Should Cut Lists be Banned? - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Should Cut Lists be Banned?

 In Feature Articles

It is my opinion that a cut list is one of the most useless additions to woodworking project articles. Yes, these charts, or pages in some cases, do contain beneficial information, but many woodworkers rely solely on the lengths, widths and thicknesses of the cut list when they mill project parts. And they shouldn’t.

There are sizes given that are correct, but a small adjustment at the start of a project changes the figures as you move further into the build. And sometimes these figures are completely wrong (take a look at the published cut list below and see if it’s possible to build the project. We continue to get calls asking if this list is correct.) My favorite cut list question deals with the secretary in “The Illustrated Guide to Building Period Furniture” (Popular Woodworking books). The case bottom is listed at 3-5/8″ thick (oops). I get a few messages per year asking me to confirm or deny! (Just so you know, the thickness should read 5/8″.)
This past week I taught a class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking just outside Indianapolis. As I began the class, I handed out a simple line drawing of the front and side elevations. I suggested to those in the class that the cut list (sent out as they registered for the class) and the plan differ and everyone would need to work through the project as they proceeded. (Real life is a great teaching method!)
The variation between the drawing figures and the cut list numbers was the major difference. If you followed the plan, you cut the case side rails at one length, but the cut sheet had a different set of figures. Almost everyone in the class used the cut sheet to begin the chest of drawers, which was fine. However, most class attendees also used the cut sheet to move two or three steps ahead while waiting to get to one of five mortise machines set up for the class (there are many, many mortise-and-tenon joints in this chest).
Herein is the problem. The cut sheet dimension for the raised panel of the bottom unit was incorrect if you chose to use the cut sheet for the rails on the sides. But it was correct if you followed the plan. All but a few class participants came to me when their bottom units did not fit the case sides after the backboard rabbet was in place. When asked if they worked through the plan or simply relied on the cut sheet, most confessed to using the cut sheet. At that point, they had to work through the plan to come up with a solution.
So how do you use a cut sheet effectively? The best use of a cut list is to find the board footage of the project and to line up the parts as you select lumber. Also, use the cut list to determine the size of the case. Once that assembly is finalized, all the measurements are taken from that case. Use the cut sheet only where you know you can gain accurate information because the size is not dependent on earlier work. There’s no problem if you use the cut sheet to get the width of your drawer dividers, but if you vary that width from the cut list, make sure you check the lengths of the drawer runners before blindly cutting to the cut list length.
So how do you use the cut list on projects? I’ve known woodworkers who cut every part to the cut list before they begin to assemble the project. (I cannot see how they complete a piece.) Do you follow the list religiously? Use part of the information? Or do you find cut list totally void of useful information? Leave a comment to let us know.

– Glen D. Huey

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Showing 40 comments
  • Randall

    I find a cutlist useful when the size of a compnent is not given in the measured drawing. I must say that an accurate cutlist is helpful in estimating the cost of materials as well as the time it will take to build a given project.

  • hugh barton freeman

    I use a cut list on every project. If I’m building a project from a magazine I usually redraw the plan and incorperate desirable changes. Then I make my own cut list and use it for buying lumber and I really don’t know how I would buy wood without it. Depending on the size of the job I rough cut the parts. Large projects are divided into subsections.If there is a change while building then I change the cutlist. I use it, need it, want it. 🙂 bart

  • James Watriss

    Dangerous headline… but I think there’s a big point being missed.

    "Save a tree" in woodworker’s terms means wasting as much paper as is necessary before cutting into valuable lumber.

    Plan all of it. Read the source material. Study it, until you understand it. And remember that you’re not really building the piece in the pictures. You’re building a piece based on the piece in the pictures. Otherwise you’re not really a woodworker… you’re an employee, doing what you’re told to do to complete someone else’s project, without any responsibility or reward whatsoever for how it turns out. A woodworker is a thinking person.

    The source material still has to be looked over beforehand. Even if it’s 99% accurate already. Go over the plans, go over the construction. Make sure you have enough wood to cut the pieces long enough to include the tenons at the end, etc. And make sure you have a good enough understanding of the construction that you know that the tenons are supposed to be there. Knowing these details backwards and forwards will contribute to a successfully executed project. It’s your time that will be wasted if you get to a critical point and don’t have the material, or the information that you need.

    It irks me that pithy sayings are often so true. Plan your project. Then work your plan.

    This is the real secret to growing as a woodworker. If everyone stuck with projects that were within their experience, we wouldn’t have any issues. The problem is the shiny pages of the magazine or book that tells you that you can actually build… ONE OF THESE!!! … but you haven’t done anything quite that ambitious yet. Plan it out. Build it in your head. It’s guaranteed that there will be learning opportunities along the way. They’re cheaper, though, if you have them on paper. Plan how you’re going to get past the parts that lie beyond your knowledge. Solve the problems you can find BEFORE you encounter them in person. Tuition to the school of hard knocks is already pretty steep, and that’s without adding in the extra lessons.


    Chris, I’m not a perfect woodworker, and I’m still not even a published author, but if I Was going to throw a stone, I would throw this one… (You should duck, it’s a pretty filthy rock.)

    If you’d stop treating larger projects like a beginner’s segment, the cut list wouldn’t be your problem. Write shorter articles on more involved pieces. Include rough dimensions and proportions, and let the readers work the details out for themselves… if they really need to have such basic information provided, are they ready to take the project on? Skip basic procedures if the piece is advanced enough that the basics should be understood, and do a write up on the complicated parts. Make the readers come to your level.

    In the meantime, run a 6 month center piece on planning and drafting, to give the beginners the tools to come to that level. Turn "I can do that," into "You can do it!" and run the complicated projects with the unprinted title of "I can do this… can you?" Challenge your readers. Don’t let them flip through an issue without finding a reason to stop and think.

    It’s true that learning the uses and pitfalls of cut lists is a rite of passage. But that’s not really a good level to keep the discussion.

    Please return fire, as I’m sure it’s well deserved, and I’m sorry if my cranky mood today has taken things too far.

  • Matt Stachoni


    I started my reply, but as usual got WAY too wordy. So I posted my thoughts on my blog here.


  • Bruce Jackson


    "sometimes walks into the shop, sees me doing this woodworker hoodoo, and silently back away. Sort of Air-woodworking instead of air guitar."

    Oh, you too? I even talk to myself. I figure long as I don’t answer, I’m OK. Keeps away the pesky kids in the neighborhood, though. That is, provided that I do most of my work early in the morning, when the kids are in school or sleeping their Saturdays and summers away. Or, being the "mad Englishman" I am, working in the high humidity which drives the pesky kids inside to their Xboxes and iPhones.

  • Michael Benz

    I really like Scott Carlson’s above note.
    He suggests that for learning experiences like magazines and classes, a cut list reflect which dimensions rely on which other dimensions, given a particular cutting and fitting chronology. THis would be much more complicated do produce, but would aid in teaching basic relationships between elements of a project.
    This would especially apply for a piece which would be custom fit, such as:

    Here’s a computer table, you pick the width and height.
    Here’s what would change and what wouldn’t.
    Now plug in your custom values.

  • Michael Benz


    I wouldn’t quote Reagan on anything to do with woodworking. Remember, he’s the Prez who said "If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen’em all"

    I like cut lists for lumber selection/purchasing. However, I always check them against the plan, and buy extra. I also stand in front of my empty assembly table and wave my fingers in the air, sometimes with a square and tape, envisioning and counting. My family sometimes walks into the shop, sees me doing this woodworker hoodoo, and silently back away. Sort of Air-woodworking instead of air guitar.

    Voluntary or involuntary changes find their way into almost all of my projects.

    My design processes don’t end until the lacquer is dry.

    I keep track of what I’ve used throughout the project, thus creating a cut list as I go, so that, combined with tool set-up data and jigs and fixture settings, I can duplicate a project.

  • Patrick Thrush

    Remember the old maxim, "measure twice, cut once"?

    Unless I have done the design myself, and understand fully the implications and required cuts to assemble a project–a design and cut list generated by someone else needs scrutiny–for accuracy and even product improvement.

    Cut lists are great things. They are useful for developing stock for a production item, creating material lists for supply purchase, and generating all of the dimensional millwork necessary for a repetitive assembly scenario. Stock cabinet work is a great example of this, where all component pieces are standardized. But to just take someones word for something in a unique project, cut up a load of expensive hardwood, and then have to make a design adjustment or buy more wood because of errors in dimension or faulty design logic is the hallmark of a very naive woodworker.

    Design. Double check. Measure twice, cut once. Fit. Make the list for reference. Move on…

  • Stephen Kirk

    I am with the majority who use a cut list merely for reference and often to calculate the board feet of lumber I will need. I would prefer to have a plan tell me I need x bd ft of 3/4" stock, y bd ft of 5/4" stock, z of sheet goods, etc. The diagrams that say to get 3 boards of 3/4" stock 7" wide by 8′ long are almost useless. I work from rough lumber and much of my own stock is rarely completely free of defects so I’m often working around problems in boards. I use the list simply to see what I can get out of a board – which are always cut oversize. I fit to the piece once I have major carcass construction done.

    If I had my choice between a cutlist or a very detailed drawing, I would say give a more detailed drawing, draw it to scale and then tell us the scale. If something isn’t marked we can take the measurement from the drawing. Add in the estimated bd ft by lumber thickness or sheet good. Then, toss in a reference cut list if you want.

  • JJ Gray

    I generally think of cutlists as useful for efficient repeating of projects, especially in a professional shop situation in which you’re trying to build the most efficient construction processes as possible.

    But as a hobbyist (so far), I’ve never made an individual piece more than once. I’ve also never worked off set plans. I have an idea in my head, a rough sketch on paper with general measurements, and then I build the piece to fit itself. I begin by rough-cutting the pieces to size/shape, then adjusting as I build. The only time I’ve ever used anything resembling a cutlist was when I was making 25 new cabinet doors of varying dimension. My doors needed to go with one another and I needed to finish within the decade, so a cutlist helped my assembly line in that process. But because I’m constantly adjusting and refining elements as I go anyway, having a firm cutlist would only cause me more problems.

    Larger production needs excepted, I think I’m better off fitting as I go.

  • Bob

    Cut Lists; My 2 cents.
    I’ve been doing WW for many years and have been reading WW magazines at least that long. (I just blundered upon an article written by Chris when he was working for another magazine.)

    Cut lists; I make my own, every time. Even when supplied with a measured, exploded drawing. I take the time to sit down and (re)draw a plan using AutoSketch(CAD). I can determine and verify the exact dimension needed for each piece and make an accurate cutlist accordingly.

    Project development in this manner is time consuming but it’s simply part of the job. One reward from having an exact plan and cutlist is the piece of mind gained by having drawn each piece line by line, to scale, and knowing that it will indeed fit together correctly.

    Another reward is being able to see how a piece will go together beforehand and getting a feel for any assembly problems which may crop up.

    Lastly, you can save the plan to disk. You can recall your plan, modify it and save it as another project or make any changes you happen to stumble across while building your project.

    These are the benefits of using my own cutlists.

    Cutlists from a magazine plan??? — I never use them! I learn more developing my own.

  • Gerald Jensen

    I use cut-lists, but I also use chalk to map out the boards and pieces I need to cut for a project. That way I can not only get the number of parts I need, but I can do a better job of selecting pieces based on the grain, and (hopefully) catch any errors that crept into the makeup of the cut-list.

    Cut-lists are not the problem … INACCURATE cut-lists are. Mistakes should be caught and corrected as part of the editor’s review before the article goes to press.

  • Doug Hepler

    This topic interests me. Thanks to all for an interesting discussion. When I got the WW bug seriously, five years ago, my first project was from a magazine. As I recall I followed the cut list and the exploded drawing religiously (naively?), even though I had modified some outside details. It came out very well.

    Five years and maybe 20-30 projects later, I now design most of my own projects. I still make a drawing, cut list and written rough outline of the steps I will follow. However the only part of the cut list that is carved in stone is the outside of the piece — the legs, sides, etc. I assume that all other parts need to be fitted.
    I do work ahead to make the best use of setups. I can’t imagine setting up my TS for rips and then for crosscuts and then for tenons and then back to rips, etc. But experience teaches wisdom about how far ahead I can safely go.

    A cut list is essential
    1. To plan the layout and figure the lumber
    2. To organize my fevered brain while I am trying to carry out individual operations safely and accurately
    3. To provide a parts list so I can number each part while it is waiting to be assembled
    4. To provide a checklist so that I don’t forget to make a part.

    If I decide to write up a project for posterity and post it on my website, I add a disclaimer that it may be only a concept description and that whoever uses it should take responsibility for his own work. I don’t suppose PW can do that, but its true nonetheless. Maybe you would provide useful instruction to beginners if you told them that.

    BTW I enjoy the informal tone of PW and its related publications/services. What other editorial staff could actually disagree in public?

  • Henry

    I happen to be making the Limbert Wastepaper Box right now, and the cut list I have from an old Pop.Woodworking magazine is accurate; although I have changed it to make the box slightly smaller; I like the cut lists as it gives me some sense of the dimensions, although I usually adjust the dimensions because, as a novice, I always need some "waste" space before I get to the actual finished dimensions. I wouldn’t want the cut lists to be eliminated, even if there are mistakes in them–I just have to think it through each time. – Henry Grant

  • Neil

    There’s a forum with a Design Thread that is left very ambiguous by the moderator to allow thought to wonder. The cut list came up about 2 or 3 weeks ago and all sorts of approaches where mentioned. Of course I’m "anti-cut list" and I threw out my approach of dimensioned pictures showing the parts and quantity needed to ease communication. Over the years numerous spiral notebooks accumulated, some got left behind others stored… somewhere(?), but I informed the forum that my approach worked exceptionally well.

    Then Ronaldo…….a Brazilian, presently attending a furntiure curriculum and living in Paris simply stated, "you have to have a cut list, its part of the objects documentation".

    I didn’t post another word after that and thought about all those pieces built on "variations of a theme" somewhere undocumented. A simple pencil sketch and a cut-list on a single piece of paper to throughly document the past, sure sounds like a good idea today.


  • James Brown

    A cut list is another tool in our shops, no matter what the shop size.If we learn to use it correctly then it will serve us well. As with any tool,we occasionaly need to tend to it and it is not always ready to go right out of the box (hand or power tools). I would not get rid of cut lists. They are very valuable and have always been a great help in planning and visualizing projects.I can also appreciate the diffculties that go with putting one together.

  • Dwight Andersen

    I agree w/ JonP. The argument made is not against cut lists but inaccuract cut lists. If correctful editing produced accurate cut lists they would match the plans. Obviously, as stated, if a modification was made early in the project that change would carry through the rest of the project but that has nothing to do with the cut list. In that case even the plan would be "wrong", i.e. not matching reality. That’s not a problem with a cut list or a plan. I like cut lists and use them as a tool. Like any tool, the user should use them correctly.

  • Scott carlson

    I completely rely on cut lists. (And my projects have gone together correctly) However, I’m build maybe one project a year. I think removing cut lists will make your projects less accessible to entry level developers. There are other magazines that handle the no cut list "genre."

    If you really want to try something different, maybe you could try something radically different. An initial cut list for the "case", later cut lists have a box for a measurement, a published "modifier", a result box. So for example, in the wastebasket project. The initial list is to cut the sides. The next list asks to measure the length of the side + 3/4" = final length of post.

    So encourage measurements but provide a system to help the woodworker get there.

  • Bob Reid

    I like cut lists, the list helps flesh out the plan and sometimes makes more sense than the plan. If I want something just like the article then I follow the cut list, if I want something different, I’ve got the list to work from to make the modifications I have in mind. I think the list serves a good purpose.

  • megan

    If the project is enticing enough (and appropriate for Popular Woodworking) and the writing is good, we’ll consider it, sans cut list. Heck – if the project is spectacular but the writing needs work, we’ll still consider it. The thing that tips the scales the most (after the project, of course), is the writer’s ability to provide good digital step photography.

  • Dana

    I think cut lists are a good thing, depending on the job. I am a cabinet maker and the shop I trained and am still working in uses cut sheets. These cut sheets are taken from a set of plans that are drawn up along with elevations so the builder can not only see which cabinet the part goes to but also where in the plan it goes. There are times when the owner may make a mistake, but that is what we get paid for, to catch, correct and move on. Our shop mgr makes sure any differences are changed on all copies so no matter what copy you grab, it is correct. As a woodturner on my own, I dont use them because the projects are each individual and I am the only one touching the wood so I understand if I make a mistake.
    For my 2cent, cut sheets are a great asset and should be a part of any shop. It helps everyone get a good grasp of the job or cabinet and see how the parts/doors/counter top they are making goes into the final product.


  • Jon

    I think many plans are far more complicated than they really need to be, this is why I have eliminated all measurement information from the ones we sell on our site. All you need to know is the thickness of the wood you are using and the rest comes together very easily.

    Jon @

  • jacob

    IMHO Most of these problems are avoided if you start with a "rod" or story stick/board whatever you call it, i.e. a full size drawing. Then everything including the cut list is referred back to that; if necessary by physically laying pieces on and taking marks directly from the drawing.
    Then you can work in any order you like, make all the components first, or just the carcase/frame etc. You know it will fit if it fits on the "rod" and you don’t need dimensions even.

  • Bryce

    Okay, I’ll chime in.

    The way I do woodworking projects is very slowly over several years. I may get 6-10 days in the shop in a year and I’ve got a main project and several small ones that compete for time. I always use a parts list. The parts list has the part size and material. It also has columns for three check marks: i) have material, ii) rough cut, and iii) final cut. There is also space for notes (often, I need to leave a hint to my future self).

    I layout my parts in the available lumber in chalk and check the part off the list as I find the right piece of wood. So my wood will be labeled with the parts that should come out of it and the list will shown which pieces have wood set aside for them. As I go, I use the parts list to keep track of where I am. When I come back to a project after 6 months, I know that the wood has be set aside for a specific drawer or door or component or if I still need to identify where the wood will come from. Also if I’ve cut the wood to rough dimensions, then the wood for a specific component is probably in a pile of rough parts tied together. If the final cut box is checked, then the part is either assembled or ready for assembly.

    Other uses of the parts list include estimating the amount of wood required and estimating how long the project will take (by number of parts). However, my main use of the parts list is to track progress and avoid duplication of effort when I have large gaps in my shop time.


    p.s. Just because some seem to get hung up on mistakes in the parts list, I’ll throw out that drawings also have mistakes (with dimensions) and I like to have both pieces of information to double check the integrity of the plans. If there is an inconsistency, I want to see it and figure out for myself how to approach the design.

  • Bill Dalton

    I find the cut list useful as a guide. I compare what is needed to what I have on hand and will take it with me sometimes when picking up lumber. But I am like many others in that I usually change something and so rely on the list only as a reference. I’m reproducing a small shaker blanket chest from one of Handberg’s books and a cut list would sure make it easier, but not better.

  • David Williams

    I probably tend to over use the cut list as well. I only get so much shop time and I have to make the most efficient use of that limited time.

    Using the cut list to break down major parts (usually left a little long and wide) from big boards, and to rough mill all my material (usually final thickness maybe little lenght/width left in them) is an important part of getting through the work in one or two hour segements and not losing my place.

    Yes, when stuff doesn’t fit right, I have to come up with plan B and I’m getting better about not going to final dimensions right away so I have chance to correct for errors… but the cut lists need to be accurate to help with this.

  • Bruce Jackson


    Here’s a question from a prospective author (I do have some things in the works). What if the author, because of his or her way of working, completely skips out on composing the cut list and simply send a dimensioned and exploded Sketchup of the piece as a sub for the cut list? Will you bounce back the contribution with blue-penciled letters "Pls furnish cut list!"?

    I’ve fallen in love with working from story sticks, reference pieces, templates, and completely (or nearly so) leaving the tape in my pocket. So things are cut and milled to the situation rather than the specs.

  • dave brown

    When I began woodworking I used the cutlist to estimate the lumber I would need to buy. As I built my projects I referred to the plans, not the cutlist.

    As I’ve matured as a woodworker, I use the dimensions on the plans as a guide for a project and see what I have in my wood stack that will get me there. My finished projects never look like the plans because I always change some details. I look at the plans to see how things should fit together but the dimensions find themselves out on my workbench. Those diagrams that help you lay out your cut list on a piece of lumber are great — if you’re using MDF.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    No problem, I actually didn’t take it that way. The internet has a funny way of removing a person’s "tone."

    We actually have differing opinions on cutlists at the magazine. Glen’s perspective is above. Mine is "trust but verify," Bob’s is different (Bob’s is *always* different).

    I’m the editor, so I guess I win. Ha!

    In any case, this discussion is exactly what I thought would happen: We are actually discussing a *very* important method of work (instead of "which drill should I buy.")

    Thanks to all who are chiming in.

    Carry on!


  • Samson

    Imagine if I made a list of the shapes and sizes for a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle and handed each item on the list to one of a hundred woodworkers to cut. I wonder how that puzzle would go together when I gathered all the pieces?

  • Jamie Ray

    Why don’t magazines give the rough board foot estimate instead of the cutlist. I find the cutlist useful only for finding that very figure. I realize those estimates are rarely going to be accurate but they give us a starting point for purchasing the necessary lumber. Please save me the calculations. Give me the estimated boardfootage over the cuttinglist anyday. Oh, but be sure the drawing shows all the necessary measurements.

  • mike

    cut lists are great if you are capable of cutting everthing to the exact size. I know that i am not good enough to make all my parts to the correct size. I’m not going to scrap a 45" piece of cherry just because it is 1/64" too short. I make them for the work i do, usually they get used for rough cutting boards to length. Some people are that good, i just try to do my best. It does not matter to me if the final demension is 47 31/32 instead of 48"nm8gq

  • JonP

    Chris, for the record, my message wasn’t intended as a shot at editors or the magazine. I actually agree with you: It’s foolish to just go cutting wood to the cut list dimensions without ensuring those dimensions conform with reality.

    But Glen didn’t write, "Trust but verify" cut lists. He suggested getting rid of them entirely. I think that’s a silly position, given that his complaint seems mostly about their occasional inaccuracies. My point is: Accurate cut lists do no harm — to those who use them and those who ignore them.

  • Dave

    After the carcass is built, the plan should be the "go-by" to see how the piece go together. The carcass should be where everything is sized from but the any cut sheets should be burned or folded up and used as a coaster for your drink!

    Cut sheets will cause more mistakes then any other part of the woodworking process.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    Like I said, we check these thinks like crazy. We also admit that we make a mistake here and there.

    Couple other details: Woodworking at home is not manufacturing; and wood is not steel. Making one part is different than making 1,000. Making wooden parts is different than making steel parts (as someone who has worked in both).

    The processes are different, and they should be.

    Those of you who have never made a mistake in woodworking or in a cutting list can cast the next stone (wink).


  • Richard Schink

    A cut list is a bill of materials. It is very useful for verifying the usually skimpy plans and poor dimensioning practices. However, if the author of an article doesn’t place the proper emphasis on accuracy, don’t put the cut list in the article. Incorrect information is worse than no information.

    Do you think a car manufacturer could make a car without a "cut list"? Build the frame and put all the panels on it only after measuring the frame? Come on.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    We check, double-check and then triple-check our cutting lists for accuracy. And I would say that our track record is very good.

    Some cutting list errors (such as the one for that waste basket) happened *after* it left the editors’ hands.

    Bottom line: Even the best woodworkers make mistakes between their construction drawings and cutting lists. The lesson here is to always reconcile the two before you cut wood.

    As Ronald Reagan said: Trust, but verify.


  • Larry Marshall

    I’m a firm believer in building ‘relative’ to previously cut parts and thus don’t find much value in cut lists beyond general guestimation of lumber requirements. Even there, if one is going to pay attention to grain direction, wood color and figure, you really need to be thinking a bit more abstract than exact dimensions when buying materials.

    Cheers — Larry

  • JonP

    As an editor it seems to me you should hold your disdain for INACCURATE cut lists, not the concept. If the cut lists were accurate, those who follow them religiously could do so without harm. And you could ignore them as you wish.

    It might not matter as much to woodworkers with great shops, but my nascent woodworking hobby is being done in a small, urban rowhouse without dedicated shop space. To me, an accurate cut list is very helpful, because I tend to cut ahead a lot (outside, natch).

  • Jason Kreger

    I’d have to say that a cut list can be very helpful if used correctly. I love cut lists for rough sizing. I’m not one to keep a lot of excess wood in my shop. So, when it comes time to start a project that I’ve found in a magazine, the cut list helps quite a bit at the hardwood dealer. That said, I must admit that the one time that I tried to "pre-cut" an entire project, the cut list didn’t match the plans!

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