Creating a Woodworking Plan, E-Books, SketchUp
Comments 4

Creating a Woodworking Plan, Part 4: Bringing a Plan to Life

QSB Thumbnails

I make a ton of illustrations while creating a woodworking plan.

While the part of a woodworking plan I dread the most is the cut list, the part of the plan which is by far the most work is creating the illustrations. I make extensive use of illustrations in woodworking plans for two main reasons: 1) in general, I don’t like the photos I take, and 2) I think I can communicate more information in a better way with illustrations. By the way, see part 1 of this series here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Page Layout
A typical page of a project plan may have as many as four illustrations. Most have three and with the queen size bed plan I am updating, there is one which has no illustrations at all (the cut list page). I like to create visual interest by changing up the page layout as a project progresses. I do this mainly by changing the number of illustrations per page. I often use a grid structure for text and illustrations (see more on the benefits of using grids here – Google it also). This helps create an organized look to the document.

the standard three column landscape layout.

Above: the standard three column landscape layout.

Offset Two Column Layout

Above: an offset two column layout. I like this look.

Following the three column grid layout, the page above utilizes one large image to span the space of two columns. While the layout is offset, the page maintains a balanced look.

Two Column Page Layout

Two columns with two rows; about as complex as I get.

One column layout

Simple: one column; one big image.

Occasionally I’ll create an unstructured look to a page, breaking from the rules of grid structure and further adding variety to the project plan, but I am careful not to get too carried away with this.

I like using a big, bold image to anchor a page – either a big photo or a big illustration. Since my photography needs improving, this usually means I will use an illustration. I am currently working on ways to get a higher resolution image out of SketchUp without dramatically increasing the overall file size of the project plan.

Using SketchUp as an illustrator
While woodworkers use SketchUp for a variety of reasons, I mainly use it as a communication tool. The challenge is this: what can I do to communicate most clearly?

When we bought our new outdoor grill, the instructions had no text. The steps needed to build the grill were laid out using illustrations exclusively. While I will always place utmost importance on the text in my plans, communicating through illustrations, like they did with my grill, is very important.

In addition to communicating clearly through the images I create, I also want to create the most visually interesting image as possible. These two goals need to be in balance. I constantly review an illustration to make sure I don’t overload it visually (one reason for all the images at the top of this post). Overloading degrades the ability to communicate. SketchUp has some limitations which also impact communication, so finding a workaround to these limits has been challenging and rewarding at the same time.


In this SketchUp image, the door is emphasized by coloring the cupboard white. The cupboard creates visual interest, but the door is the focus.

Example emphasis via opaque rectangle

Here an opaque rectangle (noticeable on the right side of the image) forces emphasis on the face frame while also providing a status update on the total project. A simple process in MS Paint eliminates the outline of the opaque rectangle (from my bedside table plan).

Queen Bed Slats

I like using light and shadows, but I have to be careful this doesn’t make the plan hard to follow.

I like color, but an image full of color can be hard to read. Here I decide  white dimensions are more clear than black is.

I like color, but an image full of color can be hard to read. Here I decide white dimensions are more readable than black (click the image to enlarge).

All of these things are considerations when creating the best image which most effectively communicates the construction process.

A goal of mine is to start working with Adobe products in an effort to enhance SketchUp images. I would like nothing better than to be producing plans which rival what the woodworking magazines create. I’ll need to become a more advanced graphic illustrator to accomplish this.

Birthing a plan with MS Publisher
I am a stickler for creating a consistent look throughout a project plan. When it becomes time to assemble a woodworking plan, bringing the various page elements together, I go to Microsoft Publisher and establish graphic standards to be used throughout. These standards include fonts (to include color and size) margins, borders, etc. Here again I’ll use some tastefully designed magazines to spark some creativity.

I do like to use color as smartly as possible. To help with this, I go to an Adobe site called Kuler. An example of using Kuler can be found in the image below…

Using complimentary color

The background color on the right was chosen via Kuler.

In this example, I simply searched for “mahogany” in Kuler and it came up with both contrasting as well as similar colors to mahogany. The background color in the image above was chosen this way. I am assured of finding a complementary accent color using Kuler. Kuler provides standard RGB color numbers along with codes for several other color numbering methods.

Because the text used in the deminsions from my SketchUp model will vary based on how much I have zoomed in on the model, the only way to get consistent font size for dimensions is to let Publisher do it – no easy task.

MS Publisher Page Elements

This is what a page looks like in MS Publisher. Note the various text boxes and the link above the larger image (click to enlarge).

Close up showing text boxes

This close-up shows how I use text boxes for dimensions.

Note in the image above that there are two 12 1/2s. I am moving one so it sits on top of the other. Also note the different font sizes. The only way I have found to keep the fonts consistent is delete them from the SketchUp image (or in this case cover them up) and create text boxes.

I also document the steps for building the piece of furniture. I give basic pointers for building the project, with an emphasis on basic. This takes form as either a main text box adjacent to the anchor image, or through text within the image, or both. Because space is limited, I will on occasion link to a blog page which provides additional tips.

I have written about how I like to start a plan with a story – the reason for creating the piece of furniture. I then follow that with an exploded view, orthographic dimensional views, the cut list and then the process for construction. As this step-by-step building process takes shape, additional exploded views and close-ups are developed to explain all the construction details. I like to keep the number of pages to a minimum, so I am always looking for a way to tighten up the document. I shoot for a plan which is less than 10 pages, but due to the complex nature of my new queen size bed plan, it has 17 pages (the previous version of this plan had 20 pages).

This post is getting sort of long…
It has been a while since I wrote a post this long, so I am going to end it. That is basically how I create a page and in the case of my larger furniture projects, this can be a lot of work. A lot of work means a lot of time – my current goal is to stream line this process; I have been shooting for four plans per year, but I made three in 2012. I’d like to make six new plans in 2013.

To see my list of woodworking plans, some of which are free, click here.


  1. Jeff – this is such an awesome post! Lots of good points which I keep hearing in my grad seminars. thanks for the reinforcement!

    • Marie – thanks for the kind words. These woodworking plans have become a big undertaking. I am glad that you find this helpful.

  2. I like the use of “in color” drawings to reinforce that particular part of the board. I never could get into using plans that look like napkin drawings for lack of a better word. A bunch of black lines on a white background begin to look just like it sounds: a bunch of lines on piece of paper. The addition of color and texture adds a true third dimension to the plan.

    • Bill, it is interesting what you said about the napkin drawings because I have played around with the different styles in SketchUp to see what that looks like. Some people do it, but like you, I don’t (or have not found a style I like yet). Thanks for the comment.

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