Justification for Designing on the Fly

Article - March 10, 2008

This week’s question comes from Richard. He writes: “I understand your desire to design on the fly, so to speak, even though I’m exactly the opposite. What I don’t understand is why you design on the fly in the final medium, making the FINAL project. Why not use inexpensive and easy to machine materials to build a prototype. I bet you would find it easier to be adventurous and you would find all the problems and develop creative solutions for the final product. Then build the final product utilizing all the experience gained building the prototype. Despite my misgivings for your method, I do like the design of the table legs. Now for the top.”

Richard then provided three links to articles that apparently cited instances where other folks recommended designing in a less expensive and easier to work material. Two of the links didn’t work for me but here is the one that did (from David Marks).

So here was my reply: “Hey Richard. You pose an interesting question. First and foremost, there is no doubt in my mind that a prototype with cheap wood makes more sense. And remember that I did do a prototype for the most difficult part of the project: the leg. Now if I planned on making multiples of this piece or if this were for a client, I probably would have mocked up the entire thing. I also would have done a mock-up if I were using a really expensive wood for the final piece. Walnut certainly isn’t cheap, but its not even close to the price of other exotic hardwoods out there. Another reason I like this method is the fact that the finished product, while maybe not the perfect execution of a particular vision, is usually a serviceable and beautiful piece that can be given to a relative or put in a spare room if I really don’t like the final result. Fortunately, I have never had a piece turn into a complete disaster. Prototypes can be beautiful too. :) Another reason would be time. Sometimes I have a real good idea of where I want to take a piece, but I don’t really have the time to work everything out in a prototype. So, in many cases, I jump right into it.”

“I suppose the final reason is to prove a point. Prototypes, scale models, and developing exact plans and drawings can sometimes be deterrents for the average woodworker who wants to venture into the design process. Most of these people barely have time to build a finished piece let alone build it twice! My goal is to show them that sometimes you can just throw caution to the wind and have some fun. Hopefully they understand that I am just presenting ONE way to build….not THE way to build. As a professional custom woodworker, prototypes are just a fact of life. But as a person just looking to build a nice piece and have some fun without making “design” out to be a daunting task, designing on the fly is a reasonable and fun alternative. Hope that explains it a little better.”

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