Saturday, September 26, 2009

golden ratio

Jim asks:
I have heard about the "golden ratio" of 1.6, but how do you figure the dimensions of a box? For example if I have a box with sides 3.5" high how long and wide would you make it? Thanks for any advice and I love your work and books.
First, in answer to your question, 1.618 x 3.5 inches = 5.663 or 5 2/3rds approximately. But the ratio is between two dimensions, not three. Just think for a moment about a three dimensional object. The golden ratio of 1: 1.61803399 provides a means to control the length in proportion to the height as in the design of the Parthenon in Greece. I actually never use the golden ration in making boxes because boxes are never viewed from the perfect vantage point from which the golden ratio can be observed. If you view something from a variety of angles, when will the golden ratio actually come into play?

I've made golden ratio scanning wands to give my furniture design students the opportunity to observe my slide presentations and call out when they see a piece of furniture that is actually designed according to the golden ratio. It almost never actually happens because most designers are thinking about other things. Like, how does it fit the room? What are the planned contents and how will it fit those objects it is designed to hold?

The golden ratio is indeed an interesting thing. Does it help in the design of boxes? I think there are more useful design principles.

It would appealing to think that there might be a simple mathematical method to determine proportion that would be better than thinking about all the other elements of relationship... What goes in it? Where does it sit? Can the hand fit in to grasp the objects inside? Is it so large that it overpowers its placement? Does it look safe and substantial, or does it look top heavy and likely to fall?

The easiest thing is to design for what goes in the box, but if you don't know that, design from the wood that you have available, or knowing that box making is a process in which a single box is just a step in a journey, just start making.

A beautiful box

Leonard James, a student of mine from Marc Adams School sent me photos of a box he had recently completed to be given at his local Rotary fund raising auction. It is a beautiful box as you can see. The hinges used are Brusso brass hinges that cost about $25.00. Only someone who who has had the experience of making something beautiful from wood would really understand what goes into making such a thing.

Leonard informed me that the box sold for $100.00. Can you see what is happening here? Another friend of mine had sold a box with hand cut dovetails at a charity auction for a small fraction of its value in terms of time and materials, and the buyer asked if she could get another at the same price.

There is a complete disconnect in people's minds concerning the value of hand made things. Sometimes when I show my work at public events, people want to know, "How long did it take to make that?" They want a way to calculate my hourly rate in a world that is largely incomprehensible to them. In all likelihood, and in complete innocence they've never actually made anything themselves and have no clear way of understanding the value of hand-crafted work.

But, where is the real value of the crafted object? Otto Salomon, founder of Educational Sloyd said that the value of the carpenter's work is in the object, but that in contrast, the value of the student's work is in the student. It can be sad to let evidence of learning go so cheap, but the passage clears the way for the next, even more beautiful expression of growth.

My heartfelt congratulations to Leonard for his generosity and beautiful craftsmanship. My congratulations as well to the lucky person who purchased a bargain heirloom of lasting value. Those small objects made with love have ways of influencing things, bringing qualities unexpected into the home, unanticipated sparks of transformation and I am looking forward to seeing Leonard's next project.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Inlaying an "O"

A question from John:
I've read your book where you make the jewelry box, and it features a oval walnut inlay with maple, and the walnut diamond in the middle. I have read that chapter over and over but for some reason its not soaking in. I understand I need to make templates to make templates, your inlay is actually more complex than what I need to do. I'm just inlaying the spalted "O" into the solid walnut lid. Any tips on template stock(thickness preferred) bits,guides, and or bushings would be great.
I would try using 1/4 inch Baltic Birch or similar ply for your template. Making an "o" with an inside cut out is something I would try in two steps. First inlay the large "o" as a solid piece, no middle. Then inlay the spalted piece and sand it flush, then inlay a new piece of wood matching the outside wood in the middle of the "o". Use the guide bushing set for the router like I use in the box you mention from Simply Beautiful Boxes. It has a 1/8" bit a guide bushing and the additional brass collar. You can find these in Rockler or Woodcraft.

Send me photo when you get done. You will find my email address through my blogs: and