Just my limited experiences:
I've built four major things from my own designs and two major things
The first thing I ever built was a shop table for my planer. I didn't
have much else working, yet, so it's just screwed together and is
rickety. I designed it myself, though. Wish I'd known about half-lap
joints at the time. Maybe a plan would've helped.
The second thing I ever built was a table for my son, of my own
design. I didn't get a plan because it seemed to be to be very
straightforward. I looked at a number of other children's tables to
get the basic dimensions, and designed a big, heavy library table with
mortise and tenon jointery - but sized for a two year old. I'm very
proud of it.
The third thing I ever built was my son's bed. I looked for plans as
a basis because there was a lot about making a bed I didn't want to
learn by messing up $250 in cherry. I had no idea how to distribute
the loads, how big it should be relative to the mattress, or what
knock-down jointery system to use. I got _The Bed Book_ and
discovered that the first bed in it was exactly what the bed I wanted
to build. I changed the design not one iota. I'm also very proud of
that bed - while the design is not mine, I did select the wood, mill
it and select and implement the finish. If I do say so myself, it's
The fourth thing I ever built was some wall-mounted cabinets for my
shop. I designed them myself. One of them is in the process of
falling apart. I didn't do a dado for the backs, I just glued and
nailed them on, and that wasn't sufficient for the stresses. I wish
I'd spent more time looking at plans. Hopefully I'll be able to
salvage the materials.
The fifth thing I ever built was an enourmous (6' x 2 1/2') planter
for SWMBO. I designed it primarily to skimp on materials while
allowing for a lot of wood movement while not actually doing any
complicated jointery so that I could move on to a project I really
wanted to do. Between you and me I realized after it was about 90%
complete that, if you tried to pick it up in the most obvious way
while it was full of dirt that it was going to fall apart, so I
reinforced it with a bunch of metal L brackets. Yuck. I'm not very
proud of it, although I am happy with how it looks. I looked at a lot
of plans, and got a lot of ideas about how to design the drainage
system for it, but I never really found plans that were exactly what
I wanted, so I designed my own. I'm a big fan of the saying,
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." This
project was good experience.
Finally, I'm building a bench along one wall loosely based upon Norm's
"Miter Bench and Storage." It's not exactly the same, but it was very
convenient, for such a large project, to have someone else provide a
materials and cut list. I'm also paying a lot more attention to how
to do things like build drawers so I don't make similar errors to what
happened with the cabinets.
To me, there's two basic reasons to use plans. First of all, I know
WAY more about woodworking than any other person I know.
Unfortunately, that's not saying much. Rather than teaching myself
how to design at the same time I teach myself craftmanship, building
from someone else's plans allows me to focus a lot of time on the
craft of building and not sweat about design details.
The second reason is that the plan is available and is exactly what I
need. Most of my woodworking at this time has a utilitarian base -
I'm building furniture and fixtures I need. If I see plans that are
for almost exactly what I want, it's a definite time-saver to use them
as a starting point. Since I'm researching plans anyway to get an
idea of what the design elements are to consider, if I find exactly
The Plan, why try to recreate it from scratch?
Do I hope to some day be able to just sit down and whip out a design
for any project? Absolutely. But I guess in some ways this lets me
apprentice myself to people like Jeff Miller or Norm Abram. The
master designs, and I implement, and in implementing try to understand
the design better.
Thanks so much for contributing to this thread and answering in such
detail. I may have to start Googling thru JOAT'S many plans before I
start building my office desk, which should be my next project. I agree
it's silly to reinvent the wheel.
Brett A. Thomas wrote:
Isn't paint by numbers fun?
If I have to whip out a quick project, like a stand for a shop tool or some
built in cabinets to conceal some clutter, I'll find a plan. If I am
building something for someone else and want to be special, like a desk for
my daughter or a jewelry box for my wife, then I design from the ground up.
Plans are the three "Rs" of woodworking. They are the distilled experience
of their creator and generations of woodworkers before. You're using
someone's plans even if you don't place a drawing on a board to guide you,
the only difference is the paper they're rendered on. The principle is
called vicarious experience - education.
BTW, if you don't make a plan, at least to note basic dimensions, you're
going to have a lot more things to complain about here - like wasting wood.
I'm more highly educated this morning than yesterday, having read
responses in this thread. When I built my workbench and wall cabinets,
I first sat at my pc and worked in Excel to calculate dimensions, esp.
since there were dados and rabbets involved. Even so, one cabinet came
out a bit wider than I had designed, due to one oversight while doing
the calcs. But all in all, those 3 projects went pretty well,
considering how newbie I am at this. During construction of a drawer
for my Unisaw, I forget to dado for the bottom, which I realized just as
I glued it together. After much discussion, I ended up Roo gluing and
stapling the bottom to the underside edge of the drawer sides, since it
is a light duty drawer. Had I had more step by step plans, I would most
likely have avoid that snafu. As my projects become more complex, I'm
gonna hit a wall where I can't conceptualize the "whole package" any
longer. For the time being I've been able to get away with winging it. :)
Watch the "step by step" plans. If you forgo good sense to follow them, you
can end up remaking - as I am right now - some of the pieces. Like a fool,
I cut them to measure, not to fit.
During construction of a drawer
There is a concept in the software industry referred to Patterns and
Practices. Or "Best Practices". Point of it is that if you are writing let's
say an Accounting package, there are some things that they should all have,
and ways in which certain function should work. Also, in the kitchen, we
have a thing called a recipe box. In it we have "plans" for different
foodstuffs. Granted I may like walnuts in my cake, or you might like
cherries, but if you don't get the right amount of baking powder or baking
soda in it, it will be a pile of goo.
I see plans as recipes. In the same vein there are reasons that most chairs
are so high and tables are another height. Granted that if your family is
taller than the norm, or shorter than the norm you might modify a set of
plans to make it so, but if one were making let's say a bed, and wanted
standard mattress and or sheets to fit it, you may wish to start with a set
As for paint by numbers, I have seen some oil's done that way that are
beautiful, and the lady that did them thoroughly enjoyed herself. She
certainly considered that a hobby. I know a guy that makes wine, but he
starts with a mix rather than growing and stepping on his own grapes. he
still considers himself a wine maker, and enjoys his hobby... and may I say
the wine is delicious. hell, the guy that built my house used a set of
Are you suggesting that one using plans is not a hobbyist? Ok, so one must
make his own plans. How about using mfg wood products? Should one only use
solid wood... From trees that he felled himself, grown from his own seeds,
cut with an axe that he forged in a furnace that he built, fired by coal
that he mined himself......
You find your enjoyment in the design of things. That is wonderful and you
enjoy that. Some people, probably enjoy planing, jointing or dressing wood.
My son, for example couldn't be bothered with any of it, he just likes to
hammer nails. There are many aspects to this hobby, in the days of the
tradesmen (please no flames about how we still have tradesmen, I agree)
there were separate jobs. Jointer, Sawyer... etc. I can't imagine making
hand cut dovetails 10 - 16 hours a day, but that might really be somebody's
thing. I don't mind cutting a couple, either as a matter of discipline or
for bragging rights, but if I had to do a bunch give me a template and a
This is starting to sound a bit flamey... I am not intending it that way.
Just ranting. I think I remember a thread a long time back about purists
getting to the point of banging on a tree with a rock... You can take any
aspect of the art, and say that is all it is. But design, is just that, one
aspect. On another note, just because one has a set of plans, doesn't mean
he can make it. The skills necessary to make a joint or even make a square
cut are still involved, as is finishing (something I absolutely hate by the
I have built some things from plans, others modified from basic plans, and
still other things from a picture or a discussion. I have fired up turbocad
and made my own things too. I have also "winged" it and found a certain way
through "I guess I can't get to that screw since I already glued that other
joint in the way..." I find no pleasure in that though.
On Fri, 22 Aug 2003 02:42:30 +0000, Bay Area Dave wrote:
This is a pretty narrow and egocentric view to take.
I know what I want to make, but I don't know how. Not yet, anyway. And
sometimes I just want to make SOMETHING and don't know how. I'm just
getting started in woodworking. The first thing I did was build a cheap
workbench, and I used my leftover materials to build a low assembly table.
I got the workbench plans off the Interweb (har) and I drafted the plans
for my assembly table on my own.
Not everybody has the know-how to draft quality plans that they can
follow. I've done 4 years of hand drafting and CAD, am a decent artist,
and I still can't just whip up plans to whatever I want. What I can do,
though, is measure the area I want to place a piece in and go find plans
for a piece that has the look I want and adjust them to fit my space. Why
re-invent the wheel? Why go to all the hassle of drawing up plans when
somebody else may have drafted exactly what I want?
I don't like this analogy. It doesn't take any knowledge, skill,
experience, or even any real tools to follow a paint-by-number kit.
Suppose you were a painter, however, and masterfully replicated Monet's _Le
bateau atelier_. Would you then be willing to say that you've done
nothing and your painting isn't a hobby because you just copied somebody
else's idea? I doubt it.
Anything you do on a semi-regular basis to pass the time could be
considered a hobby, in my opinion.
Yes, you do. You're mixing woodworking with design. You don't have to be
a masterful woodworking to design a piece. You don't have a design a
piece to be a masterful woodworking. I think most people learn how to do
both at the same time, but certainly many people, especially newer folks
like me, probably lack enough skill/knowledge in either discipline to
design what we want to build. It's also possible that people just want
plans to get an idea of what kind of joints to use, what type of wood
looks good, veneers, what order to do things in, the name of the router
bit to use, etc, etc.
Well, my feelings aren't hurt, but you do come across as a bit
self-righteous. Not everybody does it your way, so you are openly
questioning whether or not they're even "real" woodworkers?
MANY people have this problem. MANY MANY MANY people. You need only
witness how many people can easily cruise through a year of
two-dimensional math in college and just get crucified when they reach the
second year and have to do three-variable calculus. But I think many
people just lack the time, training, expertise, or desire to draft their
own plans, especially if they think there's a good chance that somebody
else had the same idea they had and they don't feel like re-inventing the
Just my input on it the topic, as a complete neophyte.
funny you began your post with "narrow and egocentric" view. I used
somewhat the same description of myself earlier. I hope you realize
that I crafted the OP to be provocative. I expecting to be flamed,
actually, but thankfully everyone that has responded has done a superb
job of detailing that plans are useful in many ways.
Yup, I am mixing (in my thinking) woodworking with design, as relates to
woodworking as a hobby. That's why I was looking for comments on the
practice of using plans. From many of the replies I can now see that a
plan can be like a recipe that you spice up. a starting point. well
engineered joinery. I'm getting it, man, I'm GETTING it!
Yes, I know I sounded self-righteous. I expected that response. I was
playing devil's advocate in order to prompt discussion. The tone I took
was " I don't get it. why are you guys doing this? doesn't make sense
to me. plans aren't needed. why spend money on them?" Now I've gotten
a more clear understanding of the value of using a plan, or maybe just
culling some ideas from one, to incorporate into our own creation,
thereby saving time, using proper joinery, or adding design elements
that otherwise would have been lacking, or misproportioned.
My biggest liability is a lack of imagination. I'm more of a problem
solver; doing is easier for me than envisioning. Once I finally get a
"plan" in my head, I rest easy, knowing that building the thing is the
easier part. Not that it's always so easy, but I'm talking relatively,
here. I procrastinate at the beginning stages, thinking of what should
'it' look like, what materials should 'it' be made of, what size is 'it'
gonna be, what finish should I use. I don't want to start a project and
then realize well into it that it's not gonna "work". So I agonize over
my plan before I cut the first boards.
and to answer your question about what I'm amazed people ask for plans
for: a sled. I gave my .02 to a recent thread on sleds, and I believe
that the OP understood my response that HIS sled needs to be dimensioned
for HIS needs, rather than a one size fits all strategy. I wasn't trying
to be either rude or unhelpful; quite the contrary, sometimes it's good
to push someone to think a little more about the reason for building a
shop aid, such as a TS sled, BEFORE they blindly follow someone else's
design. When they ask how big it should be, wouldn't you tell them to
think about what they plan on cutting with it?
I'm not sure it doesn't take some skill to paint by numbers. My
attempts at it as I child were atrocious. The final result always
looked like hell! :)
Ben Siders wrote:
On Fri, 22 Aug 2003 16:07:30 +0000, Bay Area Dave wrote:
I wasn't flaming or attacking, just letting you know how your question
came across to me.
Are you trying to claim that somebody on a newsgroup learned something by
reading it? Impossible! :)
Plus some of us just don't know how to build something without some
step-by-step instructions. I followed a plan to build my work bench but
using that knowledge, I was able to draft my own plans for an assembly
table and put it together without assistance. Plans can be a learning
tool. I didn't learn calculus by sitting down deriving the Fundamental
Theorom on my own. Isaac Newton did that and somebody else taught me,
step by step, how to use it.
I wouldn't know how to build a sled. :) I'd go get plans, adjust the
measurements, but otherwise basically follow them.
Yeah, I agree with you here for sure. When I wanted to build my
workbench, I found four or five sets of plans. One just used 2x6's for
the surface and I didn't like that. For one, they're never straight and
for two, there'll be cracks in them that dust and crap will fall into. I
kept shopping around until I found something closer to what I wanted, and
even then I changed the height of it to fit my physical size.
Yeah, same here, but my point was that the paint-by-numbers analogy isn't
very good. You hit on this earlier, but basically it comes to knowing how
to build something and knowing how to design something. I could make a
design for a bookcase that looks great, build it, put four books on it and
have the shelves collapse because I used the wrong kind of joint, wrong
kind of wood, or any other number of things that goes wrong. You may have
the know-how to avoid those kinds of mistakes, but not everybody does. I
almost built my workbench out of yellow pine until somebody told me to use
a less brittle wood. I didn't know pine was brittle, I'm just starting
I'll present the other side of the coin. I look at plans in the same
way that I look at a recipe in a cookbook...it's a start. I may not
know anything about making my own pizza crust, but I can look in a
cookbook and find a start. Then, I can add parmesan cheese, garlic,
herbs, etc., to the crust--and make it uniquely mine.
Same with plans. They give me a starting point with instructions on
how to do something I like, and I can then tweak them to make it
unique. The other thing--sometimes I learn some new techniques or
ideas from plans.
Having said all that...now that I'm getting some additional experience
under my belt, I'm starting to do less and less from plans.
I understand your point, and I'm not disagreeing with your POV, just
presenting an alternative.
p.s.--I've always wondered where in the bay area you are? I live in
Chicago but travel to Alameda about once a month for work. Just
I always enjoy reading over a set of plans. From my point of view they are
no different from a book or short story. I'm always interested in learning
different methods and styles. How else, except for serving as an apprentice
under an accomplished cabinetmaker, am I going to see how others practice
their craft? I look forward to the plans I get in my Woodsmith
subscription just to get to try a new technique.
Oh, I'm looking for plans right now. I'm interested in library shelves and
built-in china cabinets at the moment. We're going to need about a dozen
Adirondack chairs for our front porch in the spring. And I'm still on the
quest for the perfect fishing rod rack, something stylish and solid that
suits my arts and crafts taste. How else can I see what others have learned
unless I look for plans?
Sometimes people are looking for a little inspiration. I look at all
sorts of plans and get a few ideas from them, then draw out what works
for me. Thank god for libraries, magazines and pictures. Now do you
Bay Area Dave wrote:
To all who responded:
I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Truly. I sort of thought my
opinion on the subject was askew; you've all helped to make me less
reticent to search for plans for my next project; an oak desk to replace
a metal Hon desk in my study. It can't be very big, and I'm over 6
feet, so it'll have to be a bit higher than normal. See, I'm already
thinking of modifications! :)
Guess what my first real major, furniture project was? A Red Oak, raised
panel desk. Yes it was from plans. And Indeed I learned alot. Like Color
matching, and in particular reading a set of plans the RIGHT way. To
understand that last phrase you must realize that my drawers ended up on the
opposite side because I machined the panel on the wrong end. Talk about
I still had the reputation for the "GUY with the drawers on the wrong side
of the desk".
I may still have the plans or at least where they came from lying about.
I have never built directly from others plans but look at a
lot of them and have learned a lot that way. However, if I
ever did run across a plan that was exactly what I wanted, I
wouldn't hesitate to use it.
That said, I usually do work from plans, my own CADD plans.
Not a lot of detail, but the sizes, joint design and cut
sheets get worked out ahead.
The important thing is the the individual hobbyist is doing
what they want and getting satisfaction out of it.
you are absolutely right on. Everyone has his (or her) special reason
for indulging in this hobby. One of my reasons is that it's fun to
fabricate things. That's why I especially like working on the router
table. The flip side is I get bored if I have to make too many of the
same things. I'm not yet into Neandering, but I might dabble in it
later on. I don't have any Neander tools yet, unless you count one very
lousy Crapsman chisel I picked up over 25 years ago.
I use Excel to help with measurements related to dados and rabbets. I
don't own a CADD program, but I can imagine how helpful that must be.
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