Bay Area Dave started one hell of an interesting thread in asking why
and how people deal with plans. I'd like to congratulate him. It's
the kind of discussion that used to occur on the wreck with some
I've read through the various iterations of the thread and I am
heartened to see that so many of my fellow wreckers are so seriously
engaged in thinking about design level problems and solutions.
If'n ya ain't got a plan ya don't have a project.
I don't care if the plan is only, "I need a shelf that is big enough
to hold my wife's chotchkas." That is at least the beginnings of a
Of course, Dave's initial question was about other folks plans and our
slavish use of them.
Since I came to cabinetmaking from the building business, I was long
used to having plans shoved in my face. Sometimes the plans were
drawn sketch style by my bosses and other times, much more frequently
in more recent years, they were drawn by architects or designers.
Some architects and designers are pretty good at drawing cabinet plans
- most of them suck.
Mostly the plans had only gross measurements and a description of what
was to be provided.
Some of them were pretty damned good, though. There's a pretty famous
architectural firm that used to be called, "Venturi, Rauch and Scott
Brown". They are currently called, "Venturi and Scott Brown." Some
of you who are familiar with the history of Post Modernism in
architecture will recognize the names.
Rauch was more of a traditionalist in his approach to architecture and
ultimately became a minor voice in the partnership, which became a
celebration of the allegedly artistic accomplishments of Robert
Venturi and, to a far lesser extent, his wife, Denise Scott Brown.
Well, through a friend, who happened to be his son, Mr. Rauch decided
to use me to make the built in cabinets in a home that he had designed
for himself towards the end of his career.
John Rauch made those drawings himself. They were not farmed out to
any of the many subalterns that he could have used. John Rauch knew
what he wanted and he wanted to communicate what he wanted through
very detailed drawings. I was damned happy to be involved.
The drawings described not only the general form of the cabinets but
went to the level of joinery, installation and finish details. The
man was a partner in one of the hottest architectural firms in the
country, so I went to those plans with the intent of learning from a
The plan didn't work.
Without going into endless detail, let me just say that the drawings
showed no appreciation for the facts of wood movement; no
understanding of the load bearing capacities of shelving materials and
no appreciation of the relative merits of various finishes, in so far
as they were to be exposed to pretty serious daily usage.
This, from a partner in one of the most respected architectural firms
in the country.
Getting away from that, I've bought many books of plans for furniture.
In almost every instance I have found flaws. In one of Gottschall's
books I found a secretary that, if it had been built according to
plan, would have resulted in a construction that could not work, as
far as drawers and doors go.
Let me say that I have learned a tremendous amount about design and
construction from reading plans. I have learned even more from the
deconstruction of old pieces during my attempts to repair them.
What I've also learned is that most plans are flawed and, if followed
blindly and faithfully, will result in a project that does not
represent the design level intent of the plans. Even the
deconstruction and rebuilding of historically important pieces can
result in furniture that ignores the realities of wood movement and
therefore is doomed to failure.
The bracket foot is a good example.
I still love looking at plans. I even still enjoy looking at the
joinery level drawings but I watch them with a cautioned eye.
I really believe that plans should be viewed as a resource, and one of
many resources, the most important of which is our personal experience
Not all the current or old masters are worth following.
JOAT posts many plans that he clearly marks as inspirational. I look
at many of these and some I find to be truly inspirational in the
sense that they run counter to the accepted traditions of joinery and
design. JOAT, in my view, is to be commended for supplying these
resources. However, if we were to think of all the plans that he or
anyone else posts as bullet proof recipes for the construction of good
work, we would miss the point.
I believe that we should be informed and excited by plans but that we
should not be slaves to them. That path is fraught with too many
problems. But, I would never give up looking at plans, as they are a
source of ideas and information that we can all use, once they are
passed through our own editorial function.
My final thought would be that we can all be improved by drawing our
own plans. There are problems that can be solved on paper that would
cost real time, money and effort in the construction phase. Drawing
your own plans allows you to play with all the elements of a piece and
their interactions. It is a tremendous help in the area of relative
weights given to the elements of a design. It is a great help in
figuring out the interrelationship of design elements that might
conflict with each other in the real world.
Paper is cheap. Time is irrecoverable.
Tom Watson - Woodworker
Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania