How to Interpret Shop Drawings for Craftsman (and other) Furniture

A Free Excerpt from the “Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture”

Step One: Cut all the pieces to the sizes listed in the cut list.

Please don’t do that. Not if you’re building from the large format plans I sell, or from the drawings in my books. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the drawings, they’ve been around a long time and thousands of people have successfully built great pieces of furniture. If you don’t want to be frustrated or disappointed there is an extremely important step between the plans and the project.

I get taken to task on a regular basis for the way I dimension drawings, usually by someone who hasn’t bothered to read the section of my book titled “Interpreting the Drawings.” It’s an important couple of pages, and at the end of the post there is a link where you can download a PDF file of that portion of the “Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture”. Here are a couple of important paragraphs:

One of the challenges of doing drawings in this small format is to provide enough dimensions to build a piece without covering most of the page with dimension lines, arrows, and numbers. Generally, a dimension for a part is given in only one view of a drawing, hopefully in the view where it makes the most sense. The width and depth of a desktop, for example, will be located in the plan view, and the thickness of the top will be in a section view or an elevation. If it seems that a needed dimension is missing, try looking for the same object in a different view.

There will be times when it’s necessary to do a little math. If there are a number of parts making up an overall dimension and the overall dimension is given, not all of the dimensions for the parts will be given. Take, for example, a plan view of a dresser. There is an overall width of the top, the width from the outside of one leg to the outside of the other leg, the width of the legs, and the  widths of all the parts in between. If the parts are symmetrical, only one will be dimensioned. If you know the overall width of a paneled back, the width of one outer stile, and the width of the center stile, you can reasonably assume that both outer stiles will be the same width, and you can calculate the width of the panels in between. This is done both to keep the drawing from becoming cluttered and to ensure that the maker understands the drawing. It also ensures that if there is an error in the drawing or dimensions, the maker will be able to catch it and compensate for it. If the dimensions don’t seem to add up, study the drawing and carefully add and subtract the sizes of the parts. Check and double-check before you go cutting up your material.

I’m not being mean or lazy by making you look at all the drawings, I’m trying to help you out by making sure you understand the piece you’re trying to build before you cut any lumber. I’m not perfect, and neither is anyone else. In this imperfect world, it pays to think things through before starting on a complicated project that involves sharp tools and expensive materials. Everyone has their own style of making parts and building furniture. When I mill stock, I get the thickness right, sometimes go for a finished width, and hardly ever cut anything to a finished length until I have to. Even though I make my own plans and drawings, I take time in the shop to make a story board for almost everything I build. For me the path to efficient building doesn’t come from rushing, it comes from making sure I know what the next step is, and how I’m going to accomplish it before I start. That may involve a cup of coffee, another look at the drawings and some head-scratching. The easiest way to spoil the fun is to have to do something a second time.

Click here to download a PDF Excerpt from the “Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture”, Interpreting the Drawings. It’s a detailed guide for reading measured furniture drawings, and it explains why I think it’s a good idea to think first and cut later.

–Bob Lang


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One thought on “How to Interpret Shop Drawings for Craftsman (and other) Furniture

  1. Dear Bob,
    Long time fan! Your work should be more visable in “Popular Woodworking”. I really appreciate reading both you and Chis’s books. Not that I don’t with Glen’s, just a matter of taste I guess? Anyway, just bought your new book and looking very much forward to reading it. I”ve been working wood all my life (mostly as a carpenter/home builder), but after taking a bad fall at work 8 years ago, left me disabled. my mind still wants to work wood but my body says no! I read a lot. It helps keep my sanity and wits, plus it’s what I enjoy and who I am and nothing can change that! Anyway just wanted to say thanks and I appreciate your work!

    WR Van Sciver

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