The title reflects Woodworking as a hobby, not as a vocation. Vocational woodworking is pretty much the opposite of the adjectives in the title because of the intense pressure to produce quickly in order to make it pay the bills. So we'll stick with the hobby orientation for purposes of this article.
Many people start a project with very little thought. This is okay if you are working from plans, material lists and cutting lists in a woodworking magazine, but when you strike out on your own, this lack of planning often results in a project that becomes very difficult to manage somewhere in the middle, when more wood needs to be added, or, more often, the final piece has to shrink just a little to make do. The project gets less fun as measurement adjustments keep being made to the original plan to keep the modified parts fitting with each other. It's kind of like playing chess with a saw, anticipating three moves ahead what the measurements are going to have to be because of the one deviation you made three steps ago.
What I would like to accomplish here is to lay out a sequence of events that need to take place as you migrate from the canned projects in the woodworking books and magazines to your own project planning.
Recreational woodworking starts with an idea of something functional (a shelf, a table, a bench, a box, a desk) or something meaningful (a toy, a piece of art, a frame), or a combination of the two. This idea can be born of inspiration from looking through woodworking magazines, seeing something in a model home, or a need that exists in your own home.
Most often the concept is sketched out. Traditionally, this is done on the back of an envelope or a partially used napkin, so be sure to have some of those lying around. Once you have the sketch, you have to decide how big you want this thing to be. Often, this is determined by available space or intended function. Staying true to our adage, "measure twice, cut once", a rough dimensioned drawing is created. If this is to be a functional piece (desk, cabinet, etc.), be sure to stay reasonably close to standard measurements for desk heights, knee-hole allowances, kick spaces, cabinet heights, rail and stile widths, file drawer dimensions, etc. You'll be glad you did.
By now, the concept has evolved enough that the desired finish (paint, stain, varnish, oil) has been narrowed down, and a type of wood has been selected that is appropriate for the project, budget and finish. With so many choices of wood and finish conveniently available today, this can be quite an exercise.
Now that the type of wood and finish have been determined, it is time to decide what kinds of joints you are going to make (assuming you are not making a boomerang or hollowed-out canoe or some other one-piece thing). Considerations are strength, the look you are trying to achieve, your equipment and capabilities, and the amount of time you can invest. This can be one of the more strenuous mental exercises because of the range of choices. The look of a bung or button, the clean lines of hidden biscuit or dowel joints, the strength and intricacy of the dovetail, the simplicity of nails and glue. All have their place, and you have to decide.
Along with the joints, hardware has to be planned. Based on the hardware, you have to adjust your dimensioned drawing to accommodate clearances for drawer rails, those extra half inches for lap and dado joints, hidden hinge overlaps, insert depths for frame-and-panel door panels, etc. You also have to consider depth of relieves and radii of router profiles to make sure your stock is thick enough to allow your concept to mature as planned.
A final dimensioned drawing is created, allowing for all joint and hardware considerations, and a cutting list is prepared from this drawing. Note: This drawing does not have to be to scale, or look professional in any way. It helps the visualization process if it is proportional, but the real important aspect of this drawing is documenting the measurements. Don't be concerned about the appearance of the drawing - that is not what you will be displaying.
Now, finally, we can go to our lumber supplier and select the actual wood we will be working with. This is not where you want to save time. For the parts of the project that will show, especially for projects where the natural wood is intended to be a design feature, extra care should be taken to select the grains and natural attributes that will best fit your concept. If you are saving money intending to plane "three-sides-good" lumber, make sure the width runs far enough on the pieces selected with enough margin to get the length needed for each piece AFTER PLANING. Measure the finished surface to the beginning of the raw edge. For framework, cleats and carcasses look for straight, unknotted pieces. Warps and twists can be overcome, but they make the whole project less fun.
With this level of preparation and with sharp tools, the project will proceed nicely and the finished piece will bring you satisfaction, many years of service, and can sometimes even become a treasured family heirloom. Note: The heirloom status is often true of a desk, a well-made toy or a rocking chair. Don't set your expectations too high for laundry shelves.
Kent Walters is currently an amateur woodworker in Houston, Texas. His entrance to the craft was similar to many - woodshop in school. He continued the craft some time later as a toymaker on a drill press, sander and spray booth. He was a furniture maker at one time, building mostly desks, book cases, wall units, display cases and cabinets.
As time moves on, he is "downsizing" to intarsia and toys ? panels are getting too heavy to lift, and heirlooms are becoming more important than they once were. For more articles, resources and a woodworker's website directory, see http://www.woodworkingcenter.com.