How many of you LumberJocks build prototypes before committing to the final project?

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Blog entry by Don posted 01-26-2007 05:57 AM 1219 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch

A few years back, I took an introductory woodworking course. I actually found it very frustrating, because I was impatient to get my hands on some tools and learn the skills of woodworking.

The first four weeks were spent designing our projects. Now I am certainly not against designing, but I didn’t sign up for a design course – I just wanted to make something. But the instructor insisted that it was better to make my mistakes on the paper, rather than with wood. And he was correct to a great extent. I think I generated as much eraser dust as I do sawdust. But I just wanted to make something.

Then the next four weeks was spent making a scale model of my ‘design’ using pine. As my project was an end table, I convinced the instructor I should make it full size. I enjoyed this exercise, but found it terribly frustrating. I didn’t want a pine end-table. I wanted one in Walnut. I’m not convinced the prototype taught me anything, other that I didn’t like the table. So perhaps that was a worthwhile step – in fact, I decided that I wouldn’t make the table that I had ‘designed’ – actually it was a copy of tables I had seen, so it’s probably not fair to say I designed the table. After all, it differs in no detail from your average table.

Well, eight weeks later, by the time I had finished the prototype to which I did not apply a finish, I ran out of time. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but I wasn’t motivated to make a piece of pine junk. When I argued with the instructor that I simply wanted to purchase a set of plans and build something, you’d have thought I was about to commit the unpardonable sin. And every time he looked at me after that discussion, I felt his disdain. I’m sure that he thought I was some lesser form of woodworker – perhaps a sawer’s helper or something.

But now I’ve been at this for a few years, I realize that good quality workers of wood often, if not usually, build prototypes. My buddy Philip Edwards does.

So, here’s my question. How many of you LumberJocks build prototypes before committing to the final project?

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

16 comments so far

View Karson's profile


35032 posts in 3817 days

#1 posted 01-26-2007 06:08 AM

Don: I make my prototypes out of the final wood, and then I keep it. I do sometimes make full size pattern on Plywood so that I can verify the spacing between drawers etc and overall dimensions. As you might remember on the two doll cradles I was not too happy with the rockers. I do need to redesign them if I make they again. But all of the full size baby cradles were onetime shots. And each one of the first three were all different. The fourth was the same as the previous one. (that one was the one that my wife wanted and was the first LumberJocks contest winner). By the way I believe that the next Feb/March issue of Woodcraft Magazine is suppose to have a full page spread on that cradle.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View dataman's profile


85 posts in 3688 days

#2 posted 01-26-2007 06:59 AM

I have never made a model yet but I am anticipating building a floor standing lamp with gently curving stem so I will start with a small carving model and then a full-scale paper (grid-ed) design model. I may even build a full-scale model out of pine to verify the shape and laminating forms etc. Will save the cost of mistakes with more expensive wood as well. Needless to say this will take a while. My wife and I have finally decided on a design. It will include two tables at different levels. Since out house is all curves we thought it would fit in well.

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 3716 days

#3 posted 01-26-2007 07:01 AM

Hi Don,
The beginning of your story reminded me about my boys’ when they were about 10 years old. They were all excited to go to a baseball clinic being held by the head coach of the University of Minnesota. What a bummer, they told me they stood in line all day waiting for their turn at bat, & other routine basics. After attending that clinic, they set there gloves aside, & forgot about organized baseball, & chose playing in the backyard with their friends instead.
Oh by the way, I never make a prototype, I jump into the real thing. The time wasted I could make something else.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 3654 days

#4 posted 01-26-2007 08:37 AM

Sorry, but who has time for all that preperation. Someone comes at me with an Idea and I have to surf the net for ideas and then get on the project. I dont have time to build some proto-type. My customers want this stuff yesterday

View Philip Edwards's profile

Philip Edwards

244 posts in 3856 days

#5 posted 01-26-2007 09:24 AM

Hey Don!
Interesting story, and one that most woodies can relate to. You just want to get stuck in when you are learning and make some sawdust!
Recently I have starting using a program called Sketchup, a 3d cad program. It is free from Google and is just wonderful for designing furniture. Unlike most cad programs it is very intuitive to use.
I design all my furniture using it, now . The advantage is that you can”walk” around the piece and look at it in 3D. It is amazing how different a plan looks in 3D. It has helped me a lot and when the piece is finally built it normally has a better proportioned look.
I often mock up parts of a project now, like a section of molding or a difficult joint. Then I get stuck in!
A saying that has stuck with me is this: ”A badly made good design is always better than a well made bad design”.
It’s true, you know ;)
Best regards

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 3654 days

#6 posted 01-26-2007 09:36 AM

And on the 8th day God created fire … for badly made OR badly designed projects

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2008 posts in 3822 days

#7 posted 01-26-2007 03:51 PM

I’ve been reading a little here the last few days, but not taking time to write. I will break the silence while the shop is warming up.

I think I have read over the years that nearly every major studio furniture maker/designer used small scale models for their design work. I have never done it, although I have considered it. This seems to be when they are trying to build a new, original design.

The only time I have done a full scale prototype was for my dining chairs I made last summer. I built it out of construction lumber and the joinery was just sheet rock screws. I wanted it full size so that the customer could approve/disapprove the seating position and lumbar support before going to work on the real chairs. This worked great, and I would do it again for a chair.

As for making a prototype of a table, or something that was easily seen in photographs, or plans, I would not do a prototype.

I grew up in a home with a woodshop teacher for a dad, and he tended to take the opposite approach with me as your teacher did. He wanted me to just do it, not spend time drawing and doing cut lists, and so much planning. I think it fit me best, and I still tend to only do napkin sketches of concepts only.

I think a teacher should foremost figure out what the student is trying to learn first, and then adapt the style to the student, not the other way around. I was completely bored for 2 years of shop class in High School, as the teacher had to allow everyone to move at the same speed. My last two years of shop class were different, and we were allowed to move more at our own speed.

Some people are able to visualize with their mind in 3-d, while others are not able to do that. I have learned that customers can vary widely in their ability to grasp my hand waiving and pointing, and verbal descriptions. Some, will nod, and add their finger to the pointing, while others look completely lost. It is for those folks that I do the scaled drawings, and even then some have a hard time seeing the real project in their mind from the 3-view drawing. Then, I try to do quick 3-d orthographic sketches to help them see the drawing in perspective. At some point, I think I might be using CAD to do all of this work, but for now it is pencil and sketch pad. I think it is more romantic anyway.

I enclosed a sketch I did yesterday for customer approval to show the style of planning that I do. When I get the customer’s approval, I go straight to the wood starting with the boards that will most define the project first, such as the main carcass. Then, as it progress, I do the cutting of the more refined parts to fit the carcass. I won’t take time to do a scaled drawing and cutting list and joinery detail, but I am sure that my work would benefit if I did some times.

This project is a podium I am building to match the church altars I am working on now. It is my design, but with historical details of the church’s interior and the existing old altars included, so that it all matches.

I can sketch this up, scan it, email it, and get their response right away. I like having the approval before the wood is cut, it frees me to work, and not worry about what they will think along the way. Without their approval, I tend to wonder throughout a project if they would like it “this way” or “that way”. It slows me down, and I find the worrying wears me out also. When I am building something I want to build, such as my Nakashima-Inspired coffee table, I did exactly what I wanted to do, and it was a blast. I built it for sale, but so far it is still in my living room (to be continued).

For my concept sketches, I have not used any straight edges to do the drawing, and it has not been done to scale, and it looks like it leans a little. I am trying to capture concepts, not details in this style of sketching ideas into a page. I also include breakout details where I might want to try another idea, or change something in the sketch.

I think a person that is doing woodworking should do whatever makes them comfortable with their design. Some of us are more fly-by-the-seat type people, while others are very detailed, and have each tool hung on its own hook. I have seen people that have spent hundreds of hours organizing their shops, but they never build anything in it. I learned after seeing this several times over the years, that the “shop” was the “project” and so I don’t say anything like, “don’t you think you ought to build something in here?” This understanding allows me to enjoy their tour giving without my envy/coveting surfacing.

I have seen some beautiful woodworking done on ugly pieces before, so I think proportion is probably the first and foremost that could be accomplished with scale model.

Now, for the “wasting good wood” decision point:
What good is wood that sits in a guy’s woodshop storage area and is sold by his kids at his estate auction? None! I read an article several years ago that contrasted the differences between an artist and an engineer. To make a long story short, the artist doesn’t care about cost of material or effort required to complete their vision. An engineer weighs the costs in material and time, and adapts their vision to accomodate the constraints. The article said that most woodworkers are “engineers” and so they never actually let themselves accomplish what is in the hearts.

I read that article and recognized the ultra-engineer in me, and made the decision to change that day, about 8 years ago now. I think my work is much better for the decision, and now I look back on the projects I did 9+ years ago and I remember all of the compromises I did throughout the project to speed it up, or save material, or avoid learning a new technique. I decided “that” day to never do it again. I was so excited, I went to my dad’s house and explained the article and what I had learned from it. He listened patiently until I was finished, which was quite awhile. At the end, he only had one thing to say, “I am still holding onto the scraps of wood that were left from a project I did in college, guess I should quit saving them, and get to making something with them.” It seemed that the article was freeing to both of us. I have succeeded to some degree toward that goal, although money can still be an issue for me.

I sometimes have to educate customers on cost. People will ask me if changing to Pine would make the project cheaper. I have to explain that in most cases the cost of the actual wood is insignificant to the total cost of the project. The labor hours so badly out pace the material cost, that it really doesn’t matter. With that, I will explain that there are woods that are expensive, such as figured hard maple, or exotic woods, but for the most part, it won’t matter whether we use pine, poplar, walnut, red oak, white oak, etc. I do have different costs of labor associated with using different woods though, as some are easier to work with, take stain better, and things like that. But, for the most part, I don’t worry about material costs much, I just try to accomplish what “we” are after. The labor costs seems to always be the clincher, deal-no-deal for most of the people I quote work to, not the material.

I’ll be interested to read what the rest of you do with your planning and designs,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 3654 days

#8 posted 01-26-2007 03:59 PM

Maybe thats why I don’t make prototypes, Mark. I usually look at a picture, scribble the measuements down on paper and do the rest of it in my head. Since, at-this-time, everything I make is the first time I’ve ever made them, the people that buy things from me, understand that I’m “practicing” on them and would probably prefer that I practice on someone else first. When I made the DVD Cabinet, my wife told me that she didn’t want the first one. She knew that there were going to be flaws. I’m sure that after I’m at this for a couple of years I’ll be able to do good work the first time around. Til then, I’m just going to have fun.

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 3731 days

#9 posted 01-26-2007 09:13 PM

Seems like an interesting forum Don. I will sometimes draw a full scale drawing on particle board. I do rough mock ups as I go because I’m always changing sizes, materials, and form. I’ve actually started a table and ended up with a cabinet. I work with cheap wood most the time, not some rare southern beauty like some people get to play with. Lots of time what looks great on paper does not transmit to a great looking piece of woodwork. I see my work as the prototype always ready to build another one even better than the last.

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 3594 days

#10 posted 01-27-2007 12:01 AM

Quote Dennis: ”I’ve actually started a table and ended up with a cabinet.”

LOL Reminds me of the story of the guy who after building a small dinning table, found the legs were uneven so tried to level it by shortening the long legs. He ended up with a coffee table.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 3744 days

#11 posted 01-27-2007 04:53 AM

I’ve generally worked small projects from my mind, evolving as I go. I’ve always tended to be able to work conceptually like that. However, on the Pub Table I made in a class we had to do full-size drawings, and I’m glad I did. I was able to see how everything fit together, and the relationship of the pieces before I got started. It was hard to “translate it” into 3D, and some things did evolve as I went, but for the most part I was able to work from the plan, and having done one, I think the work went much faster. 30 hours of class time, plus a couple weekends for assembly and finishing at home – a far cry from the 100-500 hour projects that grace Fine Woodworking.

For the creche I made this november, I sold the customer on a couple of rough sketches, and then went home to do up full size drawings to work out the joinery details and figure out my cutlists etc. What I ended up with was much better than if I just winged it based on the thumbnails. While I did spend days agonizing over the dimensions and details, while trying to have a good design, as well as minimize the materials I’d need to purchase/waste…
getting the lumber prepped was a breeze with the full size sketches done, however the assembly took longer than I had anticipated, primarily because the joinery was much more complicated than anything I’d attempted before, and I didn’t do any physical tests, just sketches.
I will someday (depending on the project) make a prototype. I’ve ready about woodworkers who make a test piece in pine (or whatever) to work out the bugs, and another who builds his prototype just one step ahead in the process (the technique I”d be more likely to adopt).
small models might work for some people, but I’m sure I’d make full size tests. Artists (sculptors) make 1/2 size maquettes when submitting a design for a sculpture, but even I would have a hard time visualizing how details and proportions could change with the increase in scale, and I may not be happy with the result.

Trying to keep a balance between artist and engineer seems like it could be a toughie for us!

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Dollarbill's profile


91 posts in 3555 days

#12 posted 01-27-2007 05:05 AM

For the past 10 years I have always made a prototype. I use the wood that I plan to use on the final project and 99.9% of the time I don’t have to build final project. Who’s got time, I’m over 60 already.

-- Make Dust

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 3594 days

#13 posted 01-27-2007 05:10 AM

Well,so am I – that another way of looking at it. Only build prototypes, then you won’t have to worry about building the final piece.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 3654 days

#14 posted 03-17-2007 04:07 AM

the guy’s lucky he got a coffee table. Normally when one starts cutting on one leg and then the other and then he has … fire wood.

View rentman's profile


230 posts in 3511 days

#15 posted 03-17-2007 03:00 PM

I agree with Mark maybe a chair,but nut a table,hutch,cabinet or any thing like that.Some of the greatest work has came from mess ups…Beside who has the time,not me.

-- Phil, Chattanooga,TN

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