It’s not very often I develop projects for ShopNotes using a set of well thought out plans. More often I just have a general idea of what I want documented by a few pages of illegible notes and sketches. It may be kind of a mad-scientist approach, but as a designer, I like to let the project be somewhat directed by the experience of building. I leave the possibilities open and see what happens. I find out what works well and what doesn’t work at all, what’s simplest to build and what’s a nightmare, what’s attractive and what should be hidden away forever, and change and modify as I go. There’s always a few good surprises. And, always a few problems I just didn’t anticipate.
Once I begin building and learning though, I start to lock in certain dimensions and shapes. New parts are made as things progress. Old parts may have to be remade several times to adapt to changes. Each part needs to match the critical dimensions of screw hole locations or joinery for where it will be located. Sometimes, I will need to remake the entire project as a finished piece for the magazine. And (unfortunately), deadlines stop me being the experimenting designer and force me to start creating working drawing with lots of very exact dimensions that can be used by our shop builders and in the magazine.
Whether I am building from plans or just winging it, I rely on accurate layout as a discipline to produce quality results. Good layout is just good shop practice, like returning to the kitchen all of the coffee cups that you take out to the shop and not tracking sawdust in the house. Here are a few basic principles that I use in my shop work:
Establish a Baseline and Start Point. The first step in laying out a part is to establish a baseline. This is a reference line for all the other measurements and angles that are found in each part. This can be the trued edge of a board, the factory edge of a sheet good, or a line marked or drawn with a sharp pencil or marking knife. In the case of a part that exhibits symmetry, a centerline can be the baseline. The baseline acts as an X-axis.
We will also need to establish an end point to start our measurements from. This will often be the cut end of a board.
Layout Critical Points and Angles First. The next step is to start laying out the critical angles and points. It is important that as you lay out the points and angles that you continue to use the baseline and start point to locate them and not off of each other. This will help prevent cumulative error, and therefore, cumulative frustration.
Basing new layout criteria off of old is trouble. No layout point or line is perfect. Each will contain some error and each additional error will compound. Even if you are working from plans, remember that there’s no substitute for measuring from true life. In the case of a point or perpendicular line, try to directly transfer the locations with a pencil mark to your baseline and extend the line with a square rather than measuring from the original and then taking that measurement to your part. The more direct the path, the less chance of error.
Add Non-Critical Lines, Points, and Forms. After all the critical measurements are in place you have a foundation from which you can add the remaining swoops, curves, lines, and angles that complete the part.
It’s worth noting at this point that if you have multiples, a layout template can save some time and add consistency to your work. Thin hardboard is a favorite of mine. It’s easy to work with and looks professional. (Although, I have quite a few templates I use for carving work that are cut from Cheerios boxes and they seem to work, but, they don’t look professional.) Cut the template to exact size if you wish, or for fine work what I do is to cut templates a little small so that when I go around the template with a pencil the center of the pencil line is the actual size of the part. Otherwise, the pencil line is a bit larger than the final part and I end up having to saw and sand my reference lines away. (I find comfort in seeing those lines.) Mark layout points on the template by drilling a small hole just large enough for the tip of a pencil. You can then easily and accurately transfer points from template to workpiece.
Be Consistent. Last, just approach layout in a consistent and workmanlike manner. Once you have an established a ritual it’s not the tedious bother that it might seem. In fact, the expression that applies here is “in discipline lies freedom.” Or for my part, it means that I can keep fewer parts, fewer projects, and my attitude out of the Dumpster.