Setting up a workshop is one of the most daunting tasks we all face. I’ve had readers send me blueprints (yes, real blueprints) to seek my advice and approval. I’ve had people ask to hire me as a consultant. One guy wanted to fly me out to see his potential shop space and discuss his options.
This is not to boast. It is to point out how desperate new woodworkers are for real guidance.
I’ve had the great fortune to see a lot of bad shops – plus a few good ones. Even so, I don’t consider myself an expert on any shop except my own. During my last 20 years of woodworking I have developed a list of principles on workshops that are important to me. You might find them helpful or completely useless. I discuss my own journey in setting up my shop in some detail in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.”
In any case, here they are:
1. Your shop can be too large. Large shops turn woodworking into a “walking long distances from tool to tool” hobby.
2. Use work triangles: (jointer + planer + saw) (tool storage + workbench + assembly). It’s how efficient kitchens are set up. It works in woodworking, too.
3. The more complex the system, the more maintenance it requires. The fancier the dust collection system you have, the more time you will spend unclogging it.
4. The more tools/machines you have, the more time you will spend fiddling with tools instead of building.
5. Have dedicated stations for the core processes. Sharpening, for example. Surfacing wood. Ripping wood.
6. The right light is better than lots and lots of light. Having your bench under a north facing window is the best light. Texture is best seen in raking light.
7. Concrete floors + your feet + your sharp tools = sore back and chipped edges. Wooden floors — even CDX plywood floors — are heaven.
8. Try to keep the humidity and temperature level the same as the place where your projects will end up. This will result in fewer warped doors and lids in your finished pieces.
9. Wood collecting is a separate hobby. Your shop should have just enough wood storage for the two or three projects in the pipeline. If you collect wood (and that’s OK), get a shed. Or a barn.
10. Tool collecting is a separate hobby. If you haven’t used a tool in two years, you probably don’t need it.
11. Jig-making is a separate hobby. If your jigs have more than 10 parts (or an integral micrometer) then you probably are a hobbyist jig-builder (and there’s nothing wrong with that). If you cannot remember what a particular jig is used for then you probably don’t need it.
12. My favorite shops have nothing stacked on the floor. Don’t know why.
13. Light-colored walls allow you to use fewer light sources.
14. In the 18th century, shops were many times a room in the house where the family lived. If you think of your shop as a place where you live, you will construct and arrange it differently than if you think about it like a utility area — where your water heater and furnace are.
— Christopher Schwarz
19 thoughts on “Principles of Shop Setup”
Timely post Chris. I just answered a similar question today http://logancabinetshoppe.com/blog/2011/09/bare-necessities-workshop-space/. I think this is a subject that either gets no thought at all and just thrown together (not necessarily a bad thing), or over analyzed to the point of never getting anything done.
I sense a new book in the works. There have been others, but they’re mostly idea books and not really based on clear cut principles.
Shop layout gets complicated when you have too many (more than one) big machines. Get rid of the machines, and layout becomes not only easy, but obvious.
Like many, I suppose, my shop lives in the two-car garage; about 18′ x 22′. I had the usual assortment: table saw, radial arm saw, dust collector, jointer, planer, band saw, router table added to table saw, etc. Add a bench and an assembly table, and there wasn’t room to turn around. I have an inch-thick file in my desk with my attempts at finding the layout that would make optimal use of that space.
I finally got so sick of it I moved all the big power tools out except the band saw. Scared the hell out of me as I was doing it; my college junior engineering major son thought I was nuts. And my wife, who rarely renders her opinion on such matters as long as I can fix house stuff when necessary, also questioned my sanity.
Three months later and I think it was the smartest thing I could have done. So I can’t work with sheet goods? Don’t miss ’em. The process has revealed holes in my hand tool inventory that are slowly being filled in. I get more done, in less dust, with less noise, and surprisingly, in less time. A wood floor is in the planning stages.
The really cool thing? We recently had to move my mother-in-law into assisted living. Over Labor Day my wife and I were clearing out her apartment, taking some things for the kids, deciding what was junk and what was worth distributing to other siblings. My mother-in-law absolutely insisted that I take her vintage Magnovox console stereo — big boat-anchor piece of furniture with huge speakers in a pecan-finished cabinet. I thought, “What the h** am I going to do with this?” But we hauled it, and a bunch of other stuff, from Arkansas back to New Mexico.
Last weekend I was able to get all of it out of the shop and into another room in the house, or to another house that could make better use of that particular item. The stereo alone remained in the shop. On a whim, I rigged the antenna, plugged it in. Pulled a vinyl LP (remember?) from the collection she also insisted I take, put it on the turntable, and cranked it up.
Absolutely sweet. I could see the vibrations in the window glass. Beautiful sound, much better than the little boom-box-wannabe that I had been using for years.
And with the extra room in the shop, it just might stay there.
Mark in the Desert
Sounds like the table of contents for the next book. Can’t wait.
Someone told me that you have to live in at least 2 houses before you will really know what you want in a house. I wonder if shops are the same. I have totally rearranged mine at least twice in 5 years as my workstyle and opinions change. I think I am due for one more soon.
I think I break all except 1, 7 and 8. I might be ok on 6 too. Not north facing but there are enough trees that I don’t get glare.
There is enough on setting up shop in the tool chest book that I don’t know why anyone would need another book on that topic. I just need time and resources to do it.
I’m with Mattias – I break them all except 1 and 8 (still have awful concrete floors…).
I also agree that the musings on shop setup in ATC are fantastic, and don’t see much left uncovered. If only the book came with an extra hour per day to implement said ideas…
I appreciate your thinking on work spaces.Clear and concise form a wizened veteran.
(from) a wizened veteran.
I just put another larger power tool onto wheels. I re-arrange my shop about as often as my house, every 6 months or so. Hoping someday that’ll settle down. You know, when I’m done buying new tools 😉
One of your earlier blog entries on treating your shop as a nice room (I can’t remember if it was the hardwood flooring or the nice walls post) finally made something click for me–yes, my shop is a utilitarian space, but I can choose to make it nice just because I want to. I have often made the argument to myself that shop furniture should be made as cheaply as possible since it wasn’t going to be “seen” inside of the “living area. ” Well, I certainly don’t live there all of the time, but I definitely want to enjoy the time I spend in the shop. I enjoy nice furniture in my house, there is no reason not to utilize nice furniture in my shop to make my time there as enjoyable as possible.
I have never viewed my shop as a static environment. My interests change, my projects change, so my shop changes. Constantly. Maybe I’m doing it wrong…
I love the advice about getting rid of a tool that you haven’t used in two years. I think it’s time for an eBay auction.
Now, since I share the space with my wife’s storage, if I can get her on board with that, too…
Not related to this post, but…. Congratulations on the full-color article in today’s Cincinnati Enquirer!
I agree with almost everything in your list! The principles would probably apply to any small woodshop.
However, to someone setting up a shop, I’d say FIRST ask yourself what you want to make. The answer(s) will guide the many decisions in setting up the shop. A shop is really a tool designed to accomplish a task.
“The more tools/machines you have, the more time you will spend fiddling with tools instead of building.”
Glad to see I’m not alone in finding this out. I’m trimming down what I have in an attempt to stop this happening after finding many weekends in the shed over without a single bit of wood touched!
My “shop” is half of a two-car garage. Since my wife thinks she should be able to open the doors of her car, that works out to a working space of 11’x25′ and that’s enough for me. If I were working in an aircraft hanger, I’d still have all my tools and work surfaces clustered as close together as possible.
Arthritis makes necessary what has always been a personal preference: minimize moving the wood or assembly by bringing the tool to the work and/or sliding work from one work station to another.
Spent the evening burning my wood stash. Most of it is crap. Short pieces, rips and smallish sheet goods. Only keeping the hard to find stuff. A few abandoned projects will heat the house. If it doesn’t make me happy – it’s gone!
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