Workbench #2: Iterative design

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Blog entry by mileskimball posted 01-09-2013 04:49 PM 2152 reads 0 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Blogging in medias res Part 2 of Workbench series Part 3: Paint your wagon: the wagon vise in Sketchup »

I’m a big believer in iterative design: make a simple prototype, test it, remake it, test it again. That’s what I advise my students when they’re working on class projects like this one.

Fortunately, now we have digital tools so we can move quickly from iteration to iteration. Sketchup is the epitome of such tools in 3D design—as its name suggests, it’s all about making quick sketches that can at some point be exported to more sophisticated CAD/CAM or architectural information management programs. I’m still learning it, but it’s made a huge difference in my ability to adapt and implement ideas quickly.

The great thing about Sketchup is that because the investment is low, risk is low. We all know the feeling of investing a lot of time, effort, and money in a project, only to be faced by a problem or opportunity or idea at the end. What will happen if I change something now? What if I mess up all that investment? Sketchup allows you to take risks that would be unsustainable in the real world.

The downside of course is that you can spend all your woodworking time at the computer instead of in the shop. Here’s my thinking: Sketchup isn’t primarily a time- or labor-saving tool. It’s a quality-enhancing tool. It allows us to try things out cheaply and relatively quickly, with no guilt, then change them if something doesn’t seem to work out. Sketchup actually takes time to learn and use, but the quality of the output at the end of the design process is much improved.

I also like how Sketchup encourages us to design things ourselves, rather than rely on somebody else’s plans. To me, the essence of the whole woodworking hobby is the individuality and customization that comes from handwork. Unlike mere assembly, such as you might do if you buy a bench kit or a boxed manufactured bench, woodworking combines fabrication and assembly. We tend to use some store-bought parts: handles, hinges, drawer pulls, and so on. But how we put them together depends on the materials we shape by hand. We often think about hardware as holding our fabricated wooden parts together – but the reciprocal is also true: the wood is the fabric that puts the hardware in place, the integrative tissue of a piece of furniture. Brian Boggs once said he started building chairs because he could make the joints with a limited number of tools in a limited number of ways necessary for strength, but that between the joints his creativity could run wild.

The French call this “bricolage” – the individual’s assemblage of unique ingredients, sometimes in unintended combinations. A good example: Matthias Wendell making a bandsaw out of wood, using bicycle inner tubes for the tires.

What happens in this stew of homemade, shop-bought, and repurposed materials is that we get to make things that suit us. Say you buy a desk. It’s too short; you prop it up on blocks. It’s too wide: you move things around to accommodate it. It’s too tall: you buy a height-adjusting chair so you can adapt yourself to the object. Instead, what woodworkers do is make a desk to fit us.

That’s one reason making a workbench is such a great exercise in iterative design. What we’re seeking is an amiable combination between our bodies (height, reach), our activities (planing, chopping mortises, sawing, carving) and our workpieces. The purpose of a workbench isn’t just to hold work steady, but to hold it in a particular relation to our bodies and our tools.

Which is one reason why eventually we have to move out of the world of Sketchup and into the world of reality. We can draw designs all day long, but eventually we need something to hold, touch, stand beside, and use to figure out how our bodies will relate to it. The Stonehenge scene of Spinal Tap comes to mind: the band pays big bucks to have a replica Stonehenge constructed for their stage show, only to find that their request for a 18’ monolith was read as 18”. Their solution? Hire little people to dance around it. Not only funny, but an indictment of the broken communication between users, designers, and makers.

What’s great about woodworking is that we’re all simultaneously users, designers, and makers. So none of us is really building a Roubo bench – we’re building our own bench, fitted to our bodies, our needs, our values. For some, it’s a utilitarian tool; for others, it’s a display of skill or an opportunity for innovation; for still others it’s a connection to a heritage of woodworking practice that extends back centuries. Design means that we get to decide.

-- Miles

2 comments so far

View FeralVermonter's profile


100 posts in 2454 days

#1 posted 01-09-2013 05:59 PM

I like your way of thinking. I’m applying the iterative design process to my own shop, though in my case I just use a cheap notebook, and write down both ideas for improvements, and problems with my current arrangements.

I’ve tried sketchup before, but I think I probably have learning-curve/tech-patience issues there. To me, a computer is pretty much a real fancy type-writer that can play movies if you talk to it nice. I wonder what you think of good old pen and paper? Old-school drafting and drawing?

View mileskimball's profile


97 posts in 2497 days

#2 posted 01-09-2013 08:17 PM

I typically start with pencil and paper—and eraser, the third key element in this toolset. (And it is a toolset, just like a jointer and a planer, neither of which is nearly as useful alone as with the other.)

As a technology this toolset been around a long time: paper since the 2d century AD; the pencil since the discovery of the famous Cumbrian graphite deposit in the 16th century; and the vulcanized rubber eraser since the early 19th century. It’s survived so long, even through the digital revolution, because it’s cheap and because it’s so well accommodated to our hands and habits. It’s fast: we can put something on paper in a flash, and erase it just as quickly. It’s also remarkably durable. Paper can be folded, ripped, dog-eared, stapled; a pencil can be chewed on, broken in half, used to clean out the mouth of a plane; an eraser can be beaten with a hammer or dropped from great heights—and all will still work just fine. That’s what usability experts call “graceful error recovery.” Try doing any of that with a computer! Finally, the pencil/paper/eraser doesn’t require any training—or rather, we’ve gotten so used to using it that we don’t remember the training. There was a time when I also had to learn how to use a pencil – it just was some time ago, and I’ve forgotten how hard it was to hold and manipulate this tool when I was a child.

But I have to admit that as I’ve gained familiarity with Sketchup it really is becoming a sketching tool for me. It’s just so easy to make a shape, line it up with another shape, modify it, add dimension lines. And it’s dynamic: you can make repeated copies of a component, and if you change one copy, all the others change as well. If you draw a circle on a cube, it becomes part of the cube—you can drag the circle through the cube to make a drilled hole. It’s accurate: you can make a 2×4 20 inches long and it will be precisely twice as long as a 10-inch board. It also allows you to view your object from any angle, something paper isn’t so good at—which is why conventions like the three-view diagram were developed.

(This feature has ruined me for looking at 2D images—I keep finding myself click-dragging on photos so I can turn them around and look at the back side of things like you can in Sketchup. Sort of like switching from a manual transmission to an automatic and finding yourself trying to mash the clutch pedal. Or that moment in Star Trek IV, the one with the whales, when Scotty picks up a computer mouse and says, “Hello, Computer…”)

It doesn’t have the same kind of facility, the ready-to-hand nature of the pencil/paper/eraser—but as I become more fluent with it I don’t have to think so much about how I’m doing and can focus on what I’m doing. Like that moment when you learned to ride a bike, when suddenly you didn’t have to think about how to ride a bike, only about where you wanted to go.

I highly recommend giving Sketchup a try. There are lots of simple tutorials to help you to learn how to make amazingly good sketches in an hour or two of practicing. And the price is right: free. (Assuming you’ve already invested in a computer and an Internet connection – but then you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise!)

-- Miles

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