If you look at the video I made about buying lumber, you can see how I approach that task. If the piece were more complicated, I would have had my cut list in hand. The most important part of the video is at the end. I have all the raw materials I need, I’ve checked them against my list to make sure I have enough and then I buy an extra board. That board is still kicking around the shop, but it was money well spent. Driving to the lumberyard in the middle of a project to get one more piece of wood isn’t an experience you want to repeat.
If I’m not picking the lumber piece by piece, I buy way too much, often two or three times as much as I think I need. I have a coffee table in my living room that I made about 25 years ago. I remember picking through 100BF of lumber to make a top that is about 5 square feet. I still enjoy this table because I did a great job matching the three pieces I glued together for the top. If I had put it together from mismatched pieces to save a buck, I wouldn’t feel the same way. As I pick pieces for specific parts, I mark them up with a lumber crayon or chalk to remind me where they go. I look for different grain patterns for tops and panels than I do for frame parts or legs. It would be nutty to think you could plot this out before you see the lumber you have to work with.
I cut things to rough lengths and widths before I head for the jointer and planer. I like to leave a lot of extra length, but I’ll come pretty close in width if I want a specific piece in a specific place. How much extra is entirely subjective and once again, it mostly depends on the character of the wood on hand. I usually mill in two steps, leaving everything too thick and too wide for a few days. When I do the final milling, I’m picky about thicknesses. Thickness has more of an effect on other parts than many people realize. If you buy lumber surfaced by someone else, you need to check the thickness and assess the impact on the size of other parts before you start complaining about an inaccurate cut list.
When I have my parts edged and surfaced, I rip parts to width, but generally leave pieces about 1/4″ too wide and several inches too long. I wait as long as I can to cut to a finished width. I like to run one edge over the jointer before ripping. I set the depth of cut on the joiner to remove 1/32″, so if I have a part that needs to be 3″ wide I run one edge over the joiner, rip at the table saw to 3 1/32″, then remove the saw marks with one last pass on the joiner. If I have a large number of parts, I’ll send them as a bunch on edge through the planer. That removes the table saw marks and makes them all exactly the same size. This takes some extra work, but it assures me that I have parts that are really straight and accurately sized.
The extra length also stays as long as possible. I usually make a practice joint or two, and I like to use stock the exact thickness and width of my finished parts. This is where I use the extra length, and often I’ll cut an extra piece or two for testing or emergencies. Most of the time the distance between joints is more important than the overall length of the pieces. I usually make a storyboard and after I’ve rough-cut the stock I refer to that rather than measure, or I mark directly from the work as it progresses.
The cut list is an important tool in the process of making a piece of furniture, but like most tools it should be used at the right time and in the right way. When I made kitchen cabinets, I went ahead and cut all the parts ahead of time. In that situation, that procedure made sense; the bugs were worked out of the process and I was making something over and over again. When I’m building a piece of furniture, I’m essentially making a prototype and I get better results when I leave my options open for as long as possible.
–Robert W. Lang