Beyond woodworking basics

A few pointers on improving your woodworking and project design skills

By Steve Maxwell


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At a previous Canadian Home Workshop Show, I spoke with a reader in front of the magazine’s Project Showcase, which featured projects on display. Each item was gorgeous, and that’s why this man was unhappy. “I have a shop filled with great tools that I’ve been using for seven years, but my projects don’t look like these. I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s missing. What can I do?”

This kind of dissatisfaction is a good thing. It’s shows you’re ready to move beyond the basics. Trouble is, you’re not going to find the help you need to do that in the same place you learned basic woodworking. That’s because the challenges of a dissatisfied intermediate woodworker are different than those of a novice. Assuming you have basic woodworking skills, the challenge then becomes a matter of combining tasteful design and good technical judgment with flair. And to make this happen consistently you need skills that go beyond just producing accurate cuts and a smooth finish.

There are three things you need to deal with as you begin any project for which you have high hopes: pleasing proportions, enduring function and classic joinery. Whether you get your project inspiration from plans or out of the blue, you’ll hit closer to the mark if you have an understanding of the virtues that separate good woodworking projects from great ones. The tips you’ll learn here will make sense in other projects, too.

One common factor behind many limp home workshop projects is that although they may be serviceable, they don’t look much different from the conservative output of furniture factories. Your projects need to go beyond what appeals to the widest possible commercial audience, and to do that you need to start by doodling and exploring the limits.

When digital animators sit down at a computer to build action sequences for movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, they usually begin in a mode called wire framing. That’s a fancy name for simple, computer-generated line–art versions of how strange creatures will look. No one’s interested in skin tone or lifelike sounds at this stage because they’re irrelevant. Your own version of wire framing is also the best way to start hewing out proportions of eye–catching projects in broad strokes. You don’t have to work to strict scale at this stage or decide on a finish. You don’t even need to use paper. What really matters is that you start identifying sizes and shapes. You can start with a pencil, but you might find large cardboard shipping cartons a worthwhile medium, too. Is 72″ too short for a table top in your dining room? Exactly what does a 32″-tall desk look like next to your chairs? Cut out some cardboard and put it in the room for a quick answer.

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