Woodworking Digitally is More Convenient, But Not Better

What Do I Mean By “Woodworking Digitally”?

First, let me define digital. I don’t exclusively mean the use of measuring tools with LCD screens. I mean the use of any numbers at all, whether Metric or Imperial, decimals or fractions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

digital: of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units

Pros and Cons to Using Numbers

Whether following plans or making your own, numbers play an important role in communicating sizes. Of course, communication is not a bad thing. However, the disadvantage of building using measurements is that sizes of the things we design and build tend to be based on convenient numbers (e.g. 42-1/2” or 850 mm) rather than sizes best suited to either the materials being used or the product being built.

If you are designing and building the item yourself, why not build without numbers? There is no rule that says a board 3/4” thick is the ideal balance between strength and weight, or that it a 1×4 is perfectly proportioned.

A Few Examples of Not Using Numbers

Numeric values are not required to build a good chair. A chair seat should be deep and wide enough to sit in comfortably, and at an appropriate height. Stack some toolboxes and plywood and try sitting on it. Add or remove layers and experiment with different heights. Do you want your feet to rest flat on the ground? The chair height you find comfortable likely isn’t an even number.

Move forward and sit on the edge of the seat. Move backward until you’re comfortable and make a mark where the back rest would be. Or start with a chair already made, and test it to see if you would change any proportions.

Already have your materials on hand? Maybe your project allows enough flexibility to use the wood to its fullest. Pick the best boards for the table top and arrange them for the best grain match. Then cut the table top as big as possible. Maybe it’ll be rectangular, or maybe it will be elliptical.

This table was made for a cherry crotch slab, and I made it as big as it allowed.

Building a cabinet for a specific spot and need it to hold dishes? Use a straight scrap of wood to make a story stick. Simply make marks on it indicating the length, width and depth of the cabinet. Line up your plates and bowls on the counter and figure out how many shelves you need, and how much headroom is required for each.

Flip your story stick over and make additional marks on the back for the location of each shelf. Then transfer these dimensions either to the material or directly to the saw.

Story sticks are also ideal for replicating something. You never have to ask – is this shelf 14-7/8 or 14-15/16 inches wide”, or “is 14-3/4 inches close enough”? Instead, it’s just a definitive line for the width of the shelf. Better yet, if the shelf is removable, you can use it to set up a stop block or rip fence to produce an identically sized part.

How often do you need to find the middle of the board? This is a task that I do very frequently, and there’s no reason to bring numbers into the mix. A common approach is to set a combination square so that when the stock is against one edge, the blade is locked near the middle of the board. Make a small mark along the end of the blade and flip the square so the stock rests against the opposite edge. The middle of the board is equidistant from those two marks, and you can readjust the square to be as precise as you need.

Never forget, invert, or mix up numbers again. Never make a rounding error and stop working with convenient dimensions. Work to a level of precision beyond what is practical with numbers. Save the digital for reading blogs.