How to Start Big Projects?

Article - September 14, 2009

This question comes from Jay who asks:

When I see a piece of wood I think to myself ?what a waste”, so I store scraps and miscellaneous sized pieces. My shop is full of wood. Yet when I get into the shop, I have no idea where to start even though I have plenty of vision. How do you jump into starting a project? I have problems starting if I know I’m not going to have time to finish it that day, which is why I have recently only been turning pens.

And my response:

What makes this question difficult to answer is the fact that it deals with personal motivation. What motivates me may not necessarily be the same things that motivate you. Having gone through this variation of “woodworkers block” in the past, I’ll share my own story and maybe you’ll be able to get something useful out of it.

to do listWhen I first started my woodworking business, I had a real hard time managing my time in the shop. As a former hobbyist, I was accustomed to thinking in terms of 1-2 hour shop sessions. So I had this misconception locked in my little brain that a “day” in the shop consisted of about 1-2 hours worth of work. Obviously, if I wanted to stay in business, this wasn’t going to fly. Thanks to a suggestion and a smack upside the head from Nicole, I started breaking my projects down into a simple list of steps. So instead of feeling overwhelmed by the distance between the start and finish, I am focusing on simply finishing the next step. As a goal-oriented person, it feels good to have a to-do list, and scratch those items off my list at the end of the day. For me, it was just a big change in my mentality and approach. And breaking a project down into smaller more manageable goals was the most satisfying and efficient way to reach the seemingly distant finish line.

So lets say we are making a table. On Day 1 we’ll layout the parts on the rough lumber and then mill the lumber to rough size. On Day 2 we’ll mill the parts down to final size and layout/cut the joinery. On Day 3 we’ll finish sand and assemble. On Day 4, we’ll apply the finish. Now, of course, you’ll have to adjust these daily goals to fit your actual time-frame and work style, but you get the general idea.

So with that in mind, write yourself a schedule at the beginning of every project. Chances are you won’t follow it exactly but you’ll get more accurate with every project. The sense of structure will help you feel like you are actually making progress even if you only have a few hours a day in the shop. Hope that helps.