Designing Your Own
23rd in a series of articles by Barb Siddiqui
One of the first hurdles a new woodworker must get past is the fear of messing up a project, and one of the best ways to tackle that apprehension is to simply "think outside the box". Most beginners decide to start with something simple (but may not know which projects have simple joinery) and then set out on a search for preprinted plans to make such- and-such. In doing so, a beginner has set herself up for:
- buying materials when she may not really know what to ask for
- learning to read and use preprinted plans
- not knowing how to substitute if she lacks machinery listed to accomplish the outlined procedures
It can become frustrating if personal help is not available. There are several ways to cure this, but here is one that has worked for many: forget other people's plans. Design what you need yourself. It isn't as hard as one might think, because there are always some kind of limiting parameters to start with. A bookshelf must be 10" deep so the books will slide into it, and shelf spacing will match the height of your tallest books, plus one inch for finger room. A curio shelf will be sized by the space available to accommodate it, or by the objects to be displayed on it. Bed frames should fit standard mattress sizes, and doors…well, there are your openings to measure.
The point is, don't be afraid to begin these projects on your own. There is a vast knowledge base of woodworking advice available in printed matter and online. If the project doesn't turn out as you'd planned, you can always start over, and you will have learned a great deal along the way. We often learn more from our mistakes in working wood than from easy successes.
For project ideas, consider a household need such as the common overflow of books and magazines in most people's homes. Would you want to organize them attached to a wall, or freestanding? Do you envision a plywood bookcase, or solid wood? Going through furniture catalogs and magazines may give you ideas, and combining ideas from several designs may be the answer to your specific needs. How about one sloping shelf to display magazines face-forward, hinged along the top to open for access to interior storage? If the unit is to be freestanding, consider making the base dimension wider than the top, if only a few inches, for stability as it stands against a wall.
Drawing ideas out freehand on paper is helpful. What if it were this way, or that way? Hand sketches will show you how ideas can come together, or clash with each other. Then, if you know the shelf must fit a space five feet high overall, the number of shelves to include will be dictated by the height of the items to be stored. Heavy or larger items (or spaces) usually go near the bottom of a unit, to anchor it physically as well as to the eye when viewed from across a room. Spaces can also be broken up, and not continuous across the entire front.
In designing a piece, one must consider the joinery, accounting for wood movement in the design. There are many good books available on various kinds of wood joints and how to use them, so educate yourself before committing to a method. Often, biscuit joinery, dowel joinery or mortise and tenons are interchangeable, but it will be smart to know when they are not. Work with one type for a time, until you feel you've mastered its uses, and then move on to another type.
Designs can also be planned based on what wood a woodworker may have available. If you have several 2x4s sitting around, an Early American or pinewood look may be called for. Be certain to carefully square up any stock. Construction castoffs are easily ripped to usable dimensions on a table saw, but learn the safety procedures for your machine before trying to rip long boards.
If buying new lumber, avoid precut and sized 'craft wood' pieces at the big box stores. Learning to dimension your own lumber is an invigorating first step in working with wood. Examine any boards you select to assure they are not cupped, warped or twisted. Even if the staff at the lumberyard is busy, you have a right to see and approve what you are buying. If you are unsure, ask for guidance; most retailers will do all they can to help you.
Designing your own project can also mean adapting someone else's plan to your own use. It's quite common for a woodworker to see the ideal blanket chest, sofa table or display case, and then think, "But I want mine to be…" and redesign the entire structure. Don't be afraid to trust your instincts and be innovative in making a piece. Educate yourself; ask questions of others on woodworking forums or at clubs and guilds. You'll soon surprise yourself with how much you can do.