Free Plans Versus Fee Plans

Wood display case

Woodworking Plan Buyer's Guide

To Buy or Borrow a Woodworking Plan

Judging by the number of free plans available on the Internet and the number of sites that assist users in finding free plans (like this one), there's obviously a huge demand among woodworkers for free plans. Heck, why pay when you can get it for free?  Makes perfect sense. The freebie approach has proven immensely worthwhile for items like software and ebooks. Entire business models have been built around open source software. But, does the same apply to woodworking plans? Are free plans as good as their commercial brethen? When does it make sense to buy a plan in favor of a free plan (and vice versa)?

Before addressing these questions, let's get something out front right off the bat. The average woodworking plan is relatively inexpensive - say between $10 and $20.   So, it's largely an academic exercise to compare free plans to those that carry a price tag. A plan is not a big ticket item, so why spend the time hunting for a free plan when you can go to an established commercial plan vendor and pick up a plan that you can reasonably expect to meet a certain minimum level of quality? One could make a strong argument for just focusing on commercial plans and only taking the free plan route when a commercial plan can't be found. If this is your mindset, power to you; perhaps there's no point in reading further (but I think you should anyway). All others, read on.

Reasons to Choose a Free Plan

If you're one of those frugal woodworkers (aka, practical) that takes pride in building something as inexpensively as possible, a free plan has a certain irresistible appeal. Or perhaps you like to rely on your own design skills and ingenuity. In this case, a free plan provides a starting point, an inspiration for your own design.

If you're making a relatively simple and inexpensive item such as a birdhouse or a cutting board, it's hard to justify shelling out money for a plan that may cost just as much as the materials. Especially if you only plan on building one of that item. This is an ideal scenario for going with a free plan.

Another reason to go with a free plan is that you can evaluate the plan - at no cost - to determine if it's right for you. With a commercial plan, you won't know for sure until you've paid for the plan and perused it. This could be an expensive undertaking if you want to check out several different plans.

Reasons to Buy a Plan

If structural integrity and safety are concerns, a commercial plan may be a better option than a free plan. This applies to projects like decks, stairways, garages, sheds, and other buildings. Although no guarantee, there's a greater likelihood that a commercial plan is created or approved by a professional engineer who understands structural loading principles and structurally appropriate materials.  Also, because there is a company behind the plans, it's reasonable to assume they would be at least somewhat concerned about providing a structurally sound design.

Another argument in favor of purchased plans, is that free plans often lack construction details found in purchased plans.  I've seen quite a few free plans that only include an overview photo, a materials list, and very basic instructions. These plans lack features like blow-up views, cutting and assembly techniques, and detailed drawings. For example, "plans" from the likes of are very spartan -- they usually don't include any drawings or even photos; just very generic instructions that leave most of the construction to your imagination. If you're a novice woodworker, it can be very frustrating to use a plan that is lacking in detail.

If your brother owns a woodworking plan business, then you should buy your plans from him whenever possible. If you do use free plans, don't tell your brother.

Other Thoughts on the Plan Selection Process

When I'm searching for a plan, I'll typically begin by skimming through overview photos and only focus on plans that have the right look and feel. In other words, the plan has to pass the visual appeal test. If I'm building a piece of furniture like a coffee table, the appeal mostly pertains to the aesthetics and style of the finished item. Whether it would look good in the living room.   For other types of projects like woodshop jigs or storage cabinets, it's more about functional appeal. Will the item get the job done or not? Whether the plan is free or not is often a secondary consideration. Same goes for the quality of the plan - within reason. Of course, I would prefer to use a free plan with scaled drawings, detailed instructions, lots of photos, etc. but it's more about finding a plan that best fits my conception of what I think I want.

Availability also factors into the free versus fee plan selection process. Depending on the item, there may be plenty of free plans available online and relatively few plans for sale. Or vice versa.  Take wishing wells, for example. If you search for wishing well plans, you'll quickly discover that there are relatively few free plans out there but plenty of plans for sale. Same goes for changing table, fishing rod rack , and rocking chair plans.  Perhaps not too surprisingly, there tends to be a greater availability of for sale plans for larger, more complex projects such as garages, houses, grandfather clocks, china hutches, and Murphy beds. On the flip side, certain items are very popular in the world of free plans. The list includes things like bird houses, bookcases, coffee tables, woodshop jigs, poker tables, and wooden toys. 


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