Nelson’s Universal Design Method

I get exasperated when I hear woodworker’s say they ‘can’t design’. Furniture-making is design. Toolmaking as well. Can’t do it well without a good design sense. I think anyone who believes they can’t design has fundamentally misunderstood what design is.


gesturesketchThere is a persistent myth out there that design is something you’re either born with or not. Overexposure to Krenov books sometimes leads to this notion.

I disagree. Anyone can design. It’s not magic. It’s work.

So since I’m feeling feisty today, here’s Nelson’s Universal Design Method(ology).

STEP ONE: draw

No – even better: sketch. A lot. Want to design a table? Sketch about a thousand tables. 20 seconds for each sketch, MAX. Do twenty or thirty every day. Do them on business cards in the doctor’s office. A napkin at the bar. Toilet paper in… you get the picture.

Somewhere in that thousand, there’s going to be one (maybe two if you’re a prodigy) that has ‘something’ in it. A lean, an attitude, an ‘air’.

Something in that sketch will say: I AM INSPIRATION. WORSHIP ME. MAKE ME. Listen to it.

Because this is the part no one can explain, but everyone worries about. Where the ‘inspiration’ comes from. You can go for walks in the woods, scour the internet, or take a weekend course in creative visualization to get there if you like, but in the end you are going to have to make those thousand (give or take) sketches. Everyone does.

STEP TWO: draw

Now you’ve got your inspiration. Here’s the part that counts – the part you don’t read about in the design articles in the magazine. The Work.

Draw it again.

This time take five minutes per drawing. Try to reproduce that special ‘thing’ about the sketch. It’ll take more than one try – trust me. Do it as many times as you need to. Eventually you’ll get something sort’ve like the first, but a little clearer. Cleaner. And you’ll have a MUCH better handle on just what it was you liked. You might even be able to ‘name’ it. If so – Congratulations! Now you can ‘speak’ design.


Now take your slightly more detailed drawing and redraw that. This time with precision. Do it on graph paper, with rulers and to exact scale. Or on a computer program – CAD, sketchup, Illustrator; whatever. You won’t get this part done first try either. You’re trying to convert your idea to a mechanical drawing, and finding out the limitations of the ‘lean’, the ‘attitude’, the ‘air’ you have been trying to bring along. You’ll probably find at this point that the ‘attitude’ has become MUCH less extreme than the original sketch. That’s good. Restraint happens automatically here.

Rinse and repeat.

Once you’ve got that done, you’re almost home free. Now you just have to make it.


If this is for your living room, and not a showroom or architectural digest – and if it’s fairly straightforward – then what are you waiting for? This is what you spent all those hours learning to saw and carve and plane and join for. Make it. Create it. You’re a MAKER.

STEP FIVE (advanced): remake

If you’re planning on selling it, or if you just think the design itself is worth really going ‘all in’, or even if you just want people to call your design things like: “refined”, “fully-realized”, and “incredibly coherent”, then here’s the ultimate secret. Ready? You sure?

Make it at least three times.

It’s well worth considering making the first one or two out of cheap, easy material. Cardboard and plywood; poplar and clay; sticks; mud; whatever. In the design world, the technical term for this is a ‘mock-up’. It helps.

it’s a lot faster and cheaper than making it out of mahogany.

Talk to some really first-rate furnituremakers. I’m betting nine out of ten of them use mockups of one sort or other most of the time. In my experience the link between ‘great designer’ and ‘mockups out the wazoo’ is a shocking correlation. Personally, I take that to mean something.

So there you go. Nelson’s Universal Design Method. I named it, so it must be mine – right?

Am I exaggerating here? Yes. A bit.

Not much, really.

Here’s a cool piece from the Popular Woodworking editors’ blog where Brian Boggs discusses design. He’s probably worth listening to.

And if you care for some more detailed – and well-thought-out – ideas on design, Tom over at the Millcrek blog wrote up a really good introduction to design just last week.

And I hope it goes without saying that you might want to read George Walker’s excellent Design Matters blog – incomparable repository for learning the fundamental skills of design (the ‘seeing stuff’ part and the vocabulary) and to get a picture of how to ‘think’ design.



  1. says


    This is a good strategy, one I used for my Windsor-Shaker-Sauer-Richard-Moser inspired dining room chairs, and hey they didn’t suck!! Although that prototype was the son of Frankenstein…

    Hopefully folks will give it a try, but I am still not a plane designer…:-)


  2. says

    Good stuff Raney! And this applies to so much more than just design. Want to learn to build stuff? Then stop waxing philosophical about it and just make something. Want to learn to cook, then get in the kitchen and start cooking. Just like with design, after the first few projects or dishes, you’ll just start to get it. There’s no better teacher than experience.

  3. says

    Excellent post, Raney! There’s so much available about the tools and techniques of woodworking; so little about the tools and techniques of design. Good work!

  4. Jarvil Aluban says

    What a timely post. I’m designing a king size bed at the moment and need all the inspiration I can get. I won’t be able to use your methodology though. I have already vowed to not only never design another king size bed, but also never to build more than one. Do you sell plans by any chance?

  5. says

    @Jarvil Aluban

    ALUBAN! Your pathetic attempts at misdirection are useless here, philistine. The unmistakable stench of the Clan Brickton-Chowles is on you, and trails behind you like a string of mucus.

    Begone! And find the fruit of another man’s labor to pilfer, you drunken sniffer of feeble mogrels’ nether-regions!

    Feel free to call me if you want to order a plane, though.

  6. says

    “Do twenty or thirty every day. Do them on business cards in the doctor’s office. A napkin at the bar. Toilet paper in…”

    I love it! Not only do you give amazing advice but you also accompany it with humor! Please keep them coming 😉

  7. Jim Stuart says

    This is probably the best advice I’ve ever read concerning design. I think we’re ruined early in life when our teachers point out the flaws in our drawings. Design IS work. There IS a method. And it will give you results. Successful designers are usually just the ones who are able to accept both praise and criticism. After living with a design for a while I almost always hit a point where I doubt it’s success. But if you press on and finish, two things will happen. You’ll have the satisfaction of completing something. And you will see that your design does work. You may be anxious to alter it for the next project. But it DID work.

  8. Craig says

    I’ve been getting back into hand tool work for a year and half now, and I’ve spent the past 2 months reading years’-worth of blogs and books to wrap my mind around where I want to take this obsession of mine. This is the best thing I’ve read on both the how-to of design and the mindset needed to make something of all those wishes and if-only’s. Thanks, amigo.


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