Today is the first day of a Fundamentals 3 class here at the Acanthus Workshop. Although some of the students have been through Fundamentals 1 and 2 already, this class begins with planning.
Some projects just seem to need very little planning, right? Wrong! If you want to be successful, and efficient with your time and materials, every project needs a plan. I don’t care if that plan is an elaborate set of architectural drawings or scribblings on a napkin. You, my friend, need a plan.
In the shop I often use full sized drawings but usually I make a layout stick or story pole (they’re two names for the same thing). A layout stick is a full sized, three dimensional, cross sectional view of your project and I have one for nearly every piece I’ve ever made. Layout sticks are fairly common in carpentry and the building trades. They can help a craftsman avoid common construction mistakes. The same holds true for furniture.
The strength of a layout stick comes from the vast amount of information that is contained within it. It helps me puzzle through the potential problems I may have with joinery as well as get a sense of the scale of a piece. Once I have the stick properly laid out, I will have hardly any need for a ruler or other measuring device from that point forward in my project. When cutting parts to length, I simply square the good end of my board, hold it against the layout stick (or the other way round if the board is on the large size) and transfer a mark showing the proper length of the piece. I can use it the same way for thickness and width as well.
When I make a layout stick for a complex project, I tend to draw in all the little details. I will actually draw out moldings in full detail. Not only does this provide a permanent record of what I did should I want to do it again but it gives me a chance to see what I’m doing “in real time”, as it were, so I can decide if I like it or not. It’s far easier to change a stile width or molding profile on a drawing than when you’ve just milled everything.
The other indispensable part of a layout stick is it is a permanent record. As I said, I have them for nearly every project I’ve ever made. They’re compact and easy to store. Mine are usually a strip of plywood to which I drill a hole and hang from a peg using a piece of string in my shop. If I wanted to make another copy of that William and Mary chest I made nearly thirty years ago, I can grab the layout stick and build something that, other than figure in the wood, would look identical to what I made previously.
This may, or may not, be of importance to you but if you’re woodworking as a hobby I’m sure that at some point a sibling of the recipient of the first piece you made will ask for one just like it for themselves. If this takes place several years after you made the first, a layout stick would be a good reminder of exactly how you made the first one and what size everything was, wouldn’t it?
So, why is this important for my Fundamentals 3 class today? Well, they’re making one drawer stand this weekend. Today, very first thing this morning, they begin by making a plan…their layout stick.