Build Lighter, Stronger Furniture
Use thin parts and innovative joinery to make light, durable pieces
Synopsis: Strong furniture does not have to be beefy in appearance. In fact, you can build very strong pieces that are delicate in appearance by designing furniture that uses every part and every joint to its full potential. Garrett Hack has been designing this way for years. Here, he shares some of his techniques for building light and strong—making thin parts wider, adding shoulders to a bridle joint to resist racking, locking parts such as shelves and legs together so that they do more than one job, breaking up a thick part into two narrower ones without reducing structural strength.
I think many wood workers forget how strong wood truly is, especially the hardwoods. This leads them to make furniture that is unintentionally stout and heavy. Muscular furniture can be attractive, but I prefer the grace of pieces that are visually more delicate. To achieve that appearance, I take advantage of the wood’s strength, designing in a way that pares down the physical and visual weight of a piece without compromising its strength. It’s an economical way of building where each joint and every part is used to its full potential to strengthen the piece as a whole.
Through the years I’ve developed several strategies for building light and strong. One way to shed visual weight without los ing strength is to make a part thin and wide rather than thick. You can also minimize the number of parts in a piece by making one part do many jobs rather than having many parts that do one job each. Or you can replace one big part with two or more smaller ones. Another approach is to redesign the joinery to be stronger—make the top and bottom shoulders of a tenon smaller, for example. I’ll explain these strategies and a few others. Of course, I don’t use every one in every piece of furniture that I make, so I’ll show you four different pieces and explain how I was able to make each one more delicate and graceful without compromising its strength.
Make skinny stronger
Case pieces have many parts, such as drawer rails, that have only one visible edge. These parts can be made to look more delicate by making them thinner. To maintain their strength and stiffness, make them wider. As you never see the part’s width, this doesn’t affect the case’s visual weight. Casework can also be made stronger by integrating the parts more effectively. This might mean creating a better connection between drawer rails, runners, and guides, or using the guides and runners to reinforce the connection between the case front and sides.
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