Graphics and woodworking

The Playful Plans Blog will explore the design, history, fabrication and sharing of quality children's toys made primarily of wood. With a few detours, of course!

In this inaugural blog for my new website I want to celebrate the connection between graphic plans and the craft of woodworking.

Designing and building objects is often done without preparing written or graphical plans. We do this all the time, molding and assembling the parts in our minds, tools in hand as we explore new ideas at the bench.

But there's something satisfying about documenting the creative process, whether it's jotting measurements on a notepad or putting together a full-blown plan with cut list and instructions, scaled illustrations and photos.

Many projects require more than a simple sketch as you work through the design process. Here's an example of an original tessellation (repeating interlocking design) puzzle graphic for ¼" birch plywood requiring careful measurement and compass work that I developed for The All-New Woodworking for Kids

But this sketch for a nutty free-cut "Catfish Weathervane" (a faux-art design as opposed to genuine folk art) required only a basic penciled idea before heading to the workbench

 It was roughly modeled on another goofy project that I built for the original edition of Woodworking for Kids

I built and submitted the Catfish project, and it never made it into the book- thank goodness.

That's another benefit of jotting down what you do... and might not do again.

Documentation not only provides an analytical (left brain) record of your conceptual (right brain) creation but also lends itself to sharing the plan with others.

Defining (and refining) your own methods for capturing how and what you design and build is a full partner, in my mind, to the tasks of creative design and shop technique. So documentation skills will be a full partner in what this blog and website are all about.

In this sketch for an upcoming Playful Plans project- to be loosely based on a small pop-out dragon souvenir from the 1964 New York World's Fair, a common plaything often called a "morality toy-" I positioned the toy on my copier repeatedly to build an accurate layout for understanding and detailing the mechanism within. Obviously this technique only works for reasonably small, flat objects... a child's scooter, not so much

Here's how the original little guy looked in the hand

When complete, my version will include different materials, proportions, and detailing, and the dragon figure- if I do a dragon at all!- won't look much like this one. And I'll have a good record of how it came about, from inspiration, to understanding the mechanics, to the creative track and benchwork.

Quick personal note: woodworking design and fabrication in small shops has come a long way since I took my first woodshop class in 1965 at Brownell Junior High School in Detroit. Sitting on that tall stool at age 13 scaling my first project onto graph paper (a lathe-turned nut bowl- it's still in the family somewhere) was pure pleasure compared to science and P.E.

Meeting with my instructor and developing a concept… hand to pen and back again to the instructor for review, after review… to the way-scary lathe, the belt and oscillating spindle sanders, the finishing room… and finally delivering the project into my mother's welcoming hands.

Basic ink-and-paper drafting techniques have morphed over the years into remarkably user-friendly programs for producing stunning plan graphics that are only a click or two away from sharing with others. This website will be exploring all of these options, the old and the new.

Take note: with technical refinement comes the invitation to embellish and muddy up the straightforward task that presents itself each time we enter the shop or sit down at the drafting table.

Plans and illustrations for others should be as simple and straightforward as possible

Observe, experiment, cogitate, create, recreate. Write it down.

Edit it or throw it away and start over- but write it down. It doesn't matter whether you're using the back of an envelope, a free program like Sketchup Pro 8 or other powerful options.

Begin building a file of what you think about and what you draw, what you do in the shop and how you do it. I use small notebooks and incorporate quick sketches, stick or cartoon figures, and lots and lots (and lots) of numbers before I sit down at the laptop to refine them.

Let it become a habit and a joy for you!