Reflections on Learning How #2: To Set Up Your First Shop

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Blog entry by FeralVermonter posted 01-03-2013 07:59 PM 2065 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Starting From Scratch Part 2 of Reflections on Learning How series Part 3: To Rehabilitate a Craftsman Radial Arm Saw »

The first mistake, at least if you’re wired like me, is in thinking too much.

If it’s your first shop, just go out there, slap a couple of boards on a couple of sawhorses, and start playing around. The thing is, if it’s your first shop you probably don’t have a really good idea of how you’re going to work, in your own shop. So think about it for an hour or two, then get out there and get something you can work on slapped together. You can always change it around later.

The second mistake, (again, if you’re unfortunate enough to be wired like me) is changing it all around too much.

When fully in the grips of that mistake, I spent a whole week trying to design the “perfect” shop, one that would allow for all eventualities and be ergonomically designed for all operations… eventually I realized that I’d have to learn and redesign as I go—but rather than actually move stuff around in the shop, I keep a little pad of graph paper where I can sketch out ideas as they come up. It’s a nice way to keep things moving in that department… without having to actually keep moving things. And writing it down seems to help you learn, or at least it helps me.

So don’t keep fiddling with your shop: set it up to get working, and fiddle on the page. Best of both worlds. And later on, when it comes time, you’ll be in a much better position to make yourself a “dream shop.” (Just buy a new notebook when you finish!)

Okay, so those are the two big mistakes (so far!). Now I have some simple benches down both walls, with shelves climbing all the way up, and a great big (fairly crude, but solid) table made from 2×4s, scrap wood, and one nice piece of fresh plywood for the top (and a notebook full of ideas, a couple of which aren’t bad). In keeping with the spirit of not getting too bogged down on finding the “perfect” place to put my tools, I’ve mounted all of my power tools on a doubled-up piece of ply. This allows me to move them around quickly, clamp them securely to the benches, and store them under the benches when not in use—also lets me mount jigs and so forth to the ply. Similarly, I’ve stored most of my hand-tools into some old drawers that I had lying around to keep the clutter down… and I find that certain ones end up in the middle of the shop (like the wrenches and screwdrivers) while others end up in the corners (like the tap and die tools). This seems like a pretty good way of starting to figure out how Shop Mk. 2 should be laid out, when the time comes to build it.

Okay, so I’ve talked about my stupid mistakes… now for some of my clever ideas!

Clever idea #1 is pretty simple. I’ve seen a lot of photos of shops on this site, and a lot of them have pretty bare walls up top. That’s prime deep storage area! Just remember to label the crates or boxes that you tuck up there, where you can see it!

Clever idea #2 is also pretty simple: establish good habits from the get-go. If it’s your first shop, you haven’t had any time to form work habits in there. And that’s a fantastic opportunity. So keep it clean. Clean up a little every day, first thing you do when you go in there. Put your tools away at the end of every project. I know, I know—it sounds boring, and you want to get going on your projects! But once you form the habits, you’ll find that you always have a clean place to work, and that you’re not wasting hours of potentially productive time looking for your tape measure.

Clever idea #3: do you really need it? REALLY? We’re all watching the wallet these days, some more than others. My budget for my shop right now is something like $50 a month. Looking back on it, I realize that I wasted about half of the money I’ve spent on the shop so far, either buying stuff I don’t (yet) need, or stuff that, with a little thought, I could have made myself. So I started asking myself, every time I had the thought “I need A or B” I’d question that, and I ended up putting the money together to buy the perfect blade for my radial arm saw—which is the subject of the next post.

3 comments so far

View Roger's profile


20931 posts in 2883 days

#1 posted 01-04-2013 12:05 AM

Well written. Now that you mention that, I have to do some “re-arranging” (again) ,,, lol in my shop this summer (hopefully). After aquiring more equipment, it’s impossible not to. I do not think it is ever possible to have a perfect shop.

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

View Freakazoid's profile


65 posts in 2858 days

#2 posted 01-04-2013 01:12 AM

Nice post, it is interesting to see another person struggle with the same issues I am working through.

Regarding clever idea #1: I have found that higher space is useful space, but the higher you keep it, make sure it is less frequently used. I use the top two feet of my space for lumber racks. I have a lumber cart for frequently used stuff, but the better boards that need to sit and dry sit up high.

Regarding clever idea #2: I believe that habits and design go hand in hand. Poor design will yield bad habits and good design will yield good habits. Vice versa applies to both accounts. I have not yet finalized on my layout, everything has been temporary and as a result, many a temporary storage area has developed. I am constantly reorganizing – this is why I have not posted a picture of my shop. The only exception has been one wall where I built two nice cabinets and a lumber rack above them along the entire wall and that area has remained in pretty good shape. The rest is a mess.

Regarding clever idea #3: I totally agree. Buy it if you need it, not if you want it. I still struggle with buying stuff that I know I am going to need but don’t have space allocated for it. When I am tempted, I refer back to clever idea #2. Before I recognized this weakness of mine, I purchased an 8 foot long, 12” jointer that was manufactured before WWII that has no motor. It does not move very easily, 800 pounds of cast iron….

-- I can complicate anything

View sixstring's profile


296 posts in 2322 days

#3 posted 01-04-2013 07:49 PM

Yeah, I cant stop thinking about stuff myself. I’ve heard it called “analysis-paralysis” but I’ve learned a little something about it. Like you said, think about your project just enough to have the basic idea down and get started. I was working on a display case for an antique clarinet and must have spent weeks designing and redesigning it. As soon as I made my first few cuts, I realized certain challenges and opportunities based on the material I had, the tools at my disposal, and my limited but growing set of skills. With those first few cuts, I had to throw out the original plan and it seemed like as I went along, more things changed.

So the point is, just do it. I figure the more projects I have under my belt, the easier this process will be since I become more familiar with certain tasks and design elements. Woodworking is like war… you can plan a battle with utmost detail, but everything changes the minute you get on the field and you have to be ready to roll with it and adjust as needed.

-- JC Garcia, Concord, CA : "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission..."

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