Why the %$#@ is Your Shop so Clean?

clean_shop_IMG_0378

When I post photos of my work, a frequent comment is about how my shop is clean. “Sterile,” some might say. “Unrealistic,” others have said. But a few people like it that way, I guess.

The implication is that I don’t do any real work. Or that I stage photos like a magazine art director – arranging the few shavings and dust on the floor with artistry.

A real shop is supposed to be chaotic and messy. A beehive of activity with projects, parts, clamps and tools everywhere. Messy people are the people who do real work.

I’ve worked in messy shops, and I’ve worked in tidy shops. Both have their own twisted logic that works. I cannot fathom the mindset of the person who runs a cluttered shop. I might as well try to imagine what it’s like to be a single-celled organism. It’s just not in my nature.

Every place I’ve worked since age 11 has had strict rules that prevented bad consequences.

The Anal Slog (Can I Say That?)
At This Can’t Be Yogurt (TCBY), we had hygiene protocols so customers didn’t get sick and we didn’t get shut down. Every machine had to be broken down, scrubbed and lubricated nightly. Temperatures had to be monitored. Floors had to be scrubbed. Leaving a cleaning supply in the wrong area of the shop could get you dinged by the health department.

At the Great San Francisco Seafood Co. (where I worked for four years), we had even stricter rules. Fish loves to go bad. Selling your customer a dead oyster or mussel will make her very sick. And washing your hands 20 times in a shift was typical.

As a production assistant at a publishing company (for four years), health and safety wasn’t an issue – time was. That publishing shop was like a submarine. Every object had a place. When you needed 2-point. tape at 2 a.m. to get a newspaper to the printer, you could find it – even if the lights were out.

I worked a series of factory furniture jobs. At one table-making company, everything was chaos. Even after working there a week I didn’t know who was in charge or what my job was. Table parts came flying out. You put them together. Lots of yelling.

At a door factory, things were different. Every operation had a procedure to follow. The stain sat for this long. You rubbed it with this rag. You monitored humidity ever 30 minutes. And on and on.

By the time I was 21, I knew what kind of worker I was. And I have fought chaos ever since.

You might say that I’m a neat-nick or anal retentive. I don’t care. All I know is that I know where every tool is. I know where all the hardware is. And it’s arranged by size. When I need a hammer or a 1/2” chisel I don’t even need to look in my tool chest to get it.

And when I take a moment to ponder my next step in a project, I do it with a broom in my hand. I pick up shavings on the ground when I pass through the bench room. I impulsively put away tools, even if I know I’ll need them in the next day or so.

This level of organization allows me to work like a demon without any pauses. I don’t need to think about where I left a part or a tool. They are where they are supposed to be. All I have to do is put things back where they belong and I can move on to the next task.

I do not encourage you to do this in your own shop. I have precisely zero emotions whatsoever about other people’s workshops. I just care about my own.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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42 Responses to Why the %$#@ is Your Shop so Clean?

  1. LOL, Yeah! Well, i never noticed the cleanliness till you posted this. I am in the construction biz & was always taught that a clean well lit work space is a productive work space but i realize not everyone thinks this way.

  2. Its also SAFER! Which is kinda important on large commercial construction projects.

    • Rich says:

      It’s also safer in your own home shop as well. Clutter tires the mind, and a tired mind is ripe for an accident.

      • Jon the Choirboy says:

        I agree that cleaner is safer. You are less likely to trip, less likely to knock tools off a bench, less likely to catch a sharp edge hidden in the mess. It is rather presumptuous to claim that the reason it is safer is because clutter tires the mind, however. I don’t claim to know how your mind works, and surely you can’t claim to know how mine works. No one seems to know how Christopher Schwarz’s mind works! Clutter may tire your mind personally, but another person may become mentally exhausted trying to keep ahead of the shavings and sawdust. Good work comes out of both clean and messy shops. Bad work does, too.

  3. tpobrienjr says:

    Tage Frid told about being the apprentice, first one to the shop in the morning, responsible for the fire and keeping the place clean. Paul Sellers told about sweeping the floor at end of day and sharpening the tools before putting them away. Dad’s practice was to clean the shop when he started misplacing things.

  4. jayedcoins says:

    Screw it, I’ll take it to the next level and say that an organized workspace — not necessarily “clean” — is *objectively* better.

  5. hgordon4 says:

    Mise en place…
    In cooking – which I also enjoy doing.
    It applies to the shop as well.

  6. occasionalww says:

    I’ve always admired and appreciated a clean (and safe) shop, but for the life of me I can’t clean up as I work. I’ve always been a binge worker, both in the shop and the kitchen. My work/clean routine is more like fever and chills, or maybe even waves of nausea… anyway, you get the idea.

    • Rich says:

      I would count myself as a binge worker as well. However in the shop I find that when I come to what seems like a point of completion with a major task of a project, I prefer to take a clean-up break and put away stuff I know I won’t need & maybe even quick sweep the floor. I find this gives me a moment or two to think and plan out the next major step of the project – refreshing for the mind, fewer mistakes made.

  7. bachlynch says:

    I’m struggling to get my shop organized by building cabinets, places to hold chisels, planes, saws and even wood. Until that’s done I find my woodworking experience chaotic and not as peaceful as I would like. I agree with you though a clean shop, trying to find tools in the clutter drives me nuts.

  8. Jim McGee says:

    I like a clean shop. I won’t let a mechanic work on my car if there shop is cluttered and or dirty.

  9. Ralph Coppola says:

    I’m with you, order helps me think.
    As a new subscriber to your blog and reader of your book ( The Anarchist’s Design Book), let me say how much I am enjoying both. Especially like your get in there and do it attitude.

  10. Micah Salb says:

    Why are you wasting time debating whether a shop should be kept clean when there are SERIOUS issues that need to be addressed. For example, we still don’t have an answer to the pressing question as to whether there should always be a hyphen in “anal-retentive”?!

  11. Mike says:

    I have an organized brain and a cluttered everything else. Just the way I operate. I always have 3 or 4 projects going at the same time. If I put things away I wouldn’t be able to find them. My only way to clean is to just throw it all away or dump it in a drawer. Same way at my day job. I never take the same train two days in a row and always walk a different route from the train station to my office. Heck, I show up anytime between 7 and 9.

  12. pirollodesign says:

    I get the same about my shop. Too clean. I am so tired of trying to justify it, it’s just that everyone that enters has the same reaction. So I simply say I’m between projects and leave it at that. I totally agree with you, dirty , messy shops are shops that are slowly getting out of control, at least in my mind. It is so much simpler to just put tools back where they belong. this becomes critical if more than 1 person working in the shop so the other woodworker knows where the tool is. At the Fine Furniture Making School I attended, we were taught to put the tools back in their place at the end of the day and spent 20-30 minutes cleaning up as well. It works! So much more conducive to working in a shop when it is orderly and clean.

  13. Theron Ball says:

    You’ve been so gracious as to let us in, I have been really appreciative you to get me moving in the right direction. One question, has your shop always been neat and tight or have you felt the horrors of dust everywhere and your space on its umpteenth reorganization and layout overhaul? In other word, how long must I wait?

    • I’ve been forced to work in cluttered shops, and so I knew from the start that wasn’t how I was going to work when I had my own place.

      My goal is to leave the shop a little better than the day before. It is always evolving and, I hope, getting better.

  14. nordichomey says:

    The best power tool in my shop is a little 5 gal shop vac. I am constantly cleaning the bench and floor between operations so I always have fresh start when I go to the next step.

  15. Eric R says:

    I have disagreed with you on a lot of things over the years, but on this I totally agree with you.
    Keeping my shop clean and organized just makes working in there more pleasant and productive.

  16. Eric from Dayton says:

    I’ve been to LAP during open houses and can say that yes, they do make messes. So do visitors, but LAP, being gracious hosts, rarely let the visitors sweep. Also the tool organization isn’t as anal as Chris would make it out to be. Every tool does not have a shadow box location to go into, but more a generalized location. For instance, his toolbox tills are not divided but each holds certain tools. Unlike 5S organizations, the tool locations are also not marked with labels. Not needed because he puts the tool back where it came from (the empty spot). It’s really nice and welcoming.

    • Still working in a 5s environment (somebody else’s company) on year 7. 5s works, when you are 2, 3 or maybe even 5 shifts, doing the exact same thing over and over and over again. preferably in sub assembly stations. For an evolving ever-changing environment with different projects in different materials with and for different people… It pure and simply sucks. A tidy and ready for action shop, tool box, van or truck on the other hand, is always a good thing. Just make sure to have blank spots in between, so you have room for expansion. Maybe only temporarily, and not even a lot. just some. For the inevitable unforeseen in any perfectly laid plan.However – and I think I remember Mr. Chris Schwartz mentioning something along these lines at one point as well – Keeping the extra room to a minimum will force you to keep a tight rein on whether or not you actually need this item in your shop/tool box/truck or not. Don’t overdo it. Both 5s and too much clutter will kill creativity eventually. For me at least. I have seen dead projects take over an entire shop like ivy. It is hell to get back in working order. I have also seen 5s to an extent where no other projects, nor innovation, was possible.

  17. Not there yet but getting closer every year. I found that planning ahead procedures pretending to be a factory line makes for better-quality job and easier operation, even though I’m working along with hand tools only in one-time projects, never to be repeated. Routine is not a negative term, in the right mindset it is a bliss.

  18. Ftlow001 says:

    That’s why I can’t stand Derek Cohen’s website. All of the pictures seem staged shaving here and there and name branded tools strategically placed in the background. Machines look unkept and grotty.
    You are for real Chris and I commend you on your work ethic.

  19. obewank says:

    I, however, do remember you misplacing your hammer at Kelly’s in Berea………probably cause I kept trying to steal it……………………..dale

  20. studioffm says:

    When I was a young maker, and thats a while ago now, I asked a skilled cabinetmaker how do i get faster like you? He looked at me and gave what seemed a very odd answer. ” Its all about putting down and picking up tools” I thought he was being obtuse until i thought it through . His bench was cleared down at end of day, He put tools away sharp, not dull and made sure during the day his bench area was kept for the job . Tools went in the tool well or back in the box. he always knew where they were and moved smoothly from process to process.

    We try toppers on this professional approach but it suits only some . I know great makers really great makers that manage bench like a disaster zone.

    As my mother would say “Nowt so queer as folk ”

    have a lovely day
    david savage

  21. Chad Husting says:

    Do you have upcoming plans or video on how to make the chair in the picture?

  22. It’s not that hard to keep a shop reasonably clean. I work in my garage where my wife parks at night. I want it to be nice for her so she doesn’t have to walk through dust and debris. It takes me all of 5 minutes at the end of an afternoon of woodworking to do so. I’m not obsessive over it. Just shop broom and dust pan followed by a very quick shop vac use. As for tools, when the bench starts to feel cluttered, I hang them up on the peg board in front of me as there is a natural pause in woodworking operations. It takes all of 30 seconds to do.

  23. andymckenzie617 says:

    By nature, I’m a “messy shop” kind of guy. Given space and surface area, my cabinets slowly empty themselves onto any flat space available.

    That said, my current workshop is 6’x6′, and while I don’t vacuum/sweep after every session, tools get put away. I have a Dutch-style chest, where almost all of my tools live: small things like chisels might get stored in the rack on the workbench if I know I’m coming back and going to need them the next day. But every tool gets cleared off the benchtop at the end of the day, and shavings and dust get swept off into the yardwaste bag that sits under the left-hand wing of my bench.

    I’m looking at a larger workspace this summer, and I know I’ll be trying to keep up, but I’m not sure how long it will last.

  24. Rob Hildebrand says:

    I picked up two things from a machine shop book that stuck with me. If you can put it away with one hand, you will likely put it away. When tidying up, touch things only once.
    I think with a broom in my hand too; meditation
    -Rob

  25. tsstahl says:

    After reading all of the above, I guess I’m the odd duck in the pond.

    While cooking, things have to be tidy and cleaned as they go.

    In my single person shop, stuff is everywhere, but I mostly know where. I clean between major operations, but always clean off the surfaces of power tools before moving on. I like a bit of sawdust on the concrete floor while I work so my shoes, saw benches, etc. slide around easier. The shop gets a detail clean about once a month. Clutter never seems to leave; I often dream of a dedicated shop where most things have their place. Even the casters have casters in my current garage shop so everything can be moved on a whim..

    In any multi-person work environment, I’m really keen on maintaining organization and cleanliness.

    I never really thought much about these different aspects. I guess it comes down to when it’s just me, I don’t care so much, but I do when other people are affected. This is all a train of thought I didn’t expect to catch this morning. 🙂

  26. Tucker says:

    I’ll add two things I’ve taken from workshops: 1) (Garrett Hack) Take time to check and tweak settings, alignment, etc. all tools, both hand and machine, when sharpening or setting or resetting anything. 2) Hit the shop with a specific purpose for that visit; use then put away the tools to accomplish that task when finished. 5 minutes of clean-up creates enthusiasm for returning.

  27. Flats says:

    Must be wonderful to live in a perfect world! I, on the other hand, live in reality. I’m the hobby woodworker who shares my garage with automotive tools, electrical tools, reloading equipment, pet food, winter boots, hockey equipment, shelves of house paint, fishing gear, refrigerator, field hockey gear, boating gear, hunting gear, water heater, furnace, and sometimes an actual car! Try keeping that organized and clean…

    • May I humbly suggest that it’s not the space that is the problem but the large number of consumer goods one owns that can interfere with getting things organized.

    • andymckenzie617 says:

      I used to have the same problem, although my hobbies were different. My garage was full of tools with no place to live, detritus from half a dozen hobbies, boxes of stuff I wasn’t quite sure what to do with, a dozen incomplete projects, and two motorcycles. I solved the problem by getting rid of most of the stuff in the boxes, finishing some of the projects and scrapping the rest, and building storage for everything else (the motorcycles are still an issue).

      I’m a disorganized pack-rat by nature, and it’s a fight every day to get rid of stuff I don’t actually need, and frequently don’t even want. It sucks, but when I manage to get rid of things the results are fantastic.

  28. I envy anyone with a clean shop. My shop looks like a tornando went thru it and it’s all my fault. To many half finished projects laying around. I guess I should start finishing some of them.

  29. Matthew Holbrook says:

    I keep my shop clean and organizeD because that is how I live in the first place.

    For me a clean shop is :

    1. Safe.
    2. Well organized
    3. A place that can accommodate multiple phases / assemblies of a single project in progress
    4. A place where others are welcome to visit
    5. Attractive to prospective customers
    I have had a few orders for work or services come to me because someone saw my clean shop.

  30. mcqacp says:

    1. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. ( an old proverb not in the Bible)
    2. 1Cor 14:40 Let all things be done decently and in order.
    3. WWJD
    For those looking for a reason to be more organized.
    😇

  31. Alex A. says:

    I wish I could change my working style to keep my shop this clean. I keep trying but my chaotic nature always wins (my office at work is similar)

  32. That would make a great poster to hang on the wall of a (pick one) messy, clean, disturbed, disorganized, disaster, clinical, waxed and polished… shop.

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