Bookcase-Progress 1-Design

As we continue the never-ending unpacking of boxes and putting away of stuff, it has become apparent that the Hillbilly household is in immediate need of a bookcase.  This of course means that the nightstands have been bumped from the top of the list to the #2 position.  In either case, neither of these projects can be started until I have the new shop space up and running.  I’m getting close on that front and might even post about it as early as tomorrow.  Anyway, back to the bookcase.

We currently have a standard, tall bookcase that was purchased many years and holds quite a few books.  That piece now resides in my office and holds all of my woodworking and craft related tomes.  It’s full.  Additionally, there are a few built-in shelves in the new house and they hold several books.  They too are full.  We own a lot of books.  So with a couple of boxes of books still needing to find a home, a bookcase is needed.

I began, as I always do, by doing an image search on the internet and looking at as many examples of bookcases as I could find.  Scanning through the images and culling from them the ideas and forms that I liked.  As well as making note of what I didn’t.  Of course I searched for Japanese antique bookcases and  found a few examples.  Here and here.  The problem is that these were made for an entirely different form of book that were meant to be stacked flat.  I know that I can adapt these designs to accommodate my books but it still isn’t exactly what I’m in need of at the moment.  Although, I have filed that idea away for a later date and may build one specifically for my collection of woodworking books.

No, what I want is a low and wide bookcase with open shelving.  I need it to hold books of varying sizes and I also want it to readily fit in several places throughout the house.  I know that one will not be enough and will probably end up building at least one more of this design in a year or two.

So I went around the house scoping out potential locations and what maximum height and width would work in all of them.  I ended up with a maximum height of 37″ and a maximum width of 44″.  A little work on the calculator and I established that I needed to design this bookcase within a rectangle with 4:5 proportions.  In other words, I wanted the height to be four fifths of the width.  A little more deciphering and I established a Module of 216mm.  I know I’m mixing my measurement standards.  I think and visualize in imperial and work in metric.  At any rate, I now have a rectangle that is 864mm(34″) x 1080mm(42.5″).  This should keep me within my maximums but still allow a little wiggle room.

One design element that I find myself drawn to is the trough style shelf for holding books.  This can typically be found in bookcases in the Arts and Crafts style.  I like how the angled shelf cradles the books as well as how it makes reading the spines of the books easier to read.  Assuming the shelves are no higher than say, about chest high.  Another design element that I like is the addition of drawers.  I found several examples of this across many different construction styles.  Plus, I’m big on drawers and will add at least one to just about anything if given the chance.

There is nothing earth shattering about this bookcase design.  Its has simple lines, room for two rows of books and drawers as a bonus.  I will be employing simple joinery and will peg everything with bamboo pegs, as is per my norm.  Still, this should be a solid piece of furniture that will hold up over time and use.

So here is what I have come up with.  Normally I design based a piece based solely on proportions once I have established a controlling dimension.  With this piece I had to pay particular attention to the distances between the shelves.  It would have been quite the failure to build a bookcase that wouldn’t actually hold most books.  I managed to locate the trough shelf so that it will hold books as large as quarto (9.5″x12″), the shelf directly above the drawers will hold books as large as octavo (6″x9″) and I still managed to do it with proportions.


pdf version:hbd_bookcase-000

I hope to be able to start cutting wood for this project in a week, maybe two.

Greg Merritt

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Nightstand Design-Part 4

Well, now I have a completed design for the nightstand.  I’ve been calling it a nightstand because that is my intended use for it.  Obviously its just a little table with a drawer and could be pressed into service for just about any purpose that calls for such an item.  Anyway, this design will also easily scale up or down.

In my opinion, 22″ is probably about as large as I would want to go and I’m probably already as small as I would want to go already.  One thing to note about how I design is that I give very little attention to the thickness of the members.  That is to say, I would not scale the thicknesses up or down if I scaled the entire piece.  While not technically correct, this allows me to continue using “off-the-shelf” stock from the big box stores.  There are far more talented people out there who create furniture and give great attention to the size of every item.  For me, I’m just a guy in a garage and my access to lumber is somewhat limited, so I work within my limitations and make the best of it.

Now I’m going to walk through some of the design elements of this piece and explain my views on them.  Again, I’m no expert so feel free to call “bullshit” on any of the following.

I’ll first address the front elevation since that is where the majority of the “action” takes place.  As a reminder, here is what I have.


Building around a 1:1 square I first added the legs and the top rail.  There is nothing all that special about these.  They are sized to accommodate the size of lumber that I can acquire and the intended joinery.  The primary design purpose for these elements is to frame what will be happening in the space that they enclose.  The exposed tenon ends on the legs and top rail act as punctuation points to further accentuate the outer boundary.

Explaining the drawer appliqué is a little more murky.  First the idea comes from my working “pallet”.  How it got there is easy.  This type of drawer and panel treatment shows up on many examples of asian furniture and I filed the idea away on my pallet for later use.  The decorative shape is a simply what looks good to my eye plus, I had a general idea of what the apron shape would be and I wanted the appliqué to echo some of the same shapes.  Particularly the sweeping horizontal curve and the tight radii in the corners.

The apron, as  with the appliqué, is pulled from my working pallet.  An amalgamation of shapes and patterns that I have seen on several examples of furniture.  These shapes were not always on aprons, per say, but appear in several locations on furniture.  I simply combined elements while taking transition cues from the proportions of the piece.  The horizontal layout is done in such a way as to create a symmetrical rhythm of 1:3:1 as noted on the above drawing.  Why?  Because its provides better visual interest than equidistant spacing.

OK, here is where I’m going to delve deep into my own opinions and way of thinking when designing a piece of furniture.  so take it with a grain of salt.

I want the focal point of this table to be the knob in the center of the drawer.  As such I shaped the included elements to draw the eye to that point.  The top rail and the legs frame the entire piece.  Trapping the eye in that confined space.  The appliqué the traps the eye into an even smaller space and the flowing curves of the appliqué lead the eye around and literally point it toward the knob.  However, if the eye first lands on the lower apron, the shapes and curves of that element draw and lead the eye into the space of the appliqué which, in turn, leads once again to the knob.

I also want this piece to convey an image of strength that is firmly grounded to the floor.  Again, the shapes of the appliqué and apron play a role.  The lower portion of the appliqué, the cross rail and the apron work together to create a visual arch that gives a feeling of strength to the piece as well as grounding it.  The lower leg detail serves to add visual weight and thus further ground the entire piece.

The side and rear elevations are identical save for the slight variation in joinery layout.  I chose to keep these views of the piece simple and void of any curved decorative elements.


The lowest rail is not needed for the physical strength of the piece but serves to provide visual interest as well as visual weight to this elevation.  Again, this visual weight and grounding is bolstered by the repeat of the lower leg detail and is present on all four faces of the legs.

A singular panel and the two subsequent void areas keep this elevation simple.  However, note that I once again employed rhythmic symmetrical spacing.  This time it’s along the vertical.  The top panel and the lower void area are equal in size with the smaller void are between them.

There you have it.  My design process and thinking laid bare for whatever its worth.  Interesting?  Maybe.  Helpful? Maybe.  Laughable? Probably.  But, hey, I took a shot at something that’s difficult to convey.  So get yourself a copy of “By Hand & Eye”, a sketchbook, view at as many examples of furniture as you can and build your working pallet of options then start designing.  You can’t do any worse than I have.


pdf version: HBD Nightstand-000

Part 3 Greg Merritt

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Nightstand Design-Part 3

In my last post I finished up with a front elevation for the nightstand and a promised to explain how I arrived at the final decorative details.  Before I go into that, I think I should move forward and show the establishment of the side elevation.

Again, like with the front elevation, I’m building the side elevation based upon a 1:1 ratio square.  The means that the entire nightstand is built around a 1:1 cube.

So beginning with a square.


Then establishing the top rail and the pulling the legs into the drawing.


Then pulling the 1/3H cues from the front elevation I can establish the side rail locations.  As with the front elevation, locating the side rails is a matter of personal preference, artistic license or, as in my case, dictated by the intended joinery.  I’ll be using the same joint as in the top corners.  Just changing the orientation to accommodate the structure as well as the front apron.


Now I have a completed side elevation for the nightstand.


Note that I have chosen to install a panel in the top opening only and a simple lower side rail as opposed to an apron.  There are several combinations that could be applied at this point.  However, I have chosen to keep the details on this side elevation simple because this piece will be viewed primarily from the front when employed as a nightstand.

So now I have a completed design.  See how easy that was.  Just kidding, it took me several days to get to this point.  Although it’s getting a little easier every time.


I know I said that I would explain the details I chose for the front elevation in this post, but I think I’ll save all of the what-for and why for one final post.

Part 2 Greg Merritt


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Nightstand Design-Part 2

I ended my last post with a final sketch that was ready for refining into a workable design.  Before I go into the next stage I want to talk a little bit about proportions.

I design all of my projects based upon proportions, as opposed to dimensions.  Why?  Using proportions gives a structured way of sizing elements as well as spacing elements.  If you rely on dimensions how do you choose the sizes of parts and their layout?  What rule do you apply?  I used to design projects with dimensions and used the “best guess” method for establishing sizes and layout.  It worked, but it was hit-and miss as well as stressful.  By using proportions you gain two very helpful benefits.

The first benefit is that you now have a consistent method for sizing and spacing.  Everything is a proportion of the whole.  You are not provided with exact sizes for anything, but given a structured method within which to design.

The second benefit is that, once established, a proportional design is quite easy to scale.  The entire project can be scaled up or down as need dictates by simply altering the module (base measurement).  So what the heck is a module and how do you establish it?

Generally speaking, the module is the base distance (measurement) that is used to build the entire design.  There are no hard and fast rules as to how to arrive at it.  Sometimes you can proportionally dived a given distance and derive the module.  For instance, 1/5 the  desired height of a cabinet.  Other times you can begin with a module and build up the design.  This latter method is my preferred method.  The vast majority of my designs are built around a module that is equal to 36mm.  Why 36mm?  Glad you asked.

I use 36mm for two reasons.  One is that it easily breaks down into the thicknesses of material that I can easily obtain from the big box stores.  Examples being:

36mm = 1-1/2″

1/2(36mm) = 18mm = 3/4″

1/3(36mm) = 12mm = 1/2″

1/6(36mm) = 6mm = 1/4″

As you can see, it’s quite easy to obtain the thicknesses of materials based upon the proportions of my chosen module.  This in turn supports my second reason for using 36mm.  The required material is easy to obtain.  This is for my benefit as well as others who may stumble upon my blog.  Obtaining quality lumber to work with can be challenging for some of us.  Availability, cost or both can be a serious obstacle.  One of my goals personally and with this blog is to hopefully show that quality furniture can be produced from, let’s call it, marginal lumber.  So I design my projects around material that can be purchased at any big box store.  These thicknesses also can be obtained by culling from discarded pallets and even recycling discarded furniture.

So refining the sketch begins with establishing the module.


With the module in place I can begin to build the design.  My controlling dimension is a height of ~16″ (400mm).  Since I have already established that I will build the design around a 1:1 ratio, a quick calculation tells me that 10M will yield a square 360mm sides.  I know, I know, (36) will divide into (400) a total of at least (11) times.  I’ll clear that discrepancy up in just a minute.

So I begin with a square that is 10M x 10M.


From this basic square I’ll establish the top rail and legs.  These will extend outwards from the base square 1M.  See, that is where that eleventh module comes into play.  With this extension I have an overall height of 11M (396mm/~15-1/2″) and a width of 12M (432mm/17″).  Simple as that.


corner_joint_assembledIt’s at this point that I begin to pull from my “pallet” that I talked about in my last post.  I know that I’ll be using the same joinery for the leg-to-top rail joint that I use in my HB Tansu construction.  Which will require an additional 1/2M extension of the to rail on each end.




Now I need to proportion the enclosed space to contain the required elements.  Looking back at my sketch I need a drawer, an apron and space below the apron.  Three elements tells me that breaking the height into thirds will probably work pretty well.  It’s at least a good place to start.  I’m also fairly certain that I’ll want the cross rail below the drawer to be the same thickness as the legs and the top rail.  This happens to be 1M.



Note that I chose to drop the cross rail below the top 1/3 line.  Again this is where the personal preference comes into play.  It could just as easily be above the 1/3 line or centered on it.  It’s what looks best to your eye working within the established framework.

So we just about have a completed front elevation for the nightstand.  I’m going to once again pull from my “pallet” and fill in the details of the drawer and apron.  I’ll go into the “why” with my next post


Part 1 Greg Merritt Part 3

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Nightstand Design-Part 1

In a recent post, OK rant, I addressed a complaint that Mr. Sellers does not go into enough detail as to the design of projects. Like I said in that previous post, design is not part of his promised package. However, this set me to thinking and then searching for someone or something that does go into the details of project design. Unfortunately, I came up mostly empty-handed.

The best resource that I can recommend is the book “By Hand & Eye” and the follow-up workbook “By Hound & Eye“. I know I’ve beat his drum before, but these are the best resources for design for woodworkers that I know of.  I’m actually working through all of the exercises in the workbook right now. More on that later.

So why is there so little information available on design?  Design is difficult to break down into a step-by-step procedure and it can be highly personal. Some simply do it by “eye” and couldn’t break it down into steps if they wanted to. They are not even aware of most of what they are doing. We tend to say that it comes “natural” for these folks.  In fact I think that it is most difficult to describe for those that excel at. The process is so engrained in what that they do that they are not even aware of most of what they are doing, it’s just what they do.  So, given the limited resources for teaching the design process and I’m by no means a “natural”, I’ve decided to detail my own process.   Hopefully you’ll find the information useful or, at least, entertaining.

My next project and the subject of this little exercise is a nightstand. Actually a pair of nightstands. The best place to start is at the beginning. For me and my process that starting point is my sketchbook. If you don’t have a sketchbook, get one. It will prove to be invaluable. Anyway, I begin by sketching ideas as the come to me.  As I sketch I ask myself, what functions does this piece need to fulfill?  In days gone by a nightstand usually held a reading light, an alarm clock and a few odds and end in a drawer. Today’s requirements are fairly similar. Except, in most cases, the alarm clock has been replaced by a cell phone.  So I need a flat top surface and at least one drawer. With functions narrowed down, I turn to size.

Here is where the design can begin to vary widely based on intended use, personal preference and bed height. To me the top of a nightstand should be slightly lower than the mattress is high. At that height everything is within easy reach and I shouldn’t bash my head into it during the night. In my case that height works out to be roughly 16″ or 400mm.

Now I have the intended functions and a controlling dimension. The approximate height of 16″(400mm) is also a very workable depth for a table of this type. Since I design all of my projects based upon proportions, a 1:1 ratio immediately springs to mind and becomes the focus of my sketches. In simple terms I am working with a basic cube.

If you’ve been to my blog before, you know that my designs and projects tend to have a Japanese or Asian flavor to them.  This one will be no different.  This is also where conveying the design process enters into an area that is difficult to pinpoint as to the “why”.  Experience comes into play with form and decorative elements.  Not so much designing and building experience, but observation and research experience.  I’m sure that the elements could be categorized and quantified by experts in the field, for me it is simply a matter of looking at literally thousands of photos of antique examples of Asian furniture.  Note that I said antique examples.  Antique examples tend to be pure in form and unaltered by, well, guys like me building modern interpretations.  From this research you can build a pallet from which to work from.  Much like a painter building a pallet of colors.  Those colors can be used in their pure form or mixed together to create an entirely new color.  The same will hold true for elements that you add to your working pallet.  Details can be used as they are or combined with others to create a new detail all together.

All of the above combine to drive the direction of my sketches until something forms that I find pleasing to the eye and functional.  Sometimes it comes together quickly within just a few sketches.  Other times, pages and pages of sketches are gone through before something materializes.  Knowing when you have a usable design is also something that is difficult to quantify since it is very subjective and is where design tends toward the artistic side of the equation.  Its simply a judgement call based on personal preference and experience.  I can tell you this though.  If you design to meet someone else’s expectations and standards who is really doing the designing.  That may be fine, even required to some extent, if your working for a client, but when building for yourself build what pleases you.  Otherwise, what the hell is the point.

So here is what I have so far.  Starting with a rough concept sketch.

nightstand - 1

Then moving to a sketch with a slightly different layout (top) then to a design that I am happy with (bottom).  I also began working out the basic size (proportions) for some of the major elements.  It’s rare that it goes this quickly.  So don’t think this is how it normally works for me.

nightstand - 2


Next I’ll transform this rough sketch into a refined design.

Greg Merritt Part 2

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I still don’t have a shop space up and running yet.  Unpacking from the move seems to be some sort of perverse Aesop’s fable.  No matter how many boxes I empty, the pile seems to grow by two-fold.  I’ll be damned if I can work out the moral though.  Add to that a particularly virulent summer cold and the shop space has been slow to materialize.  On the bright side, unpacking is a fairly mindless chore and has allowed me to think and design in my head.

One design element that has been weighing heavily on me has to do with leg shaping.  Up to this point all of my tansu shaped objects have sat directly on the floor, i.e. no legs.  For several projects that I have brewing in my head, I want legs on them.  So I needed to come up with a shaping element that fits with my overall design style and, more importantly, that I liked.

I don’t think that I’m the first to struggle with how to shape the end of a table/chest leg.  In fact, I would venture to guess that it has been a universal struggle since the dawn of woodworking and has probably driven some over the edge, or worse, to Ikea.  There are several styles already in existence to choose from. Tapers, flares, turnings and just about every iteration between.  I wanted something to call my own however.  Of course, at this stage, just about everything has probably been done and I’m just rediscovering something for myself.

At any rate, after mulling it over in my head for several days, I sat down with my sketchbook and put pencil to paper and roughed out my idea.  Sh#t!  Don’t tell my wife.  I’m supposed to be unpacking.

leg-embellish - 3

Then refined it a little.

leg-embellish - 4

Then polished it a little more.



I managed to cobble enough of the shop together to manifest my idea into reality.

leg-embellish - 1


leg-embellish - 2

I like it!  Not too flashy, but still elegant and should fit nicely with my typical design elements.  Whatever those are?

Well back to unpacking boxes…I swear there are elves repacking the damn things every night  while I sleep!


Greg Merritt

Posted in Design, Illustrating, Woodworking | Tagged | 8 Comments

Expectations and the Literal Thinker

In the past few days there has been a, lets call it lively, discussion over on Paul Sellers’ Woodworking Masterclasses forum.  Generally speaking, the entire thing centered on two complaints voiced by a single member.

The first complaint was that the when and why of which joinery to employ was not being directly addressed.  The second complaint was that the woodworking instruction was not directly addressing how to design a piece of furniture.  While these issues are technically correct, all of the information is there in Mr. Sellers’ videos and blogs for those willing to observe, think and extrapolate for themselves.

For some reason society in general has shifted to an absolute literal way of thinking.  Every step and element of a process must be spelled out in order for people to understand and perform that process.  Here is an example from my workplace:

An employee was told to sweep the floor in his work area.  Upon inspection of the area there were several piles of debris remaining.  When questioned, the employee stated that he was only told to sweep the area, hence the piles, but no one had told him to use a dustpan and deposit the debris in a trashcan.  He was quite sincere in his belief that he had faithfully followed the instruction that he was given.

The above example is just one of numerous that I could provide that demonstrates the current way that people seem to approach everyday tasks.  Logical”next step” thinking, i.e. common sense, no longer seems to apply.  I have no idea as to the “why” of this phenomenon, I just know that is exists.  Now back to my original rant.

One aspect of Paul Sellers’ approach to woodworking is that every project can be constructed with the application of one or more three basic joints.  The housing dado, dovetail and the mortise and tenon joint.  While the joints themselves may vary in execution, the three joint philosophy runs throughout his projects.

Every project that Mr. Sellers has demonstrated has employed this joinery approach, from the first project to the current chair project.  While it is true that he has not explicitly stated “thou shalt”, from the examples presented it is quite easy to extrapolate the when and the why.  Boxes, cases, frames, tables, drawers and seating have all been addressed at this point.  Throughout each project Mr. Sellers has demonstrated the construction of each joint in great detail.  It seams more than reasonable that any woodworker should be able to easily understand, given the examples, what joint type is best suited for an application or, at the very least, know which joint Mr. Sellers would choose.

Now the complaint regarding design.  I’ve been with Masterclasses from the beginning and I don’t remember design being promised as part of the curriculum.  Woodworking, specifically hand tool woodworking, is what is presented.  Design is a completely different animal and only comes into play if you want to build pieces of your own, well, design.  There have been thousands upon thousands of master craftsman throughout history who never generated an original design.  Instead they replicated the designs of others.  However, Mr. Sellers does convey through his projects, both directly and indirectly, proportions and other basic elements.  Again, with a little effort and thought there is a wealth of information to be had in what Mr. Sellers has and does present.

I know that this reads as a defense on Paul Sellers’ behalf.  That’s not really my intent.  He’s a grown man and doesn’t need the likes of me leaping to his defense.   I’m actually just venting frustration against this type of narrow, literal thinking that seems to be plaguing society.  Like a nest of baby birds waiting with their mouths open to be fed and chirping with complaint when what is handed to them doesn’t meet with their approval.

Close your mouth, open your mind, get off your ass and put a little effort into life.  You will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Greg Merritt


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