American Woodworker

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Winter 2013-2014

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Designing and Building a Wood Sculpture Stand. Part 1: The Design Challenge


Recently I was commissioned to build a wooden stand to display a piece of sculpture. The sculpture, which my client had purchased at a benefit auction, is rather cool and unconventional.The artist's name is Long-Bin Chen and the piece is titled "World Buddha Head Project."
It is made from recycled phone books that have been glued together and then carved. It looks like this:

The piece stands about 36" tall on a plywood base (very tacky, considering the workmanship of the sculpture itself) roughly 9" x 11". My client wanted to see the top of the piece at eye level, which meant a base about 32" tall and wide enough to accommodate the 9x11 base of the sculpture.
When I asked him if he had anything in mind, he showed me a small occasional table in his living room with a shape he really liked. Made of solid wood, it had four curved sides that gave the piece something of a belly; it reminded me of a squat toadstool. I took some measurements and made a quick sketch:

We talked some more about wood selection and then I left, promising to bring him some ideas the following week.

Back home, I pondered the possibilities and came to a few decisions. First, my wood choice would be subdued: no flamboyant grain pattern, no strong color. I didn't want the stand in any way to compete with the sculpture itself.
I thought a vertical grain would be best, and in the end I chose quartered mahogany. To harmonize with the tone of the "face" of the sculpture, I decided to bleach and then stain the wood to a driftwood grey.

As for the overall shape, I started playing around with the idea presented by my client's little table. I have to confess that much too often, when I design for a client, I am influenced by what I've built before and what I know how to build. This time I decided to let my sketching take the lead, and my first concern would be to get a pleasing shape. I would worry about how to build it later. After a few freehand drawings I arrived at a variation on that table that I thought could work as a stand. At that point, I pulled out my set of French curves and refined the lines, combining different arcs from several curves to get the shape I wanted. To insure that both sides of the elevation stayed symmetrical, I carefully marked off segments on the curves and made sure I used exactly the same sections on both sides.

Putting dimensions to it, I came up with a working drawing:

It's been my experience that clients often have a hard time visualizing a drawing, especially a simple elevation such as this, as a three-dimensional object. My drawing skills are not sufficient to render it in a way that would do it justice, and I don't use any computer-assisted programs to produce drawings either. What I rely on most often is a scale model. They are fun to make and have a powerful impact on a client.

My drawing had been done at quarter scale (1/4"=1"), so I decided to build my model the same. In my shop I pulled out some 8/4 vertical grain Douglas fir that I had handy, milled and cut four sides, put 45° bevels on the long edges, and glued them together to make a hollow rectangular form. While the glue dried, I made a couple of copies of the drawing and cut the outline with a scissors. After the glue-up was dry and cleaned up, I applied the drawing to two adjoining faces, went to the bandsaw, and cut out the first profile. I then taped my pieces back together, rotated the piece 90° so that the other profile was facing up, and again cut the outline. I now had the basic shape, which I then finessed with a small bit of sanding. The top was quickly cut from thinner stock and glued on. A few coats of shellac and I was done:

I brought it to the client and he liked it. Now all I had to do was give him a price, repeat the model-making steps full-scale in mahogany, do a bit of finish work and I was done. Yeah, right.
My problems began as soon as I began to consider what building full-scale really entailed.
But that is the topic for Part 2, coming soon.


knothead wrote re: Designing and Building a Wood Sculpture Stand. Part 1: The Design Challenge
on 07-14-2012 1:57 PM

very nice!!  enjoyed the method of attainment!!     wood design is awesome too!!!   To some it would seem plain, I can see that, but the final product is better than that!