It’s not about the drawings


Writing for woodworking magazines is a strange experience in many ways. You never know what readers will make of your work — the artistry, thinking, writing, building, calculating, drawing, and editing that go into a project article. Will they love it? Hate it? Discover some hideously embarrassing error in the cutting list even after three eagle-eyed editors have gone through it with a fine-tooth comb? Odds are, many people won’t even venture beyond the title. But the one thing of which you can be certain is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Sometimes I hear nothing after an article is published. Every so often I get a super enthusiastic message that makes my day, such as one I recently received from Larry Nottingham:

“I knew the sideboard on the cover of Popular Woodworking was yours even before I saw your name. All I can say is WOW. I recently purchased a bunch of quarter sawn white oak and, even though I’m just an amateur, I’m gonna give that one a try. Your work inspires me.”

The most common response is a request for more detailed plans. I write back, explaining that I have no more detailed plans and that the drawings in any article I write for Popular Woodworking or Fine Woodworking show far more detail than anything I use in my own work or have ever been given in the shops where I worked for others. The fact is, unless you’re working side by side with the person who wrote an article, you’re going to be interpreting and extrapolating from the instructions and plans, no matter how much detail an article contains. Add to this the reality that publishers today are working with fewer staff and lower budgets than before the Great Recession, and I think it becomes easier to understand that for authors and editors both, selecting what to include is a risky business virtually guaranteed to tick someone off. “I’m not subscribing to xyz for spoon feeding,” some will say, while others lament the lack of exactly that level of instruction.

Let me offer some insight based on my experience.

When doing small-scale custom work (as distinct from production work, whether in a one-person shop or a factory setting where every step of the process has to be just-so in order for the next parts to fit the ones that have already been made*) there’s typically some allowance for the craftsperson to interpret a drawing and build it in whichever way will best suit the job in question. A good example is the Voysey two heart chair in my book about English Arts & Crafts furniture for Popular Woodworking (forthcoming in June 2018). As I explain in the introduction to the chair build, real-life chairs made during Voysey’s lifetime based on his drawings diverge from those plans in multiple ways. Some of the variations were probably requested by customers when they commissioned their seats; others were undoubtedly decided on by the craftsmen who built them, in an effort to make the work affordable.

The drawings I use for my own work are meant to convey to clients how a piece will look and function, as well as provide the basic information I need to build it.


Drawing for a recent commission. This is the original drawing I showed the client, explaining that I might make changes to dimensions if the mock-up indicated that they were warranted for comfort’s sake. In the end, I made the seat a few inches deeper — night and day in terms of comfort — and changed a few other details, some of them scribbled on the drawing as I worked. I also omitted the back stretcher once I realized that the T-bridle joints at the front provided excellent racking resistance.


The completed bench

Even my bare-bones drawings are head and shoulders above those I often got from my employers in the past, such as this delight:


My employer’s drawing for a three-part dining table to be built in ash, circa 1986. The idea was that the table could be used as one large piece, a square and two half-circles, or a square and a circle. The legs and top(s) had to fit together just-so, in every configuration.

Of course, when you’re building something from an article in a magazine you don’t have the luxury of checking in with the person who designed it as you work your way through the structure. Having made a couple of pieces from articles in magazines over the years (a benchtop bench and some leaded glass panels), I can say I’ve found that even in simple cases such as these, I’ve wished there were more detail. Each time I was stumped, I stopped, thought through the logic of the process, and moved ahead when I thought I had it figured out. I have had to redo a few parts — a drag that might have been unnecessary, had the articles contained more detail. But I chalk such things up to learning, whether a new skill (such as making leaded glass panels) or how to use unfamiliar hardware (as in the benchtop bench). Some readers, such as my friend Bill Heidt, construct a piece on the screen before digging into material in the shop; this is another way to work through the ins and outs of a build beyond an article’s text and illustrations.

So while the basic information should be in the article, it may require clarification. Apparently one or two aspects of the recently published sideboard in Popular Woodworking have had some readers scratching their heads, for which I apologize. Thanks to Megan Fitzpatrick, you can find SketchUp plans with additional information here.–Nancy R. Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*In the shops where I’ve worked, every step of the build is adjusted for the parts that have been made. Flexibility is part of the m.o. You start with a few basic dimensions on a drawing, but the rest are based on direct measurement of the piece in progress.

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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9 Responses to It’s not about the drawings

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    Heaven forbid anyone would ask me for plans, even basic plans, never mind detailed plans, for anything I design and make. Not that I could not provide them (I am an artist and graphic designer by trade); the problem is that I envision a piece in complete detail in my head and instinctively know what scale I desire, so I never put anything on paper. If I had to do a plan drawing I would have to go measure the piece and go to the computer to enter it in drawing or 3D software. My son has done some work for me on his CNC machine (not furniture), so of course I have been forced to provide computer files (no plugging his machine into my brain, at least not yet!)


  2. clutions says:

    Nancy, AMEN!
    Nothing gets my goat more than someone asking, “What should I do if I can’t find ‘X’ in the store?” or “You only have the measurement for ‘Y’.” I am NOT a professional woodworker (I call myself an ‘experienced’ woodworker) but given the pictures that you, Chris and the plethora of other professionals I tend to follow, I must say that half if not more of the enjoyment of woodworking is in the challenges I breech. Plus, in the end you can say that that piece is “yours” not a copy of someones plans.
    And, as you look back and think, humm, I missed that nick or other boo-boo (hi-tech word for screw up) you can always “Shut Up!”
    Thank you for this article Nancy, it is greatly needed.


  3. mnrwoods says:

    Building from specific dimensions is like drawing by connect-the-dots.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Craig Regan says:

    If you want to get all the details and share the experience of working with Nancy Hiller, then you will need to make a video!

    Liked by 1 person

    • colsdave says:

      I’m hoping Nancy will teach a class some time.


      • nrhiller says:

        Two classes are on the schedule for 2018: One is the bookcase from the cover of Popular Woodworking Dec. 2015, the other is an English Arts & Crafts writing desk. Details are at under “News.”


  5. Ron says:

    Most things I make, whether my workbench, or my wife’s six-panel chect, or my kids’ playhouse, started with an idea and rough sketch with even rougher dimensions. I have often said that the reason I need to finish my projects is so that I can know what they look like. Like an author once said… “I can’t wait to finish writing a story so I can find out how it ends.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. tsstahl says:

    Thank you for the validation. People look at my ‘plan’ book and immediately assume I have no idea what I’m doing near a sharp object. It works for me because every completed piece is astonishing. I look at it and am astonished that I finished it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      That’s funny–the part about being astonished that you finished the piece (any piece). I’ve spent much of my career being doubted, partly because as a female I’ve been perceived as an outsider, and partly because I don’t throw what I know around as though I think it’s definitive. There is almost always a possible exception. But it seems to me that people generally gravitate toward the kind of “confidence” displayed by those who think they know it all; it makes people feel safe. Providing every last detail of a plan and giving all the measurements offers a similar kind of psychological safety. But everyone I know who makes and builds things for a living (and does not work in the kind of production shop I mentioned) understands that beyond the basics, what you’ve built becomes its own source of empirical data; following the cut list as though it were gospel is a recipe for disaster. When I can provide the kind of validation you’ve said you appreciate here, I feel I’ve done a service.

      Liked by 1 person

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