This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next month, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
(Updated July 2023)
Introduction to Project Planning
It is very important to have a plan when you are starting out, and it is a good practice to get things right on paper before you head out into the shop. Not only will you have a higher chance of success, you will also not run the risk of ruining several nice pieces of wood on something that did not work.
There are two extremes when it comes to planning, and it is best to land somewhere in the middle. There are people that plan a lot, and get every little detail perfect before they go into the shop.
Then, there are people that go out there and wing the entire process, and make several mistakes along the way. In the beginning, you will not be able to just start building a project without a plan, so finding the happy place in between those two examples is the way to go.
Even the most seasoned of woodworkers at least have an informal plan before they start cutting. This can be as simple as a design drawn out on a piece of paper with a few loose dimensions. The plan may not be super concrete, but a good woodworker can overcome that and not make too many mistakes in the process.
As beginners, the more you take out of your head and put onto paper the better off you will be. It’s going to be hard enough to fight your tools in the beginning, let alone if you have to fight your brain to remember your idea too.
My dad and I are very different when it comes to planning, but I have learned over the years to move a little closer to his method of designing things. He still spends more time planning than I do, but I am still a work in progress myself.
The following is a story about my old method of making something, and how my dad is still teaching me lessons.
If my father and I were both given a project, and three days to complete it, we would have vastly different experiences in the shop. My father would spend the first two days planning everything out on paper.
He would get all the measurements in place, and check everything. Any problems in the design would be diagnosed and fixed with his pencil, and on the third day he would go into the shop and build the project exactly right on the first try.
I on the other hand would have done it in a completely different way. I would have a loose idea of what I wanted to build and just start right away. Over the course of those three days I would make the project and fix the inevitable errors I made due to not having a plan.
At the end of the third day I would have a working project, but I would have wasted more materials and time in the shop than my father.
Over the years I have learned that planning is an essential part of building a project. It has been through frustration, wasted materials, and ruined projects that I have learned this hard lesson.
I still do not plan to nearly the extent that my father does, but he has more of an ability to visualize things than I do, so it’s easier for him to fix things on paper without actually seeing the project in real life.
Now that I have been a firm believer in good planning for a long time, my woodworking has improved as a result. The projects that I make are more thought out, and they are more cohesive.
When you team up planning with good research and inspiration, you can really create something beautiful. It’s in the combination of the three that you come up with a solid idea, and a stable design.
Planning can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be, but in the beginning you really need to shoot for something more structured. The more you can get on paper, the better off your project will be.
After a while, you may end up keeping the same strategy, or lessening the amount of planning to suit your current skill level. Either way you go, having a plan makes a difference.
Once you have an idea, begin sketching it out. You do not have to be an artist to make this work, nor does the piece need to be to scale in the beginning. Start by drawing the piece from a few different angles, and adding measurements to the plan as you go.
Most drawings will have a front, side, and top view at a minimum. These views help you see the project on paper, and understand what the cuts and materials are going to look like that bring it to life.
If you have trouble with scale, you can use graph paper and it will help you draw it with the right proportions. You can decide based on the size of the project how long one square on the paper will be in real life.
For a smaller project, you may be able to use one square as one inch. For larger projects, one square may be three inches. This kind of drawing helps with seeing the piece in the final size.
You may discover that when you draw it out to scale, that you thought the design would be taller or wider than it looks. This drawing and planning phase now gives you the ability to make those changes to the dimensions, and draw the piece again.
Once you are satisfied with the drawing, and you have made a scale rendering if needed, you can now focus on the dimensions, and making sure they are correct.
Go over them a couple times, and check for areas where the joinery affects the length of the pieces. Make sure that the measurements add up to the correct lengths, and when you are satisfied, you can begin working on a cut list.
A cut list is just a written out plan for the sizes and the number of pieces that you need in order to build the project that you designed. Having a cut list is useful, because it allows you to plan your cuts around the wood you have, and maximize the good pieces while minimizing the waste.
It also helps you when buying wood, because you will tend to buy the right amount more often.
Start by looking at your dimensions for the individual pieces on your drawing, and list them out. Where you have multiples of the same piece, simply write a quantity after you write the dimensions of the piece.
Once you have all of your pieces listed, count them and compare that to the drawing one last time. If the numbers match, you know that you have all of the pieces accounted for.
Use this list when you go shopping, and you will have the right information to buy the correct amount of wood. The cut list will save you time, and save you money. It also gets you in the habit of cutting all of your materials first, and then building the project.
Using this basic planning strategy will help you become more successful at woodworking, because you will understand more about the project before you even begin. Take the time to make a plan, and know that the time you invest here will pay for itself several times in the shop.
Start With a Smaller Project
It is tempting to see some amazing woodworking project and want to jump into it right away. While some people have the ability and the discipline to make this work, most people benefit from starting out with a smaller project or two in the beginning.
Not only will the project be relatively easier, but it can help you build up to the bigger project, and avoid the frustration that can come with biting off more than you can chew.
I’m not telling you that you can’t start out with a whole set of kitchen cabinets, but I recommend starting off with a spare bathroom cabinet as a starter project to practice with.
Unless you are living alone and don’t mind seeing the kitchen in shambles for a long time, you may end up with additional stresses to complete the job on top of learning about woodworking and cabinet making at the same time. This can be a recipe for failure, because outside forces are adding to the stress of learning something new.
Most projects and woodworking types have a smaller project that still fits in line with the discipline that you are trying to learn. It is worth the time to look into this type of starter project, and see if you can successfully complete it before going on to something huge.
In the kitchen cabinet example, you could always do a guest bathroom, or build a set of cabinets for the shop to store your tools. Even if these first few pieces do not end up looking very good, they will still do fine to store tools in the shop. You will love them because you made them, and they will serve a useful purpose even as a practice project.
Another example would be wanting to design and build a complete set of bedroom furniture. You may want to start with a night stand and see how the project develops.
The night stand is one of the smallest pieces in the set, and should be much easier than a larger dresser. It is also made with smaller pieces than a headboard and footboard, so the handling and cutting process will be easier too.
Once you have success making this project, you can turn your attention to the rest of the pieces in the set, and continue down the path to having a complete bedroom set. In this example, you are still doing the same job, but you are intentionally selecting the easiest piece in order to build up to the more difficult pieces.
This strategy works just as well as picking a smaller and less elaborate project, and you can still advance you main agenda at the same time.
The idea behind a smaller project is to build up the demands on your new skills at a reasonable pace. It is very hard to make an ash tray on a lathe and then jump straight to making a three foot tall segmented vase for the entryway in your home.
Smaller projects and bridge projects build your skills, and give you confidence. As you complete these beginner and mid level projects, you are better prepared when the harder projects come along.
Look at what is available to you with the heading that you have chosen for your first few projects. Find a beginner level project, and work on making it the best that you possibly can before you move on to more difficult builds.
Execute a Simple Design Really Well
It is far better to execute a simple design well than to do a poor job on an overly elaborate design. Some disciplines in woodworking may not have a valuable starter project that you can work on before the real thing.
Instrument making is one of these disciplines. If you want to be a violin maker, you are going to have to make a violin. Making a kazoo or a recorder may still be making an instrument, but it is not the same as making a violin, and may not serve you as well when the time finally comes to build that violin.
In a case like this, look for a simple design, and don’t over do it. It can be tempting in the beginning to find an elaborate design and want to throw everything you possibly can into the first build.
This adds difficulty and detail to something that is already going to be stressful to accomplish. Adding weight to the build in the form of complex inlay work, experimental building styles, and difficult joinery just makes everything take longer and become more frustrating.
When I built my first acoustic guitar, I learned this lesson very quickly. In fact, nearly all of the “extras” that I had intended to put on my instrument were deleted along the way because they were all too far over the top.
I ended up with a really rough looking instrument that didn’t sound very good, and it was mostly due to being new. Had I pressed on with all of the detail work that I wanted I would have ended up with a shoddy looking guitar just the same, and it would have taken me far longer for the same result.
Over time, I have been able to add some of these elements to my other instruments, but it has been through practice and knowing when to add new elements that made them successful.
The first few pieces of anything that you build are going to already be a bit more difficult simply due to the fact that you have never built them before.
When you add in other elements that make that process even more complex, you exponentially increase the amount of learning and subsequent frustration that you may experience.
Start with a design that is classic, basic, and is a good representation of the thing you want to make. Spend the time learning the individual construction requirements, and learn how to do the basic process well.
The basic process is what will help you in future builds when you start adding elements of difficulty and skill. Master the basics, and produce the best work that you can in the beginning. Then, look for ways to advance that design, and add in other things that make the build more elaborate.
Be confident in your simple design, because executing a simple design well beats a poorly made complex design any day of the week. When something looks bad, it doesn’t matter how difficult it was to make.
In fact, most people don’t know that one element of woodworking is any harder than another unless they are woodworkers themselves. A simple design done well will always will the favor of onlookers, while an elaborate design done poorly will not get a second look.
Spend Time in the Shop
There is no amount of research, planning, or education that you can get that is better for you and your learning than actually spending time in the shop. Nothing.
The more time you actually spend cutting wood, gluing things, sanding, and finishing, the better you will become. Experience always wins, and through time spent in the shop you can gain that experience quickly.
When I worked as a repair tech for a furniture company, they had a training program that lasted several weeks. In that time, every new employee learned how to repair and re-finish furniture.
The employees that went through the program ranged from having lots of woodworking experience to having zero woodworking experience. The training and the time spent doing the repairs is what made them into excellent techs, and when you think about it, a month of training is not that long.
There is something to be said about being forced to fill a defect, sand it flush, and finish it over and over for 40 hours a week. It really makes you good at filling, leveling, and replacing color on a piece of furniture.
I was really surprised at the quickness that everyone was able to pick up the skills, especially for those that had never done any woodworking in their entire lives. The simple fact that they were made to do it over and over again for so long sped up their progress, and made them better faster.
This goes right back to spending time in the shop. All the reading in the world will only prepare you for the real thing when you finally start making sawdust. Actually making the dust is what will lead to developing the skills that you need to be successful.
As repair techs, we were made to do the same thing over and over until we got it. This practice, repetition, and time spent in the shop vaulted our abilities to a professional level in a very short amount of time.
When you are working on a new technique, or learning something, do the process as many times as you need to in order to become good at it. This can be simple processes like drilling a straight hole, or complex processes like French Polishing with shellac. Do the process over and over, and do it in the right order for success.
The right order makes a difference. With the wood fills, the teacher would literally take a wooden table leg and beat it with several different things to simulate the natural damage that could happen.
There would be dozens of repairs that needed to be completed to restore the leg back to factory quality. The difference was in the order that we were instructed to complete the repairs.
If we just filled them all at once, and then sanded them all flush, and then finished the leg, we would have in effect done one large repair. We were made to complete each damage individually.
This meant filling one defect, sanding it flush while minimizing color loss, and then replacing the color and matching it to the surrounding area. After that table leg was done, we had 20-30 repairs under our belt.
This had a far better effect than one large repair, and it was also more true to life because repairing something like that is not common when compared to a single defect.
After you do your research, and you are confident in attempting the process in real life, head out into the shop and make some progress. Try the technique, and keep trying it until you have the ability to do it well, over and over again.
If you fail a few times, don’t worry about it. Try again, and keep on doing it until you are confident that you can do it on command. Then, switch to another process and do the same thing.
Over time, the more effort you make in the shop the more you will learn and develop. In fact, the techniques that you practice later in your career will become easier and quicker to master, because you will have laid down a foundation.
Not only does this foundation have ability and skill, but more than that it will have confidence. The confidence is the biggest thing, because you will know that if you keep on practicing, that you will eventually get the technique down.
You will be secretly teaching yourself this fact as you repetitively master each new skill that you practice. Over time, you will just believe as a fact that if you keep spending time in the shop, you will eventually be able to do the next process you are trying to learn.
Lastly, do not be frustrated when you are practicing, especially in the beginning. At first, anything is difficult, but the time you spend is worth it. I don’t believe that things ever get easier, I think that people just get better at them.
You will get better, even if the road seems long and slow. Some people pick up woodworking quickly, and others take a little more time at first. The thing that separates those who become successful from those that do not is the desire and the discipline to keep working on the skill even when it seems like they will never learn it.
There is nothing in this world that you cannot learn if you really decide that it’s what you want. Nothing. If you have the desire to learn, and the dedication to keep on learning even when it’s painful, then you have the ability to learn any skill that you want to learn.
If you find yourself at a point in the shop when you are frustrated, and things are just not going well, stop and take a break. When you take a break, your stress levels lower, and your brain works better.
The next time that you come to the same process, you will have a much better chance of getting it right, because you are thinking better.
Frustration not only clouds your brain, but it can also lead to accidents in the shop.
Frustration leads to forcing things, rushing, and a whole host of other unsafe acts.
When you see that you are not fully present in the activity because of frustration, step away. You may only need fifteen minutes, or you may need the rest of the day. Either way, give your body what it needs to cool off, and return to the work in a better frame of mind to complete the process safely.
With all of this in mind, find something that you can start practicing, and make some sawdust. Even if you are just working on sanding techniques because that’s all you have in the shop, this will help you later on.
Spend the time, and you will see your skill level blossom much quicker. It may be a little frustrating in the beginning, but like all things, that too will pass.
After a certain time, you will always have something to do in the shop, and you will always have a way to get the shop time you need. This is the most effective way to build your skills, and you will always have a project going to keep you working. The easier it is to get into the shop, the more you will.
Part 2 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 2 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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