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Forum topic by Ron Aylor posted 01-25-2017 08:09 PM 4675 views 2 times favorited 114 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Ron Aylor

2649 posts in 1860 days

01-25-2017 08:09 PM

Topic tags/keywords: plan shop drawing cut list tip question drafting creative visualization

I have read a great number of postings on LJ by folks seeking plans to build this or that, but having no luck finding such. We have in our mind’s eye an image of what we want, but cannot seem to find it on paper, anywhere. Of course not! The project doesn’t exist. Even if we stumble upon a drawing that is similar; it will never be what we have in mind. Worst yet, the “plan” calls for equipment or tools we do not have, or perhaps skills not yet acquired.
A plan, in and of itself, is really nothing more than directions for how a thing is to be built, or a detailed record of how the thing was built. In regards to woodworking, a plan leads to the creation of a cut-list. Ultimately, the cut-list is what we seek. The cut-list answers two important questions. How much lumber do I need to acquire, or perhaps, do I have enough lumber on hand?
As a draftsman in the architectural casework and mill work industries for many years, I produced thousands upon thousands of shop drawings. From simple wall panel systems to the windows in the U.S. Capitol Building, from janitorial closet shelving to executive office furniture. With each and every one of these drawings came a cut-list. Although the drawings remained the same the cut-lists varied from shop to shop. As each shop employed different joinery techniques, they required their own unique cut-list.
For example: what is the length of part B?

We cannot answer the question until we know what the joint between part A and part B will be. For instance, if we use dowels we need a piece 12” long, but if we make a through tenon we’ll need a piece 15” long. Furthermore, if we make simple mortise and tenon joint, the length of the piece could be anywhere between 12” and 15”, depending on the depth of the mortises. Not only do we need to know what joinery, we also need to know what tools are being employed. Are we cutting the parts with hand tools or precisely calibrated machines? Do we leave some waste on the ends to allow for squaring, and if so how much, or are we going to cut square to start with?
So, picture your project in your mind’s eye. Think about the machines and/or tools at your disposal. Imagine all the parts and their placement within the project. Visualize the joinery between the parts. Then, based on the height, width, and depth of the project, determine the dimensions of the individual parts and create a cut-list.
Do you still think you need a plan?
All comments and/or questions welcomed.

EDIT: Please see the Newbie Challenge post #38 in the comments below, I hope those of you new to woodworking will give this a try.


114 replies so far

View WildBillster's profile


8 posts in 1721 days

#1 posted 01-25-2017 08:38 PM

Good advice! Thank you from a newbie

View William Shelley's profile

William Shelley

609 posts in 2682 days

#2 posted 01-25-2017 08:52 PM

I find that I often suffer from “Analysis Paralysis”, where I spend so much time trying to think of how to make something that I never actually get to the part where I start making it.

Alternatively, if I do start making it, the minute that the real project begins to deviate (and it always will) from the “perfect” design I had in my head, I get frustrated and discouraged.

It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of self-reflection to figure out these things. Now, I usually make the project fit the materials I have, within reason. E.g. I look at whatever wood or sheet goods I have on hand and think “what does this want to become?”

-- Woodworking from an engineer's perspective

View MrUnix's profile


8748 posts in 3411 days

#3 posted 01-25-2017 08:57 PM

Never built anything from published ‘plans’... most of my plans are drawn on the back of an envelope or napkin and evolve over the life of the project as needed.


-- Brad in FL - In Dog I trust... everything else is questionable

View Ron Aylor's profile

Ron Aylor

2649 posts in 1860 days

#4 posted 01-25-2017 09:04 PM

... drawn on the back of an envelope or napkin and evolve over the life of the project as needed.


- MrUnix

Brad, I think envelopes and especially napkins simply catch the tears that overflow from the mind’s eye!

View Jeff2016's profile


115 posts in 2077 days

#5 posted 01-25-2017 10:04 PM

+1 for the never used published plans. I just sketch out what my minds eye sees, and work from there. For parts I’m not sure of, I use construction material scraps. If it works I have a template, if not I make the changes needed and feed the scrap to my wood burner.

I’m sure that plans might make the process faster, but I am a hobby wood worker so it’s all just time well spent in the shop to me.

I tried sketchup but I like to spend my limited free time in the shop rather than the office.

-- Proud owner of an electronics free workshop. Please check your cell phone at the door!

View pintodeluxe's profile


6476 posts in 4026 days

#6 posted 01-25-2017 10:15 PM

I like the plan, for me a 3-D rendering, to coexist with the cutlist. I don’t make a separate cutlist, but rather jot the overall length and shoulder-to-shoulder length on the drawing. Since I am only designing for my own needs, it makes it really nice.

Add a few exploded joinery views, and it all makes sense.
I have always been in favor of a detailed plan.


-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View johnstoneb's profile


3175 posts in 3385 days

#7 posted 01-25-2017 10:16 PM

I use sketchup, published plans and the back of an envelope. To me most of the time a plan is merely a guide that I make changes from.
I hope I never get to where I can only follow a plan.

-- Bruce, Boise, ID

View gargey's profile


1013 posts in 1988 days

#8 posted 01-25-2017 10:23 PM

Psh. I plan as I go. One piece at a time.

View GR8HUNTER's profile


8874 posts in 1925 days

#9 posted 01-25-2017 10:25 PM

I never ever follow a plan to the tee …... I am changing it to suit my building capability’s …. and or tools that I own ….. That’s my 4 cents …. :<))

-- Tony---- Reinholds,Pa.------ REMEMBER TO ALWAYS HAVE FUN :<))

View a1Jim's profile


118200 posts in 4789 days

#10 posted 01-25-2017 10:28 PM

I think I may have used someone else’s plans once I usually do a quick hand draw drawing if it’s something I need to keep track of a number of measurements and details but most the time I just get a photo of something similar from my customers and their requirements and build it from there especially if it’s something easy like a table or most case work. My students are always asking for plans or bringing in plans many of them have very poor joinery and designs and are not accurate. Places that have built the project themselves are much more reliable, places like Woodsmith.


View runswithscissors's profile


3133 posts in 3237 days

#11 posted 01-26-2017 01:23 AM

The problem I have with cultists is that they assume that each piece is going to be cut individually out of a board of certain dimensions. But often, one may be buying or working with boards that may be much longer or wider or thicker than the plans require. So the problem becomes how to make use of this material in an efficient way—getting as many pieces out of the stock as possible, while avoiding waste. I realize some people can probably work this way with no difficulty, but my mind doesn’t work like that. So I often make up the plan as I go (after either sketching it out, or with a simple project, planning in my head. Part of that mental process is rehearsing how I will make the individual parts, how to dimension them, and what kind of assembly steps are going to work best.

I become impatient with Fine Woodworking’s step by step plans because they not only tell, but picture, steps that should be self evident. Ex. Measure for and cut the mortices; measure for and cut the tenons. Using appropriate clamps and glue, assemble the parts with the tenons pressed into the mortices. (Not a direct quote, obviously).

Well, duh. How else would you do it?

-- I admit to being an adrenaline junky; fortunately, I'm very easily frightened

View ArtMann's profile


1483 posts in 2028 days

#12 posted 01-26-2017 01:39 AM

Some projects I have taken on in the past were just too difficult or complex to build “by the seat of my pants”. You have to have drawings anyway if you are designing for a customer from a photo or a verbal concept. It is just too risky for them to be able to say “that is not what I had in mind”.

Sketchup has become so familiar to me that it is easier than developing enough details on envelopes or napkins.

View Woodknack's profile


13584 posts in 3592 days

#13 posted 01-26-2017 02:04 AM

Many woodworkers never really learned Woodworking, they learned how to use tools. I learned that projects are a collection of joints and that’s where our education should begin. Traditional joinery accounts for wood movement. Once you understand how to connect the pieces you can build anything. Drawing a plan or sketch helps to save time and reduce waste while allowing design tweaks before bringing blade to wood.

-- Rick M,

View runswithscissors's profile


3133 posts in 3237 days

#14 posted 01-26-2017 02:06 AM

I found myself unable to design the top (main part) of my C-top roll top desk using ordinary methods. The only way I could do it, making sure I had dimensions for the panels right, for example, was to draw it out full size. I then worked from that full size drawing. Even used it as an assembly guide.

-- I admit to being an adrenaline junky; fortunately, I'm very easily frightened

View woodbutcherbynight's profile


10256 posts in 3621 days

#15 posted 01-26-2017 02:40 AM

Never built anything from published plans … most of my plans are drawn on the back of an envelope or napkin and evolve over the life of the project as needed.


- MrUnix

Have to admit I have alot of such drawings laying around the shop. Plans are great and for those that like working with them, more power to ya. Me, the napkin does great and I have had no complaints from anyone I made something for…. LOL. YET.

-- Live to tell the stories, they sound better that way.

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