Putting the designing pen to paper

Unlike most woodworkers, my winter months are not filled with wood working.  For many, it is simply a matter of turning on a light, pulling out the tools for the session, and doing.  From the novice to the experienced, many just pick up and start creating.  I do not have that luxury, however.

100_1753My shop space cannot exist inside my living space.  This is true for most people.  In fact, it has been suggested that a “compartmentalization” of your interests needs separate spaces for them.  For example, you don’t see many kitchens in the bedroom, or bathtubs in the living room.  (There are exceptions, primarily in the world of tiny homes.). So keeping your tools separate from your shower equipment is fairly common sense.  My storage location happens to be a storage shed attached to my townhome, so I’m fairly lucky.  But when the winter storm leaves two foot drifts outside the door, and almost that high in front of the shed… well, let’s just say I feel less motivated to do any work.

That doesn’t mean I don’t try to do any wood work, however.  Most of what I do during winter is look to see what is needed around the house, and what I can do for the business of woodworking I’m slowly assembling.  So I work with camera and flash, pencil and paper, mind and mouth.  I look for ideas, I try to find the plans for what I want, and I work out how I’ll afford to get everything.  I also work with Google Sketchup, a program Google had offered for free before selling the program to another company.  This program allows me to work up what the project will look like, and because I’m thorough (and stubborn) enough, I try to work out the methods of joinery (connecting the pieces) before touching a single board.

Now, I’m not saying you must use Sketchup.  There are several various methods of drafting your ideas.  Long before I used Sketchup, I used pen or pencil and paper.  (While pencil allows you to make corrections, the pen allowed me to see it.)  Plain paper, graph paper, lined paper, whatever it was I used it.  I’ve seen people use Blender to draft design ideas, CAD and AutoCAD programs, even Paint.  Whatever you use, though, a sketch of the design is a great place to start.

A few months back, the fine folks at WoodTalk Online recommended using a sheet of plywood for their sketches.  If I remember rightly, they were talking about the transition from the “paper” concept to the cutting steps: when you start to layout the pieces to cut.  This works well if you can afford extra sheets of plywood (I seem to recall Shannon stating he used 1/4″ plywood for this, as it makes a great template) or have the space to store either the full sheet of plywood or the finished template.

I (as I believe I’ve mentioned several times before) am not like most people: I don’t have the luxury of that kind of space.  So I prefer to save my designs in digital form.  Once I’ve worked out the design, I can print off the plan in full size… one page at a time.  Sure, you could save it to a portable drive and print it from a larger printer.  I don’t own one (like most people), so I’d need to go to some form of print shop.  Kinko’s/FedEx offers this kind of service to anybody.  Being cheap, though, I don’t like to spend more than I have to.  I’m comfortable printing out each page and laying them out for cuts.

But the trick is to leave some identifying mark on the pages, so you can match them up and line them up.  (This is the reason most plans overlap slightly… for years I thought it was just to confuse me.)  And once you’ve printed all these pages out, and then taped them together… Where do you store them?  How?

I have changed my methods several times.  I went from the “save it all” method, where it got folded up into (roughly) an 8 x 11 bundle so I could stick it inside a folder, to something that would fit into a legal-sized folder or envelope, to laying flat at the bottom of the “design tub” (one of those storage totes available everywhere, that I dedicated to plans), to finally the “one-shot” phase.  Now, I’m attaching the paper via partially-temporary means, and tossing it out once I’m done cutting.  (If I even use full-size paper, that is.)  This is why the plywood templates are so appealing: lay it on your board, trace it out, tape it down with double-sided tape if necessary, cut and route using the template to get repeatable shapes, and store to repeat.

But again, this means compartmentalizing.  Now I need to dedicate some of my shop to storage of something I won’t use all that often.  Since I’ve got a small shop (maybe 30 square feet, 90 if I include the porch), I don’t have spare space for “once-in-a-while” things.  So, I draw on paper for the rough idea.  I sketch out a more completed image.  These get stored in folders and tucked into magazines (very useful as bookmarks for the “parent idea,” or related ideas, by the way), and left on the pads of paper.  Then I draft a plan in Sketchup, and save it to one all-encompassing folder on the computer.

Now, Bob Lang has several books published on using Sketchup.  His website also has several tips and tricks on Sketchup, which I have started to follow.  (It is merely interesting irony, not deliberate copying, that we both are working in reproductions of Arts and Crafts furniture.  Honest.)  I’m not trying to sell you on using this product, nor say you are any less of an individual if you don’t use it.  But if you are interested, I have found Mr. Lang’s instructions and advice very understandable, and extremely friendly for the non-technically inclined (or those who are behind the “cutting edge curve” and trying to catch up).

When I start with the planning and design phases, I’m not in the shop.  I’m in my life.  Wherever I happen to be, whatever I happen to be doing, I keep a file in my mind of those things I need or would like to see in my life.  Sometimes, it moves forward into the paper phase, sometimes into the digital phase, and sometimes into the created/wood phase.  (And then there are those ideas that just jump from mind to wood… and all the various mistakes and “design opportunities” that come with it.)  That work is best done, and stored, where there is space.

Which brings me back to my original point, far longer than I intended.  Each thing you do, whether it’s homework, hobby, income, or interest, needs a space that can be just for it.  A common room is wonderful.  But that old phrase, “a place for everything, and everything in it’s place” is a necessity when you have common, shared areas.  If you go into the project without a clear idea, without a clear space, you don’t get the results you intended.  This will have to be the secret of an effective five minutes of woodworking.

And maybe the other secret of life…


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