My buddy, the major who I grew up with, tells me his son’s father-in-law is about to begin a BIG home shop re-do in the next few months because after a life of building (really) fine homes, he wants to get into furniture and fine woodworking.

Designing a shop is a lot like marriage.  Statistically, the first one doesn’t have as good a chance as the second one, if you follow. I offered a few thoughts.

This morning (tah-dah!) I unveil my new approach to shop design.  And while simple, if you’re a budding maker, there’s a lot to be learned here, so pay attention.

(Continues below)


Step one in the process is to figure out what your “multiple workstations” are.  Build like making will always be part of your life.

You know:  Like if you’re a gamer, you want the fastest computer, hottest Wi-Fi, UHD screaming video card, and perfect lighting with no glare anywhere to be found.  With speakers, they need to be just so.  Close to the bathroom, fridge, and microwave.  See how this works?

Clustering the tools to support the mission, which for gamers is usually some variant of “first look, first shoot.”  For makers it’s a little different.

When you outgrow the confines of “playing in your head and a small a box” and want to build “real things” distributing the tasks at multiple workstations is clearly the way to go.

The process begins with a simple “starter question” like “What’s my first hobby/avocation I want to build out?”  This is your first workstation.  Maybe it’s an electronics bench or a music room

I got onto this because we’ve rebuilt our home pretty much ground up and it has been general construction.  Now parsed out logically.  when  I started down the path if was heaps of stuff.

General construction is from where the major’s in-law is starting.

The way most general contractors (like the guy who bought our airplane) work is they become world-class experts at things like Skil-saw use.  I have never met a better hand (with fewer tools) who could use them so effectively as our friend up in North Dakota who drives the baby Beech nowadays.  Artist!

The problem – when you move into greater degrees of specialization – is that you can’t work with a small number of tools in one or two work places.  You need to group tools as whole sets of specialties.

The migration path for me has been gradual.  The shop used to look like hell (which we presume to be a topsy-turvy place with sawdust) because everything was going on in one place.  That’s inherently messy.

My first pass at “organization”  was to separate the tools into logical groups.

The major parts of the shop are now:

  • Metal-working (powered on the wall, other across the aisle), metal lathe, milling machine, etc.
  • Air sources.
  • The general construction of everything bench with  a few dozen blow-molded tool cases under it.
  • There’s a Drilling workstation. Drill bits have their own box – easy outs are there, too.
  • There’s a Dremeling bench.  Radio rehab and laipidary tools, small specialized vacuum.
  • There’s a saw, router, shaper, and sander bench.
  • The  12″ compound miter-saw and table saw are their own realm.
  • There’s a desk for fine assembly. Benchtop press here…
  • A Paint rack.  This one is overgrown.
  • A small parts and fasteners area… More roll around carts
  • And there’s a general/mechanical desk and an outside table for whatever.  (Weld, paint, sandblast…utility place.)
  • Serving all of these are four Sears four-drawer roll-around project centers.  Tools are groups according to labels like “Sharps,” “Twisty things” (wrenches), “Grippy things” (pliers and cutters), “Welding” (tips, gloves, anti-spatter) and all that.

Of course, if you have a shop very long, you’ll find that there are certain tools the missus will want her own copy of.  Elaine’s stash includes Channel Locks, pliers, screw drivers, measuring devices, sharps, hammer, level…all the things she wants for her projects.  (My idea of tool room chits for tools…how do I explain…didn’t play, lol…)

There are two Stanley Mobile Work Center Tool Carts ($40 via Amazon Prime, may be cheaper to pick up at Wal-Mart).  Elaine has hers and there is some gear in the studio’s “roller #2” because that’s a different tool set.  Contact cleaner, for example, is not something Elaine would use very often, for example. Decibel meter, anyone?  Pink and White noise sweep generator?

Over the course of building our place, we’ve come to appreciate how much time can be flushed by not having the right tools at hand.  Used to be I could spend more time looking for a tool that doing the project.  No more!

Walking from the shop to the deck (when we built that) was a time sink because we carried wood around 100 feet per cut.  Move saw horses and extensions and some clamps for super straight cuts?  Yeah, but rain was threatening… There are some operations that will always be a compromise if you hold to basic safety rules and common sense.  Like “Don’t use power saws in rain.  Use air tools…

Which is why aircraft shops I’ve worked in have lots of air tools and all these different “carts” around.

Roll the support carts you’ll need to the kind of work you’ll be doing.  Avionics connector cart?   Air tool cart..sure.

An exception is the “metal workstation” which has it’s own roll-around (cheap Harbor Fright (sic)) because I couldn’t for the life of me figure why I might need a carbide-tipped metal lathe bit anywhere else but at the lathe.

For me, this was the first pass at the shop organization but it’s been a learning process.

Build it, try it out for a year, or so, and the you’ll discover what’s wrong with what seemed so simple.  I mean, besides going into therapy to get rid of too many interests.

Take our main workbench…because this will demonstrate how a shop is “perfected.

Here we see the present master bench in the shop – and it has been a joy!  Except…See all the blow-molded tool boxes with sawdust?

The obvious is that this needs to have sides and ends put on it to keep all the sawdust out.  (bugs, too!)

What’s NOT obvious, though is the real design lesson:  See that gap above the 2-by-4 rails holding up the cross-pieces for shelves?

I can’t tell you how many times I have been working on some small electronic do-dad and dropped a part on the floor.  Almost magically, the ALL falling parts come to rest exactly under the inaccessible middle area under the bench.

What happens next?  The whole project stops while I go find the roll-around magnetic sweeper (which doesn’t fit under the bench) so then it’s off to get the 50-pound pull magnet and wrap it to a short piece of rebar designed for just such fishing expeditions.

The problem for this (junior Mueller) is the fishing isn’t very good especially no matter how good the magnet — when you’re going for a copper or brass part!

What’s the answer?

Well, by the end of this week, there will be  a cut-down rubber floor runner that will provide a good seal between the floor and the wood…no more time will be lost to this vexing problem.

Good news about problems is you have to encounter them in order to creatively solve them.

Yes, you could use plastic cove base, too.  But I like thicker rubber for different kinds of things.  Excess goes into the parts department.

If you get enough time, square footage, and tools (don’t overlook Craigslist!), think of what you’re building set up “work stations” that would support a workflow.

Besides metal, wood/sheet goods cutting, drilling station and a sawing area, there’s our mechanical area and the electronics bench.

And last (but not least) I have a “shipping desk.”  This is where I put things to mail or ship,  open Amazon boxes, and so forth.  Basic packing goods are here (rolls of tape, dispensers etc., felt pens, blah, blah, blah….  Since we don’t get (or send) that much, the area doubles as the charging station for all the power tools and ham radio handhelds.

Now let’s visualize the case of our “fine furniture” maker. Suggested workstations?

  • A wood storage area.  Sheet and dimension goods all begin their path to rock & roll furniture stardom here.
  • Two cutting areas.  One for sheet goods and one for dimension work.  Chop and table.
  • A planer area.  Not everything in fine furniture is 1/2 or 3/4-inch, lol.
  • A glue-up table with oodles of curing space.  8-by-8 feet? All the pipe clamps go on the wall near this one.  18 pipe clamps.  3 per side, so a six sided box is 18….
  • A “Machine Boutique” which is where the scroll and band saws plus the wood lathe go.
  • Sanding station:  Bench for sheet goods, oscillating, belt, and disk sanders. Overhead light, power, and air rail, please.
  • Joinery and router bench:  This is where pin-dowel and dove-tails are cut.  Bench dogs (and if you don’t know what they are, take a pass on fine furniture till you study more…).
  • Assembly area.  Nailers, glue, goo, and hammers, please?
  • Last – a separate room (supplied with positive air pressure through a big air filter from outside) to keep dusty crap out with heat lamps  and exhaust fans for curing and explosion-proof electrics goes without saying.  Long fluorescent lights for even lighting while spraying…like an auto paint booth.

The idea of such a “workstation” approach to designing a fine wood shop is that many tools can be serviced by some central items.  A shop air cleaning system, the air compressor, and centralized vac system. DustDeputy, of course.

I just bought a nice 6-outlet manifold to run inexpensive overhead air lines to each of my main tools.  In the fine furniture shop, there would be a bulkhead pass-through for air to run sprayers in the paint/finish room.  (No sanding is ever done in here! and all sprayers never leave this room!  People going in dust off first..this is treated like what it is; a junior clean room.)

If this sounds like overkill and delusional…of course it is. But this in-law of the major is not a man of half-measures.  He’s a marathoner, for example… so he’s got the completion mindset and determination to do pretty much anything.

With such a “workstation” set up, I can see almost follow his day – as the lone artisan – being able to have 3 (or more) projects going at any one time.  He’d begin his day in the cleanest room (finishing) putting the next coating on something at completion… then he’d shut that sealed room off and get to final assembly of something.

While that dries, there’s a mobile cart in the “machine boutique” loaded with the next project waiting its turn.  After machine work, there’s a stop at the dovetailing station (do we put a dedicated router for dovetailing on the shopping list?) and then back to the glue-up table.  Time to plane down those now-dry pieces fromthe previous day yet?

Of course that leaves the glue-up bench idle, so now it’s off to the wood crib and rough-cutting tools in order to begin the next project coming down the pipeline.

Toss in one more workstation (dustproof computer and wood CNC machine) to do the intricate 3D carvings for the inlaid carved tables and kitchen cabinets) and first thing you know, he’ll be turning out a masterpiece, or three, every week, without breaking a sweat.

My pals sweat just thinking about it:  All I need is the computer and the wood carving station, planer, and a lean-too against the shop to hand the paint room role…OMG, is this great, or what?

By the time this super shop is done, our friend will have a production-capable manufacturing facility for himself, or he can hire a helper or two and run a new business.

Age, think small and sit on butt?  Or go large, keep running marathons, and become a renowned furniture-maker?

I don’t know about you, but making does seem the far more rewarding choice.

Write when you get rich,


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