By Hand and Eye, A Review

A little over two years ago I discovered Jim Tolpin’s and George Walker’s respective blogs. I think it was a series of Video Shorts put together by Shannon Rogers at where I first saw Jim Tolpin design and build a footstool using nothing but the length of his hand as a measuring statute. (By the way, Shannon doesn’t do “Renaissance” woodworking, he means it in the “learning a bit of everything” context of the word)
I was simply blown away by the revelation of building furniture to the dimensions of a person who will use the piece, rather than imperial measurement standards for people to use the piece.
George Walker reintroduced me to 8th Grade geometry by way of Greco-Roman Classical design. Being able to design furniture with nothing more exotic than a straight edge and a compass opened one more door into my understanding of how Medieval and Renaissance workmen derived those museum pieces we all love staring at while dreaming of making such a thing someday.

About a month after I put together and conducted my first class on Medieval and Renaissance Furniture Design, Jim and George announced that they would be working on a book together. To say I have taken the last fifteen months patiently awaiting this tome would be a bald-faced lie. I’ve been to moments of clawing at my own eyes in drooling excitation. I have not been disappointed.

The first preface of the book opens “Hi, My name is Jim Tolpin, and I stink at design. Always have… and I thought I always would.” I cannot think of a better way to draw in those who dread the idea of actually doing their own design work. Here is a Master (yep, I’d say they both have earned that appellation) preparing to educate who avers his own self-concerns openly and directly. If this does nothing to allay the concerns of a design neophyte, then I can consider nothing that will. In clear, direct, and simple explanations Mr. Walker and Mr. Tolpin guide the student through the basics of proportion, geometry, and making it all work together.
With step by step exercises seed-cast throughout they prove how easy these techniques truly are. Every element from refreshing the basic operation of using a set of dividers (or compass), to training your inner eye, to putting it all together into functional real-world applications is meted out without the obtusely florid prose they weeded through in their personal educations on this material.
A number of the exercises are also duplicated with animations on the Lost Art Press website, show how each phase comes together in a dynamic medium that wonderfully compliments the exquisite (and uncomplicated) line-art drawings that infuse nearly every page.

The individual voice and character of each author is present throughout the book. From George Walker comes the classical understanding and application of Greco-Roman forms and modes as described by Vitruvius. Jim Tolpin brings the delightful freedom of imperial (or metric) devices and standards. In their voices one can see how they came to these understandings and know that with their educated distillation that the understandings are enjoyable to digest.

I did find one error that was repeated three times in the book. When identifying the Musical Proportions of 2:3 and 3:4, they are consistently mislabeled. Musically speaking, 3:2 is a Perfect Fifth while 4:3 is a Fourth. I contacted Lost Art Press and Mr. Tolpin was very courteous to reply to me almost immediately with thanks for finding that error. He assures it will be corrected in future printings.

Though I received the book a week ago, I didn’t have opportunity until this past Monday morning to actually begin reading it. There was an hour the day I received it where I grinned like a kid at Christmas as I paged through it picking out those things that drew my eye… of which there was legion. From reading the first hundred pages or so, I put it down so I might have more for later. The following morning I finished my first complete run through and am taking a little breather before digging through for a second time. Perhaps this is because pre-industrial design has become my “thing,” but how often might someone think that a technical book on woodworking might be the kind of content that one cannot put down?

I’ve been noodling with whole-number proportioning for some time, and dividers and basic geometry have been part of my “toolbox” for quite a while. This book has excited several interesting projects to continue along that path – I can only imagine the impact it may have on those wholly uninitiated to the concepts… I imagine those things will be grand. If you think you might someday want to go to the next level with woodworking, or just enjoy geeking about design, this book is a must.

“By Hand and Eye” is available through Lost Art Press.Design Matters” is the blog of George Walker, where articles entitled “Down the Rabbit Hole” relate and expand on content in the book.
Jim Tolpin’s Blog is found through his website at

P.S.  – I would be remiss in not pointing out they included how to plot Gothic and Lancet Arches in the book, for which I giggled with glee. From there, all other Gothic Tracery elements are just a half step away.

This entry was posted in Design and Proportion, Furniture Research, Woodworking Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to By Hand and Eye, A Review

  1. fitz says:

    Oh dear. My music theory teacher would be most disappointed with me. I’m sorry I didn’t catch those.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s