Cutlists are a waste of space
We get a fair number of emails and phone calls from readers asking us to include cutlists for the furniture projects we run in the magazine. A small part of me understands that request. Cutlists are great for figuring out how much and what size lumber you need. But most of me thinks that the potential harm of cutlists outweighs their benefits. I’ll run through the good and the bad, give you a brief explanation of why Fine Woodworking doesn’t provide cutlists, and point you to some great resources to help generate more-detailed drawings and cutlists of your own.
Cutlists are great in the early stages
When you head out to the lumberyard to buy boards for a project, you can save yourself time, money, and headaches if you have a clear understanding of what you need before you get there. Don’t worry so much about board feet. Rather, worry about the parts you need to make and the size boards you need to get those parts. My colleague Kelly Dunton has a great way to do that. He doesn’t mention one explicitly, but a cutlist is a helpful tool for figuring all of this out. Because a cutlist lists each part with its final dimensions, you can quickly figure out that a 6 in. wide board that’s 8 ft. long is big enough for you to get all of the rails and stiles needed for two doors (For this example, rails: 2 1/2 in. wide by 12 in. long; stiles: 2 1/2 in. wide by 30 in. long). As you find the lumber you need, you can check off parts on the list. Then, when you get back to shop you can use the list as a guide for rough cutting parts to size. (You should do that, too. After rough cutting them, let them sit and acclimatize to the shop.)
But they’re no good once you start building
Let’s say I’m making a cabinet. The first thing I’d do is make the carcass: a top, a bottom, and two sides. I could get the final dimensions of those parts from my cutlist. But once the carcass is together, I’d put the list away and not go back to it. Why? Because at that point there is no guarantee if I were to use it to cut a shelf divider, for example, that the part would fit the actual carcass, because wood moves and the dados I routed might be a bit deeper, shallower, wider or narrower than on the plan. Instead, I’d first thickness the divider, testing its fit in the dados until it slid in without effort or slop. Then I’d square up one end, put it in place and mark for its length. Back to the tablesaw for a crosscut and test the fit. If anything, it would be a bit long, so I’d take it over to my shooting board and trim the divider to fit. All of measurements, in other words, are taken directly from the carcass itself. That way, I know the divider will fit. If I just cut it according to some theoretical design, it might not fit. And if it’s too small, I’m sc%$#@d and starting over.
So what does the way I work have to do with anything? Well, the biggest danger of a cutlist is that it might seduce you into milling all of your parts to their final dimensions before you start building. And that is a recipe for disaster. I know that it might be hard for some of you to believe that anyone would actually do that, mill and cut all of their parts to final dimensions first. But it happens. I’ve fielded the emails and Kelly Dunton has handled a ton of phone calls from folks who think one of our plans is wrong because his (or her) drawer front is too small for the opening. Eventually, it comes out that instead of fitting parts to the case as it was built, he (or she) cut them all out ahead of time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coming down hard on those folks. We all make mistakes and we have to learn some time. But printing a cutlist in the magazine isn’t going to help them. If anything, it will just lead them down the wrong road by suggesting that building furniture is just a matter of cutting out a lot of pieces and then putting them together, as if a piece of furniture were some kind of jigsaw puzzle.
How to break free of cutlists
“Okay,” you say, “I’ll never ask for a cutlist again. But tell me what I should do instead.” Fair enough. Here is what I do. First, I sketch and sketch and sketch until I have a good understanding of the design I intend to build. And then I do a dimensioned drawing of the front, side, and top (this is a scale drawing). Then I often do a perspective drawing to get a better sense of proportions. Only then do I generate a cutlist. If you’re building one of the projects in the magazine, you’re in luck. We always include an exploded drawing with the most important dimensions given. Based on it, you could produce a front, side, and top drawing and generate every dimension from them. And then you could generate a cutlist. Or you could skip the front, side, and top drawings and go right to the cutlist from the exploded drawing. I know that sounds all fine and dandy, but if I were you I’d ask for some more detailed advice than that. So, up above you’l find a list of articles that we’ve run in the past that will show you how to do everything from making your own drawings to generating a cutlist.
Learning to fish
Finally, let me speak briefly about why the magazine doesn’t provide cutlists. As you might have guessed by now, part of it is that we don’t want to lead folks to believe that you can mill and cut all of your parts to final dimensions before beginning to cut joinery and put things together. But there are other reasons. Magazine space is limited and we’d rather use the space taken up by a cutlist to provide you with information about a technique or some other helpful tidbit that you might not be able to figure out on your own. I can’t stress that enough. Explaining how to make a piece of furniture in eight pages or less is difficult. There are some tough choices to make about what to show and what not to show. Not including a cutlist isn’t one of them. A cutlist for a big project might take up 1/2 or 3/4 of a page. In the same space we can show instead the great technique the author uses to set the plunge depth of a router for routing a hinge mortise, for example. You can use a tip like that for the rest of your woodworking life. But we’re not leaving you high and dry. The exploded drawing we provide is complete enough to be used as a source for generating excruciatingly detailed drawings and cutlists. And that’s something every furniture maker should know how to do. If you don’t, it’s nothing to feel bad about. Just get out there and learn. Not only will you pick up a good skill, you’ll understand the piece you’re making better, and you’ll begin to develop a sense of design. You’ll learn to fish (and in more ways than one).
So, what do you think? Would you rather we give cutlists? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Fit parts as you go—that way they'll fit the actual piece, rather than a measured drawing.
Cutting directly from a list—as opposed to measuring from the piece—can lead to a drawer front that's too short.
Put your ruler away and mark directly from the piece.