Keep a Shop Notebook

MEK Woodworks - Keep a Shop Notebook

By Matt Kenney

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Write down important details so that you can keep focus

Mistakes in the shop happen, for the most part, because we lose focus on the work. There are many reasons why we lose focus. Some are related to the work, like keeping track of dimensions, thinking about the upcoming steps, and fighting with our tools when they aren’t in peak condition. Others arise from our lives outside the shop. All this clutter clouds the mind and makes clear, focused thought impossible. I can’t help you with what’s going on in your life outside the shop (speaking to a therapist really does help!), but I can share what I do to clear my head when it comes to the shop.

I keep a few notebooks in which I write, in as much detail as possible, all the things I need to know to make a piece of furniture. Typically, I do this before I start a project, and I do it at a time when I can think clearly about it. After I’ve written this information down, I do not second guess it because I know that it was recorded when I was focused and thinking clearly. In the shop, we can get confused by what’s happening at the moment, and that might cloud our memory and judgment. My notebooks are a clear record of what the truth is, so to speak.

The notebooks are also where I solve problems that arise as I am making furniture. Recently, I made two bedside tables. The cases are plywood with solid wood edge banding (the client wanted rift/quarter ash, and plywood is the best way to get that). Also, I’m using some high-end undermount slides for the drawers, which have exact requirements for the drawer’s dimensions in relation to the case. So, I sat down and did the math in my notebook, using clear and simple work to arrive at the information I needed so that I could go back, refresh my memory when I needed to, and not need to scratch my head about how I ended up with the numbers.

My notebooks are like external hard drives, storing important information in great detail without taking up my brain’s memory or processing capacity. They allow me to devote the meager brain power I do have to the task I am presently engaged in, and that helps me minimize the number and gravity of my mistakes. The less I need to think about while I’m working, the better.

Here are some tips to help you organize and keep a shop notebook.

  • Be as detailed as you possibly can. The more detail, the less work you’ll need to do to make sense of what’s written down.
  • Write in simple, clear statements and equations. A shop notebook is not a Faulkner novel or a Fields-Medal-worthy mathematical treatise.
  • Write down: dimensions, notes about materials, things you discovered that made construction easier, problems you encountered and how you solved them, and anything else that’s important to you.
  • Clearly identify which piece of furniture a note belongs to. A year from now, you probably won’t remember.
  • Do not worry about how it reads or looks. If it makes sense to you, and you can go back and make sense of it a month later, that’s all that matters. You will develop a style, organizing principles, etc., as you continue to work and fill up notebooks.

I know this isn’t revolutionary advice, but keeping a notebook really has helped me. Do you keep one? How do you keep track of the important details as you are working? Share your approach in the comments, or ask a question. Thanks for reading!

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  1. Thanks Matt. I wish I had this advice 20 years ago. I make a lot of projects from books and magazines, so I don’t take many notes on those. But for projects that I design myself, I do sketch them and dimension them in a notebook. When I need calculations, those tend to go in the margins. Also, if the design changes, I will go back and mark up the “as built” configuration.