Coping: Mulitple Personal Workstations

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,


16 thoughts on “Coping: Mulitple Personal Workstations”

  1. Hi, George,

    You did not say much regarding the dangers of dust inhalation and how to keep from breathing it. One of the lady jewelers I knew died from this, from not managing the dust and fine particles generated by grinding, sanding, and filing of metals. Her studio contained clouds of particles when I visited her, and I am convinced that she died from this when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Instead of having a distinct mass of cancerous tissue in her lungs, both lungs were filled allover with what the doctor described as snow-like features. Silicosis is serious and is seen a lot in those who carve gem materials, marble, granite, pearls, and shells without any personal breathing protection. Respirators, eye protection, and gloves may be required for some types of carving. Carving with a water drip is helpful. There are small vacuums available that can be attached to a jeweler’s bench tray to vacuum up the wax and metal particles and contain them in a small bag, which can eventually be sent to a refiner. Every shop or studio should also have an exhaust fan system. Thanks.

  2. Sir,

    It’s a complete delight to read how your workstations in the colonies are sharp and to the point rather than simply make-do.

    The BBC has bumped up its report of cutting edge crime to eyeball level as the sharp blade of statistics points to London’s murder rate threatening to bury its New York counterpart. One fears this trend may not be a random shot in the dark.

    We regret we may be going long on mops and wet-vacs. Your ongoing vigilance in mapping paths around these matters is appreciated.

  3. Dropped parts rolling to the center of a blocking object over the part – such as a car – are included in the many variations of Murphy’s Law starting with “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

  4. Hi George,
    When you have a wee bit of time (ha!), would you kindly share a video or more photos of how this all looks. We’re just setting up a new shop and need a booster to stop the dithering procrastination :-). Thank you kindly.
    Joan and Ric
    Morrisonn Studios

  5. An organized shop is great, when you actually have time to create one. The first and most important thing is a solid concrete floor that has a magnesium trowel finish. Heavy rolling carts are useless on dirt, and almost as bad on wood. The same is true for dollies and anything on casters.

    For those of us who range far from the shop, we’re faced with tools in many locations and several of each. Only when we need something do we realize that it’s elsewhere.

    • This is why tractors have front loaders…can’t count how many times a genny and elect welder have gone for a ride back a while

  6. It’s neither overkill nor delusional…

    The first time I plumbed my garage for air (30-some years ago), I used PVC — DON’T! It’ll carry the pressure just fine, but even with Sch80, on a long run, your 150 pounds in, will be <90 out, because of the stretch in the pipe.

    Say "no" to a dedicated dovetail router, but buy a quality router and a GOOD dovetail jig.

    Say "yes" to a drying kiln. I know several "woodsmiths" — journeyman fine-furniture carpenters. Every one has a drying kiln. They use a frame like that of a cheap greenhouse or prefab garage/shed, a tarp or roll of Visqueen, a "clean" "salamander" (indoor-rated kerosene forced-air convection heater), and a fan. The one who taught me does on-site architectural restoration for "significant buildings." He uses rough-sawn oak lath as spacers between each row of boards, and monitors the wood's moisture content frequently. I asked him about checking, bowing, twisting and splitting. He said he can work around warps and checks if they come out in the drying process, and that that's where he'd prefer they show themselves.

    I don't generally do hardwoods, but I watched and listened (and hopefully learned), since I keep open the possibility that I someday will…

    • On the pipe for the air the pipe probably should have been at least double or triple size what it was to enable the volume to not decreased down to 90 pounds per square inch.

      I guess that’s like working with solar panels DC you know if you don’t have enough or a big enough wire from the solar panel to the controller then you’re losing a lot unless you increase the voltage from 12 to 48 volt switching the air case you would go from a hundred and something to like 400 some pounds of pressure.

  7. Inspired by one of George’s earlier posts, I have bough numerous metal wire rolling carts from Costco, Their capacities are 500 pounds on their wheel, and MUCH more on solid feet. In my barn I sent them against walls, narrow side out.

    Each cart has signs, about to be hung, with large all cap words like “PLUMBING” “TRAILER” “WATER FILTRATION” “CAMPING” “LUGGAGE” “POWER TOOLS” “HOUSEHOLD CHEMICALS” “PAINT” etc. So far, 60 categories.

    Each cart is well over 6 feet high, 4 feet by perhaps 16 – 24 inches, depending on the cart. I just pull out the cart i need, like a book from a shelf, obtain what I want, and roll it back into its slot. For very heavy items like paper files in storage boxes, I use stationary shelf units, spaced apart so one or two rolling ones can fit in between. Those get pulled out to access the very heavy materials. Each cart hold as much stuff as a standard closet, for around $90. But you can see almost all items at a glance.

  8. Being an apartment dweller and ‘remote engineering’ tech for decades, I worked out of an attache’ tool kit. One at work, and my personal one at home & for contract work. The challenge was always to be sure the kit contained everything you might need at the bench or in the field, but not so bloated it wouldn’t close!

    So now I have a retirement home with too much acquired ‘stuff’, a tool shed for storage with small bench (full!), but I have one bedroom dedicated to the ham radio and electronics hobby. I put a metal framed shelf unit in the closet for a workbench. It has been ‘storage’ up to this point for tools and parts, and now it is time to get it outfitted as a small, but dedicated electronics workbench. I’ve had to come to the mental realization that I no longer need my personal tool kit for remote operations and need to strip the toolkit and reorganize the tools, parts, and test gear to the workbench area. I am slowly collecting some plastic drawer storage units for the stuff and trying to organize the ‘mini-shop’ for electronic work… so I don’t need to bring the toolkit out to the table to work on stuff. It’s tough! That toolkit has been my ‘go-to’ tools for 30 years! I like the ideas of drawers labelled ‘twisties’ and ‘cutters’ and ‘pinchers’, etc. but I’m afraid I may have too much of each category to fit in the small drawers. Much weeding of tools is needed. Prime stuff for the bench… seconds and thirds outside or for auto maintenance, etc.

    It’s weird after so many years of a high-drama life to have to reorganize to a stable lifestyle for the next 20-plus years (hopefully). Always something to do…

  9. The furniture maker workshop sounds just like my mid-70s junior high woodshop class, especially with the paint room. Back then, that room was filled with the smell of varnish liberally applied to spice racks and Texas clocks.

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