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

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Forum topic by RonInOhio posted 06-18-2013 07:48 AM 1974 views 0 times favorited 22 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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721 posts in 2916 days

06-18-2013 07:48 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I’m basically a novice, learning things by trial and error. Trying to pick up tips and methods
from reading forums like this one and woodworking magazines. I haven’t gotten into
hard core woodworking projects yet, because I’m still trying to get my shop online.

Been picking up quite a few tools lately as the shop is coming along and should be ready to
start making some projects before too long.

So what I’m finding out about myself so far in this carpentry journey is that I don’t spend a lot of
time planning on paper what I’m about to do.

I basically will visualize what I want to do, and try to use foresight to avoid making costly or time consuming mistakes that have to be corrected.

I have dabbled a bit with a few CAD programs but at the moment still prefer to make rough sketches
and calculations with pencil and paper.

It is a little different with carpentry projects. Mistakes generally, are easier to correct. I suppose that is an arguable point. But general carpentry is pretty much standardized. Basically you decide the dimensions
and go with it.
Depending on the complexity of a given project,as well as the expense of furniture grade lumber, I would imagine it is probably a good practice to be more meticulous about the planning stages for a woodworking project.

Sometimes I start projects without enough detailed planning. Often enough, I find myself redoing something because I wasn’t meticulous enough in my original thought process, and end up having one of those,
“now what do I do” moments, or “I cannot believe I just did that” .

So was curious how my fellow LJ’s execute a project. Do you purchase plans, download freebies ? Or do you draw up your own ?

Do you follow a strict regiment (by the number) or just work out a logical flow of steps needed to
complete a project in your head ?

Or do you just get a general idea and dive head long into it and work out the details as you go along ?

And a final question, are you pleased with your method , and do you generally avoid making mistakes ?

22 replies so far

View pmayer's profile


1028 posts in 3117 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


8078 posts in 3427 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 2100 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 3021 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


5709 posts in 2263 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 3794 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


4853 posts in 3295 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 3177 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


8639 posts in 2894 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 1874 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


9382 posts in 2344 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


10476 posts in 3699 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 2295 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 2566 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


7767 posts in 2965 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..."

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