There’s an old saying that, “If you didn’t write it down, it never happened.” While that’s not exactly true for woodworking (that project you built came from somewhere, after all), the principle of writing things down is still a good one. Most of my projects are built from scratch, often with nothing more than a photograph or two to work from, and all of the details worked out as I go. Even when working from plans, I’m notorious for changing details or resizing components to fit my own ideas.
Historically, I’ve worked these things out on whatever was handy: the back of a picture, a piece of scrap paper, and occasionally a paper towel (seriously!). The problem with these is that they tend to wander off after the project’s completed – and sometimes before. Granted, you may never build that piece again, but haven’t you wished from time to time that you could refer back to something you did years before?
My solution to this is a bound journal. They don’t have to be big or fancy – something as simple as a $2.00 composition book will do the trick. The key word here is bound. Loose-leaf binders and spiral-bound notebook pages tend to tear out or get damaged, whereas a bound journal has a much higher survivability index in the shop environment.
I try to document all the details of the project as I go. Basic dimensions and lumber requirements are a good place to start. I also include the details of important joints, and the reasoning behind some of my choices. A step-by-step record of the construction process is often helpful, and I try to make note of any mistakes, and why I made them.
I’ve also found that it’s crucial to detail the finishing process, with particular reference to any stains or dyes I used or, more importantly, mixed. More than once, I’ve needed to re-create a dye mixture to match an existing piece of furniture, and had no idea of what I had done the first time.
Lastly, at the end of the entry, leave some space to come back and make comments later. From time to time, something that seemed like a good idea during construction came back to haunt me, and was added to the record. Reviewing such after-action observations can be very helpful in making better design choices on future projects.
Give it a try! Months or years from now, you’ll be glad you did.