Woodworking Project Planning and Measuring Tips
With your lumber and tools ready to go, you’ll be ready to make a start on woodworking project plans. Planning is an essential part of any woodworking project. Without a solid plan in place, your workpieces can end up being totally inadequate for their intended use, or may even be structurally unsound.
To make sure you get the result you’re aiming for, it’s a good idea to visualize each step you’ll have to take before tackling your woodwork. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to measure dimensions and wood angles, check wood moisture, and design your project from start to finish.
So, pick up your pencil, put your saw back into storage briefly, and let’s get started.
How to Plan a Woodworking Project: Function over Form
Always start with the function when you’re planning a woodworking project: What function do you want your finished piece to serve? For example, if you’re building a set of shelves, what do you need them to support and how do you want them to look? If you’re building a birdhouse, what size and species of bird are you planning to attract?
This may seem like a simple idea, but if you don’t get it pinned down early on you may end up getting diverted and missing the mark in your finished piece. With your function identified, you’ll be able to create a sketch to work from.
This sketch may just be a basic drawing of the overall shape of the piece, but it will be more useful if it also lays out the lengths and angles on different parts of the project. A good sketch drawn to scale (for example, drawn so that every inch on the plan corresponds to a foot in real life) can be a real asset.
Woodworking Design Software
You can create a plan using nothing more than a pencil, ruler, and paper, or you can download design software that will help you make highly accurate woodworking plans.
If you want computer software to help you plan and manage your woodworking projects, there are plenty of options out there. Two of the most popular are SketchUp and Fusion 360.
Key Woodworking Design Aspects to Remember
In the previous chapter, we discussed how to choose the best wood for your woodworking projects. When working with wood, grain direction and figure play important roles as to how the wood will be used in constructing different objects.
Remember, quarter-sawn planks with straight grain are ideal for woodworking projects that require strength, such as building a shed. But it’s important to work with the grain in more ways than one.
Working With the Grain
The long fibers, known as cellulose, that wood is made from, are bound together by a substance called lignin, which acts like a natural glue. Cellulose is a lot tougher than lignin, which is why it’s much easier to split a log vertically, or along the grain, than across it.
In the same vein, timber that has long, straight grain is generally much easier to work with, particularly when it comes to tasks such as planing, carving, or chiseling. Planks with knots and irregular grain are tougher to work with as the cellulose fibers change direction. As such, you’ll spend more time working against them.
Therefore, when you’re planning any project, take time to consider how working along, or with the grain, can help you.
Designing With Grain in Mind
Choosing the perfect plank of wood, free from defects and with a nice straight grain, is just the beginning. The strongest piece of wood is only as strong as the design allows it to be. So, when you’re working with wood, you need to plan how to make the most out of each cut.
With a simple frame, it’s fairly easy; the grain should run straight along the longest lengths. However, when you start to incorporate angles and curves into your work, such as the decorative feet on a coffee table or the legs of a chair, you need to think a little differently.
The angled feet of a pedestal table can easily be cut from a plank of straight-grain, quarter-sawn wood. But how you cut it makes all the difference:
- If the wood grain is at a 90-degree angle to the main body of the table, the foot will be weak and liable to snap under pressure.
- If the wood grain is parallel to the main body of the table, the foot will still be weak and liable to snap under pressure.
- The correct way is to allow the wood grain to run parallel to the longest length on the foot. Built in a way that the grain runs along this angle, the foot is much stronger and more capable of standing up to pressure.
Allowing for Movement in Wood
When you begin your woodworking projects, it’s important to be aware of how wood moves and to make sure you allow for it. For example, if you’re making a panel door, rather than fitting and gluing the panel tight into the grooves of the frame, allow a little space for it to expand.
This way, it won’t stress the frame and damage the joints. At the same time, well-made joints in the frame will prevent the panel from twisting. Here are a few other general rules of thumb to use when working with wood:
- Plain-sawn boards: Across a 12 inch (30cm) board, allow for a quarter of an inch (6mm) of movement.
- Quarter-sawn boards: Across a 12 inch (30cm) board, allow for one-eighth of an inch (3mm) of movement.
- Follow the same grain direction for wide boards: As much as possible, be sure to match grain direction when you’re gluing two pieces of solid wood together. This way, the separate pieces will expand together, rather than against each other. This tip can be used for anything from tabletops to solid wood door panels.
- Also follow the same grain direction in box construction: A simple box comprises four lengths of wood joined together in a square shape. The box will be far more stable if the grain runs in the same direction from piece to piece, as each will move together.
As you can see, quarter-sawn boards swell and shrink half as much as plain-sawn boards. Additionally, plain-sawn planks are more likely to cup as they swell and shrink, while quarter-sawn boards tend to remain flat. That’s something to consider if you’re planning a project that will use wider boards or planks, such as flooring.
Remember also to consider that your wood is more likely to move if the relative humidity changes. So, interior projects won’t have many issues, whereas exterior ones might. That’s why in many temperate regions, doors that open fine in winter tend to stick in the humid summer.
How to Check Moisture Levels in Wood
Moisture in wood can be a major concern for woodworkers, whatever their project. Too much moisture can cause the wood to swell, become misshapen, or even rot or become moldy.
While it’s typically the job of the supplier to check moisture content in the wood, there’s no harm in doing it yourself to make sure.
Moisture meters are a handy tool for passionate woodworkers. They come in two main types – pin-type and pinless.
- Pin-type wood moisture meters are used by inserting the pins into the wood and activating the meter. An electric current passes between the pins to give an accurate reading.
- Pinless wood moisture meters are used by pressing the base of the scanning plate firmly against the wood and activating the meter.
These meters will give you a reading in %MC (percentage moisture content). The optimum %MC for your project will vary depending on the humidity of the area in which you live. This chart from Wagner Meters breaks down the moisture levels you should aim for in various levels of humidity.
How to Measure and Cut Angles in Wood
On your plan, you can create angles using a ruler and protractor.
Beginners may find measuring and cutting angles a bit daunting, but a miter saw can make cutting standard angles much simpler. Most miter saws have preset locks for the most common angles (generally 45º, 30º, and 22.5º).
How to calculate angles
When it comes to calculating the angles you’ll need in your piece, the main thing you’ll need to keep in mind is that all the angles in a shape will add up to 360º. This means a shape with four equal sides will have four 90º angles, adding up to 360º.
If two pieces of wood are to meet at each of these angles, those pieces will need to be cut to a 45º angle, with the two pieces adding up to a 90º angle.
Making accurate marks and cuts in your wood is much easier if you use the measuring tools we discussed in Chapter Three.
Developing Your Woodworking Plans
Once you’ve got your woodworking plans down on paper, there’s no rule saying that it’s set in stone and can’t be adapted along the way. Sometimes you might come across unforeseen issues with the lumber you’ve chosen that force you to adjust the thickness of your workpiece, for example. Other times, you might be presented with new opportunities along the way.
If you spot an issue with your plan, you don’t need to scrap the whole thing. You just need to make some modifications to your original drawings to facilitate a new approach.
Take It Easy and Start Slow
To avoid any major mishaps along the way, it’s best to start your woodworking endeavors slowly. There’s no need for a beginner to rush into a project that requires 3 different types of complicated joints and numerous different angles. Always learn to walk before trying to run. Master the basics, and you’re much more likely to succeed when you do take on more complicated tasks.
Planning Your First Projects
There’s no shame in working on easy wood projects first of all. In fact, with a little forward planning, your first, simple woodworking projects can eventually fit into a more elaborate design as you progress.
Your first projects should;
- Require only a few basic hand tools
- Incorporate one type of joint at a time
- Use smaller lengths of wood to create a manageable workpiece
In this way, you get to grips with how it feels to work with wood so that by the time you want to move onto more advanced things, you already have the basics nailed.
Top Woodworking Projects for Beginners
Beginner-friendly and simple, these projects require very few tools and materials, and allow you to get a feel for woodworking with minimal investment. If it feels right, you can build up to more advanced projects, invest in more complex tools, and learn ever-more complicated techniques.
First of all, try joining two pieces of wood together, using a number of simple joints, such as lap joints, butt joints, miters, etc. You don’t need expensive wood for this, off-cuts will work just fine and can often be found for free.
A Small Frame
Once you’re confident with making joints, try to make a small frame. This will teach you about the importance of accurate marking and cutting, since if your work isn’t properly square, you’ll soon realize it.
A Reinforced Box
For your box, you might want to use different joints at each corner for an extra challenge. Fit a simple bottom, and consider ways to reinforce the corners to prevent it from collapsing under pressure. Design your box with a particular use in mind, such as storing wine bottles or magazines.
This will teach you about gluing boards together and selecting the best wood for the job. You can even use your box from before as a storage unit for a set of chopping boards.
Simple Storage Cabinets
As your woodworking skills improve, you can try building larger pieces. A cabinet with space for shelves and a door can be a beginner-friendly choice that encourages you to use all the skills you’ve learnt so far.
Easily-Forgotten Woodworking Supplies
One aspect of woodworking plans that is often neglected is the establishment of the various extras you’ll need. This won’t take long, but making sure you have these supplies and that they are suitable for the materials you’re using will make all the difference.
Finishes, Fillers, and Glue
Each finish has its own specific properties which will determine the conditions in which it is most durable and easy to apply. Common finishes include spray-on lacquer, hand-applied oil, or brush-applied varnish. Dyes and stains can also be used to color the wood.
Remember that once opened, many supplies can start to degrade if not properly stored. So even if you have adequate amounts of glue, filler, and finishes, make sure that they’re still in good shape. If they’re not, check the storage instructions and ensure your keeping them correctly.
Woodworking Fixings and Hardware
Different projects are going to need different fixings and fittings. Check that you have the right types of screws and nails for the material you plan to work with. Bear in mind, if you’re fitting shelves, take into consideration the material of wall you’re fixing them to. Different walls need different types of screws and plug.
Projects such as shelves, storage units, cabinets, doors, and windows, will also require additional hardware. Make sure you’ve got the right L-profiles for the shelves you want to put up, the correct hinges for your doors, and a good selection of handles to choose from.
Top tips: build a visible storage area for your screws, nails, and hardware. This way, you can quickly verify that you’ve got what you need for your next project in stock.
Which Tools Do You Need? Plan Ahead
Also plan ahead which tools you are going to need for your next project. Do you need a jigsaw, or miter saw? How about a random orbital sander or a belt sander? Is a cordless power drill enough or do you need a corded one?
Top tips: make sure that the clamps you have are suitable for the task at hand. Few things are more frustrating than putting a workpiece together ready to glue, only to find your clamp is a half-inch too short to hold it tight.
Making the First Cut
With your tools and materials prepared and your project planned, you’re pretty much ready to start building your woodworking project. It’s now time to get to grips with the most common woodworking tools.
Check out Chapter Seven – Understanding Different Types of Hand Saws – and start learning everything you need to know about sawing.