Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Organizing Space and Mind Part IV: Planning your projects

On any given day, my mind races around like a weasel on speed. I got hooked on woodworking for one simple reason: When I’m at the bench, I only need to focus on cutting to a line. The world stands still. I can focus, and relax, and the clouds part, for a moment.
As a beginner, finding these moments are easier: One board, one tool, and the novelty of the experience will capture your whole attention. The projects are simpler, and easier to keep in mind. But over the course of years, my projects and work space have become a lot more involved, and it’s harder to hold on to those moments. Between running the business side of the shop, setting up routines, paying the bills, and making sure that everything I need is on hand, there’s a lot of work to keep the dream alive.
I realized pretty quickly that it was harder to work in my shop than it had been to work in school. And I began to realize that there were a lot of supporting elements in school that I’d never really noticed. Supporting elements in any good design are like that: If they’re done well, they’re almost invisible. I had to do a lot of thinking to bring back the simplicity that I found when I was in school.
The Space and Mind entries are an attempt to share what I’ve learned, to help other people find the focus and satisfaction that got me hooked in the first place. Part one looked back at shops that I worked in, that were filled with stuff, but weren’t really productive. Part two is organizing the shop, and storing tools and supplies in such a way that we can get to everything we need, when we need it, and go right back to work. Part three is about setting up the work space so that we can work easily. But before we can get to work, we need a plan. And that’s part four.

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
                                -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

To ‘know your enemy,’ you need to know how the finished product will come together. To ‘know yourself,’ you need to know that you have the skills required to make each part, as designed, to bring the project to completion. Given that, all you need to do is work.
I had a conversation at school that showed me just how important planning was, and how powerful it could be. It was my last semester at school, and I was talking to my friend, Chris. We were looking at some carved oval rosettes in a picture of a Federal style table. He wanted to incorporate them into the table he was building. Chris wanted to make sure that they’d be uniform in overall shape, depth of relief, and any other ways that he hadn’t seen yet and couldn’t articulate. He was not a freehand carver, and he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make them all look the same. I wandered over, and we started bouncing ideas around, and together, we figured out how to lay the rosettes out and carve them in a procedural, repeatable way. I did a double-take, thinking about how we’d just broken down a complex looking element, to make it more approachable, and help create a superior table. In that moment, it felt like we were making molehills out of mountains, and that so much more was possible than I had previously realized. All it took was some problem solving, and some planning and forethought.
The first step of any project for me is to make a few rough sketches, and do some problem solving. Thankfully, I enjoy that part of the process. Once I’ve figured out answers to all of my questions, it’s time to start drafting.
Making a detailed drawing of the project is critical. It helps you to ‘know your enemy,’ in detail. Building on paper is easier than building in wood, because pencil lines and mistakes can be erased, and new solutions can be drawn over the old ones. Paper is cheaper than lumber. Save a tree: waste all the paper you need. Drafting is tedious, but not as tedious as remaking a part when something goes wrong. And I can say from experience that it’s a lot less tedious than improvising a fix when I’ve screwed something up and the assembly won’t go together.   
Improvising is insidious. Some people enjoy that kind of work, because it feels similar to creative, spontaneous work. It’s not; spontaneous work starts out that way. One compromise can beget another, and another, as you struggle to make everything work out the way it was originally supposed to. I was reading Popular Woodworking recently, and read an argument against stock lists that said something long the lines of: “Projects change as they go along, so the stock list isn’t necessarily helpful, because you’ll need more wood than you have anyway.“ Projects don’t change. They get modified when someone botches the job.   
Accurately building a single drawer is easy. Most people can picture the whole thing in their head: Front, back, two sides, and a bottom that is held between grooves. Building a drawer is not a project that changes along the way, because it’s hard to go wrong when you have a clear image in mind. But, the mind can only hold so many things at one time. Improvisation is so insidious because there’s always a detail somewhere that you forget. Once the project is more complicated than simple and box-shaped, it’s not biologically practical to try to work from memory. The mind simply can’t hold all of that information. That’s why you need an accurate drawing, and it’s why you need to work the details out in advance.
Working things out on paper in a three dimensional way will stretch your capacity to envision something in three dimensions. This will help you work out how to put it together, and that’s very useful when it comes to ‘knowing your enemy:’  breaking the project down into simple steps, and thinking about what's involved, so that you know exactly what you need to do when you step up to the bench. Writing a procedure will give you a list of everything you need to do to complete the project, and it will help you focus on problem areas, and new skills when it’s required.

‘Knowing yourself,’ means knowing what you can do, both in terms of skill, and in terms of your machines' capacity. As you're planning out your procedures, you will see potential problems crop up, well before you start cutting anything. If the boards you need to mill down are too wide for your planer, if the carving requires carving tools that you don't have, if the joinery is too far beyond what you've successfully accomplished so far... these are the sticking points that will cause trouble. And typically, those points are what lead to having to improvise. Fix the problems before they become problems: either modify the design, or modify your tool or skill set.
Once you have a drawing to work from, writing up a procedure is mostly working backwards. For example:

-The final step in assembling the drawer is sliding the bottom into the grooves in the sides and front of the assembled drawer box. It will slide in past the back of the drawer, which should come to the top edge of the grooves in the sides.
-Before I assemble the drawer, those grooves need to be there. 
-Before assembling the sides, front and back, I must cut dovetails.
-Before cutting dovetails, I must lay them out.
-To lay out my joinery, I must establish accurate reference surfaces, and make sure that the joinery will not expose the grooves in the front and sides. (this should be worked out in the drawing.)
-To establish reference surfaces, ends must be cut squarely to finish length, and inner surfaces must be planed to the final finished surface.
-To make sure the joinery clears the grooves, the grooves must be cut.
-Before I can cut to finish length, I must mill the stock down.
-Before milling stock, I must cut pieces to rough length from rough lumber.

Reading the list up and down, it takes time to spot details that have been left out... like cutting the back to proper width, after the grooves have been cut in the sides. Going over your procedures carefully, a few times, will help ensure that the final draft of all of the necessary steps are accurately described. Accurate procedures will provide a road map to guide you through building your project, so it’s time well spent. It's certainly better spent than the time it would take to modify finished parts or assemblies when you realize that something has gone awry
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you understand how the project needs to come together, and you're competent to make that happen, it should all come together well. If you don’t understand the project fully, but you understand, more or less, what you’re capable of, you will probably be able to put something together that’s decent, with a few fixes along the way. If you don’t know how everything is supposed to come together, and you’re not sure how you’re supposed to make it fit, chances are very good that it will take you a few failures to arrive at success. And nobody likes to waste that much time and money.
My Zen moment comes when I’m standing at the bench and simply working. Sometimes that means following a line. Or laying out the lines that I’ve decided upon. Or making the pieces that will then have the joinery laid out... and so on, up the ladder of the procedure. I find that moment when I can just work, without having to think about the work. My worst moments are when I find myself standing in front of the table saw, while it’s on, trying to do the math for something I haven’t really wrapped my head around yet, feeling like I should hurry, since the saw is on and the clock is running, not sure where I’m going, not sure how to get there... That is the time to go back to the drawing board. If I have to second-guess what I’m doing, it means I'm lost in the woods, and my Zen moment is ruined. I’m only human, and I ruin my fair share of moments. But I can trace them all back, and work my way back to solid ground.
Organizing Shop and Mind means organizing and assembling a shop that will support your work. It means setting up your work space so that you can work easily. And it means planning your work.
Then, there is only the simplicity of working.

Chris, at work on his table


Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

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