I took a woodworking class a few years ago and a few things really stuck with me. Beyond the normal joinery and routing and such was the fact that we never measured anything. Everything was simply cut to match something else that was already cut: cut to fit.

I come at things from an engineering mindset. I tend to like to know how things will turn out beforehand. The instructor even warned us about that type of mindset relating how at some point he was teaching a class and someone started to pull out a micrometer to measure something — it didn’t go together as well as the folks that just followed along the right way.

It’s all a way of saying “make it around (holding hands apart) long.” Of course there’s a lot more detail involved.

Let’s take an example.

You have a wall and you want to build a desk for that wall. Just a simple desk in this case. What are the parts of this desk?

  • The top of the desk (the important part)
  • A couple of sides for the desk. Let’s just make them sheets of wood and not legs.
  • A beam of wood that runs under the desk’s top to keep it rigid

You could add a “modesty panel” in the back, but we don’t need it since it’s already up against a wall.

First off you need to figure out how big you want it. You could measure, but you left your ruler at home. Darn. Here’s the tools and materials you have available.

  • Lots of wooden panels that are already squared up
  • A table saw with a good fence and guides (they are parallel to and perpendicular to the saw blade itself)
  • A square
  • A pencil
  • Some string
  • Some screws and angle brackets to hold things together.

So, how do you make this desk then?

So, here’s what we’re building. The view from the bottom I’ve turned on some of the transparency so you can see how it’s put together.

Where to begin?

First, let’s figure out how long the desk needs to be. Let’s hold up the string to the fit the wall we’re building this for. Just make a mark (or hold your finger on the spot on the string) for how wide it should be. There, width is set. Now transfer that mark to the board we’ll use as the desk’s top. Then use the square to draw a line for where to cut. Finally cut the board.

Next we need to make the top as deep as we want. Let’s make it as deep as some of the other furniture in the room so it fits in. Same routine as before.

Now the sides. Let’s start with the left one. Find another table that’s comfortable and do the same string trick and mark the board. Here’s a trick: if you look at the drawing you’ll notice that the the side sits under the top. Take a scrap from the top and “subtract” that from the mark you made then square up the line and cut. That’ll take care of the thickness of the top. So, finally, the depth of the side. Just walk it over to the top that you’ve already cut and lay the side on top and line things up. Now all you need to do is draw a line using the top as a guide and saw there.

The other side? Even simpler: they are the same. Just drop the cut side onto another board and outline and cut. Done.

At this point you have enough to make the table stand up (but it’ll be wobbly). Take the angle brackets (they are already square from the factory) and screw on the sides. Lay the table upside down with the sides sticking up.

Finally the brace. Rip a board to be around the right width to serve that purpose. It doesn’t even matter how big… maybe 10 inches, give or take. Next take that and put it into place (roughly) and figure out how long it should be. Simply set it on the desk and butt it up to one side and draw a line where it gets to the other side. Mark and cut like all the other times. Since you copied the measurement from the existing pieces, you know it’ll fit perfectly. Screw in a couple more angle brackets and you’re done.

How big is the desk?

Just the size it needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why should you even care how big it is? It fits just fine!

And you never pulled out a tape measure once! (but you might want to sand it and give it a coat of finish) Of course if you had the right tools you could use something better than angle brackets to hold it together like some nice dovetails or something, but the end result it the same: working by the seat of your pants for the most part. With the help of some simple tools and jigs (square, saw fence, etc.) you can make things pretty quickly without a lot of deep planning.

How does this matter in every day life? Don’t constrain things to be what you think you need. Just make things fit how they need to. Sure, you want a general plan for how you’re going about solving whatever problem, but you don’t need to pull out the micrometer for your life every time. Don’t worry about the details you don’t need to worry about. Figure out what you need from a big picture view before diving into the details — and you might not even need to dive into the details even. Just let go a little and react to how things happen. (This sounds a lot like agile, don’t it?)

I see this every day in my every day life. People sit around making grandiose project plans and spending countless hours in meetings trying to fully describe a problem. The project plan doesn’t solve the problem. Doing something makes things happen. Stop gilding lilies and start working on the solution. Sketch out the solution on a napkin (like I did on the pictures above) then make it happen. At least try to make it happen — don’t break out the proverbial micrometer before you know you need it.

BTW: Sometimes you do need a micrometer, but not as often as you might think. (Yes, if you’re working on an engine you might need one, but not in most software building or woodworking)