How to Design Great Furniture

In designing furniture, my goal is to always marry great design with heirloom quality. But, how do you accomplish that?

Now, design is a very subjective thing; everyone’s tastes are different. However, you can incorporate your own style into your designs, but there are some guiding principles that you can follow to get there. Let’s look at 5 simple design principles that you can use on your next furniture design. Have something to add? Let me know your design tips in the comments below.

5 “Do’s” of Furniture Design

When I am designing a new piece, there are 5 main principles, or guidelines, that I try to follow. These help me come up with new and unique designs and push the limits of my skills.

Make it Functional

First and foremost, a piece of furniture needs to be functional. What would be the point of a table with a slanted top? You wouldn’t be able to put anything on it without it sliding off. Think to yourself, “what is this piece intended to be used for?” and make sure your design solves the “problem” it was intended for. If you simply need a small table to put something on, maybe you don’t need a drawer on it. However, maybe you are looking for someplace to store a couple books or magazines; add a shelf or a drawer. If it is not functional, it will not be used and will be a bad design.

Incorporate Visual Joinery

One way to step up your design game, and maybe your woodworking skills game is to incorporate joinery that you can see into your furniture design. For example, in the standing desk (pictured below), the design called for the desk to have two drawers (functional) so I knew I was basically going to build a box, but what way could I build that box to make it stand out? In this example, I used variably spaced through dovetail joints.

By using through dovetails, I was able to add a visually striking structural element to the build, instead of just using mitered corners or some kind of butt joint.

Another example of this is on this occasional table.

There are a few things going on here so I will explain each of them. First, you can see the half-blind dovetail joint holding these legs together. Again, a visually appealing joint, but one that is also very strong. Next, you will see the round pegs. The top of this piece is actually breadboarded into the legs. This breadboard joint functionally ensures the top stays flat and also adds rigidity to the piece to make sure it is strong. Lastly, the breadboard joint ensure that the top is allowed to expand and contract with seasonal movement. This leads me to the next design principle.

Always Think of Wood Movement

Wood moves. Probably not a shocker to you, but there are a ton of DIY projects I see out there that just do not follow good design principles with regards to wood movement. And, many times, ignoring wood movement leads to warped boards or worse, cracked boards.

Wood moves across its grain so you really need to be mindful of cross-grain joints; like the table above. The legs are crossing the grain of the top. If I had simply glued or screwed those joints together, the top would eventually develop a bow in it, warp the legs or just crack. None of it good.

You have to allow wood to expand and contract across its grain. So, if you have to use screws to attach something cross grain, such as securing a table top to the base, you want to use elongated, or widened holes. You want to make sure that the mechanical fastener has enough room to move when the wood moves. In the case of a breadboard joint, the only place the joint is glued is in the center of the board. The outer parts of the joint are not glued. In fact, the mortises for the outer joints are about a quarter inch wider than the tenon and the peg holes in the tenons are elongated, across the grain, so they can move back and forth.

As you can tell from the two furniture examples above, I like to incorporate the next design principle whenever possible.

Get Creative with Wood Choices

In furniture, wood is boss. Finding and selecting great pieces of wood, and the proper placement of those pieces, into your furniture is an absolute design game changer. For me, there are two main ways I like to get creative with wood choices.

Using Contrasting Woods

Using two wood species that contrast one another is a great way to set a piece off. Don’t overdo it or it can look too gimmicky. In the table above, I combined walnut for the base with maple for the top. In this Shaker inspired table below, the top and base of the table are made out of cherry and the drawer front is made out of tiger maple.

As this cherry has darkened over time, it has really created a nice contrast with the tiger maple. The figure in the maple has matured over time as well and I really like combination. By the way, if you are looking for tips on finishing cherry and getting these rich colors, check out this blog post on Finishing Cherry Wood.

Use Exotic Woods

Just like using contrasting woods, incorporating some exotic woods into your design can really set it off. In this hanging cabinet below, the case is made out of some really nice ambrosia maple, but the door fronts really catch your eye and they are made out of zebra wood (also note the sliding dovetail joints in the casework; visual joinery).

Exotic wood is, of course, more expensive so you want to pick and choose where you use it, but it is a great way to make aspects of your design really sick out. Where can you incorporate some of these contrasting or exotic woods? Let’s look at the last design principle for answers.

Draw It Out and Mock It Up

Whether you are a CAD wizard, or old school like me and use pencil and paper, getting your idea down on paper is a great way to go through your design. Now, this may seem super obvious, but by drawing your design, what you are also doing for yourself is getting a sense for how you are going to have to build the furniture. What pieces do you need to do first? How will it go together? There are so many things you will figure out from drawing your piece. In fact, the main thing you may learn is “will this design even work?”.

Doing a mockup of your design can be a huge time and money saver in the long run. For example, I am in the process of building a custom desk that has some unique features the client wanted. I drew it out on paper and really struggled with how I was going to build it in such a way that I knew it would be sturdy and it would last. So, after drawing it, I got some cheap pine wood from the store and began to mock up the desk. I did all the joinery, dry fit it, everything. From that, I knew the design would work and had all of the machine setup I needed for when I built it “for real” with the much more costly cherry wood.

Conclusion

Designing great furniture can seem like a daunting task at first, but by following these five principles, hopefully you too can take your next furniture design to the next level. Have a different method for furniture design? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Also, if you find these principles useful, and you build a piece with one or more of these principles as your guide, I’d love to see it!

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