Shop Monkey: Monkey Business
I love family vacations. My wife and sons and I talk about the adventures we'll experience when we get to our destination. To make the most of our travel time, we sometimes enlist a trip planner to give us turn-by-turn directions and include suggestions for interesting side trips and attractions.
In the same way, I appreciate the help offered in woodworking plans, which serve as a road map for completing a project and offer tips for getting the best results. So, when I stumbled across a Web site offering me more than 14,000 plans for $49, well... they had my attention! Skeptical, but curious, I took a deep breath and ponied up the money to see what 50 bucks would get me.
The site was nice, but downloading all of those plans was going to choke my Internet bandwidth. For an extra $10, the site said, I could get a CD of the plans mailed to my home. So I did.
When the CD arrived, I popped it into my computer and found an impressive list of folders with PDF plans thoughtfully categorized by project types. Bedroom sets. Workshop stuff. Outdoor projects. The works. Each folder was chock-full of plans. They even threw in software so I could read and print the plans without having to download anything.
Great deal, right?
Not so fast.
How can they offer so much for so little?
First of all, there are only about 6,300 plans on the disc, and many of them were simply repeated -- without explanation. And, about half of the "plans" I looked at were merely measured drawings. Not a word about technique or any project tips. Some woodworkers might be able to build it from a bare-bones drawing, but for most of us, that'd be like trying to drive from Tampa to Des Moines without a road map or GPS unit. It might be fun, but expect to make a lot of wrong turns along the way, and plan to spend twice as much.
Often, it appeared that the CD maker literally ripped plans from woodworking magazines or books and just scanned them, and at such low quality that it was often difficult to make heads or tails out of them. In others, important details -- such as exploded-view drawings and cut lists -- are simply not there. Or they were so poor as to be useless. Others were obviously downloaded from well-known magazine sites, still branded with the name of the magazine or Web site they were taken from.
Finally, I'm going to go way out on a limb and guess that the people assembling these discs haven't actually gone to the sources to get permission to reproduce the plans. The whole idea of someone making money off the hard work of others really doesn't sit right with me.
What you can do
The best way to find woodworking plans is to go to the source. Either buy the books or borrow them from the library, subscribe to the magazines, or download the plans from the owner's Web site. Not only will you get the fully detailed, step-by-step instructions, you also support the woodworkers who painstakingly designed the project.
Bottom line: Whether you're buying plans or road-tripping with a GPS, heed that little voice that's guiding you to do the smart thing.