This is a repost of an article originally posted on the Little Good Pieces blog on September 7, 2010.
Principles Rather Than Plans
I built a bookcase last month – nothing special, not even worth posting as a Lumberjocks project – just plywood, edge banding, and paint. White paint.
Why even mention it? Because it wasn’t really a bookcase, it was a shoecase. It was sized specifically to hold 24 aftermarket plastic shoe storage boxes for my wife, and it fulfilled this role perfectly. However, if you take away the shoes, it looks like a bookcase.
Basic bookcase construction is relatively simple – Sides and top the same width, shelves to fit within this framework, a back (optional), and some sort of base structure to raise the bottom shelf off the floor. Shelves are commonly set in dadoes, though simple cleats or shelf pins will serve. A back adds much-needed stiffness to prevent racking.
I built the shoecase using these principles and the dimensions of one of the plastic boxes. No plans were used, because none were needed. I decided how many boxes would fit in the allotted space in the closet, added a little clearance space to the top and sides, and decided how far I wanted the bottom shelf off the floor. The thickness of my chosen material (3/4” plywood) and the aforementioned bookcase construction principles determined the rest.
Granted, I’m more experienced than many of you. Additionally, some may find it hard to visualize a project completely in their head. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating paperless woodworking. What I AM doing is urging that you not to be a slave to plans. Don’t misunderstand me – there’s nothing wrong with plans per se. It’s just that many people, especially beginners, feel as though a project can’t be built without a plan provided by someone else.
Plans aren’t sacred – not even Carlyle Lynch’s masterpieces. They are simply a record of the process of creating a framework to enclose a space or support an object, and then embellishing it in a way that pleases the designer. They are the road map of a journey taken by another. Never forget that you can follow a map and still take side trips and detours. A napkin full of notes is just as valid as any plan in a magazine.
The important thing to learn from plans is the PRINCIPLES that go into constructing a certain type of structure. Study plans to learn how different joinery is commonly used, and WHY something is designed the way it is. If you understand wood movement, proportion, and joinery, you become free to employ them however you wish, and plans become simply inspiration rather than dogma. Like a musician – learn to play music, then throw the music books away.
How to begin? Take the plan for your next project and change ONE thing to suit your taste. Anything will do. Maybe it’s the type of edge treatment on a tabletop, or the profile of the skirt on a chest- it doesn’t matter. Just look at the plans and say, “Yeah, it’s cool, but it’d be better if…”, then fill in the blank. It’s like peanuts- once you start, you won’t be able to stop.
Maybe I’ll post that project after all.
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-- Robert - Visit my woodworking blog: http://littlegoodpieces.wordpress.com