A good set of plans can eliminate a lot of trial and error on the path to a finished project. Followed carefully, step-by-step instructions and detailed illustrations will result in a project identical to the piece pictured in the plan. But what happens when that picture doesn’t match the idea in your head (or the size of your living room)? Here are a few tips to guide you on the path toward designing and building your own unique project.
Start with the critical dimensions. Growing up, I built a lot of custom built-in cabinets with my father. Fixed points, such as walls or doorways, constrained the dimensions of the cabinets, so a few measurements gave us the basic outside dimensions of the project. From there, it was a matter of designing the remainder of the project from the outside in. Alternatively, the size of your television or components dictate the critical dimensions of an entertainment center, requiring you to dimension from the inside out.
Take a cue from standards. Even if your prospective project does not have ready-made critical dimensions, you can skip some guesswork by using tried-and-true furniture standards. A quick search online will bring up standard heights, depths, and widths of chairs (bottom left), tables, and cabinets. These standards have been developed over generations and provide a good starting point to fit the average-size person. Once you know the standards, a quick mock-up tells you if an adjustment needs to be made to fit you or the end user.
Make a nod to style. Beyond the fit and function, be mindful of the form. Much furniture can be categorized into a handful of design styles—Arts and Crafts, Shaker, and Queen Anne, to name a few—or has been heavily influenced by them. Within each style, trademark elements create aesthetically pleasing and functional forms. As you’re getting started with custom designs, borrow from these well-vetted styles to ensure a piece that will be enjoyed for years to come.
Toss out your tape measure. This may sound like an extreme action, but after establishing the basic dimensions of the project, precisely targeting a tickmark on your tape is not as critical as ensuring that each component fits well. With a case built, I often mark the length of a component, such as a shelf, directly against the case instead of relying on the intermediary of a tape. This minimizes the opportunities for error and takes no more time.
Chris Adkins, founder of the Modern Woodworkers Association, oversees commercial construction projects in the Atlanta metro by day, and spends his nights in either his shop or hanging out with other woodworkers at modernwoodworkersassociation.com.
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