Woodworking plan software – not just drawing or designing

Woodworking design software gives you better outcomes.

bookcase image

Before you turn to woodworking plan software, consider the many aspects of the plan’s purpose and process.  Answer the basic question “What is the purpose or function of the proposed work?” First, you need a vision.  Then you need a plan.

You might start by writing down what it is the project is needed to do.  How is it expected to function after built?  Is it:

  • Storage
  • Display
  • Work area
  • Gathering

My definition of a plan is simple.

It is the process of thinking things through – woodworking plan software or not.  Someone told me taking two days on a plan can save a week of work.   And we need to know that except for the simplest of plans, the best plans are recorded.

We can expand our concept of a plan by adding that it is documenting the thought process.   The plan is a record of key and critical factors and ideas.  Not stagnant but dynamic, a plan evolves from a rough idea to a finished set of documents.  One problem with some plans we have reviewed is that people are reluctant to document the changes.  Why?  It takes time, it is difficult, and a classic, “I’ll remember that change in the shop!”.

Use your plan to discover and point out the key and critical factors.  They may or may not be a problem, just things to watch.  For example, what is the diameter of that drain pipe?    Better to anticipate in the design stage than re-do on the job site.

A plan allows you to communicate concepts and ideas with those interested in the project.  That might be a prospect, a subcontractor, or anyone interested in the outcome of the work

What is the structure of the outcome?

The most basic, perhaps, are size, location, and physical constraints.  It’s evident to most that a wall unit cannot hang over a window.

What structure works to achieve the goal?  Are there one or more assemblies?  And what about subassemblies?  At this point in your plan, you can sketch blocks on paper.  No need for woodworking plan software yet.  Once you settle on the overall layout or configuration, consider the next level of detail.

For storage, some options are open shelving, drawers,  or doors.    And there are combinations – sliding shelving is trendy.

For aesthetics,  consider material type and color, light sources, and the proportions of your ‘blocks’ in your layout diagram.   Here is a link to an interesting concept called the  Golden Ratio.  It is a suggested proportion of the height to the width that some feel is the most pleasant.

Analyze – does it make sense

Maybe you have a mental checklist of what to do and what to avoid.  In a design review meeting, one kitchen designer looked at a cabinet layout and pointed out that in that kitchen, the homeowner can either open the dishwasher or the trash cabinet – but not both at the same time.

Are the spans too long, cabinets too deep, or wall cabinets too high off the floor?      Sometimes missed in the planning stage are things like will it fit in the room may be too obvious, but what about will it fit on the staircase or in the elevator?  Can you carry it?   Can you cut it in your shop?

Is it practical?  Don’t build something that will become a disappointment months after delivery.

You are creating a plan or drawing of what you want to build.

How to do this?  Well, forever and still today, the most common methods involve pencil and paper.  Hand drawn is fast, and the eraser on the end of the pencil help with modifications.  For parts or cut lists the pencil and paper still work.  In his book “Building Traditional Kitchen Cabinets”,  Jim Tolphin shows a series of lists and diagrams that do that.

But handwork is slow once changes start coming, and the list preparation takes a lot of time.

Computers are great for quick drawings and modifications – depending on the type of woodworking plan software you use.  The big player is SketchUp – but generally found to be challenging to use.  There are several alternatives.  Check out this review.

Which computer will you use?

The woodworking design software packages run on either Apple Mac or Windows PC.  Make sure you are compatible.  There are online versions of some of the software, but some find them a bit limited and slow.

Know if you have no need to customizing the design you can turn to books – how to build as a woodworker.  I already mentioned Tolpin’s book.  Another I find interesting is  Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets by Jere Cary.

And you can always buy or have drawn printed plans.  The downside is the lack of flexibility.  And who knows,  maybe a combination of all the above will work for you.

But that is just the drawing part.  The PLAN has more to offer than images and sketches/

What do you need in the plan?

Write down a list of criteria – must-haves for your project.  Incorporate your [or your customer’s] taste and style factors.  Do you need to be aware of ADA requirements or building codes?

The most basic need is for drawings with dimensions.  I have already covered that.  Again an important – critical – ability is to adapt to changes.  Can you quickly change the design and have the dimensioned drawings reflect those changes.

listing or kitchen parts


You will need a list of parts to know what to cut.  But that list can help you understand your project.  Review the list – may be on paper, or as a spreadsheet, or in your kitchen remodel software – might point out problems or opportunities.  Does the list seem correct to you?  Is anything missing?  If it is wrong on the list, it is wrong in the design.

The ability to create your shopping list for materials, hopefully with prices, is valuable.

It might be an opportunity to save money.  With the proper software, you can experiment.  Change the cabinet depth by a little bit and see the effect on the cost.  Maybe losing 2 inches on a dimension is acceptable, certainly if it saves you a few hundred dollars.

image optimized layout


Developing and comparing alternative plans is essential—too many projects to the shop to be cut on their first design effort.   Only after the parts are dry-fit together does some flaw appear.  And by then, the material is cut [wasted?]. There is no going back to the drawing board for many people.  And make sure you have an organized way of saving and viewing many different versions of the plan.

Mostly you know you need that ability to list out parts and materials.  Ideally, these reports should be integrated and automatic – but hand printed will work.

The plan is essential for communicating the ideas with others.

You need to share, convince, and gather feedback on your proposed work.

The plan helps you review and consider time and material costs.  The top-end woodworking design software provides material layout diagrams.  These show how to optimize the layout to minimize waste.   An output of this report is a shopping list with prices of material.  You use this to modify the design and see the effect on the material cost.  In a time of rapidly rising wood prices – a keen eye on cost is critical.

Printed images, or maybe better still, are graphics files you can share.

There are many standard formats of graphics files.  The differences are generally the quality of the image and the size of the file.  If you email, the file size is essential.

A review of the plan, formal or informal, might point out errors or problems, or opportunities for improvement.

And remember the adage “Measure twice, cut once”?  Well,  add to that plan correctly,  make one trip to the lumber yard, and cut once.

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