Making ‘Snap-to-line’ Templates

Wednesday 8th March 2017

Making templates

Crisp, clean lines for working to.
Spokeshaves work well to refine shapes as needed.
I use the templates for wood, but then just as much for drawing patterns and templates too

Templates can be made from a variety of materials, plastic, wood, man-made boards like plywood and MDF, cardboard and more. Usually templates are relatively small, a taper for part of a leg, arches for table aprons, spoon and spatula shapes, you name it. Whereas I always do like to make them in wood, different materials do offer different advantages. Shapes in solid wood can be easy to shape just using common hand tools like spokeshaves, chisels, drill bits, files, rasps and planes. Add in a knife, abrasive paper, saws too of different types like, keyhole and coping saws, and you are on your way. Boring large holes in thin plastic can be a little more challenging, but otherwise it can be shaved and shaped with the same tools as wood. Plywood retains its shape and lasts well but of course it’s never so pleasing to work as wood, especially with hand tools and not with machines either really.

Freehand or to specific shapes work equally well.
Score, bend and snap…
…and you are on your way.
I make my own squares and they come out dead on.

Whereas I do still use more common materials like wood and plywood, I use them mostly because of the extra size they give and then they retain shape too. Plastic, on the other hand, seems to me to champion all even when it comes to larger areas. I use them for arches. Remember that your layout lines with a knife serve at the same time as your ‘snap’ line so really you are expediting two jobs in one. I have made complete circles with a pinpoint, stick and knife. For this I generally use the thinner plastic; 1mm is great for this. Tape your sheet to the benchtop, drive a small finish nail through the plastic as a centre-point to pivot your arc from and in only a second or two you’ve got your arch or circle. I first learned about plastic when arching the belly and back of a cello I was making. The arching requires several diminishing profiles and then a level of rigidity to offer the shape to the wood you are reducing. Tracing a knife point over a smooth surface of sign plastic results in a perfect snap-to line. I agree it is just like plastic signs in that it looks utilitarian, but for functionality and clean lines it remains unsurpassed.

Profiling is a snap too.
An angle with a protractor and a sliding bevel.

Most often a clean knife line results in an edge that’s smooth, continuous and square-edged; requiring no further treatment. Perfect for laying out and transferring shape or repeating shape to multiple pieces, it’s easy to see this as practical for all types of woodworking crafts such as turning profiles, neck shapes for a guitar and much more, but I also use it to make my drawing templates, straightedges, squares and my own English curves too. If I want a perfect arch, as in the case for checking my box sides  a short while ago, or developing my drawings, I can readily custom-make my templates. I can scale them to size using scale rules if say I am using a scale to reduce size to fit my paper size. Of course hand drawing and and such gives my drawings the organic look I strive for and after a year or so of learning to work my drawings on a computer I went back to hand drawing. So, whether it’s to freehand shape or conform shape to specific angles or curves, once the knife point cuts the surface you have a snap-to-line.

Super glue makes the bond permanent and if you combine two-sided sticky tape first you and align and move until just right and then use superglue to seal the deal.

Make dovetail templates and so on using double sided tape to stick component sections together and then, once checked add a little superglue along the joint lines for a permanent bond.

Plane talking with straightedges.

Sign plastic is available in many thicknesses. I use different thicknesses from 2 mm on down. 2 mm down to 1 mm can readily be planed, spokeshaved and knife cut. These thicknesses give sufficient rigidity to work with hand tools. Thinner stock can still be refined but can flex away from the cutting edge. So there you go, “Snap to it!”


  1. Interesting, must be a space saver working with 1mm or 2mm thickness as well when it comes to storing them. Do you have a filing method figured out for all your templates or are they grouped by project in boxes/drawers?

  2. Paul, can you tell us what kind of plastic that is? It will be easier to find the local equivalent as plastic signs come in various materials. Thanks.


      1. Thanks, Paul. I think that is called Polystyrol (Polystyrene) here in Germany. I can get it from an arts and crafts supplier in 0,5-2mm sheets 25×50 or 50×100. I was going to get some of it to make the templates for a turned chair project.

      2. Hi Paul could you please tell me why I am not able to receive a reply. I have asked so many times and so many different ways, why I am not able to access the book shelf videos when I was a paying member?

        1. I am out of my area with this but I suspect that it’s because you were a paying member when the series you speak of was broadcast back a few years ago (January 2014) and then when you withdrew as a member you would no longer have the access you had as a member. I suppose it’s the same as being a member of any organisation or paying to watch a film somewhere. I will check it out to make sure John. Our current project is making a cherry dresser, which is a chest of drawers.

          1. Thank you Paul for taking the time to reply, yes do please check it out. I would have been a paying member then ….I can still read my comment to the right.
            This actually is my concern, that is, because I am taking a break I find previous issues blocked, I just can’t believe this can be true…….you do such a marvellous job Paul I would simply hate to be denied access to your work……thanks John

        2. You can download the masterclass videos when you’re a member, with the usual restrictions that you will only use them for personal use. It does take a bit of self-discipline to remember to download. I have an $89US Lacie 2TB USB 3.0 drive just for woodworking videos that I carry with me in my backpack everywhere I go for you never know when you’re going to have some downtime. Regular SD cards in 64gb variety are inexpensive these days and with for or five cards you could create an archive of all Paul’s videos. Not trying to be wiseguy- just sharing how I’ve tackled this issue.

    1. It is used a great deal by modellers and most model shops carry it plus the liquid styrene cement which is better than cyanoacrylates (super glues) to fix it. The sheet material is styrene (aka polystyrene – but definitely not the foam type!) and is available also from eBay suppliers.

  3. This won’t work with some common plastics. Some will splinter rather than follow the score. So, if you are trying a new plastic or haven’t tried this before, put glasses on. If it doesn’t work, try a different plastic. Once you find one that works, this is a wonderful technique. Cutting in this manner leaves an edge with something like a burr. You can use a scraper to remove that burr or to work the edge to a de-burred roundover (your fingers will thank you). I’ll bet I scraped miles of plastic back when that was part of my job. Thicker metal probably makes a better scraper and you don’t need to draw a bur. Just file to a corner. That said, you can just use your scraper- I have, many times. It just might be more agressive than you want. If so, try the unsharpened “sides” of the scraper (which you never sharpen or touch to wood).

    Be aware that plastic is soft, but abrasive, so it does dull tools. Don’t be surprised if you must resharpen before taking your tool back to wood.

    1. Just wanted to add: The tang of a file, like that of a 10″ bastard, makes a decent plastic scraper.

  4. Hi Paul…….sorry to be a pain but I keep asking, with no reply,….why I am not able to access the book shelf Sept 13. I am not, for the moment, a paying member but was then…….does this mean that unless I keep paying I will be not be able to view vids when I was.
    Also I did ask Mark “what is your current project”

    Thank you John

    1. Hi John, Did you manage to get it sorted? I think the exact same thing happened to me a few years back and it was the bookshelf video as well. I can’t remember how it was fixed though sorry. I do remember it did work again eventually. If you are a paid member up until that series finished then you should have access to them for life I think.

  5. Dear Paul,
    I am a carpenter in a company and I will like to establish a small carpentry shop, Do I need to buy an expensive tools to start or I should just start with what I have so that along the way I can be buying things I really need to do a good job, please I need your guidance to how I should go about it.
    In all this my experience in watching most of your videos in YouTube tells me a good carpenter has to have a good tools to do a good job.

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