Selecting a Woodworking Plan

Wood display case

Woodworking Plan Buyer's Guide

Tips on Choosing a Woodworking Plan

What should I look for when selecting a woodworking plan? This is a commonly asked question, especially among novice woodworkers. There are zillions of plans to choose from but the trick is to pick a plan that works for you. If you find yourself in that situation, here are some guidelines to help you out:

  • Pick a project that matches your skill level.  Before you even start casting about for a woodworking plan, it is important to pick a project that is a good fit to your level of woodworking expertise. If you have limited woodworking experience, it would be foolhardy to attempt tackling a grandfather clock or even a chair. Better to stick with something more fundamental, like a cutting board, a birdhouse, a simple bench, or a utility shelf.
  • Pick a plan that matches your skill level. It's important to use plans that match your skill level. If a plan is too simplistic and you're a novice woodworker, there's no value added. However, a more experienced woodworker might do just fine with the same plan. The trick is to match the complexity of the plan to your level of expertise. This is not an exact science but something you develop a feel for over time. Note that there's some interplay between the skill level associated with a given plan and the relative quality of the plan. A plan that seems advanced may only be so because it's lacking in quality. You should also give consideration to the tools and equipment that you own and make sure they are suitable for a particular plan. (Although one could argue that it's always good to have an excuse to buy a new tool).
  • Pick a quality plan.  Not all plans are made to the same quality standards. Free plans, especially, are a grab bag. Some are well constructed and offer lots of photos and details. Others are barely more than rough sketches. Sometimes rough is OK - depending on your experience level and how rare the item is (a rough plan is better than no plan). But, if you can find a quality plan, life is much easier.

What makes for a quality plan?

The best woodworking project plans are clearly written, contain plenty of visual aids, and tell you exactly what tools and materials are required.  Some specific characteristics of high quality plans are described below.

A clear photograph of the finished project is a minimum requirement of a quality plan. It gives you an idea of how the item will look in your space as well as a general feel of the complexity of the plan. Ideally, the plan will provide photos from several different vantage points. Close-up photos of specific components or construction procedures are also extremely helpful.

Working drawings
A decent plan will include one or more dimensioned drawings. Some plans provide 3-view or orthographic drawings that depict the piece from separate view points, usually the front, top, and side.  Other plans offer a pictorial type of drawing, often in the form of an "exploded view", that shows multiple sides of the piece at the same time. This type of drawing may be either isometric (approximates perspective) or in perspective.

Materials list
Look for a materials list that itemizes the lumber, sheet stock, fasteners, hardware, router bits, finish, and other materials required to build the project. The wood materials should list the dimensions and quantity of each part along with a symbol (A-Z) so the part can be easily located in the working drawings. A materials list is sometimes referred to as a Bill of Materials. The plan should also list the required tools.

Cutting diagram
A cutting diagram is a layout aid that helps you get the optimal yield from solid lumber and sheet stock. It is especially helpful when dealing with plywood and other sheet stock because these materials come in standard sizes, allowing you to layout the cuts exactly as depicted.

Step-by-step instructions
The best plans break up the job into sequential steps that are concise and clearly written. These step-by-step instructions should cover all facets of the building process including milling stock, joinery, assembly, and finishing. Instructions for building individual components such as the drawers in a chest of drawers should be separately broken out from the main set of instructions. The more photos and assembly diagrams that accompany the written instructions, the better.

Full-size patterns
Full-size traceable patterns are very helpful for certain types of plans, such as ones with intricate curves, irregular pieces, or angled cuts. Some examples are: cabriole legs, yard art such as reindeer, farm animals, and witches, scroll-sawn puzzles and intarsia projects. Patterns allow you to simply trace an outline onto the material and then cut it out with no guess-work involved. Patterns are an invaluable feature, especially for a beginner. They save lots of time!

Companion video
A well-done companion video can be a great tool to assist you in building a project. It's become more common over time for commercial plans to include a video and even some free plans - thanks to sites like YouTube. Certainly, a companion video is not a required supplement for a quality plan - or a replacement for a well constructed plan itself - but if the plan includes a video, that's a definite plus.


Examples of woodworking plans of varying quality

To put the above points into context, here are some examples of free woodworking plans of varying quality, with a bit of commentary about each. Note that my intent here is not to criticize the authors or fault their efforts -- after all, they are not being paid to create these plans. The point is that plans vary greatly in quality and level of detail and it's helpful to be able to recognize what may be lacking in a plan before you commit to using it.  Note: this point also applies to commercial plans; I've chosen free plan examples so you the reader can actually access the plans to see what I'm talking about.

Anniversary Bookcase - The overview photo grabs your attention right off the bat. The exploded view and materials list are professional quality. Decent instructions with plenty of accompanying photos. All in all, a well constructed plan (although it is annoying having to click through all the pages).

Mission Bookshelf - This "plan" is really just a photo and a materials list. Beginners beware...

Mission End Table - A good example of a plan with plenty of instructional verbiage but lacking in photos and drawings. It's obvious that some effort went into this plan -- too bad they didn't add more visual aids.

Stowaway Bench - Starts with a nice, clean overview photograph, followed by tools and materials, and finally the step-by-step instructions. Each step is accompanied by an instructional photo with annotations on the photo and below it. The exploded view and the layout diagram for the rail detail are very helpful. Well done.

Outdoor Chair - This is a minimalistic plan, especially in terms of instructional content. A seasoned woodworker would be able to use this plan as a general guide to create the chair but a novice woodworker would likely struggle.

Patio Table - Good overview photo, exploded view and cutting list. The plan would benefit from the use of more photos and construction details. It appears to assume at least an intermediate level of woodworking experience.

Wine Rack - Although not as "professional-looking" as some of the other examples (especially the drawing), this plan contains the essential elements for getting the job done. The abundant instructional photos and the companion video are strong points. The lumber materials list leaves something to be desired but it can be figured out from the drawing.


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