Furniture Design - Where do I learn and get Quality Critiques?

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Forum topic by J123 posted 05-27-2020 04:06 AM 836 views 0 times favorited 22 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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361 posts in 3110 days

05-27-2020 04:06 AM

Topic tags/keywords: inspiration design furniture

I’ve been messing with building stuff since I was a kid. If there is one thing i would be if I had the choice it would be a furniture maker (Don’t look at my projects here, I’ve been getting better). That said, I’ve read what everyone says about careers in woodworking. To summarize, it’s a romanticized vision and fool’s dream. Make it a hobby and do something else to pay the bills. So, I’m an engineer. I don’t really like my day job and don’t get a ton of satisfaction out of it. But, as a 44 year old father of three I think i have to accept that this is it for me… sigh. “Quit you whining, you’ve got a job, blah blah blah.” I’m not here for a pity party.

What I am here for is to ask what i should do to get better at my “hobby”. What is the best way to learn furniture design without having to relocate near a design school? I want that master and apprentice relationship, full of criticism until I’ve achieved perfect enlightenment (a beam of sunlight just broke through the clouds somewhere), but all I have found are books and youtube… which are fine, but kind of soulless and one sided.

My designs are…. meh. Average person thinks they are good, but I’m not really that impressed. Stuff I have made that I do like are knock-offs (I just found something i liked and extrapolated). I want to make a body of work that i can be proud of, but everything i makes just looks… off, somehow. The proportions are a little wonky. Or they are missing something. Sure some people just have a knack for that stuff, but most people learn from being taught and receiving constructive criticism. I WANT THAT! HOW DO I GET THAT!? I want to make kick ass pieces that when I see them in the wild I can say to myself with pride, “I made that,” and then not immediately post it on the internet with the title, “I made this … and I’m awesome,” because that really is a pet peeve of mine. Now get off my lawn! I’m starting to sound like my dad.

So the forum is open, literally, to suggestions. I’ll take suggestions on books, internet classes, structured online classes, or whatever else you think is useful. If you are in the KC area and know of anything or anyone please let me know (KCAI, for example, although they are not doing much for non-traditional students these days).

Or better yet, if you are a designer, how did you learn?.. maybe I’m looking for a mentor.

And, as always, thank you for reading and taking a moment of you day. I appreciate it.

22 replies so far

View sansoo22's profile


879 posts in 425 days

#1 posted 05-27-2020 07:10 AM

I think furniture design is much like graphic design or really any type of design. Some will have a natural gift for it while others will spend years learning it. Those with the natural gift will always put out work that just has that “it” factor to it. You can’t explain why its so awesome it just is. I’m not saying you can’t learn these things. I mean art and design schools exist for a reason. I was once in a graphic design school and you can definitely tell the difference between those that have a natural gift vs everyone else.

When I was big into design I inundated myself with imagery of every different style I could get my hands on. Typography from Japan to the Communist era USSR. I mean just flooded my brain with it.

I’m a beginner wood worker myself and I have started doing the same thing with furniture design. I don’t have the skills to build a lot of the things yet but working on it. The first book I bought is Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary. It doesn’t do a deep dive into any style but you get to see a ton of great pieces and from there can find books and images of the styles you want to draw inspiration from.

In the KC area I might suggest the Kansas City Woodworkers Guild. I’m not a member myself but they do have classes, events, and open shop hours. Last i checked a membership that let you take classes and use the shop was around 100 bucks a year.

View Woodknack's profile


13383 posts in 3150 days

#2 posted 05-27-2020 07:49 AM

When I look at someone’s woodworking I look for tight joinery, clean work, proportion, smooth wood surface (no tearout), a finished finish, harmonious use of grain, using grain to enhance the design, elegance. Anyone can achieve strength by overbuilding, elegance shows skill. And don’t be afraid to try something. Not every piece of woodworking needs to be a heritage piece.

If you haven’t read Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, I recommend starting there. The man was the first editor of Fine Woodworking and directly or indirectly taught many of the people who are masters today. He wasn’t a hand tool or power tool guy, he was a get sh!t done guy and used whatever was most efficient. Frank Klausz is another guy to look up as he was taught old school in Europe and then ran a successful furniture shop here in the US. Both men approached woodworking from a business standpoint. There are so many others and I’m sure people will give you a list.

Second I would try to look at furniture in person built by a master craftsman to reset your understanding of what fine craftsmanship looks like. I got to see Kelly Mehler’s furniture in person a long time and was flabbergasted, his joinery was flawless, his use of grain blew me away. Get on Instagram and follow Fine Woodworking and then follow the people they follow, there is some impressive work there.

-- Rick M,

View wildwoodbybrianjohns's profile


1640 posts in 317 days

#3 posted 05-27-2020 08:32 AM

All I will add is keep making stuff. I had a look at your project page, and it seems to me you are well on your way, from beds to boxes. I am fairly certain what you seek is already in you.

-- Wildwood by Brian Johns: Because cheese isnt a healthy source of cheese, I will use grated cucumber to top off this raw food vegan pizza.

View pontic's profile


797 posts in 1379 days

#4 posted 05-27-2020 09:46 AM

You really want to prostitute your design skills; then take commissions for other people. That’s when you will be forced to stain cherry and other things to please the customer’s wishes.
Back to your post: One exercise you can do is to take only a certain amount of wood and lay it out and see what comes to your mind that you can make from it.

-- Illigitimii non carburundum sum

View zoro39's profile


34 posts in 410 days

#5 posted 05-27-2020 12:44 PM

One PBS “A Craftsmans Legacy”, Eric Gorges aske all guests; are you an artist or a craftsman? Some answer one or the other, some say both.
Of some of my WW idols, Steve Latta says he is a craftsman. Garrett Hack, inspired by Hemplewite, and having artistic talent, is able to design furniture with that Hemplewhite influence. He is both.
I’ve come to realize like Steve Latta that my talents lead to craftsmanship and less natural artistic talent. Many years of practice and learning from masters have pointed me in the Latter direction. As a member of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, I have been inspired to reproduce furniture, sometimes with improvements, from those that had both talents.
Designing “Studio” furniture from scratch is not a talent that I have, however reproducing furniture by others, with some changes and improvements is where my talent lies

John J

View MPython's profile


250 posts in 582 days

#6 posted 05-27-2020 12:50 PM

Jeff, it sounds like you’re on the same path I’ve e been one my whole life. I could write several pages about how my craft has evolved, but I’ll limit myself to just a few comments.

There are two components to what you’re looking for: skill and esthetics. You may have a masterpiece in your head, but if you don’t have the skill to build it, you’re sunk. On the other hand, your skills may be top notch; but if you don’t like the stuff you build, you’re sunk – and frustrated.

Before you attack the esthetics part, you need to answer a question: Who do you want to please, yourself or the world at large? If your goal is to have your work admired by others, take Pontic’s advice. Take a few commissions and build a few pieces for paying clients. It’s a tough road. There’s nothing like criticism from a client to teach you hard lessons and humility, and your work becomes drudgery. The ultimate lesson is probably that people are hard to please and that fulfillment and pride in your own work is your real goal. This is especially true for a hobbyist who doesn’t depend on his craft to put food on the table. My advice here is to build things that you like. In “you” I would include your family and close friends. They will appreciate your work and praise you for it. At the same time, strive to build the best you can. If you are happy and satisfied with your work and your family and friends like it your hobby will be a fulfilling pleasure.

As for skills, there are many ways to learn the craft. Most of us don’t have the luxury of enrolling in a lengthy immersion program at one of the many fine schools that offer comprehensive woodworking programs. We’re left to cobble together resources that suit our available time, lifestyles and finances. I’ve read and own hundreds of woodworking books and magazines over the years, and I probably learned something from each one of them. I found the Internet woodworking community 15 or 20 years ago and it was like a shot of adrenaline to my enthusiasm and my learning curve. There’s nothing like being able to talk (albeit online) to others, most of whom are more skilled than I, and ask questions. I’ve learned more on the Internet in the last few years than I learned by myself in the previous 40 (I’m 76).

Still, working alone in your shop and struggling with problems solo, with no feedback, doesn’t do much for your self confidence. A few years ago I enrolled in a week-long workshop on drawer making taught by Craig Vandall Stevens at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. My wife and I made a mini vacation out of it. She enjoyed the Maine coast and I had a woodworking epiphany. Stevens is a master. Watching him work gave me a new appreciation for the meticulous craftsmanship and detail that goes into really fine work. I learned a lot about what I was doing wrong hand cutting dovetails. I learned what truly sharp tools are and how to get them that way and what a difference they make in your work. Most of all I learned that I was pretty far along on my woodworking journey and that my skills were equal to or better than most of the others in my class. Praise from Stevens did wonders for my self confidence. Everything I’d been working on all those years seemed to gel in that workshop. I learned a lot about making drawers, but most of all I gained the self confidence and enthusiasm to try new things and a lot of pride in what I’d already accomplished. I took another week-long workshop called “Precision With Hand Tools” from Garrett Hack and came away with the same exhilaration.

My woodworking hobby hasn’t been the same since, not so much because of the skills I learned, which were significant, but because of the boost the classes gave to my self confidence and my understanding and appreciation of the craft in general. I am no longer intimidated by craftsmen whose skills eclipse mine. I’ve learned that most of them are outgoing and take pride in passing their skills on to others like me. I’ve made friends with a number of fine woodworkers with whom I’ve shared a lot and from whom I’ve learned much more. Books and the internet are wonderful, but they don’t compare to learning one-on-one with someone who knows what they are doing.

I can summarize my long rambling in this short paragraph. My advice is to read everything you can get your hands on. Ask questions. Seek out woodworkers who are better craftsmen than you are and learn from them. Figure out what you like and build what you like to the very best of your ability, and build for yourself and your family and friends. Don’t try to impress the world.

My $.02 (Actually, that’s about $5.00 worth of words.)

View JackDuren's profile


1211 posts in 1730 days

#7 posted 05-27-2020 12:58 PM

I was a 30 years cabinet maker before I started in furniture. JACOBE furniture was looking for a furniture maker and I was looking for a better job. The commercial shop I worked for Bannister Millwork, the owner had decided to retire when he signed a contract (he never does)to complete a dialysis clinic in excelsior springs and didn’t hit the deadline and lost a $1000 a day and a second shop was called in to finish it…He was told to stand down as he would receive no more money. At this point he was close 70 years old decided to retire.

I got lucky. I needed a job and they needed a furniture maker. I showed pictures of tables I built and was hired. The first thing they wanted was a 4’x12’ quatersawn 16/4 walnut table. Completed the job in reasonable time and the buyers were happy. I was there for the next 7 years till the company made some bad financial decisions and went from +10 million to a negative …

They knew i was having surgery and might not return so the position was dissolved and I went on disability.

Furniture makings a tough business….I have never read a furniture making book…...Personally I like Mission style furniture….

View Madmark2's profile


1362 posts in 1358 days

#8 posted 05-27-2020 01:42 PM

The elan or “it” is a gift. You either got it or you don’t. My furniture tends to be the same way, a little “flat”, like soup with no spice, it’s just bland.

Try something simple like beading and veining. Put a curve in where straight would do. I put a decorative bead around the base of my boxes and it makes a huge difference.

a small detail helps

Book match something. Sequence the grain on drawers or around a box. Do something extra “just because”. They used to call it “whimsy”. The Victorian period was full of “gingerbread” and eyebrow windows. In medieval days it was gargoyles and in Italy, pissing cherubs! Its called style and flair.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Use the “golden ratio” about 1.62:1 when deciding on layouts (box height is say 1, then width is 1.62 times that and length is1.62 times width etc.) The old 1920’s Popular Mechanics Mission furniture planbook specifically stated that integer multiples like 2 or 3 “offend the eye”

Lighten your material. Simply everyone tends to use “nominal” 1x stock. Look at most early box attempts here and you’ll see lots of beautiful but “heavy reading” designs with 3/4” stock on a 6” box. The proportions just ain’t right. Most “elegant” designs have a lightness to them (is why you don’t want your 350 lb friend sitting on your Chippendale chair.)

There are no hard and fast rules for design other that what works is what works.

All work should:
  • Function. Frank Floyd Wright designed magnificent houses and his dining room chairs were pure works of art – because you couldn’t sit on ‘em!

    unsitable FLW chair
  • Conserve materials – don’t cut down a sequoia for a toothpick
  • Be the best your skills allow
  • Be profitable (if for sale)

Beyond this you’re on your own.

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View Aj2's profile


3075 posts in 2568 days

#9 posted 05-27-2020 01:52 PM

The furniture making business is pretty much over out here in my area. We have plenty of big store selling complete bedroom set for 400 to 500 dollars.
The day of the furniture craftsman is over . The good news the day of Artist craftsman is just beginning.
I make money in one of of kind pieces sometimes I make almost 10$ a hour. :)
My advise to Jeff is to ignore what others are doing and look to the wood for guidance

Good Luck

-- Aj

View JackDuren's profile


1211 posts in 1730 days

#10 posted 05-27-2020 02:11 PM

I’m not sure if there still is I would have to dig around. There are or were places in KC that would show your work to sell with a 100% markup.if I want to sell a table for $5k they will put it in the store for $10k

If you can move a few pieces it can open ge door for commission pieces but it usually means paying the piper….

There was a place in Liberty,Mo that was selling individual pieces for hobby wood workers but there number on there ard was disconnected and I’m not sure if they moved on or started another company….

View kaerlighedsbamsen's profile


1343 posts in 2483 days

#11 posted 05-27-2020 02:11 PM

That is a great question! And see that you have already got some good and elaborate answers.

Taking up finer woodworking after building huses, apartments, a houseboat and other projects, I set up a goal: To learn to both design and make quality modernist furniture. I guess that, in a learning process, you always will feel that you have the same distance to go before you are “good”, its just that you learn new koncepts and set new, more abitious goals all the time. Here a few things that have helped me:

- Defining what you like. Expose youself to a large amount of styles, methods, designers, materials, ways of working etc. Often, once you find what you like, you´ll know it right away, almost instantly.

Once you have established what exactly you like you know what to aim for.

- Defining who is good. Books, blogs, youtube, Instagram all are good places to find skilled artisans that make great stuff. Along the way you need to filter through a huge amount of crap – but that just hones your ability to spot what you like – and why. Especially Youtube and Instagram have been a huge inspiration for me as people often show the design process; sketches, prototypes, errors along the way etc. All great to learn about the creative process.
Make a list of the best-of-the-best an follow their work for a while. Here is my personal favorite, he does world class work AND design

Once you have defined who is good you know what level of craftsmanship and design to aim for.

- Draft. As much as possible. Pens, paper, camera, voice recorder etc. Bring what you need at all times and learn to use them. Sketch basic designs and dont obsess about it looking any good. As long as they convey your idea they are fine.

- Doing design for my self only – and only when inspiration hits. Doing design for others is harder, more restricted and can often conflict with what I realy like.

Forcing inspiration does not work. If I want to design, say a chair, I read, see films, go to museums and think about chairs. Sometimes for weeks or months – but no specific designing. Perhaps visit the shop and look at materials, a tool I like to use, perhaps there is hardware, fabric etc to look at. Keep having a chair design in the back of you head, perhaps think about it in the bed at night, in the shower, the car etc.

And suddenly an aide appears. Or several. Now go test them out!

- Make prototypes. Test ideas, in cheap lumber. Dont be afraid to make several. Test proportions, functionality, materials, comfort (mostly chairs etc) and so on. Adjust, make new prototypes untill you feel “it is there”

And from there on things should run fairly smooth.

As you wrote: ” I want to make a body of work that i can be proud of” to me, sums it all up.
Now go and make your self proud!

-- "Do or Do not. There is no try." - Yoda

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

24785 posts in 3876 days

#12 posted 05-27-2020 02:16 PM

Hi Jeff. we have guys in our area sending very similar questions to our guild every year. There are some great woodworking schools that will teach you the best ways to make beautiful joints or a beautifully designed piece but they are expensive. Some of the guys that write us don’t have a set of tool like they use at the schools to do what they have learned. We steer them to an apprenticeship if they can find one. We have a business here called Cento Anni ( means 100 years of woodworking) and they take in guys to work for them that learn all the tricks to make a dollar at woodworking over a number of years. But there are not many apprenticeships out there.

Woodworking is a tough business . If you get into it you have to be efficient to make a buck at it, but those that get established with a good quality reputation are doing well in woodworking. You have to go for what you like. Building one of a kind pieces or production of the same kind of pieces. As a hobbyist, I like the one of a kind and could never do production work.

As for furniture, there is tough foreign competition. Many people are being brought up in the ” throw away” generation. They look at a piece for price only and if it falls apart at the joints in a year, the just buy a new one of the same low quality. You need to find buyers who appreciates what goes into a piece and that it will last. Some times that is a sell job over and above their shopping for price only. I do art and craft shows and I have to “sell” the piece to the customer! Sometimes photos of the process sells them!

Good luck in your endeavor,Jeff . Your products show you have the talent already!

Cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View J123's profile


361 posts in 3110 days

#13 posted 05-27-2020 02:41 PM

The feedback, and chuckles, are much appreciated. I do like the idea of some of those week long classes. I’ve looked them up before, then had to wipe the drool off of the keyboard. I have a hard time getting over the expense, and the selfish thought that I am doing something just for me for a week while the family is still up to whatever.

I have taken some classes through the KCWWG, but, ahhhh, i was going to say something critical, but actually I learned a fair amount from both classes. My only real beef was that I wanted a little less standing around, and more one-on-one time with the instructor. I get that every project has opportunities to learn new skills, however, lately their classes look more like quick, simple builds. I don’t see much challenge in some of them. More of an opportunity to get together with the guys. The KCWWG is a good resource, and if you are in the area you should look them up.

Another resource that I have found inspiring is the Nelson Atkins Museum, which has several historical pieces. I feel like a geek / dork when I get in there really close. My wife says it’s “cute” to watch me. And, having had a hard time sleeping, I found a few folks who talk about making miniature models before building the full up piece. I think I’m gonna start doing that as well.

For now I can keep on building. Your feedback has been very well received on my end. If anyone has specific books I can be looking at please do speak up. I’ve got a pretty good library going, but I’m always open.

I’m feeling pretty geeked right about now. Gotta get back to the day job.

View tbone's profile


306 posts in 4455 days

#14 posted 05-27-2020 02:48 PM

So Jeff. You know I HAD to look at your projects after you said not to, and they are impressive. Don’t sell yourself short.
Personally, I have borrowed heavily from the classic designers that came before me—Stickley, G & G, FLW, etc.
but the more I get into it, the more I want to separate my work from what’s been done before. I always choose my projects with skill building in mind more so than designing something new. Those classic designs got that way because they seem to have a ‘timeless’ quality to them—but they can be played with. Just look at what Darrell Peart has done with Greene and Greene stuff, and what Thos. Moser has done with Shaker style.

-- Kinky Friedman: "The first thing I'll do if I'm elected is demand a recount."

View JackDuren's profile


1211 posts in 1730 days

#15 posted 05-27-2020 02:52 PM

It’s not always about making one of a kind pieces. There are other things like getting with a designer and doing unique fireplaces, closets, etc. You just have to get to the people with real money. You have to get noticed.

But I’m gonna stay out of it….I’m retired now…Heck with furniture I’m planting flowers today

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