Chapter 1. The Workspace

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You need a place to work. You need a place where sawdust, shavings, glue, and the occasional loud noise are welcome. It doesn’t have to be a permanent place, and it may not be complicated.

Traditionally, woodworkers learned in established shops as apprentices, or perhaps from a relative. Dedicated workspaces make many tasks easier, but you don’t need to have a shop to get started. The key components you’ll need are:

Unlike all the other projects in this book, this first project is about arranging things to make it easy for you work. The first challenge is to find or create a space where you can work comfortably.

You

If you’re not in the workspace, it won’t help you very much, unless maybe you’ve contracted someone else to build things there for you.

The workspace really needs to be built around you:

  • What you’d like to do,
  • What you’re capable of today, and
  • What you’ll be capable of in a few years.

You don’t need to be an athlete to make things out of wood, even with hand tools, but you’ll want to arrange things so that you can work easily. Heavy objects and sharp tools especially need to be in easy reach.

Your body is also the first tool you start with. As Jeff Miller puts it in The Foundations of Better Woodworking:

first and foremost among the tools you use in woodworking is your body… How you use your body is actually much more important that any of the "external" tools you might have.

…It isn’t so much that you need to bulk up your muscles or increase your endurance. But issues of balance, efficiency, alignment, proper application of force and ways to increase control are all critical to getting the most out of your body and improving the level of your craftsmanship. (29)

Start by getting yourself in the workspace. As you set it up, make sure you can find comfortable and balanced positions for working.

Miller’s book makes an excellent companion to this one. It’s not written as a beginner’s book, and isn’t just about hand tools. Its regular discussions of how body position and tools interact, though, are great material for woodworkers at any level.

Shelter

Although it is possible to work outside when the weather cooperates, you’re going to need a place where you can store your tools and probably your work surfaces. Ideally, you will find a place where you can (neatly) leave your tools, and they will be ready to go the next time you need them for a project. You’ll also need a place, preferably the same place, where you can leave partially completed projects.

In good weather, wooden decks can work well if you don’t mind them getting an occasional dent or cut. Railings and stairs can be great places to clamp projects. However, you will need a safe dry place for tools, parts, and projects.

What kinds of spaces might work?

Basements
My unfinished basement was dark and the dehumidifier couldn’t save my tools from rust, but it was available. A finished basement could work much better.
Kitchens
Kitchens are made for cutting, preparation, and assembly, right? A kitchen table or counter can work as shown in Figure 1-1, especially if the surface has an edge that’s good for clamping and you have some cabinet or drawer space available for storage. (Some bathrooms and laundry rooms can work for similar reasons.)
A vise clamped to a kitchen island.
Figure 1-1. A vise clamped to a kitchen island.
Spare rooms
If you’re lucky enough to have a spare room, that might be an obvious option. If it has carpet you may want to remove it, cover it with cardboard, or resign yourself to endless vacuuming.
Garages
Garages are often frozen in winter and broiling in summer. However, many woodworkers have successfully taken over their garages and made the cars wait outside. Garage doors certainly make it easier to get large parts, tools, and projects into your shop.
Attics
Like garages, these are often cold in winter and hot in summer. The lighting is typically not great. However, they’re usually quiet, and may have workable space.
Livingroom
I put a workbench in my living room. It’s not always convenient, but it’s hard to forget. The idea is that by having our crafts right there, we’ll do more of them.
Shared Workshops
Community woodshops, whether in makerspaces, schools, cooperatives, or other settings can offer a lot of tools and experienced people. http://www.finewoodworking.com/item/106415/attack-of-the-community-woodshop includes a list of explicit community woodshops, and there are many more options. If you can find a place like this, you’ll want to make sure you schedule time and space.

The projects in this book are all fairly small. I suspect you’ll be able to complete them easily within an 4' by 4' space. You will occasionally need more space to cut an 8' board into smaller pieces. Less space could work and more space is always welcome.

Light

You probably want to be able to see what you cut. You’ll make far fewer mistakes in adequate light, and excellent light can help you evaluate your projects.

Ideally, the place where you work will have natural light on two sides, without direct sun coming in to roast or blind you. However, even if you have that, it works poorly at night. You’ll probably want to look into options for electric light, likely the first "power tool" you should be using.

Area lights brighten the space generally. You may also want to look into smaller points of task lighting so you can illuminate projects from different angles. Sometimes being able to find a shadow or imperfection makes a project much easier. When you’re first starting out, it’s nice to be able to take a close look at what you’ve done.

You can buy adjustable lamps that clamp to a surface and move to where you need the light. If you’re looking for one and you’d like to be able to see cuts and joinery more closely, consider getting one with a magnifier built into it.

Dry

Damp places, like my basement, will rust your tools quickly. You can protect your tools by coating them in oil or wax, or putting them in rust-preventing wrappers and bags, but if you can avoid storing your tools in a wet place, it’s a good idea. Clean sawdust off your tools, as it can attract and hold moisture right next to them.

If you’re anywhere near saltwater, you need to be extra vigilant. Salt accelerates rust.

Wood is more tolerant of humidity, though it changes size and shape with changes in humidity. Ideally, though, you’ll build things in a shop with a humidity level similar to the place where those things will go. It helps to have a place where you can give wood time to adjust to the humidity in your shop. You should also try to keep wood off concrete floors, which can transfer water.

Heat and Cooling

Roy Underhill, of The Woodwright’s Shop, told a story of his independence from electricity. He was working in his shop in Pittsboro, NC, when the power went out. It was daytime, and he was using hand tools, so he proudly continued on without power. After all, he didn’t need it. Twenty minutes later, he stopped, as his shop had turned sweltering because the air conditioning wasn’t running. He wasn’t using power tools, but he was still relying on power.

Control over temperature helps. Cold hands can make it difficult to do fine work. Sweat pouring down your brow can make it less likely you’ll want to do any work at all. Changes in temperature and humidity can make moisture condense on your tools, first making them wet and then making them rusty.

If you can find a climate-controlled space to work in, congratulations! If not, take extra care of your tools and only work when it feels comfortable enough.

Cleaning

Your early woodworking explorations shouldn’t make that big a mess. Shavings and sawdust are easy to sweep away. If you get a lot of dust in the air, though, you may find that the dust migrates to leave a thin coat on everything in the area. Sawdust and shavings can be a fire hazard. Definitely clean up regularly!

At first, you’ll want to make sure you have a dustpan, a broom, and a smaller brush or broom you can use on a table. If you’ll be working in a carpeted area, you’ll want a vacuum or some kind of carpet sweeper.

As you get into finishing or painting your projects, you may need a place for washing off brushes and containers, and possibly solvents for cleaning them further.

Safety

Hand tools may not be quite as dangerous as power tools, but you still need to consider safety.

Hand tools are much quieter than power tools, but there will still be times when you’re banging things together. A simple pair of noise-reducing earmuffs or ear plugs will help you keep your hearing intact.

You’ll also want to protect your eyes. Safety glasses will protect you when hammering metal to metal, and will also be useful when grinding metal. Blades under tension, as in bow saws and coping saws, can also break suddenly, and hammered chisels and even awls can slip in unpredictable ways.

If things go badly, a first aid kit will usually be enough to cover the damage. You will probably get some minor cuts and bruises over time, especially when you gain the confidence to go faster. A pair of tweezers or a kit for splinters will also prove useful.

Finally, in a different safety category, a fire extinguisher is a good idea. You shouldn’t be producing any sparks in the projects in this book, but you’ll be producing shavings and sawdust that can go up quickly. Be prepared!

Work Surfaces

Now that you’ve found a space, you need to set up and try out your work surfaces and clamps. A reliable workbench or successfully improvised equivalent will make the rest of the projects in this book much easier.

If you already have a workbench, that’s great, but if you don’t, don’t rush out and buy one. There’s a lot you can do without a workbench. More experience will make it easier to evaluate which workbench you need.

Whatever work surface you use, you need to be able to clamp wood to it so that your hands can be free to work the wood. In a few cases where you’ll want to hold the wood yourself as you work it, like some of the carving projects in the next few chapters. Usually, though, your work surface must be a holding device.

Hand tools demand more solid and more stable work surfaces than power tools. Most power tools apply their force in one direction, often with a sizable downward component that makes it easier. Handsaws move back and forth, with less downward force. Planes often work along the length of a bench, pushing sideways. Depending on how you clamp parts to the bench, you may also find that a long part sticking off the bench can amplify your pushing and pulling.

You want to find something that can deal with sideways forces as well as downward forces. Built-in kitchen counters are usually pretty stable. Dining room tables, on the other hand, usually favor smaller legs over large ones to fit more people. They often wobble. Tables on wheels may be okay, so long as you can lock the wheels and the result is stable.

The Black and Decker Workmate shown in Figure 1-2 is a classic modern small work surface, a smooth flat surface with a variety of clamping options that is also uniquely portable. While it works very well with power tools, it’s not as good for hand tools. In particular, the top may not stay very flat, and the side-to-side motion of hand planing can tip it. It is possible, though, to make a Workmate more stable by standing on or adding weight to the bottom, and some examples later in the book will demonstrate that. Workmates and their many clones run from about $20 to $100.

An old Workmate, still in use.
Figure 1-2. An old Workmate, still in use.

Many other cheap workbench options, like a $65 workbench I saw at Home Depot, offer work surfaces better suited to lighter tasks like assembly and painting. Cheap benches have a hard time providing the solidity needed for good clamping and the forces applied to wood. Harbor Freight offers a $160 wooden workbench that looks nice but has a thin top. If you go shopping for workbenches, take a close look at how thick the top really is, how much the bench weighs, and how stable it is. I was impressed by Blum Tool Company’s Bench Horse portable benches which you can see in Figure 1-3.

A pair of Bench Horse workbenches.
Figure 1-3. A pair of Bench Horse workbenches.

(The price of quality may keep you from buying a workbench for a while. Sorry.)

Unless you’re using a dedicated workbench, you will likely want something on top of your surface to protect it from cuts, clamps, hammering, and other tools that might damage it. This can be as simple as a sheet of cardboard or a piece of plywood. When you reach the point where you’re assembling and finishing your projects, you’ll also want to find ways to protect your work surfaces from glue, paint, and finish. Once it’s dried, glue can be especially tricky to remove without damaging a wooden surface. Cardboard, newspaper, and drop cloths can all help with this.

Over time you may also find that you want work surfaces at multiple heights. A higher table is great for carving and similar work. A medium bench where you can put your back into pushing is great for planing. When you’re sawing, you may want a much lower sawbench around knee (or typical kitchen chair!) height.

Vises and Other Workholders

The renaissance in workbenches has also led to the development of a few devices that go on top of your work surface to help hold the work. These are especially useful if you have a steady surface that wasn’t built with woodworking in mind.

Sjobergs, a long-time maker of workbenches, now offers a Smart Vise ($130) - - which combines a vise and a small work surface into a small box that clamps to a table, counter, or bench. You can see it attached to a heavy folding table in Figure 1-4.

The Sjobergs vise clamped to a laundry table.
Figure 1-4. The Sjobergs vise clamped to a laundry table.

In a different direction, Christopher Schwarz has been exploring a "milkman’s workbench", which is still fairly small, about 32" long, but includes multiple vices in addition to a work surface. Again, it is designed to clamp to another (stable) surface. He provides complete directions for making one in the June 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking, but it’s not a first project. Hopefully someone will make these widely available.

When you want to create a lot of dovetail joints, or other joints where it’s convenient to hold the wood vertically, you may want to investigate the more specialized Moxon vises ($150-$400). A rediscovery from the 17th century, these simple vises hold boards vertically and raise them from the bench, making it much easier to work on their ends. Figure 1-1 showed one earlier, and Figure 1-5 shows another attached to a more traditional workbench.

A Benchcrafted Moxon vise.
Figure 1-5. A Benchcrafted Moxon vise.

You can, of course, build similar things yourself. Though they are usually easier than building a workbench, they are also not the easiest first project.

Clamps

You can buy an astounding variety of clamps. Woodworkers tend to accumulate them, but you can start with a small set focused on holding wood to your workbench, or holding a work surface to another surface. A few common kind of clamps are shown in Figure 1-6:

F clamp
The larger clamps on the upper left of the picture and in the middle of the picture are great when you need to clamp with more force, but can take some fiddling to get in place.
Spring clamp
The A-shaped clamp at the bottom left, spring clamps are good for a quick connection. Even the 3" clamps don’t hold with much force, however.
C clamp
When closed,the C clamp looks more like an O (or a C L), as shown at the bottom of the picture. C clamps can take a while to screw into place, and you may want to protect your work from the pressure, but they hold very well.
Handscrew
Handscrews, like the one at top left, are almost miniature vises. They can apply substantial pressure, and it’s easy to clamp something in the handscrew and then clamp the handscrew to a bench to keep it in place.
Quick clamp
Clamps with a squeeze trigger, like the one at bottom right, can deal with larger objects than a spring clamp can handle. They aren’t very powerful, but are often powerful enough. Some of these also reverse to act as spreaders.
Common small clamps.
Figure 1-6. Common small clamps.

Pipe clamps can also be a great cheap alternative, if you have access to pipe and a threader, or can get someone to thread it for you. Over time, you’ll develop a collection of clamps. As you work on larger projects, you will need more and larger clamps. I tend to buy them in pairs or sets, because when I need one, I often need two.

Sometimes clamps come with pads that keep the clamp from marking your wood. If it doesn’t, you may want to put a piece of scrap wood between the clamp and your project. You may eventually want to have some dedicated pieces, called cauls, that fit between clamps and your work to moderate or distribute the pressure.

If you have a full-size workbench, you may also find yourself using holdfasts, rods with a clamp-like end that you hammer lightly into the bench dog holes. Holdfasts let you attach work to the surface of the bench quickly.

Patience

It may seem odd to describe a place as having patience, but if you’re working in a place that’s used for a lot of other things, you may find yourself impatient to get done with your projects.

Ideally, your workspace will just be a workspace for woodworking. If it can’t be, try to have some kind of storage that will let you put tools and incomplete projects away neatly. A large plastic bin that holds parts and supplies might make it easier to stop in the middle if it’s time to cook dinner.

As you gain experience, you’ll have a better sense of how long different tasks should take. Until then, though, you should feel welcome to go as slowly as you need to go to get it right. Rushing isn’t going to help your work.

Other people can add to or diminish patience.

If you can set up your space to encourage patience, you’ll find that going slower can often make projects finish faster.

Dreams

Wood and tool storage

Community shops, specialized shops

For More Information

The Workshop Book, Scott Landis

The Workbench Book, Scott Landis

The Toolbox Book, Jim Tolpin

Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use, Christopher Schwarz

The Workbench Design Book: The Art & Philosophy of Building Better Benches, Christopher Schwarz