How To Make a Scalable Drawing

Being able to create, and read off, scalable drawings has to be one of the most useful skills I have, It allows me to sketch my ideas accurately, which brings so many benefits. Read on to find out more...

If you're looking for the How-To on building a shelf wall, you're in the wrong place, this is about producing a scalable plan. Click here to go straight to the shelf wall article.

What does scalable mean?

Scalable means that everything is drawn at the right size. I’m not saying you need a piece of paper the size of your wall, just an A4 size will do and I’ll tell you how to scale everything down equally so that the drawing remains accurate. An example of a scalable plan is a global map. You know the distance between Paris and London is NOT really 2 inches, nor is the distance between Paris and Milan at 4 inches, but you do know that the latter is twice the distance than the first. That’s because the map was drawn at a consistent scale, making it, you guessed it, a scalable plan.

Now that you know what scalable means, let me take you through an example.

I'll be using my shelf wall for this, here's a picture:

picture of entire shelf and desk wall

In this example, we'll go through the following steps:

  1. Design Step 1 - Survey the area (very important, you need to start off with the area it's going to fit)
  2. Design Step 2 - Designing your shelf wall
  3. Further benefits of a scalable plan

Design Step 1 - Survey the Area

A blank canvas isn’t the starting point here, before we get designing the shelf, we need to survey the area first.

painted wall with window opening, no diy shelves attached yet
The wall before installing the shelves and desk

Helpful Tip

By starting off with a sketch of the things that can’t move (walls, window opening etc), we’ll be able to plan around them.

These are called your constraints, here’s a sketch of my wall showing the wall width, a window, skirting and sockets:

cad drawing showing the wall with things on it, such as sockets, window opening and sill etc.

To accurately plot these constraints onto paper, we need to measure them first. I’ll show you again a picture of my wall before I installed the shelf wall.

painted wall with window opening, no diy shelves attached yet

From this picture, you can make out a list of the things I had to measure up, as follows:

  • Width of the wall from left to right
  • Height from floor to ceiling
  • Location of my window
  • Window sill
  • Sockets, light switches, any other type of socket
  • Skirting
  • Coving

So get the tape measure out and start measuring, just jot the measurements down on a scrap bit of paper for now.

Once you have all your measurements, it’s time to put them onto paper in the form of scalable drawings. 

When sketching out a shelf wall, you need to know the exact space it’ll fit into. You’ll need to draw a side view (if looking directly at the front of the shelf wall).

To make a scalable side view, do the following:

  1. Take the longest measurement, most likely the overall width of the wall that the shelf will be fixed to. In my case, this was the total length of the wall, from corner to corner and measuring 3.6m (11.8 foot). Compared to the height of my room, which is 2.4m (7.9 foot), this puts the side view on a landscape orientation, so turn your paper to landscape if you’re in the same situation, otherwise keep it portrait
  2. If your wall measures 3.6m, or thereabouts, this means it will fit onto an A4 sized piece of paper at a scale of 1 in 20. This means that you divide every measurement by 20 to get the distance on paper. Here’s some examples:
    1. Take my 3.6m overall width, divide that by 20 and you get 0.18m, or 18cm. This fits nicely onto A4, in both portrait and landscape.
    2. Take my 2.4m height from floor to ceiling, divide that by 20 and you get 0.12m, or 12cm.
  3. Using the method set out above, start off by drawing a rectangle of the space, in my case 3.6 x 2.4 metres. Then, add on the following:
    1. Windows
    2. Window sills
    3. Skirting
    4. Sockets
    5. Light switches
    6. Coving
    7. Any other permanent feature
  4. Once you’ve done this, add on any other feature that you intend to build into that wall, if any. For me, I was also installing a fitted bespoke desk, so I added that in too:

the same cad drawing but also showing the proposed desk


The desk was at a set height, so that was immovable. We already knew we wanted it to stretch the entire width of the room. So, it made sense to design the selves after the design of the desk.

Once all your constraints are added onto the sketch, it's time to get on with the design stage.

Design Step 2 - Designing your Shelf Wall

We wanted to keep things balanced (symmetrical) and simple. My wife and I came up with this layout:

now the same wall cad drawing but showing the proposed shelves

Luckily for me, I use CAD software on my computer. If you're using a pencil and paper, it may be best to photocopy the surveyed sketch, rather than draw all over the original. There's no telling how many revisions you'll get through and paper can only take so much rubbing out! Remember to check the photocopy too, it may be copied at a different scale.

At the stage, have a think about the materials you want to use. I knew I wanted to make the shelves from pretty chunky wood, so I intentionally drew it chunky on the sketch. It's 32mm thick by the way.

Further Benefits of a Scalable Drawing

The benefits aren't just restricted to the design, scalable plans can do more for you. There include:

  • Creating a materials list, such as timber planks and their lengths (very beneficial for my shelves).
  • Depending on the complexity of the job, inspection of a scalable plan whilst you are in full swing constructing the thing is really helpful. It's very quick and easy to check a dimension, instead of say, getting the tap measure out and hoping it doesn't buckle whilst simultaneously pushing it out to 3.6m over thin air... You get the point, it's easier.
  • Your plan can be used to show others - you're fellow household members from example, they'll be interested to see what you're planning. You could also take it to your supplier, they may be able to give some pointers.
  • To record the position of things that will be hidden. One thing that does spring to mind are cable locations. I've kept a record of the cables within my plastered walls in the form of a scalable plan. Only the walls I've replastered that is!

Below are a couple more examples of my scalable plans, good luck with yours.

scalable plan view on hearth showing dimensionsMy granite hearth, top view.

I used this plan to send to the company that made my hearth. The green edge shows which edges I wanted bevelled. Needless to say, it came back perfectly cut. No questions from the cutters, no head scratching, all very clear and simple.

cad drawing showing plan on dining room

This one's a little more complicated. It's a top down scalable plan of my dining room. You can see the lines on the left that denotes the extent to which my shelves and desk reach into the room. It's also showing the spot light positions, outside levels, internal floor-to-ceiling heights and my hearth to the far right (inside my living room).

Thanks for taking the time to read through this page, I appreciate it. If you have a comment or would like to get in touch, fill out the email form below and hit subscribe, I look forward to hearing from you.


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