Can’t draw? So what! Design in 3-D instead.
Many woodworkers struggle with designing, whether it’s with a pencil or mouse. Even if you can sketch and/or navigate design software, it can still be difficult to get a good sense of how a piece of completed furniture is going to relate to real space. For example, it’s hard to tell from a drawing whether a table of a certain size will crowd a room or even just visually overpower it. As for ergonomics, well, good luck trying to ascertain from a 2-D rendering how a chair is going to feel, or whether a sofa side table will elevate a lamp at the right height for reading or holding your drink.
For that kind of information, you have to invite a design concept into the real world. The time-honored approach is to make a mock-up from inexpensive materials to get a sense of proportion, feel, balance, and utility before committing time and expensive materials to the real thing. A mock-up is a model that helps you visualize a piece, work out joinery details, and/or simply puzzle out one particular section of a design. It sure helps to make any mistakes on what is essentially a cheap practice piece. And mock-ups, whether scaled down or full-sized, provide a great way to communicate your design ideas to others.
If you’ve never mocked up a model of any sort, you might be surprised at how fun it is, and how much valuable information it provides. Here, we’ll take a peek at the materials used and the approaches taken by various pros to preview their designs in order to ensure premiere projects.
Materials and supplies
Full-size mock-ups can be made using a variety of inexpensive sheet materials as well as scrap plywood and lumber. To build up material for legs and other thicker parts, you can use spray adhesive to laminate scraps of rigid insulation, which can then be easily cut to shape on the table saw or bandsaw. Corrugated cardboard and foam core panels can also be sawn, but they cut more cleanly with a knife. Spray-painting an assembly of disparate materials, will visually meld them.
Small-scale mock-ups are often best made from smooth-textured, closed-grain woods such as cherry, maple, and poplar. A fine-tooth dovetail saw is good for this kind of work, but you can also use your regular machines, outfitting them for zero-clearance cutting. For smoothing parts, invert a plane as shown to create a sort of mini-jointer. Attach parts with either CA glue or small dabs of regular yellow glue left to sit for 30 minutes or so.
Play table. This taped-together corrugated cardboard rendition of a small side table provides a real-world sense of footprint, profile, and proportion. Planned scrollwork is simply drawn in place.
Section mock-ups and joint rehearsals
Many projects don’t require complete full-size or scale-model mock-ups. Sometimes all that’s needed is to build just a section of a piece, particularly if it’s symmetrical. One corner of a squared table, for example, reflects the others, and allows you to work out the relationship of the parts if that’s your primary interest. Also, if you just want to gauge the appropriate size of something, a simple framework will often suffice (see bottom photo). This can solve the initial mystery as to the appropriate height of a stool or standing desk, particularly if you are designing it to suit a person whose stature lies outside the norm.
When cobbling together stuff like this, it’s fine to use scrap plywood and construction lumber that’s been milled to suit. Hot-melt glue, pocket screws, nails, and double-faced tape all provide quick attachment.
In addition to making complete or partial mock-ups, it can be very enlightening to test-build joints, especially if one is unfamiliar to you. Mocking up a joint gives you a good sense of its strength in relationship to the project in question. It also provides the opportunity to practice procedures, and perhaps to prepare production jigs in the process.
Cornering the design. Sometimes, you need only mock up a section to get a sense of the relationship of the parts. This table corner allows playing with the apron offsets and top overhang.
Sampling a joint. Having a selection of mocked-up joints provides a great aesthetic- and strength-reference library when designing pieces. The parts can also help with layout and machine setups.
Framework focus. The pocket-screwed pine mock-up of this storage ottoman provided a preview of the primary visual elements. Just as importantly, it allowed testing the height of the unit for seating comfort.
This walnut stool was designed and built by Rob Spiece and Larissa Huff at Lohr Woodworking. It was commissioned to accompany a standing desk they made for the same client a few months prior.
The stool was designed to echo the details of the desk, yet also stand apart as its own piece. According to Spiece, the initial concept was to complement the rectangular lines of the desk, which led to the miniature mock-up shown here. However, after studying the mock-up, he felt that it was too bulky. Adding an upward taper to the legs and lowering the stretcher assembly lofted the seat while providing visual weight to ground the piece. This scale model, assembled with hot-melt glue, was made from walnut, as was the full-sized version.
A fooler stool. If not for the penny here representing scale, you might think the stool model above was the real thing.
Have a real seat. Study of the model led to tapering the legs and lowering the stretchers to better distribute the visual weight in the final piece at right.
A study in contrast
Another Spiece/Huff collaboration, this cocktail bar design began as a computer rendering made by a client. “However,” says Spiece, “he wasn’t decided on the materials, so we made this model in ash to work that out. Playing with the idea of a stark contrast, we ebonized the frame members, leaving the front panels and top natural. In the end, though, the disparity was too much for the client, so we went with a walnut frame and bar top instead. Studying the model also steered us away from a semi-circular shape toward more of a ‘semi-oval,’ which makes the piece a bit more dynamic.”
Cheers to the real thing! Step right up to the finished version, with its less-contrasty ash panels, walnut framework, and walnut top.
Mini-bar. This tiny ash model primarily served as a palette to study visual contrast by ebonizing just the framework.
A question of balance
When furniture maker Ric Hanisch set out to design a coffee table that consisted of a live-edge walnut slab perched atop a 3-legged arc-shaped base, he knew that mock-ups would be involved.
He began by making a solid-wood scale mock-up about 6" long to work out the curvature and splay of the legs. When the curves and proportions were right, he set to making a full-size mock-up of the base in order to work out the joinery. When making this second model, he incorporated the actual slab top to ensure that it sat level and was well supported.
This is a perfect example of a project that would have been very difficult to make without the guidance of mock-ups.
Steady, now... Mocking up a poplar base for this live-edge slab proved a cheap, risk-free way to ensure stability and work out tricky joinery.
Ready for coffee. The two mock-ups involved in this project paid off in an attractive, solid piece that could have gone awry otherwise.
Working out a hang-up
This wall-hung desk (Aug/Sept 2018, issue 84) began with a lot of engineering questions that followed preliminary sketches: “Will the work surface accommodate most laptop computers and a pad of writing paper? How to hinge the door/desktop to support a computer and elbow weight without adding chains or other intrusive hardware? How deep should the computer storage pocket be? Drawers? No drawers? How to manage power cords?”
The only way to find out was to cobble together a plywood “proof-of-concept” prototype that allowed testing the strength and utility of the unit, as well as certain construction techniques. In the process, new design opportunities emerged, including an improved hinging scheme, a simplified computer storage pocket, and a much easier assembly approach. A lot of work, for sure, but for a very big payoff.
Proof of concept. This plywood prototype of a wall-hung desk allowed testing various hinging and storage possibilities as well as gauging appropriate work surface area.
A truly capable work station. The result of a lot of “3-D” design work, this project looks elegant and serves its purpose beautifully.
The Haycock Adirondack scrapbook: A case study of collaborative prototyping
The Haycock Adirondack chair in June/July 2021, issue 101 was born of a sketch by furniture maker Ric Hanisch, who then screwed together boards sawn to experimental profiles. He left the back and arms secured only by clamps, adjusting them when testing the mock-up on people of various sizes. Finally—busy guy that he is—he drove in some final screws and moved on to other endeavors.
Fortunately, the lovely prototype caught my eye, and Ric agreed to let my colleague Ken Burton and me carry on with the work at my shop. After some thoughtful sitting on the matter, Ken and I agreed on the chair’s comfort, but deemed that the legs needed to splay forward more for better stability when rising. We also decided to make the back taller to prevent a mid-sized person’s skull from intersecting with the top ends of the boards. Just as importantly, we knew that to present the chair as a magazine project, we needed to develop a sensible, practical approach to building this challenging multi-angled piece. The ticket to all of that was the plywood mock-up you see here.
3-D emergence. The chair began as two scalloped sides connected by seat slats, with experimentally-sized boards screwed or clamped in place for the back, arms, and legs.
Compact vs. mid-size. Test-seating revealed that, although a smaller person’s feet leave the ground, the chair suits someone of average-size.
Plywood retrial. After assessing the comfort, stability, and construction of the designer’s poplar prototype, your stalwart editors built a complete plywood mock-up that splays the legs further forward for improved stance, raises the back, slightly widens the space between the arms at the rear, and incorporates a back cutout, as suggested in the original sketch.
Yep, a good sit. The plywood mock-up proved to be very stable and terrifically comfortable. Its build also yielded templates and a refined approach to construction.
The final reward. After a study of the initial prototype (rear) and a refinement of the design and construction methods via a plywood mock-up (left), the production of the final chair went smoothly and efficiently.