Building Strategies Part 1 Making a Cut List

The major effort involved in building a piece of furniture is problem solving and establishing a sequence for the work. After that, it’s almost all cutting to a line and repairing the places where I missed cutting to the line. I like to plan my work because I don’t always make good design or engineering decisions at the workbench, and my skills at adding and subtracting seem to disappear when I step into the shop. My approach is colored by years of trying to make a profit, but I think building efficiently is still a worthy goal even when I’m building something just for fun.

I almost always draw a plan and develop a cut list, but what I draw for my own use is a lot less developed than what I draw and detail for publication. Drawing and planning are problem-solving tools, and when I have the problem solved I can start building. Figuring out what size to make the parts is one of the most important steps to understanding how a piece of furniture goes together, and I don’t think we make the best use of available space in the magazine when we publish a cut list. We’re serving up frozen fish sticks for dinner instead of letting our readers learn how to cook a rainbow trout. Of course if you want the rainbow trout you also need to learn how to catch, gut and clean the thing.

A cut list isn’t the statement of facts it appears to be, it is a series of if/then statements. If the sides of a box are really 3/4″ thick, then the length of the pieces in between will be X. If the width of the stiles is what is called for in the plan, then the rails in between will be the distance named in the drawing. If you miss the mark on one of these numbers early on, then you set off a chain reaction, and turn the remaining parts into a row of falling dominoes. It’s easy to think that a bunch of little errors will cancel each other out, but the opposite is true. All those little errors will congregate at the most visible place on the finished piece they can find. Once there, they will hold a party to mock you.

Making a cut list is rather tedious, but it isn’t that difficult, and it’s an opportunity to build a piece mentally before you begin building it for real. I look at the drawing, and start with the largest parts or sub assemblies and work my way down. I compare distances in the drawing with sizes of parts and make sure that these numbers agree. I consider the joints that hold the parts together and how that will affect the overall sizes of the pieces.

One of the advantages of making your own cut list is that you can adapt it to the way you work. When you use a cut list from a book or magazine, parts that fit inside other parts, like doors or drawers, are sized the way the guy who made the list works. There could be gaps you could drive a truck through at the end, or everything might be too big so you can trim it down. These aren’t necessarily errors; they are different ways of approaching a task.

And there is the matter of fractions and human errors. Publishers don’t like to see anything smaller than 1/16″ in print; so in many drawings and lists numbers are rounded off. That’s OK if you’re the one doing the rounding and you know what’s going on. It’s frustrating if you’re following another person’s plan and you end up long or short. There are also many ways for errors to sneak into a published drawing or list. Cut lists don’t automatically appear, generated by an infallible computer. This is the work of human beings, and the process to get from an accurate CAD drawing to the printed page is more complicated than it appears.

Even if I’m working from a cut list I’ve made, on a project I designed, I compare the completed list to the drawing once or twice before I begin. If the project is complex, I make a story pole, to use a both as a reference while I work and as one more place to double-check the numbers. Lately I’ve been using SketchUp to make combination detail drawings and parts lists like this. It would take far too long to do that in another program, and we don’t have room to do it in print, but it’s a nice way to organize information you will need to build.

The cut list by itself doesn’t have much value. Paired with a drawing it is incredibly valuable. The exercise of making your own, or at least checking a published list against a drawing is that it makes you go through the building process before you get to the shop. You have to examine the parts and consider how they go together, and what you need to do to each part to make it fit in the whole. When you get to the shop and start building for real you can do so confidently. If you depend on someone else to make the list, you’re missing an opportunity to learn, understand and develop your skills and confidence.

–Robert W. Lang

6 thoughts on “Building Strategies Part 1 Making a Cut List

  1. Peg

    I’m a 68 yr. old woman. I need those cut lists as a beginning woodworker. If you don’t include the cut lists and I have to take the time to figure it out myself, your publications are of much less value to me. Please keep including them!

  2. Merlin

    I took up woodworking as a hobby when retiring 12 years ago. As to cut lists and detailed plans I really don’t use either. If I am doing a project that I have never done I will make a sketch and figure how much material I will need and then cut as I go. Most of what I do is done in my head before I actually draw the sketch. If I am making something that I have seen it usually is not an exact match. For anyone that cannot see the end result in their mind then detailed pland and lists are pretty much of necessity.
    Keep up the good work and the great info.

  3. jacob

    If you start a job, big or small, with a proper "rod" (i.e. full size drawing usually on a few bits of board) then most of the calculations and other problems just disappear!
    "Cut list" becomes just a list of stuff you need to cut from your stock in sawn sizes, before planing. Then all the marks are taken from the rod direct, no measuring, calculating, no complicated drawings like the above. And greatly reduced error.

  4. Don Peregoy

    I was a little surprised at the number of comments on the last CUT LIST blog entry. I was even more surprised at how astonishingly angry some of them seemed.

    As if CUT LIST were both the cause and the result of the greatest evil in the universe. A wickedness that must be purged from our publications before another generation of our youth falls victim to its malevolent influence.

    Personally Ill take all the information I can get. Cut LISTS are just another organizational tool. I would also love – half a dozen detailed pictures of each project on your site.

    Please keep the details coming.


  5. Bob Lang


    The issue isn’t one of getting good numbers out of SketchUp. Translating that to what you see on the printed page is where it gets involved. To get the text to appear properly in print every number needs to be converted manually. It’s our equivalent of a sausage factory.

    As far as I know we’ll continue to print cut lists in the magazines. I’m just taking my turn with my thoughts about it.

    Bob Lang

  6. Lyle

    This is the second blog entry related to “cut lists” on your site. The tone of these entries lead a skeptic like me to believe that PW is conditioning / testing its readership to see if getting rid of cut list in the magazine article is acceptable. Why don’t you just do a online poll and let people speak? The last blog entry of this topic generated considerable debate on both sides of the fence however; the cinching comment was from Chris Schwarz who said the practice would continue.

    I can understand that this is a tedious exercise for you guys as contributors / editors /writers however; a good part of your readership still finds it useful.

    PW has been at the leading edge with respect to adoption of Sketchup for woodworking. There is even a free “add in” to import Sketch up dimensions into a program like “Cut List Pro”. Are you telling me that the magazine that so actively promotes adoption of Sketch Up cannot use this feature to generate an accurate cutlist? That would take care of majority of the issues raised on cutlist over the last two blog entries.

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