Drawing Tips for Woodworkers

Article - October 13, 2011

Please enjoy this guest post from graphic designer and woodworker, Mark Loughran.


Although I am only a novice woodworker, I have been a graphic designer for over twenty years, have been through art college, and I have taught drawing at third level. So while I am not a furniture designer, I have experience in design. And although its a different discipline, I feel there are some things that are shared in common with woodworking design.

Generally I see a lot of articles on the internet on how to use drawing applications like Sketch Up, but I have not seen many articles for traditional drawing for woodworkers, so I hope this might be of some interest.

As we get more used to using computers to generate drawings, I feel that we could lose touch with a very important part of the design and creative process ? the pencil sketch. Of course computers are a powerful tool, and can be used to great effect (I use a computer to develop all my designs), but I believe the humble pencil sketch can be the best way to start the design process, before moving on to a computer. And in the long run the quickest. The advantage here is the speed in which you can get a thumbnail sketch of your idea on to a page, ready for further development.

The 1st Tool of the Shop

Often you will see a woodworker with a pencil behind their ear, or in an apron. I believe that the pencil can be the first and most important tool in the shop.

Where to Start

Start with a thumbnail sketch on paper. A napkin or the back of an envelope is fine too. Wherever and whenever the idea comes to you. Don’t get me wrong, computer applications for drawing are a huge step forward, and are a massive benefit, but there is nothing quicker that a pencil sketch, and that can capture the essence of a design. As when the inspiration or idea comes, its best not to lose it. It is important that as computers become more a part of design, that we don’t forget the traditional design skills like sketching with a pencil. Its not something to keep just for the sake of it, I feel it has real benefits for the designer. I guess woodworkers will probably be the first to appreciate traditional methods, while embracing modern technologies also.

What to Use

Pencils are probably the best thing, no great surprise there. Markers and pens are fine to draw with too, but sometimes its handy to be able to erase part of a drawing that’s not working, or just to adjust a curve. Use a soft pencil like a 2B up to a 6B, its softer graphite so it gives a darker line. The harder pencils are more suited to finer plans and drafting applications. With a softer pencil graphite, you may need a softer eraser too.

Keep it Rough

Leonardo da Vinci did large numbers of rough sketches which went towards making each one of his masterpieces (you don?t need to worry about matching his skill level, I know I won?t ever get there), so do lots and lots of sketches. Keep them quick. Don’t be too precious, no need for expensive art paper. Sometimes it can actually get in the way of creativity, as we tend to be too careful using it. Inexpensive copier paper is fine. Try to avoid lined paper though, as the lines get in the way, and distract from what we are drawing. Be as free as you can. Make a mess! It will actually help in freeing up the drawing process. (See more on Leonardo_da_Vinci)


Some people think they can’t draw, but anyone can if they practice. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, it just has to capture roughly the design that you have imagined. And only you need to understand it. Some great designers are not great artists, and don’t have to be, but the more you practice, the more useful a skill your drawing will become.


Practice relaxing your hand before drawing. Squeeze it tight to feel what it feels like when its tense, then relax it. Lift your palm up off the page when drawing, and its easier to draw larger curves. Use your elbow or shoulder as a pivot point instead. Elongate your hand, and push the pencil further out than the normal writing position. Too much tension can get in the way of good sketching. Don’t worry if quality doesn’t look good immediately, keep practicing. Often people will hold the pencil in the same way they would if they were writing, but if you can practice a more relaxed position, with the tip of the pencil further away from your finger tips, and your palm up off the page, this can help. But for the very small thumbnail sketches this is not as important, it’s more important when the drawings become larger in scale.

Draw in Context

If you are designing a chair, draw it with a person sitting it in, see if they are sitting upright to eat, or reclining to relax. You can use a Wooden Artist Sketch Poseable Mannequin to help with drawing people. If its a set of lockers for each side of a bed, sketch in the bed and the room setting straight away, so its in the context it will be used. If its a computer desk, draw it with the computer and keyboard in position. This approach will help to iron out an issues before they arise. A lot of time can be saved in eliminating problems before making the piece by drawing it in context from the very start.

Keep Your Sketches

Sometimes your initial thumb nail sketches can capture the design so well you can benefit by constantly referring back to that original sketch. If you are moving to computer to finish the drawing, you can even scan the drawing in, if you have a scanner, or take a photo of it with a digital camera. Keep all your sketches, and build a file of all your drawings, not just the finished ones, keep everything! Something you decide not to build now, may become relevant in the future, and its nice to keep all your ideas for the future. Its also interesting to look back on the sketch you did for a piece you have made, and see how the design developed on paper, right through to the finished piece.

Its Quicker in the Long Run

You may want to get straight into building your project, as you have a clear picture in your mind, but by spending a little time drawing at the start, it can actually save you time in the long run. By ironing out issues and drawing the piece from different angles, you can work out details that save you time in the long run.

Scaling it Up

If you are not using a computer for the final drawing, you can do a scale drawing. 1 to 12 is an easy scale to use if you are using feet and inches, so each inch of your drawing will represent a foot in your actual piece. But if you are using metric, 1 to 10 might be easier, so 1cm can equal 10cm in your final piece. Just add a zero, its easy. Draw a grid on a page, with squares, and you can map out your piece to scale.

Keeping a Scrapbook

Keep a scrapbook of pictures you like, designs that appeal to you, and let it build over time. You can mix your own sketches in as ideas develop. If you see something online that inspires you, keep it in a digital scrapbook.

Make it Fun

Sometimes the design part of the project can be a lot of fun, and with good drawing skills, it can be even more enjoyable. Taking an art class can be a good way to kick start your interest in drawing, and you may also find that you can discover things in your surroundings or in nature that will inspire you in your design choices for furniture design. And also by looking at art that interests you, you can find another great source of inspiration.

Hopefully this brief set of tips, can be of interest to my fellow woodworkers. Although my grandfather was a carpenter, I am only beginning a journey in discovering the pleasure of working with wood, but with inspiration from great teachers like Marc Spagnolo, as I am a big fan of The Wood Whisperer, I hope to improve my skills and increase my knowledge of woodworking, and right now just practicing my skills is good fun. I don’t think my shop will feature on any shop tour on Marc’s site though, as its only a six by eight shed, but who knows :-)

Mark Loughran runs a small graphic design studio, Identikit.ie, with his wife Tanya in Dublin, Ireland, for over twenty years. He has two daughters, Emily and Isabel, who are budding artists. Hobbies are cycling and woodworking.