Behold the pattern

Ever walk into the shop of a machine tool woodworker?  There’s jigs out the wazoo!  And sleds and featherboards and…


It’s enough to drive you insane, but it underscores an essential difference in the two methods.  In machine tool woodworking, you move the wood around the tool.  With hand tools, the reverse is true.  If I want a dovetail with a little steeper angle, I just cut it, rather than having to align the wood juuuust right as it goes into the machine.  But one interesting tool that the electron wielders use, and one that tends to get overlooked by those of us using hand tools, is the template.

See, to guide an electric router around the edge of a workpiece in a (mostly) controlled manner, a template is pretty well essential.  So machine tool woodworkers have templates of all sorts of things to guide the electric router.  Hand tools rely on guidance from the hands rather than a chunk of MDF, so templates get largely ignored.


One thing that the templates happen to do is to preserve the patterns of the work done in the past.  If you ever have to repeat it, it’s quick work to take the template out and go.  Whenever I make something new, I try to always make a pattern of the relevant parts.  It takes me a fair bit of fussing with a French curve and such to work out how to get a shape laid out just the way I want, so once I do it, I might as well not have to spend the skull sweat again.  In this project, the stretchers we completed yesterday are an example.


Getting the curve laid out in a manner I was happy with took a fair bit of going a little steeper one minute and more gently the next.  In this way, I don’t have to do it again.  Further along in this project, we’ll need to lay out an 18″ diameter circle for the top.  Now, I could just set some dividers to a 9″ radius and do it that way.  But by making a pattern, it’s easier to lay out something big like this in a way that avoids knots or reversing grain since I can see the whole thing at once.


In times past, this idea of a physical pattern (rather than a sheet of measured drawings) reached its apogee with the “story stick”.  This had all the measurements for a piece marked out , and any elements that needed copied had a full-scale representation laid out as well.  These patterns were racked up in workshops by the dozen, ready to guide a new iteration of a past success.

So when you’re laying things out on your next project, try making a pattern first.  Your future self may thank you.