Sticking to the plan

Since I posted Proper Planning a few weeks ago I got a bunch of emails asking me to describe how I actually implement a layout stick into my work. So today, I’m going to show you just how they work.

Let’s start with what a layout stick is (in case you didn’t get it from the earlier post). A layout stick, or story stick/pole, is a full-sized sectional drawing of what you want to make. Your woodworking project can be as simple or complex as you like. The more complicated the project, the more useful a layout stick becomes. It can also get pretty confusing so you should find a way to organize the sectional views that makes sense to you now and will be easily interpreted in years to come. I’ve used layout stick for everything from this simple footstool we make in our Woodworking Fundamentals 2 classes to full blown kitchens (including my own).

Our kitchen from
From our good friends at

The best part of a layout stick is, once you’ve got the layout finished and double checked all the measurements, you won’t need your ruler anymore throughout the building process. Since the layout stick is drawn full size, I take my dimensions directly from the stick itself. No rulers. I’m not sure how it works in your shop but around here the more often I use a tape or rule the greater the chance of making a mistake. When cutting parts to size I can square and end, hold it to the stick and mark off the length without ever thinking about the numbers. 

With any layout stick you want to make sure every measurement in your project is shown at least once (preferably only once but this usually isn’t possible for every part of a project). In the case of the footstool, my stick shows the thickness of every piece of the stool as well as the width, length and position of the part in the end piece. I even show the taper layout of my legs.

Rail layoutFrom my stick I can gather size and placement of my joinery (in this case mortise and tenon). I first used the stick to cut my rails to width and length. Once cut to size, I used the stick to mark off the shoulder to shoulder measurements and cut my tenons.

After the piece is complete, I can actually double check my overall size prior to glue-up to be sure I didn’t miscut something. I can hold my dry assembled piece against my stick and make sure I have the proper overall height, width and depth. 


You’ve heard all your life “Plan your work and work your plan”. Layout sticks give you that edge. You can work through all the dimensioning and joinery in your head and on the stick before you ever pick up a piece of lumber. For me, on some extremely complex pieces, my layout stick has saved me more time and money than I would have ever guessed. Just the idea of being able to envision how a piece goes together before I actually do the work is invaluable. Once you’ve started using layout sticks in your work, you’ll wonder how you got along without them.

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