and into the how do I build it? I find the design process much more enjoyable and less painful, because at that stage it is down to engineering a solution.


The guitar I built at Totnes came out pretty nicely, as did the few furniture pieces I’ve designed from scratch, and to progress as a maker the design process is something I want to feel much more comfortable with. So I’ve been thinking about how to make the act of designing pieces more natural. Mike Pekovich’s excellent book The Why & How of Woodworking makes the excellent suggestion of drawing thumbnail sketches to rough out an idea for a piece before drilling down into measured drawings, and this is an approach Chris has also touched on previously. The idea of a 60 second sketch appealed as an efficient way to capture the essence of an idea. Such a quick sketch would be rough by nature, and so mitigates against my lack of artistic prowess.

So, on a whim I picked up a sketch book from our local newsagents. Nothing fancy, just an A5 sized fliptop pad with 5mm squared paper. Not long after, Dr Moss and I were planning the next round of decorating (we are slowly but surely eliminating all of the magnolia paint left by the previous owners) and next up is the landing outside our bedroom, which has become a bit of a dumping ground for clutter. Rachel made the excellent suggestion of a narrow table to sit on the landing and prevent clutter build-up, which would also form part of a feature wall with some art work. As well as a new piece to build after the Roubo bench is complete, this gave me a reason to start sketching.


Sketches 1 (top) and 2 (bottom) were exercises in seeing how the components might fit together.

I knew I wanted to try something different to my previous furniture builds, including greater use of curves, and a floating table top. That all sounds like a lot of fun, but how would it fit together? Would the legs go at the corners of the table top, or within the length? Would there be a lower stretcher, or just stretchers at the top of the legs? What would the proportions of the table be? I wasn’t thinking about joinery or technical solutions at this stage, just how the various elements that make a table might be arranged. I had no answers, so I started to draw, limiting myself to 60 seconds or so for each sketch. Now these are rough, rough drawings, but over the course of four sketches I started to zone in on how I thought the table should look – a curved tapered leg profile, with the legs situated underneath the table top allowing a good overhang at each end. A thin, straight stretcher towards the bottom of each leg, and a more substantial curved stretcher at the top. Possibly chamfering the ends of the table top to add to the curved feel.


Sketches 3 (top) and 4 (bottom) start to dial in how the design might look.

It didn’t take long to get to something I was broadly happy with. The next stage is to do a more detailed scale drawing (which is the design work I’m much more comfortable doing) and work out the specifics. And the notebook? The notebook will be a permanent resident in my work bag, and I’m setting myself a challenge to sketch furniture pieces at least 3 days a week for a month. At the end of the month, I’ll report back on whether that more regularised and focused design work has had any impact.

All About The Base?

Or: Roubo is Coming… part 8


Test fitting a long stretcher to the leg. That’s not a bad dry fit at all, and the small gap will close up when the joint is drawbored.

After chopping the remaining two mortises and tuning the fit of the tenons, the base of the workbench is now complete. While it would be tempting to dive straight into processing the slab there are a few other elements I want to attend to first, including fitting battens to the stretchers to support the shelf, and fitting the vise hardware, all of which will make life must easier when it comes to assembling the bench.

There is a lot of work left to do, but this feels like a huge milestone in the build process, and I am on track for having a completed bench before the year is out.


In Print and Covered Up


Issue 284 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print and features a wealth of interesting content by Mark Harrell (on saw sharpening), Rich Wile (on the Midlands Woodwork Show), and Derek Jones (on box making). Also featured is my article on iterative design process. This article uses the example of how the base design for the Policeman’s Boot Bench evolved into the Back to the Boot Bench, and as well as insight into design process from Danielle Rose-Byrd and Rich Wile (both of whom graciously agreed to be interviewed for the piece, for which I am most grateful).

This article is my 34th piece for F&C, but the first time that I’ve contributed the cover image, which I am very excited about.


Roubo Is Coming… Part 7


With Jenny and Nathan Bower, at Handworks 2017

Although my Roubo bench build on the whole is a no frills back to 18th Century basics type affair, I did want to find some way to add a little personality to it. To build this type of bench by hand, out of oak, is a significant undertaking, and I thought that it would be fitting to leave some sign for future generations as to who made it. The decision as to how exactly I would add a personalised touch was easy – I would ask my friend Jenny Bower to engrave a plaque to be mounted on the vise chop. Jenny is an incredibly talented artist and engraver, and I was fortunate to interview her for Furniture & Cabinetmaking back in 2017. Only a few months after that interview, I flew out to Handworks and hoped to catch up with Jenny and her husband Nathan (also a talented craftsman, and maker of beautiful clocks). What I didn’t anticipate was that we would have booked into the same B&B in Amana, and we coincided over breakfast the first morning of the event.


The plaque Jenny engraved for me with be the perfect finishing touch for the Roubo bench

This is the second commission I’ve asked Jenny to make for me – the first was a wedding anniversary gift for Dr Moss. I already had an outline design in mind using the familiar diamond shaped OtW maker’s mark Tom Richards designed for me three years ago, but I also wanted to give enough scope for Jenny to add her own signature style. It did not take long until we had a firm concept – a 4″ wide plaque in brass which used the OtW logo as the base design, and contains the year in which the bench build started (and hopefully will finish), with plenty of canvas for Jenny to add what she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment“. Jenny sent me two options of the full design to choose from, then all I had to do was wait for the postman to deliver the completed plaque.


There are days when it feels like all I do is chop mortises. Good job it is so much then then.

The plaque arrived last weekend and is a thing of absolute beauty, with the brass working perfectly against the oak. The engraving is crisp and expressive, and is a lovely reinterpretation of Tom’s wonderful branding. I still need to prepare the vise chop, but I’m already looking forward to installing the plaque. For me one of the great benefits of being part of the community of makers is that we develop connections with other craftspeople in complementary disciplines. Knowing that this plaque is one of the first things I’ll see every day I step into the workshop, and that it will remind me of friendships and community far outside the walls of my own ‘shop, is pretty special.


I’m calling that one done

As for the bench build itself, I only have two mortises left to clean up and the undercarriage will be complete. Today I cleaned up a pair of mortises and fine tuned the fit of the tenons on one of the long stretchers, and couldn’t resist a three-sided test fit. This is the first time I’ve had a true sense of the proportions and size of this bench, and she’s going to be a substantial piece.


Test fit. One long stretcher left to fit, then the undercarriage will be done!