It’s a cold winter’s day here in Grenoble and I’m sitting cosy here in my office.
As a professional carpenter and stair builder but I spend maybe more time here than in my workshop.
When I started my small workshop back in the 80’s all of our work was done by hand. Computers were expensive and used only for office work.
Design of our woodwork project was done by hand on a drawing board with pencil and paper.
In those days we were generic woodworkers and built anything that was asked of us. We built furniture, fitted cabinets, doors and windows, cupboards and of course stairs.
Drawing scaled plans on paper by hand was no problem for furniture and joinery; it was part of the job and something I enjoyed. The general designs of each project were drawn up to scale and detailed scale drawings drafted with all the dimensions calculated and marked up for the workshop. Scale drawings were generally enough for making even complex projects.
When a customer needed a perspective view for approval a simple isometric drawing would usually suffice and everybody was happy. Although this hand drafting took time to do thoroughly, it worked well and smoothly.
Straight stairs were made with the same process but when stairs were more complex with winders and curves, things started getting trickier.
To obtain the real sizes and shapes of all the parts needed to build these types of stair we had to draw a full size plan of the stair well and staircase.
To do this we laid out sheets of 10mm ply wood on the workshop floor.
Often several sheets had to be laid side by side to get the required surface area, and marking out précis plans of all the details for complex projects was fastidious and error prone.
We would draw out the stair as precisely as possible but it’s really not easy when you are actually walking all over the plan that you are drawing!
The plan was laid out on the workshop floor for all the time the stair was under construction. We marked the parts directly from the plan.
As well as taking up an enormous amount of space in the workshop, the lines would little by little just become invisible as they were erased away under our continuous walking over them, not speak of the dust and shaving that we has to continually sweep off.
In the 1980’s computers were just starting to come into small businesses, mainly for accountancy and general office work.
I bought a small Amstrad computer to replace my type writer and type out estimates and invoices.
I think that I saw some sort of basic drawing program on the machine and played around with it to try and draw some plans. It was in fact useless for any serious work and I quickly dropped it.
But it started me thinking about what might be possible using the right computer and program. So I started researching into the different options to design stairs.
The program that I came across at the time was Autocad version 3 or 4.
Someone gave me a demo and it looked hard and obscure to use and draw with. But one thing stuck in my mind, when you draw the stair you can measure all the parts and get the real world dimensions just clicking, with no calculations and no approximations.
This fascinated me but Autocad and a PC at the time was selling for around 5k, way over what I could afford to pay for a design program!
So back to the drawing board for me!
A year or two after I saw an advert for a CAD program called Generic CAD that claimed to be just as good as Autocad at 1/10 of the price. I jumped on the occasion and went straight out to buy it.
In fact Generic CAD was a very good drafting program, and in many ways faster and easier to use that Autocad.
Being completely computer illiterate I took some time to get it up and running, but when it was working for us it was a dream comes true. No more crouching on the workshop floor, drawing plans that slowly disappeared. I sat comfy in my office and drafted up all the plans and as the CAD program gave exact dimensions I was able to give fully detailed dimensioned plans to the shop that eliminated any need for hand drafting.
The only problem was that drawing out all the plans in CADD was very long and tedious. It was like drawing by hand but longer. Fortunately CAD gave us the advantage of printing the precise dimensioned plans that would be impossible by hand.
Today things have greatly improved. With dedicated design programs like StairDesigner all the tedious setting out is entirely automatic. We still do detailing in CAD but time is reduced to a minimum and precision is more than we need.
CAD systems like StairDesigner and Progecad give us photo realistic 3D models that we didn’t dream of doing 30 years ago.
Whether you be a professional or amateur woodworker, I strongly advise you to use some sort of CAD system for your design and drafting. The advantages over hand drafting are enormous and the only real investment you will have to make today is to take the time to learn how to use it.
Today there are many companies offer different CADD systems. Some very good systems are even free to download and you can access some from my web site.
If you are a specialized carpenter you might think of investing in specialized software like StairDesigner but if you just do general woodwork learn to use a general drafting CAD package like DraftSight or Progecad. Both are free and can draw plans for any project you can imagine.
Once mastered you wont regret it, and you’ll never go back to the drawing board!
Here’s à video showing how to embellish a StairDesigner model using Progecad an Autocad like program. The full version has all the Autocad functions and is around 10x cheaper:
More videos on StairDesigner and stair building on my web site: