adapt woodworking designs

5 Easy Ways To Adapt Woodworking Designs For Your Needs

Can’t find the exact woodworking design? Learn what changes you can make adapt woodworking designs to meet your needs and wants.

You’ve likely found the perfect project. Or so you thought. 

When you look at it more closely, you start to think: 

  • but that won’t fit where I need it to go
  • I really don’t like using oak as I don’t like the pronounced grain
  • I need a white piece of furniture but this one is stained a natural colour
  • This project uses complicated joinery that I have never tackled before
  • The project is too plain looking and doesn’t fit in with everything else in the room

So what to do? You could continue to search to find just the right design but perhaps it doesn’t exist or the plans are too expensive to purchase.

The best way to solve this is to adapt the design to meet your needs and desires. There are four possible changes you can make to create a modified design, some easier than others but all doable. Let’s have a look at them.


white and yellow measuring tape criss-crossing over each other

This is usually the most common reason to adapt woodworking designs: you either need the project to fit into a particular location or make it small or large enough for your intended use.

For many designs, shortening the size is usually quite trivial. 

Need a shorter coffee table? Simply adjusting the size of the top and the side rails should work.

Need a shorter chair or stool? Shorten the legs to lower the height of the seat.

You can also narrow a design. For instance a bookshelf that you need to fit in between other existing bookshelves or into an alcove can usually be easily narrowed to fit.

Or if the design calls for a certain number of components such as drawers, you could eliminate one or more to make a shorter, narrower or shallower project.

Increasing size is a bit more tricky. Simply extending the size of a table or widening a bookshelf needs to be thought through carefully. Usually a design takes into account spans: the distance between two supports for a shelf or top. 

If you increase the size without also providing more support, you’ll likely get bowing or worse your project could fail through breakage by stressing the wood.

Also keep in mind that anytime you change dimensions in only one direction you affect the proportions of the project. You may end up with an odd-looking piece of furniture where something just looks wrong. 

This free guide from Fine Woodworking explains how the golden ratio and more specifically the golden rectangle factor into good woodworking design.

Often the solution to this is to scale the project in all dimensions. That can be a bit trickier to do as you still want all the parts to fit together well.


Lumber stack

This is where you can inject your own personality and customize a project for it’s intended location or recipient.

With all the different types of wood species available, you can have a new piece of furniture match existing furniture. Or perhaps you know that the person you’re making the project for loves the warm look of cherry. 

Usually you can swap out one wood species for another without issue. 

However for projects where there is significant weight on the wood, make sure not to choose a replacement wood that is much less strong than the original species of wood.

Durability is also a consideration. If the wood is being used in a wet location such as a bathroom or outdoors, you’ll want to choose a wood that naturally has some water repellant qualities. 

Fasteners are another material to consider. Here you do have to be more careful and choose a replacement fastener that is just as strong or stronger than the original recommendation. 

For a project that uses nails, I recommend switching to screws as screws resists pulling forces and are easier to remove if you need to dismantle or change a project (assuming you haven’t also glued it together).

If a component of the project is fabric, you of course have lots of options to choose. You could replace the fabric with leather or vice versa. You could also use a water-resistant fabric if the project will be used outdoors such as a chair.

Simplified construction

3D image showing woodworking showing butt joint reinforcement dowel

It’s easy to be intimidated or overwhelmed by a project design that calls for complicated joinery. 

Maybe the design calls for dovetailed drawers or mortise and tenon joints. And you just don’t feel confident yet to make those joints and not screw up the whole project.

Rather than passing on a design, you can usually change the type of joinery and use a much simpler joinery technique.

Instead of the afore-mentioned dovetailed drawers, you can go with a box joint, lock joint or a simple joint reinforced with screws. Or you could skip the mortise and tenons and go with a simplified dowel joint. 

Just keep in mind strength. The moment you reduce gluing surfaces or move away from a joint that holds together by itself, you compromise your project’s strength and safety.

Look for designs where the designer gives you a few different options for joints. Or look for a similar project that you can use its joint construction for your project.

Embellishments or not

fresco on arched pillar with molding

Some project designs are purposefully kept simple. Maybe it’s to keep the construction difficulty low enough for a beginner. Or the designer prefers a clean aesthetic. 

You may though prefer something a bit fancier. Your project may need to blend in with other furniture or moldings in the room. 

The simplest method is to add moldings. Or you can subtract wood by engraving, usually in the form of fluting or decorative routed edges.

Some furniture designs lend themselves well to non-wood embellishments. Asian designs add specially forged or cast metal latches, corners and decorative plates. These you can either create yourself if you also do metalworking or you can purchase or have custom-made for your project.

Obviously you can also go the other way. The design may be too fancy for your liking. So just eliminate the fluting on the legs of the table or chair or leave off molding or use a simpler molding. Or leave off optional metal embellishments.


person wiping on finish on round wood table

This is where you can inject your own personality.

Finishes for projects are a very subjective decision. Some woodworkers prefer a very simple finish to save time. Others want to use a multi-step, multi-product finishing process that takes days if not weeks to apply.

You can always change up the finish you use. You can choose a different shade of stain or decide to paint instead of using a clear finish that emphasizes the natural wood grain. It’ll help to individualize your project.

Or try some other ways to colour wood that I shared in this article: 4 Ways You Can Colour Wood Projects For Amazing Results

However you do need to take into consideration where the project will be used. For outdoor projects you should use a a product that is UV resistant, holds up well to moisture and can easily be refreshed when needed.

If your project will come in contact with food or a baby or toddler’s mouth, you must use a food-grade finish. 

And in some cases no finish is also an option that may not be your first thought. For some outdoor projects, letting wood weather to its natural grey is also popular. Just keep in mind that it will not last as long as finished wood.

As you can see there are many ways to adapt woodworking designs to come up with a project that works for you. Give it a try and experiment. You might come up with a new design that forms the basis for other projects. 

You won’t know until you try!

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