A Pro’s Guide To Cut Lists

This list of parts and sizes can hinder or help you, depending on the information you put into it

It’s a classic beginner blunder: you follow a published cut list for a project, carefully sizing all the parts as stated. Then, when you go to assemble them, you find that a lot of them don’t fit. This can be an expensive mistake if you’ve miscut premium lumber, and it’s a perfect example of how cut lists can be misused. The first rule about cut lists is simple but critical: no matter how precise you try to be, discrepancies creep in during a build, and adjacent parts need to be fitted to suit as you go along. Welcome to woodworking.

Used correctly, a cut list can be a great aid in part layout, confirming key dimensions, and estimating lumber needs. It can also indicate the order of construction, and serve as a record of the build (including corrections), should you decide to make the project again. If you have a complicated piece of furniture in the works that you have to set aside for periods of time, a cut list can be invaluable at reorienting you when you finally step back into the shop.

Here, I’ll explain my approach to making and using cut lists, including the concept of “relative dimensioning.” Once you understand cut list basics, you’ll be able to customize an approach to suit your own working habits, which will improve as you start moving out of the beginner’s circle.

Cut list and drawings work together

In the journey of building something, a drawing is the map that will get you there, and it works hand-in-hand with a cut list. A drawing doesn’t have to be fancy, but it needs to show the parts and provide the key dimensions that determine the overall size of the project. Whether you make the drawing yourself or use a published plan, it’s important to double-check the measurements as you feed them into a cut list.

When configuring your cut list, arrange the parts in a sequence that makes sense to you. I list all solid wood parts first, followed by sheet good materials. Each part gets a code (which I write on the boards to identify the parts there), on the cut list noting the quantity of each piece. Then list the finished thickness, width, and length of each piece, based on your drawing. Make sure to include tenons or other integral part extensions. Some woodworkers include a column for “rough” sizes, adding a certain amount to each dimension for initial layout. I don’t bother; I just add the extra allowance when laying out the rough pieces. Following the dimensions column, note the type of wood for every piece in the “materials” column.

My cut lists include 2 check mark columns. I use these to mark my progress during layout of both the rough and finished pieces in turn. Finally, the “Notes” column provides a place to record specific layout directions or other comments. Here, for example, you can note to lay out legs on riftsawn stock (for straight grain on adjacent faces), to use the prettiest stock for prominent parts like tops or case sides, or to resaw thick stock to yield multiple pieces.

9 columns of critical project information


Go to woodcraftmagazine.com to download a blank cut list form.

Width vs. length: it’s in the grain.

Convention dictates that part dimensions be listed in the order of thickness × width × length. If you’re confused between width and length, follow the grain; its direction indicates the length of the piece. With plywood, use the grain direction of the face veneer as your cue.

  • As you lay out your parts to rough size, mark them with the cut list part code, drawn with chalk or a lumber crayon.
  • When appropriate, note on the lumber if a piece is meant to yield multiple parts, for example, from resawing.
  • Check off laid out parts on the cut list. (For multiples, use hash marks to record individual parts as you tick them off.)
  • To avoid confusion later, mark any waste or excess stock as such.
  • Using your cut list along with an accompanying drawing, initially lay out your project parts at least 1" longer and 1⁄4" wider than their finished sizes. Then let the parts sit stickered for at least a few days before you start milling them to their final sizes.

Relative dimensioning: sizing parts to suit previous cuts

When you’re ready to cut parts to their final sizes, it’s important to establish the order of work because only “key” parts are initially cut to the finished sizes shown. Other “relative” parts will be fitted as you build, sizing them to suit particular dimensions of previously constructed adjacent parts. It’s good to puzzle all this out before starting a project build. If it helps, you can list the key parts in the “notes” section of the cut list as a reminder that you can immediately dress them to their final sizes.

With this simple base cabinet, the sides are “key parts,” which can be made to their stated cut list size, since they establish the case height and depth, and don’t need to be fitted to anything else.

The length of the top and bottom is a “key dimension” because it establishes the case width and isn’t dependent on any other dimension. The width of the two parts, however, is relative to the length of the rabbet at the top and the dado at the bottom.
The width of the face frame rails and stiles can be considered a key dimension, but the parts should ultimately be cut to a length that’s relative to the width and height of the projecting face of the case.

The case back width is relative to the distance between the rabbets in the case sides, and the height is relative to the distance from the top of the case to the underside of the case bottom.

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