If you have ever visited the Greenville Woodworkers Guild in Upstate South Carolina, you probably marveled at… everything. The machines. The space. The lumber storage. The multimedia room and furniture display areas.
Me? I loved the sign over the slop sink.
Above that sink was a sign that explicitly stated what was and what was not allowed in the sink. After you read that sign, you would be a fool to pour acetone down its drain.
The slop sink is by the guild’s welcome desk. I excitedly told the woodworkers sitting there: “Wow! That is a perfect sign. Plus all the instructions on the machines are explicit and clear. It must make this place easier to run.”
“No one obeys the signs,” one of them replied. “The only way to get them to listen is to be ruthless.”
Ruthless? I thought it was an odd word. But within a few months, I realized the guy was right.
When I returned to my shop, I decided to put a sign above our bathroom sink: “This sink is for soap and water only. Please use the slop sink for solvents.”
About a week later, someone poured some really caustic agents down the bathroom sink. The chemicals dissolved the plumbing seals and suddenly the bathroom floor was covered in acid and water.
That day, I became ruthless.
I have worked in group shops (or shops with fellow employees) for most of my adult life. Every one of them was a disorganized mess. Sometimes the boss was the worst offender. No matter what the shop rules were, every few months all of the router wrenches would disappear. Many of the machines would be clogged with dust or seriously out of alignment. And so we’d all take a grumpy couple days to get things back to where we could work.
And then the entropy would begin again.
I was part of the problem. When I became “the boss,” I decided to live by example. Keep my area clean. Clear off the machines after I used them. Empty the trash at the end of the day.
I figured that everyone would become embarrassed that they weren’t doing their part. And then they would pick up after themselves. Rainbows and kittens.
They didn’t notice or care. So the shop became messier and less functional than ever. And that was absolutely my failure as a leader.
After the solvent incident, however, I became ruthless. If someone left a mess, I confronted them. If people didn’t follow the cleaning protocols for the end of the week, they got a nasty text the next morning. I decided that I didn’t care if my shopmates thought I was a jerk.
After about six months of being a raging (but consistent) wanker, something happened.
The shop stayed clean. Really clean. And I never had to say another word about it. When students would visit, my shopmates would warn them to sweep up their messes. Otherwise, “You’ll trigger HIM.” (Which was me.)
Weirdly, I haven’t had to raise my voice or send a nasty text for years now. I’ve returned to being an easygoing person who keeps his personal area clean, does his share of maintenance and empties the trash whenever it’s full.
It’s all sparkly waterfalls and break-dancing Care Bears.
But so help me if you dump lacquer thinner down my bathroom sink, I will have you hogtied before breakfast. OK, sweetie?
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. I know that most readers work in their shops alone. So this post might seem… odd. If I have to be explicit, the message is: Be honest with others and yourself. Even when it’s against your nature.
47 thoughts on “Cruel to be Kind (Means that Your Shop’s Clean)”
I was manager of a library outreach department and had the same problem with our shared kitchen. I once sent out a nasty email about the congealed oats blocking the sink and why, in the name of God, did we have 13 bottles of salad dressing in the fridge! The next morning one of the malefactors/staff members came into my office with a big smile on her face and said that, since we had 19 staff members, we really ought to have 19 bottles of dressing in there! The way to turn a bitchy email into a funny memory.
Caustic chemicals down any drain?
Yeah, don’t get me started.
To be fair, retail drain cleaner is pretty much the definition of “caustic chemical.”
Not to say you should be using drain cleaner, but it’s not exactly unheard of.
Reminds me a lot of the training I received in university chemistry labs. The rules were simple and made very clear on day one: label things and clean up after yourself. The consequences of not sticking to that were also made clear: Flasks without labels left unattended will ve disposed of (That was the result of two weeks of synthesis? Not possible, because if it was important, it would have been labelled.) Clutter left on the bench at the end of the day? You guessed it: gone the next day.
One person forgot. After that the place was, always tidy.
Not too long ago, someone asked me what I thought about his idea to turn his shop into a “Maker Space.” He’d rent it out to folks without their own tools. He thought he could make some good money.
I was horrified. I can’t imagine doing that, even under close supervision. I’d rather turn my shop over to a bunch of adolescent chimpanzees.
God bless folks like those who run groups such as Greenville. There are always just a few people doing most of the work, and they don’t get nearly enough credit.
“I have a barn. Let’s put on a show!”
Ye Gads. All I can think is the old wisdom: “A borrowed saw cuts anything.”
A lesson quickly learned by my downstairs neighbor one day, when he ‘borrowed’ one of my Japanese saws to try to cut a box spring in half.
Thankfully it was just a crappy Irwin saw from the home center, but as soon as he watched all of the teeth snap off in one stroke, he knew he done screwed up.
When he came up to own his stupidity, I swear he must have thought I was going to use that saw on him. I told him that it was lucky for him it wasn’t a fancy saw, please go buy a replacement, and leave my F tools alone if you want to see your next birthday.
It was a threat made in jest, but sometimes I can’t help myself.
“A borrowed saw cuts anything.” What a great line. Right up there with, “It’s OK. It’s a rental.”
“I didn’t borrow it; it was broken when I borrowed it; and it was sound when returned.”
Oh man, I’m the boss and it’s true, I’m the worst offender.
I am accused of being anal!
You missed a key takeaway… before being tough, you were already leading by example. It is 100% impossible to get people to work past the bare minimum for a sustained period of time if you aren’t a leader; and leaders set the example.
After way too many years in management I always remember one of the rules an early mentor of mine beat into me. If you are the boss only make rules that you can enforce and if you make a rule then enforce it. He was a master at that and it stuck. I think a good corollary to your story.
There’s a reason that beatdowns are part of the Zen tradition……
“You are lucky, Ed Gruberman. Few novices experience so much of Ti Kwan Leep so soon…”
“I have learned two things master. First, anger is a weapon only to ones opponent”
“And second, get in the first shot…”
When I was a first-year teacher, straight out of college, my colleague who managed the computer lab was absolutely the sweetest, most supportive presence…until one of my classes ran late, and I didn’t have them clean up before they left.
I got a 2-second tongue lash that immediately took me back, thinking “Man, Mary must be having a bad day.” Then I realized that she was really giving me a gift, by promising that if she was upset with me about something, she would let me know. That made the other 99.9% of the time, when she was totally happy and supportive, very clearly sincere. You never had to wonder whether she meant it when she was being nice. 😉
if I were ruthless with MYSELF, my basement shop would be tidy, clean, and functional anytime I wanted to take a few minutes or hours to do some work. Let’s just say it is not. The message is fit for everyone, solo or group. Thank you.
I was going to type this but I’ll just support this comment instead. For those of us working alone today’s blog is a reminder to be ruthless with our self.
Here at the Kansas City Woodworkers’Guild, we’re a totally volunteer organization. We have “Shop Foreman’s” who oversee the shop during the open shop times. We once had a problem of members just leaving their workspace dirty and not cleaning up after themselves. When asked about this, by the shop foreman, one member told the shop foreman that it was what he, the foreman, got paid to do. This, of course, Elicited rage on the part of the foreman and that member never failed to clean up after himself again. I always tell members, “I’m not your mother and I’m not going to clean up after you'” it gets the point across.
Hot water and dish detergent does a great job of cleaning oilstones…..just don’t put them in the dishwasher! Came out sparkling clean, but a oily mess remained on the interior walls of the appliance (and don’t try wiping off that mess with mineral spirits or something stronger). With the replacement dishwasher, as far as I’ll go is ballcaps and occasionally dirty socks.
When I have a class going the students do a good job cleaning up, even when I rent out a bench they clean up after themselves. Now my workspace is a different mater, I do put my tools away at the end of the day. My floor only gets sweep up maybe once a month. I do like a clean shop but more important to me is knowing that my tools are clean and put away so I don’t have to search for a tool when I need it. Now if I could just get the students to keep their tool chest organized and not just haphazard.
People are 100% reliable in that you can 100% rely on the fact that they, taken collectively, will ignore signs. There are a couple who will obey signs but they don’t matter because the next 50 people won’t, whether out of obliviousness or exceptionalism. Personally, I avoid confrontation at all costs so if I see the sign, I do what it says. I don’t want to get yelled at.
I used to be terrible about cleaning up my shop at the end of a session. And I’d spend the next day putting things away so I’d have a spot to work and looking for lost stuff under piles of sawdust. Then I moved into a shop that was simply a 1-car carport with a couple of locking closets. Everything HAD to be put away at night if I expected it to be there the next day. I keep a little dorm fridge in the shop stocked with ice cold beer. But my rule is that I don’t crack a beer until I’m done working. So, I finish work, crack a beer and then proceed to start sweeping, etc. while enjoying some frosty suds. Occasionally the place is in such disarray that it requires 2 beers. No problem. I’ve continued this practice even though my shop is now a lockable 2-car garage. It’s become a pleasant ritual instead of a chore.
Paraphrasing Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, future me is always pleased when past me cleans up the place.
While most of us work alone, I don’t think the message is lost. I try to make a point of cleaning up the work area as I go along – I’ve got really good about this when cooking, not quite as vigilant in the shop. But a clean and orderly shop, in addition to making work easier from a practical standpoint also provides a psychological boost as well. I feel better about my shop/my work if it is organized and looks professional, even though I am an amateur.
This also relates to some broader issues for me as well. The past few months I’ve realized that I am drowning in bits of scrap wood that I previously haven’t had the heart to dispose of. I also realized that if a Fire Marshall or insurance inspector walked through the space they wouldn’t be happy about some things.
I also have quite a few extraneous tools that I purchased when I first got started down this path a decade or so ago – a benchtop Harbor Freight grinder (replaced by a circa 1980’s Baldor 6″) and the myriad of sharpening jigs and systems immediately comes to mind. Some of those tools are just sitting there and taking up space. So, clean up and cull is definitely the order of the day and your post is also a good reminder of that
Our tyrant at the printing company was Steve. You didn’t want to get Steve’d. He was fastidious, ruthless and a bit OCD. It was also the cleanest print shop I’d ever seen.
I learned his secret after working with him for over a decade. He told me that his voice was almost exactly the same pitch as the printing presses and other machinery. He had to raise his voice to be heard at all. “People think I’m pissed off, but my normal voice gets drown out”.
I attended the Krenov School (formerly College of the Redwoods) three-week summer session several years ago and was impressed by their mandatory practice of cleaning the entire shop (bench room and machine room) at 5:00 o’clock everyday. This engrained a practice of cleanliness and orderliness in the students that made the work environment both safer and more efficient.
…and ensures everyone pulls their share. In a lot of academic settings the ones who finish first have to start cleaning first. Dullards and shirkers benefit.
The lack of an actual authority figure to make it stick is why shared workspaces like a makerspace are what they often are. Maintenance is someone else’s problem, so all tools are badly abused, and/or duller than dull. Not that having someone like that would help much, as those spaces seem to be frequented overwhelmingly by the type of person that’s allergic to owning up to their messes, and likely to blow up when someone suggests notifying other that the thicknesser has a nicked blade because they ran boards with embedded metal in them through, again.
You had to tell me only once, I think…the guilt…it lingers long.
I’ll bet he hasn’t made a Marine cry though . . .
A clean shop is a hell-of-lot Safer Too. At 76 I take no chances. (well, most of the time)
One of my first bosses said, “Doers do what checkers check.” (The sub-clause to that being “If the checker doesn’t do it themselves, nobody else will.”)
cleanliness is a habit that is directly tied to your environmental comfort level. everyone has a number of tools and detritus that they will tolerate. once the number of tools and detritus strewn about passes that level, the person will feel compelled to clean. the reverse is also true. after cleaning, the environment will likely be tidier than the comfort level. so, tools and detritus will accumulate untill returning to the comfort level thus continuing the vicious cycle. the good news is habits can be changed. you need a trigger (like 5:00 everyone cleans up, or crack a beer when done working), a reward (enjoying that beer, feeling the joy/safety of clean etc), and time (about 3 weeks) to get the habit to stick. it helps to have some imagery (pics of clean dream shop) to keep your focus on the goal. I’ve been experimenting with Peter Ross, “never put anything in a temporary place.” that’s been working wonders in the cleanliness level of my house, but I haven’t been in the shop much lately to try there but i don’t see why it wouldn’t be just as effective.
OBTW much of relational stress is caused by people having different comfort levels about the same thing.
Other than the obvious advantages to keeping a (reasonably) clean shop (which I mainly do, even though it is a solo shop), I will deliberately use stopping to clean as a means of resetting myself during a project. If I get really caught up in something, I find myself gradually losing my capacity for patient and deliberate work and speeding up in order to get to the goal sooner. Which of course is precisely where careless and sloppy work comes in the shop door, while shavings and tools and parts start to pile up and get in each other’s way, neither of which is good.
If I then stop and clean and put everything back in its place, the spell is broken, and not only can I continue working in a clean shop but I am back to my preferred mood of slow and steady wins the race.
In other words, when my inner rabbit is taking over the show, if I stop to clean it’s my old friend turtle to the front again.
Bravo Chris! I was once injured because of an unkempt shop/work site. From that time forward I would ensure my area was clean before I started and when I finished working.
He didn’t like it much that I cleaned up beforehand until I reminded him of what it cost him in a Workman’s Comp Claim. Then he became HIM.
Putting each thing in its proper place is not to be confused with cluttering various cupboards.
My wife likes to put things out of sight but then doesn’t always remember where.
Paraphrasing Paul Sellers: “We all let things go from time to time. One needs to clean up before it seems unrecoverable”.
I have a dumb question. Are the seals and gaskets on a slop sink different than a regular bathroom sink?
In a perfect world, probably not.
But our bathroom sink had been put in during the 1980s and was a bar bathroom. It was held together with drinking straws, tiny plastic swords and regurgitated Skittles.
Chris, this is off-topic for this post, but about a previous post from you in 2020 about the kitchen you remodeled. I think you used wood for the countertops, and I’m wondering how that has held up so far. Most of what I’ve read about wood countertops is that they require regular maintenance around sinks due to regular exposure to water. Is there anything special you do to maintain the wood?
We use soft wax (linseed oil and beeswax) every six months. They still look great. And I love the workbench-like surface. Would do it again!
Thanks! I’ve been thinking about walnut or another hardwood instead of solid surface.
Does that include around the sink? I would love wood counters but hesitate over the consequences of sink splashing, and with hand dishwashing you know that will happen occasionally
Yup. All the counters are wood.
Cool article. I believe I need a “HIM” at least once a week as my SHE is not loud enough with her voice or text messages.
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