Planning your Project – Part 5: Creating a “Plan”

Ever hear of “Ted”? He’s that guy that fills your email inbox with offers of 16000 woodworking plans on DVD, for only a few dollars. Of course, those plans are generally ripped of from various places on the internet, if they exist at all. The “Teds” of the world aren’t doing the rest of us any favors.

So forget about “Ted”. Let’s take a look at how to create woodworking plans of your own, and why you should use them.

To most hobby woodworkers, a plan is a set of drawings, with dimensions, that illustrate the item to be made. They might even include a cut list for all the components. If you are building a piece for yourself, you may never need more than this. And for any project you build, a plan, even such a minimal one, is critical to the project’s success. This isn’t to say you should never deviate from the plan, but when deviations occur, the plan should be updated to reflect those changes, so that future work on the project remains compatible with what has already been done.

So, how does one obtain a set of plans for a project? Obviously, you can browse the web for free plans of various levels of quality. You can also purchase plans from reputable sources (more on that later). But what if your “Project Plan” (see parts 1-4 of this series) calls for something unique? Well, make your own!

In my estimation, here are the minimum features a project plan should include:

  • An overall sketch of the entire piece, with at least front, side and isometric views. This sketch should show basic dimensions, and would usually be developed in the Detail Design phase.
  • A set of sketches to show each component, including joinery details and dimensions. These sketches would generally be two-dimensional to illustrate measurements, and not include an isometric view.
  • A ‘cut list’. This can be a simple list of rough dimensions for each component. In this case, it helps determine the volume of material needed for the project. When using sheet goods, it can be helpful to develop this simple list into a full cutting  diagram, which will help optimize the material used. I don’t recommend trying to make a cutting diagram for solid wood, though. Best practice requires that parts be arranged and cut to select the most pleasing grain pattern, and can not be pre-planned according to the size of the material.
  • Basic instructions about the order and method of assembly. Even when building for yourself, thinking through these steps can prevent you from making a serious mistake, such as gluing parts together in an order that prevents further assembly.
  • Notes about the type of finish, and how it is applied. This can benefit you later, if repairs are ever needed. If providing the plan for someone else to use, finishing instructions help ensure a successful project. Finishing is the area most hobbyists understand the least.

For plans offered to the public, especially as a source of income, focus on detail and quality is key. While creating the documents with good old pencils and paper is still a perfectly viable option, they aren’t all that practical to distribute in the current digital world. There are many computer programs out there, designed to streamline the process and make a consistent end product.

Sketchup, Solidworks, and Fusion 360 are the most popular tools I hear about among hobbyists and semi-pros at the time of this writing. These software packages are made for 3D modeling, and run on the Microsoft Windows operating system. Sketchup also runs on Mac OSX. All 3 offer a feature-limited free version, or a time limited trial version. For full functionality, one must purchase a license, which can be a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.

Being thrifty, and an proponent of Open Source software, I prefer to use a program known as FreeCAD. FreeCAD is also a 3D modelling and drafting application. Functionally similar to AutoDesk Inventor (R) or SolidWorks, it is compatible with many file formats, produces well-formatted print drawings, with embedded text and spreadsheets, and can output G-code for controlling CNC machines or 3D printers. FreeCAD is available as a free download, with versions available for Linux, Windows, and OSX.

Speaking of plans made for sale to others, here are a few more tips:

  • Forget what you see in the magazines. Those are NOT full project plans, but rather accessories for a magazine article. While many crafts-persons may be able to replicate a project from such limited information, they will lead many others to frustration.
  • Extensive details can be good, but they must be clear and to the point. Readability is critical. If the drawings are cluttered or the instructions unclear, they can be more confusing than helpful.
  • Features like different line weights, different text fonts, and extra white space can be used to improve the clarity of the drawings and instructions. While color can add “pop”, especially to the isometric overview drawing, don’t depend on it to convey clear information in the dimension drawings. Many people are unable to see or distinguish certain colors.
  • Numbered pages, indexes and cross-references are extremely helpful, especially if the plan package is more that 3 pages long.
  • Remember to leave your reader with options. Sure, some will want to build the piece exactly as you depict it in the plan, but many more will simply use the plan as the basis on which to build their own works. Providing opportunities to deviate from the plan, without forcing the user to start completely over, gives your plan a greatly increased value. In fact, suggesting ways that details could be modified will encourage the user to develop their own design skills.

I hope you find the ideas suggested here to be useful, sort of a ‘project plan’ in itself. If you do, or if you don’t, I invite you to comment. Your feedback is always appreciated.

Until next time,

Savor the Sawdust.

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