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Like any profession, woodworking has a lot of jargon specific to the craft. And no matter how simple the project, I always seem to run smack up against this issue when writing woodworking articles.

Case in point: I recently finished building a wall box for the I Can Do That story in our August issue. The project was easy , just a few boards cut to size and nailed together. So I thought writing about it would be easy, too. And for the most part, it was. But, when my story made the first round through the other editors for changes, Senior Editor Bob Lang pointed out that my terminology was a bit off.

I wrote, “cut the shelf to the final width.” But, because the grain of the wood in the shelf runs side to side between the two upright pieces, what I was really doing was cutting it to final length.

However, to the novice reader (read: me and the target group for the I Can Do That projects), this is confusing. That piece of wood runs across the width of the shelf in the finished project, so if I wrote, “cut it to final length,” I suspect a lot of readers might be scratching their heads and wondering what the heck I meant. Because I didn’t have enough room to go into an explanation in the story, I simply wrote around the problem (a time-honored tradition in journalism).

But now I feel guilty about perpetuating my ignorance on unsuspecting readers, so here’s a quick primer I lifted from one of Bob’s books, “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture.”

“For individual parts, width is always the direction across the wood grain, and length is always the direction with the grain,” writes Bob.

In the photo above, on the top piece you can see the grain running top to bottom…which is the length. The width runs across the long side, from left to right. So, the top piece is 2-1/2″ long and 26″ wide. The bottom piece, in which the grain runs left to right, is 21″ long and 2″ wide.

The orientation of the parts in the finished piece makes no difference when discussing the individual pieces.

Once, however, the pieces are put together, the dimension tags for the individual pieces no longer apply. For example, the long grain of a drawer front (the length, in pieces), runs across the width of a drawer. Oy vey.

Then there’s nominal v. actual size when buying lumber. See the ICDT manual for an explanation of that bugbear.

And don’t get me started on rebates/rabbets, cramps/clamps, trenches/grooves…¦

– Megan Fitzpatrick

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Showing 7 comments
  • brad roon

    i’ve been banging nails, trimming out houses, and building cabinets and almost anything else for 26 years, and nobody explained that to me before now. the longer i go, the more i’m aware the less i know.

  • Al Horowitz

    Re: Damian Penney’s question about measuring MDF.
    Since there is no grain it makes no difference what you call the dimensions. If it is 6"x12" it could be 6 inches wide or 6 inches long. Specifying the grain direction is basically for appearances.

  • Jerry

    I get too confused trying to figure out other major stuff so to keep this in perspective, I always remember L X W is long length by wide width. The third dimension (tall height) does not have that nicety.

  • Don Butler

    Industry standard? What industry are we readers in? If we were industry experts we wouldn’t be reading Popular Woodworking. Likely we’d be reading some industry specific magazine.
    Remember who we are. You know, the audience. The ones who pay for the magazines.

    Having conventions that require previous knowledge of industry standards doesn’t make sense for amateurs. Write it out with a full explanation, please!

  • Bob Lang

    This is an industry convention, when there is a grain direction to the material. Take for example a drawer front-if you specify it as 6" wide by 20" long, then you know the grain will run horizontally. If you call it 20" wide by 6" long, the grain will run vertically.

    Adopting standard terminology helps to avoid confusion.


  • Keith Mealy

    LOL. I remember a few years ago discussing lumber with a friend who’s a home ec. teacher. You know, a yard of cotton material, a cup of detergent, teaspoon of vanilla, etc. The conversation went something like this:
    Q: How wide is a 1-by-4?
    A; Three and a half inches.
    Q: Then how thick is a 1-by-4?
    A: Three-quarters of an inch.
    Q: How long is an 8 foot 1-by-4, then?
    A: 96 inches.


  • Damian Penney

    That’s just silly; the description would have to be reversed if you were building it from grainless MDF. Who is Bob quoting when he states that rule?

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