The Most Important Lesson in Woodworking

To date, for me at least.  I know it’s an ambitious title for a blog post, just bear with me.

There are innumerable plans, books, blog posts and videos on building stuff from wood.  Some bad, some good and some are excellent.  They show us what lengths to cut, what joints to cut and how to assemble it all together.  Where the vast majority fall short is at the very beginning.  We are rarely shown the planning and initial full-scale layout.  It’s this full-scale layout that I wish to talk about.

There are articles that talk about story sticks and how they can be used to layout future projects, but very few, if any, that talk about how to create the story stick before the first project is ever built.  That is where the full-scale layout comes into play.  This is a method that I had never used before until recently.  Thanks to “By Hand & Eye” and Paul SellersWoodworking Masterclasses, I’ll never again build a project without first doing a full-scale layout.

Essentially, you draw out full-scale the project that you intend to build.  Usually you just concentrate on the most pertinent view of the project.  That could be a front elevation like say for a bookcase or the end elevation for a table where only the length will vary.  Molding elements are addressed full-scale as well regardless of their locations.  This drawing can be done on a large piece of paper, cardboard or preferably on a sheet of plywood.  From this full-scale layout you can than take all your distances and angles.  Sort of a cheat sheet for woodworking.  This layout will also let you see how your intended project really looks and what space it will truly occupy.  This is handy because you can make any adjustments to size or addition/subtraction of molding elements long before you cut your first piece of wood.  Once you do start cutting wood, you can lay each piece back onto the layout to ensure that you have not made any errors.  Although I’m sure, that like me, you never make errors.  Yeah right!  Once the project is complete you can save the layout for later use or create a story stick.  Even with a story stick I would still create a new full-scale layout before building the project again.

Using a full-scale layout has exponentially changed my woodworking for the better.  What I’m ashamed to admit is that I make my living as a draftsman/designer and it still never occurred to me to make full-scale layouts of my woodworking projects.  Small, scaled down drawings for sure but never full-scale.  Now, I’ll never build another project without doing a full-scale layout first.

Give this method a try on your next project and then decide if my post title is correct.

In my next few posts I’ll discuss some tools that will make these layouts easier.  Some you probably own, some you may have to purchase and some will be part of my “Build Yourself Series”.

Greg Merritt

Full Scale Layout of Bench Stool Project

Full-Scale Layout of Bench Stool Project Shows front and side elevations in one view and shows the plan (top) view of the seat.

Completed Bench Stool

Completed Bench Stool

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8 Responses to The Most Important Lesson in Woodworking

  1. Franco says:

    This comes at the right time for me Greg. I’ve drawn a number of designs but have no idea how to make them a reality yet. This process may just help me think about how thye might come to fruition.

    Great job on the blog so far by the way!

  2. CarlosJC says:

    Fascinating subject for a blog post. I’ve yet to make a single ull-scale layout. But I am early in my woodworking pursuits. I can’t wait for the “Build it Yourself” series.

    • gman3555 says:

      Thank you Carlos. The “Build it Yourself” series will start small and simple. This will give folks a chance to play with the layout methods I use and hopefully build a few shop tools that they will find useful. My goal is to provide projects that are flexible so they can be adapted to what tools or materials you have to hand.

  3. deniseg says:

    Greg, I think this is the most valuable lesson I learned this year too. I am applying it now, for the first time, to a night stand I designed and am making for a class I’m taking. Without the full scale drawing, everything would take longer and be less precise. I am using a sheet of foam core board from the art supply store (catch them on sale). And I prefer the foam core to plywood because it is white and very light weight. I can’t imagine a future project of any complexity – where I would not benefit from a full scale drawing of the entire project or at least of the key joinery.
    Keep blogging. I’m learning so much from you.

    • gman3555 says:

      I can’t believe that I forgot to mention foam core board. You can get it just about anywhere now. Once you build a project starting with a full scale layout, its hard to imagine doing it any other way. I hope to see some photos of your night stand when it’s completed and I hope that your class is going well too. Thank you for the continued encouragement, I’m having a lot of fun with this blog.

  4. Pingback: Why All the Geometry? | GREG MERRITT – BY MY OWN HANDS

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