All Replies on How do you work ? From detailed drawn out plans and sketches,or by rote ?

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View RonInOhio's profile

How do you work ? From detailed drawn out plans and sketches,or by rote ?

by RonInOhio
posted 06-18-2013 07:48 AM

22 replies so far

View pmayer's profile


1028 posts in 3065 days

#1 posted 06-18-2013 08:56 AM

I generally sketch out what I am going to do ahead of time, in varying levels of detail depending upon the complexity of the project. For simple projects I am inclined to just dive in and start experimenting. For larger projects I will sketch out a scale drawing, develop a cut list and for projects with a lot of sheet goods a cut diagram as well.

I rarely work from other people’s plans. I am not opposed to it, but I just find that I don’t enjoy it as much.

As far as method, I am not very regimented. I just follow a flow that makes sense to me at the time for a given project. Overall I guess this approach works well enough, but I’m sure I could do better with more discipline and consistency. And to your final question, I would NOT say that I am good at avoiding mistakes. I have become decent at fixing them, but avoiding them is unfortunately not my thing.

-- PaulMayer,

View knotscott's profile


8016 posts in 3375 days

#2 posted 06-18-2013 09:00 AM

Pretty much ditto what pmayer said. I’ve never worked from purchased plans, but generally sketch out something to go by depending on the project.

-- Happiness is like wetting your pants...everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth....

View Dave G's profile

Dave G

332 posts in 2048 days

#3 posted 06-18-2013 09:18 AM

The two guys ahead of me said it pretty well for me too.

I have purchased plans and don’t enjoy those projects as much as the ones I find a nice solution for. It feels like I’m “machining the wood.” But there are times I just want to cut chips and following plans is great for that.

I won’t avoid mistakes until that time when I can see all and predict the future. The more I do it the more mistakes I’m able to head off.

-- Dave, New England - “We are made to persist. that's how we find out who we are.” ― Tobias Wolff

View 404 - Not Found's profile

404 - Not Found

2544 posts in 2969 days

#4 posted 06-18-2013 09:58 AM

Things will change if you start making stuff for paying customers. You need to have drawings then for client approval.
If you are discussing a job with a client it’s useful to sketch up a basic outline of what will work while you are there – just to make sure you have interpreted the clients wishes correctly. That will get developed a bit using pencil and paper until it’s ready for a full size working drawing on the computer – just front and side elevations, if there’s curved pieces involved I can print off the curved section to use for template making. I don’t dimension every last little detail, things like tenons and grooves get worked out while doing the job.

View JayT's profile (online now)


5633 posts in 2211 days

#5 posted 06-18-2013 01:21 PM

Depends on the project. Some are just done from the images in my head (they are generally much more helpful than the voices in my head, but that is a different thread topic) while others will have anything ranging from a few quick lines sketched on a post-it note to a full on SketchUp drawing. I find this helpful for both avoiding pitfalls and for planning out lumber purchases. My shop is too small to keep much stock on hand, so a sketch to at least plan a cut list is very useful.

The last time I used someone else’s plans for a project was middle school shop class, it is much more fun to come up with the possibilities on my own. That, to me, is part of what makes woodworking a creative process, whereas going 100% off ready made plans is a re-creative process.

-- In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Thomas Jefferson

View Toolz's profile


1004 posts in 3742 days

#6 posted 06-18-2013 01:29 PM

Pretty much a wing and a prayer after I do a rough sketch. I need reading glasses so measuring has been a real pain in the butt ‘till I remembered I had an Opti-Visor and lo and behold once I found it again it was the same strength as my readers are and I can flip it up and down as needed.

-- Larry "Work like a Captain but Play like a Pirate!"

View MrRon's profile


4770 posts in 3243 days

#7 posted 06-18-2013 01:44 PM

I design all my projects using Autocad©; only because I had to learn it for my job. Before that, I did it all using pencil and paper. CAD is the way to go. It makes designing easy and interesting at the same time. With me, designing with Autocad is a hobby in itself. You might want to check out “Sketch Up”. along with other free CAD programs available.

View EPJartisan's profile


1118 posts in 3125 days

#8 posted 06-18-2013 01:52 PM

Since I am a sculptor, I draw and plan, draw and plan.. research other people solutions and ideas… draw and plan. Computers have their place in my shop, but I can and love to draw by hand and make changes on the fly.. and see the object in my mind from all angles far easier and better than I can with CAD. Usually, I make a rough scale mock-up model out of wood or cardboard to test out proportions and shapes.. which helps me plan out joinery and assembly issues.

Then I forgot about it for a week.. I like to let things grow in my subconscious… later I come back and draw and plan some more, and test out some methods. Since my back ground is Industrial Design, I have conditioned myself to me as perfect in each stage as I can. No matter what, one will make mistakes. IMO, it is a “master” who can hide them all.

Then I pick out the wood, finding the right wood is a pain… I have a lot, but it seems I always need more wood.. I need that perfect figure, to match the design… which even for all the drawings and planning still pretty much exists in my head more than on paper. Then I plan out my cuts.

I do not fear mistakes, I view them as my subconscious telling me to alter my plans. I take each mistake, each “oh crap” and use it to make the piece better…. so After this.. it’s like falling into the pool I was testing with my foot. Time to fly… and I go go go. I can get paralyzed when I hit a mistake or unplanned moment.. but that is part of the fun for me. Do testing of the process or material… find the solution.. and move on.

The biggest difference between me and a cabinet maker, is that the cabinet is eventually finished. In sculpture, I have to choose when I am finished… and the possibility of overworking can ruin a piece just as dropping it off a roof. So I guess my process is to prepare my instincts as much as possible and let my skills and talent flow.

-- " 'Truth' is like a beautiful flower, unique to each plant and to the season it blossoms ... 'Fact' is the root and leaf, allowing the plant grow and bloom again."

View DocSavage45's profile


8559 posts in 2842 days

#9 posted 06-18-2013 01:59 PM

Sounds like you are at the beginning? Carpentry and cabinetry are different animals. Still animals but different. You have to know yourself and your tools, because they are your extensions. When building a carpentry project I have job site tools. Heavy duty circular saw, Saw horses, and my tool tote. A saber saw, straight edges and good measuring tools.

Now I’m in my shop and I’m working with a band saw, cabinet saw, drill press, etc. Guess my router is more of a furniture tool?

I’ve worked with fellow woodworkers in building buildings or projects. Depends on whether it’s theirs or mine?

I’ve been doing carpentry, maintenance and building structures for some time. I can wire, plumb, and do a foundation to set my building on.

If it’s a new project? I make mistakes as I’ve not been down that road before. If it’s a new tool? I make mistakes until I figure it out. Information of which I have plenty( Books, DVD’s and fellow LJ’s) is still information until I figure it out, I have to practice first. Make a prototype or copy another project. Learn how that new jig works?

My day job (which is not working with wood) is about the process of learning and doing, and doing it different. Knowing how we learn. Some people have to do it first. some people read, and watch first. some have to translate what they hear into an action.

James Krenov wrote some great books about his process and feelings as well as how too? Jim Post takes a different approach. Both have something to offer. Marc Adams puts his projects on a piece of 1/4 inch 4ft x 8 ft to see how they will look in real life. Norm Abrams built a full size prototype. Others make 1/2 size Models to get a 3D feel and not waste material in a new design.

I’m spending way too much time in thinking with words, I have to visualize what my actions will be today! LOL!

Know yourself and your tools. Remember you will never be finished, it’s only a step in the process. And I always make mistakes! LOL!

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View GerardW's profile


44 posts in 1822 days

#10 posted 06-18-2013 04:19 PM

I too am a new/novice/amateur woodworker. I have a background in theatre set construction… though I was originally trained as an actor. Part of the requirements for my acting scholarship was that I had to help out with tech stuff, and I found myself in love with working in the shop. Lots of building 4×8 platforms from cheap wood, then painting to cover the imperfections. Everything we built there was designed very meticulously in the groundplan (i.e. where it will sit on stage and how people will look at it) but the specifics of HOW to construct it were often left to the shop foreman and many a blank piece of printer paper handed to a drill-monkey. Also, this stuff was all intended to look good from 25 feet away and last for a max of one month before it fell apart.

That process is decidedly different than the woodworking I’ve come to enjoy. Even when I got my own theatre shop to manage (two years at a university) I only moved to using Google SketchUp (free 3d design program) to put together the working drawings and help me figure out board feet for my lumber orders. Although when it came to building the stuff I still ended up printing those pages out, bringing them into the shop… and often changing them with pencil marks.

The woodworking projects I’ve done in my garage shop so far have moved from following online how to’s (sometimes so strictly following what the original poster did that I abandon all reason and common sense), to Wood magazine projects (still enjoy those, and modify them to be more what I’m looking for) and now i am working on my first project for a “client” (friend wanted a coffee table). This project I have designed in sketchup and sent to her for approvals, and updated as changes were made. However…. now the sketchup is out of date and the table is almost made. At this point I don’t need the plans any longer.

I see the point about “machining the wood”, but as a newbie I like to have something to follow- it helps me build up my skills in “safe” ways, and still gives me a decent product at the end to show for it.

Plus- thanks to LJ for all the guidance and keeping me from totally screwing up some of my personal projects!

-- Gerard in Bowie MD

View Mosquito's profile


9305 posts in 2292 days

#11 posted 06-18-2013 04:25 PM

For me, sometimes half the fun is designing something up in Sketchup. I pretty much never do it exactly to the drawings. I mostly use sketchup to visualize it and make sure proportions and stuff look right. Otherwise I mostly wing it from there. I don’t print out the drawings or go back and reference it much at all

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View Loren's profile


10401 posts in 3648 days

#12 posted 06-18-2013 04:40 PM

Depends on the complexity and tolerances of the project.

Simple things I often build from a rough dimensioned

When you’re learning be vigilant about measuring twice
and cutting once. Make sure you understand the
reason for the specific dimensions of a given part,
how it fits with the others. If you make a part too
short you’ve made an error that is not easy to correct –
so you learn to hold off on final crosscuts for awhile
as the entirety of the build takes shape in your mind.

View sixstring's profile


296 posts in 2243 days

#13 posted 06-18-2013 04:55 PM

I stare at a piece of wood. Then I stare at it some more. Eventually, my eyes hurt and my brain is full of ideas and I start sketching. This usually involves a little additional staring at the wood.

If I look a piece of wood in the eye, errrr… knot, long enough, sometimes it winks and let’s me build something memorable. The more inspired I get, the less planning is needed and I enter a certain state of grace when it comes to wood.

Then I put the pipe down and start fixing the mistakes I may have made along the way. The things you can learn by fixing your own mistakes… seriously it’s priceless.

-- JC Garcia, Concord, CA : "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission..."

View Tennessee's profile


2873 posts in 2514 days

#14 posted 06-18-2013 06:02 PM

Many, many moons ago, (1971, to be exact), I started doing commissions. I would hand draw the piece for the customer usually in front of the customer. Measurements were taken, and I went from there. Wood was fairly cheap, and I wasted a lot of it.

A few years later, I got into refinishing, which often caused me to have to make a leg, a handle, maybe a new door. I learned to take exact measurements off of other pieces and learned not only how to build a duplicate, but finish it exactly the same. Big learning curve and it still pays off today.

Then I got into storyboards, mostly due to Norm Abrahm’s show. I didn’t care much for storyboards, although they do have their place. My shop started to fill up with storyboards, and one day I just chucked them all and stopped using storyboards save for duplication on a lathe.

After that came making furniture from other people’s plans. Not a bad idea, since you have to translate what they were thinking into a workable piece. But plans from others are somewhat boring, like following a simple puzzle, and often you find mistakes in the plans.

Now, I am to the point where I often sit in my recliner at night and sketch out something that should not be buildable in wood, then sketch out how I am going to build it complete with measurements. I don’t use the computer, too time consuming and too rigid for me. I prefer pencils and big erasers. And I often take some liberty in the shop with these sketches, since I thought it up, and I want to maximize my wood use and minimize waste. I also will change the plan if I find that I can optimize a wonderful wood grain I find. More artistic than functional, at times.

So kind of an evolution…

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View HorizontalMike's profile


7757 posts in 2914 days

#15 posted 06-18-2013 06:33 PM

All of my home decking projects and my astronomical observatory were all done freehand with little to no drawn plans other than some lumber estimates.

However, when it comes to my LJs woodworking, I like to follow posted/published plans, mainly because my interests are in early pieces of furniture such as:

I love the old stuff and have no problem replicating furniture from a bygone era using published plans. Sure, I will make some minor joinery modifications based upon the tools I currently own and my preferred joinery techniques, but by and large I try to support those who publish WW plans. I feel it is important to support WW-ing in general by giving credit to those who spend so much time designing and publishing all things WW-ing.

OK, I do take more leeway in building jigs and do make more modifications on my jigs than I do on other projects. ;-)

-- HorizontalMike -- "Woodpeckers understand..."

View Dave Rutan's profile

Dave Rutan

1707 posts in 2188 days

#16 posted 06-18-2013 06:41 PM

For smaller items, I usually work off a sketch showing the finished piece with measurements drawn in. A few of my larger projects, I. E. our kitchen book case, I drew in AutoCAD to accurately space the shelves. For the Adirondack chairs I built, I got a Norm Abram book fro the library and followed his plans. Other things I will do on the fly with a sort of ‘cut to fit’ attitude. I do this especially with prototypes. Once I get things figured out, I’ sketch a drawing for next time.

-- Ni faru ion el ligno!

View crank49's profile


4030 posts in 2971 days

#17 posted 06-18-2013 07:24 PM

Been working with AutoCad since 1983 on a daily basis so it’s like an extension of my brain by now.
As an artist (I design and carve jewelry), as an engineer I am obsessed with design and mechanics.
So, as you might guess, I work from plans. At least to start with.
I do have the ability to visualize a project in my head and I will create a design mentally before I go to cad, but there will be drawings to work from.

Now, when something needs a little tweaking, I may wing it, or I may work out the solution on the computer. In wood, everything needs some adjustment somewhere, sooner or later.

View Douglas's profile


424 posts in 2560 days

#18 posted 06-18-2013 07:38 PM

Ron—you said “I haven’t gotten into hard core woodworking projects yet, because I’m still trying to get my shop online.”—you’re ready now. Go make projects, your shop will never be done.

I am pretty good with Sketchup, and have used it for a few projects, but it is usually too abstract from a real piece, and I end up wasting time on it. It was vital when I designed and built cabinets for my kitchen, but for furniture projects and smaller items, its overkill. I’ve been getting into sketching things out by hand, and then doing full scale drawings of certain parts or profiles. That really helps me figure out if I have proportions and curves correct. One of my future projects will be a drawing table. I also sometimes build mock ups to get a feel for a piece. You can see my table mock up I did recently, as well as some full size sketched I did for that same table here.

-- Douglas in Chicago -

View JAAune's profile


1799 posts in 2317 days

#19 posted 06-18-2013 08:03 PM

I generally have every bit of wood and even the hardware modeled in Sketchup prior to ordering materials or cutting any wood. I’d estimate that the details are 95% complete at this point. During the project I’ll often see some things that need improving and I’ll go back and redo the drawings to reflect those changes. Those computer drawings are my future reference material when I want to reuse a special technique in a future project.

I’m usually ordering a lot of specialty materials for a project and can’t guarantee myself that I will be able to use leftovers any time soon. For this reason, I avoid ordering more than I need to and thus require an accurate bill of materials prior to placing orders.

An added benefit is that I generally don’t have to mess with full-sized drawings or mockups once I finish with Sketchup. If I need the full-sized drawings I’ll just have them printed. Mockups aren’t needed because I can usually test the function of hardware and joinery on the computer.

-- See my work at and

View MrRon's profile


4770 posts in 3243 days

#20 posted 06-18-2013 10:31 PM

Ron in Ohio, One of the best uses of a CAD program, is the ease of making changes. For example, I design something and then go looking for the wood to make it. I can’t find a piece of wood that is the right size, so knowing the dimensions of the wood I have on hand, I can modify my drawing to accomodate the wood I have. This saves me from having to buy more wood. Many times, modifying a dimension just a 1/4” can save me from buying another piece of wood. I may have a design that I can cut from a 4×8 sheet of plywood. By modifying the design a little, I can get all the pieces from one sheet with little waste.

View firefighterontheside's profile


18202 posts in 1856 days

#21 posted 06-18-2013 11:41 PM

For big projects I typically draw a scale drawing and then write up a cut plan to determine how much material I need. I have used a few plans in the past, but that was for adirondack chairs and early in my “career” before I had made very many cabinets.

-- Bill M. "People change, walnut doesn't" by Gene.

View RonInOhio's profile


721 posts in 2864 days

#22 posted 06-19-2013 01:46 AM

Fantastic info guys and gals. Very good indeed.

I will try to answer a few questions directed at my initial post .

@Douglas. .. Believe me I am chomping at the bit to get started with some furniture projects.
My shop though is currently getting built. I am able to get in there and do a few things related to
my current project, (building a lean-to for lumber, ladders, sheet-goods.)

This lean-to has taken more time than I originally thought it would. Actually, its taking up all of my available time. But I’m wrapping it up. Just need to finish the doors and trim.

It doesn’t end there. I still have phase II of my expansion to complete. The lean-to was really
not in the immediate plans, but decided to go ahead and build it. I still have recently purchased
tools with no cabinet to put them on. So lots on my plate right now. But I hear ya. The shop is
always in some sort of transition.

@MrRon…. Very good point with planning out the cutlist and maximizing what you get out of the wood.
It gives one a good feeling to save wood and to maximize usage of a sheet of material. Be it ply or whatever.

@HorizonalMike… I love your passion. Some really great execution on those projects. And great workbench by-the-way!

To everyone else. Very good and interesting responses. I plan on using a combination of these great
suggestions. To some extent I already do.

Thanks for all the input.

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