From the "Little Good Pieces" Blog Archives #1: Principles Rather Than Plans

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Blog entry by TheGravedigger posted 10-02-2010 01:10 PM 1147 reads 0 times favorited 1 comment Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of From the "Little Good Pieces" Blog Archives series Part 2: Seeing the Fangs »

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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1 comment so far

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312 posts in 2850 days

#1 posted 10-02-2010 03:21 PM

Great post. I see eye to eye with you about being a slave to plans. I’m new to this site as well as woodworking so I don’t have all my projects posted yet. However one of my first projects was a small shoe rack to sit at the bottom of my closet. I did look around for plans but couldn’t find any I like and just winged it. I did draw out one or two items because I just couldn’t picture what I wanted without seeing it first. But I did not draw out the whole project. I’ve been building for years (in the metal) and must say that being able to build on your own (no plans) is a real advantage if you are in the trades. The personal projects that I have built according to plan usually end up being changed a bit in order to accommodate my personal need. I believe everyone can benefit as much from building without a plan as they can building from a plan.
Thanks for your post.

-- If you want it and it's within reason... It's on it's way!

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