Monday, January 9, 2017

Thriving in a Small Shop

I’ve had a number of shops in the course of my almost twenty year career.  Seven, actually, and they’ve really run the gamut in terms of size, layout, and various other attributes.  One was located on the third floor of an old warehouse and was accessed by a clanky old freight elevator. With exposed brick walls and mountain views, it was high on the charm scale.  It was also huge- around 3,000 square feet- and this actually turned out to be too way big.  I basically just ended up camping out in little nooks and then moving around like a nomad to another spot when the mess became unmanageable.  My current shop is my smallest yet- around 400 square feet, or the size of a two car garage, but it is definitely my favorite.  For one thing, it is located at our home, so I just can’t beat the commute.  It allows me to walk our daughter to school in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon.  Logistically, it really works for our family.  There's also the fact that it allows me to run an extremely low overhead business: it feels very satisfying to be in a “whatever I make, I keep” mode for once.

While I love this shop, and figure that it will likely be my home for the next twenty years or more, it does take a certain attitude and a certain set of strategies to make it work.  I’m not sure I could’ve pulled it off at earlier stages of my career, but now it’s great.  Here’s a list, in no particular order, of a few considerations that keep me happy in my small shop:

-Put everything is on wheels.  This allows you to move things around to accommodate different kinds of jobs.
-Don't build any built-in storage units, workstations, or benches.  These things serve as anchors that prevent you from thinking creatively about the space and rearranging as needed.  When you have tons of space, this is less important, but in a small shop, the ability to move things around is critical.  Fixed structures feel, to me, like anchors that get in the way of flexibility.

-Don't hoard scraps or other unnecessary stuff.  It may be unrealistic to get to a “zero tolerance” for scraps, but less is more.  When I have scraps from a project, I try to use them right away.  Not someday. 

-Have a ready-use for scraps.  To this end, I make and sell cutting boards in random shapes, styles, and sizes.  Some times they’re really interesting, and sometimes they’re plain, but I make them as soon as possible and then list them on my online store.  I make a couple of thousand bucks a year doing this and it is a win-win.

-Donate extra scraps that you won’t use.  We have a Habitat for Humanity restore in our area that takes whatever I don't want, which minimizes what I throw away. 

-Reflect on what makes the space really speak to you.  For me, I need a big, bright, open area where I can feel expansive.  I’ve decide to divide my shop roughly in half so that all of my tools and storage are in half of the shop, or less, and this provides me with a nice, open space to work in.  This is a personal preference- I’m sure that someone else, with the same space and the same tools, would arrange it quite differently.

-Set things up to accomplish multiple purposes.  For example, my workbench (made by Kreg) is on casters and is set to the same height as my tablesaw, so it can quickly be scooted around to act as an outfeed for my tablesaw when needed.

-Buy materials on an as-needed basis.  I used to occasionally buy materials in advance because they were a good deal, and I’d used them later on when a project came up.  I don’t do this anymore.  For one thing, I’ve learned that there’s always a deal to be had if you’re resourceful, so there’s no reason to overextend myself in terms of money or space.  I have a few boards on hand that are really lovely, and I haven’t gotten around to using them yet, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.  By and large, I can get everything I need at the drop of a hat- I’m 9 minutes away from my favorite supplier- so I don’t need to turn my space into a warehouse.

-Plan your workflow accordingly.  When I had larger shops, I used to take on at least fifteen jobs at a time, and because I had the space, I’d always have a number of projects in various states of completion cluttering up the place.  Now I take on one or two jobs and work efficiently at starting and finishing them in short order.  “Get ‘em in, get ‘em out” is my motto these days, and it is not only the best use of my small amount of space, but it’s easier to manage, too.
For me, openness is a priority.  I sort of like squeezing
stuff in as needed to create a big "sanctuary" space
where I can really move around.
I keep it flexible.  The shop changes from week to week.
Even my storage- the wire rack in the background- is on wheels.

Mobile work supports help.

Mobile bases are essential.

I move my bench around as lighting conditions
shift throughout the day.  Thank god for casters.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Winter’s Coming- Time to Protect those Tools from Rust

(This post was sponsored by 3-IN-ONE Oil; the content, however, is entirely mine)

For many of us, winter time brings lots of changes in the workshop in terms of heating and cooling cycles.  While many woodworkers live in places with mild climates, many others need to rely on some kind of heating system to make our time in the shop more pleasant.  And the range of heating systems, of course, is pretty broad- I know folks who heat with wood, and others utilize natural gas, propane, or other fuels to get the job done. 

While heating a shop isn’t quite the topic of this post, it definitely has consequences for our beloved tools, so it is worth taking a second to consider.  When choosing a method for heating one's shop, I’ve often found that there are three factors that come into play: price, convenience, and environmental impact.  The best setup would cost nothing, require no work, and have no environmental impact.  In the real world, though, we’re all trying to minimize these three things, and so we all end up making a choice that represents our best option.  A key strategy that usually emerges is the fact that shops aren’t heated evenly at all times.  While some woodworkers do focus on keeping a constant temperature in their shop, I know many- including myself- who don’t.  This solves a few problems (it lowers my heating bills and minimizes the amount of fossil fuels that I utilize) but it introduces a new problem.  Big changes in the temperature inside your shop can cause the humidity levels to change.  And while the changes may not create effects that are directly observable overnight, they can cause problems over time: even small amounts of water vapor can condense on tools, which can create rust.  So, since I have a conservation-oriented mindset when it comes to heating my shop, this means that it is in my best interest to spend a little time protecting my tools.  It doesn’t take long, and it’s worth it.

You can apply oil directly to a tool's surface or
to a paper towel- whatever works best.

My favorite all-purpose solution involves using a light oil product because it’s quick and easy.  It also is versatile; whether we’re talking about hand tools that are stored in tool chests, or on pegboards or shelves, it works great.  I bring this up because some companies produce desiccants that you can put inside a toolbox or other enclosed space, and they work well there to help eliminate moisture from the surrounding air, but they don’t work so well in open areas- their effects are pretty much negated, in my experience.  My preference is 3-IN-ONE Oil.  It is available all over the place, and it is pretty inexpensive.

This old handplane isn't fancy, but it came
from my dad, so it is rather dear to me
nonetheless.   It's worth a little TLC now
and then!

How do I apply it?  That depends, but it’s not rocket science.  If I’m oiling small tools- a handplane, for example- I just use a paper towel or rag that I’ve dampened with oil to rub down the tool and make sure it’s free of dust.  That’s it.  For hard-to-reach places- like the trunnions and other moving parts inside my tablesaw- I’ll used canned air to clean things out, then I apply a light coat of oil.  As I said earlier, it doesn’t take long, and it’s definitely one of those cases where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Yep, this is what happens when you don't take
care of business.  Now I've got to put in a bunch
of elbow grease just to get back to square one.

 3-IN-ONE Oil is available at many retailers.  I’ve purchased it at Lowe’s and Home Depot, and I’ve seen it at our local Ace Hardware, too.

For even more information, check out

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sharp Tools- in the Workshop and in the Office

Small businesses are funny things.  And I don't mean in a humorous sense, although there can definitely be some of that now and then.  I mostly mean that there's an iceberg of activity below the surface of most small businesses that isn't always readily apparent when viewed from the outside.  Take the restaurant game, for example: I think it is fair to say that a lot takes place that doesn't just involve the putting food in front of customers.  Menu planning, recipe testing, and even boring tasks like carpet cleaning probably take a lot more time than you'd ever imagine, just to ensure that the table can even be set to begin with.

In my case, I've been doing custom woodworking for almost twenty years (where has the time gone?) and in an average week, I have to do plenty of stuff before I can even set foot in the shop.  It usually isn't very glamorous, but it is critical.  For example, I have to type up estimates and proposals, research design ideas, sketch plans for upcoming projects, invoice clients, network and promote myself on social media, update my website, and lots more.  Chores like these are hardly the reason that I got into woodworking, but in the end, they're what keep the lights on.  Most of these activities are sped up somewhat thanks to technology, but still, it's a lot to do.  And that's why it is so important to keep on top of the tools in the office in addition to the ones in my workshop.  I just got a new computer (what a game changer- should've done it sooner!) and I've been looking at new internet service providers, too.  Time is money, so a fast, reliable internet connection at a good price is essential.

Having looked at a few of the companies in our area, I've found that CenturyLink stands out.  Here are a few of the things I learned:

They're 100 years old.  Who knew?  Anyway it is nice to see that they're not a flash-in-the-pan, here-today-gone-tomorrow company.  In fact, they're investing in infrastructure to provide the fastest internet service in Salt Lake City- this makes life in the digital age a lot easier, more satisfying, and more reliable.  My daughter will love playing games online, I'll get my work done faster, and my whole family will love video chatting with folks all over the country.  To put the speeds into context, with 100 Mbps, you can download a high definition movie in less than 7 minutes.  Nice.

It looks like CenturyLink is really dedicated to serving the community for years to come.  They're supporting education through their STEM program in partnership with Utah Jazz, which recognizes outstanding students in science and tech by making a $10k donation to the students presented at a Utah Jazz home game.  In addition, their Teachers and Technology program offers yearly grants to teachers that exemplify technology excellence in the classroom – this year, we donated $55k to this program in Salt Lake City alone.

For more information on how CenturyLink supports your quality of life at school, at home, and at work, check out:

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of CenturyLink . The opinions and text are all mine.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Block Plane Rehab

Although I really only need one block plane, I've managed to collect a few more along the way.  I'm probably up to four or five by now, never having paid more than a few bucks each at antique store and yard sales.  That's a good thing, since they one's I've stumbled across aren't particularly high-end tools.  But, with a little bit of love, there's no reason they can't perform just fine at the kind of things that block planes do best- rounding over an edge, cutting a chamfer, and evening out endgrain.  This blog post will illustrate the process I recently used to tune up a plane- your own experience may differ, depending on the tool's condition, but I imagine that this might be a good starting point.

In this case, the plane was complete and there was no real damage to any of the parts- it was mostly dirty and in need of a tuneup!

Before I could get any farther, I had to loosen up the threads underneath the cap so that I
could get the plane apart.  I used 3-In-One oil- and it was nice to have the one with the extender
spout to get into the nooks and crannies.
Ta da!
Part of the tune-up just involved simple cleaning- I used steel wool, paper towels,
an old toothbrush, and some household cleanser.
The blade had been abused and was pretty dinged up.  Fortunately I have a way to bring it back to life quickly and easily.
Using your sharpening method of choice, you'll want to start by flattening the back of the blade.
With the back flattened, you can  work on the bevel- and after that, the microbevel.
I love my Worksharp because it is fast and doesn't demand that you learn a whole new
skill set- just follow a few simple steps and you're in business.
The body of this plane wasn't cast iron, and it was formed from a single piece of  bent
steel- pretty typical on cheap old planes.  The rust wasn't too bad, at least.
Flattening the bottom of the plane is an important step.  You'll want to make sure
the plane is assembled with a normal amount of tension in it.  This will ensure that
the tool is in its regular shape and isn't distorted.  In other words, if you flatten it without
the blade in it, it is possible that you could put in the blade and tighten it, and then end
up with a sole that isn't flat anymore.  I use 120 grit paper.
A flattened sole should show a uniform pattern of sanding scratches with no hollows or crowns.
One last thing- I recommend lubricating the threads to keep the plane's adjustments
easy to use.
I also lightly sanded the sides of the plane.  A coat of paste wax will help to protect the bare metal from corroding.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Workshop Maintenance Made Easy

Tell me if you can relate: once I get going on a project, I kind of slip into tunnel-vision mode.
"The Zone", if you will. I don't like to get distracted because I'm totally immersed in designing, building, and problem-solving.  That's the kind of stuff that got me into woodworking in the first place.  And once I'm done, I usually jump right into the next project.  This is a really rewarding cycle, of course, because it maximizes the amount that I can get done, but there's a downside- a dirty little secret, let's say.  After all this time, I'm ready to come clean about it:  I'm not so hot at tool maintenance.  I blame it on being busy, but that's not really a good enough excuse.  Just because it isn't sexy doesn't mean it isn't important.  We all know, intuitively, that time spent maintaining tools will most likely prolong their lives, help them to function better, and actually even increase our enjoyment.  And yes, you read that last part right: a well-tuned tool is simply easier and more fun to use.  So why don't some of us give maintenance its due? 

For me, I think there are two answers, and maybe you can relate: 
           1) I'm just not in the habit of it and
           2) I never thought about exactly what to do, and when and how   

In this post, I'd like to tackle both of these issues, specifically as it pertains to the issue of lubrication, which all woodworking machines need to varying degrees.  Periodically lubricating tools also provides an opportunity to inspect for other possible problems, like loose or worn drive belts.

The heart of my newly adopted system- which I'm excited about, because it seems like something I can actually stick to!- is something that I'm calling the "Monthly Maintenance Spree".  It really only takes about 10 or 15 minutes, but it gives me a chance to take a look at each of my major machines and lube up anything that needs it.  It is a pretty intuitive process- common sense dictates that just about anything that slides, threads, or moves against something else probably needs some lube.  That said, I don't generally concern myself with bearings, because my machines are newer and incorporate sealed bearings, and a bad bearing is most likely to be identified by uneven movement, vibration, and noise.  I mostly think about the daily "wear and tear" spots that need attention.  And in a woodshop, this means that there's usually plenty of sawdust around, so I make sure to choose a lube that goes on dry to the touch- this ensures that is isn't a magnet for sawdust.  Check the labels, because they're not all created equal.

Have a look at your bandsaw- I bet there are a bunch of
places that could use some love.  I could barely turn
the tensioning knob before I lubed up the threads.
Afterward: cha-ching!
The first time I maintained the sliding rails on my
compound miter saw, I was humbled- how had I
been so neglectful before?  Soooooo worth it.
Most planers have a set of threaded rods that the cutting head raises and lowers
on.  Overtime, they tend to get covered in sawdust, so a quick clean-out
works wonders.

It isn't pretty, but my drill press keeps on ticking.  I
need to remove some surface rust (that's a whole
'nother story) but a few seconds spent lubing it up
will prevent things from getting any worse.

My jointer has a million little bolts and rods that control the position of the fence.
Go ahead and give them a little lube, too.

Jointer fences usually slide in and out on a keyed casting of some sort.  Anytime
you have a situation like this where two surfaces slide against each other, that's
a good place for some lubrication.
Disclosure: I received, for free, the 3-in-ONE oil that I used in this blog post.  That said, every word of the post comes from my own experiences in the workshop.  I love this stuff and will happily buy more once this container runs out. 

For more information on 3-in-ONE oil (they've got a larger range of products than you might realize) click the link below:

Monday, June 13, 2016

PureShield Protect: An Amazing Finish for Wood

I recently tried out Pureshield Protect, a new acrylic clear-coat product from PureColor.  To cut to the chase: I was blown away.  I've used acrylic (often known as water-based) finishes for years, and I've tried all of the manufacturers that I could get my hands on.  But none have performed this well.  Here's what I liked about it:

1) The product itself is much thicker than any other products in its class- this allowed me to apply 2 coats and achieve a level of finish that felt more substantial than 4 coats of other products.

2) The finish self-leveled really smoothly.  I couldn't get brush marks to show up, even when I tried.

3) The build quality of the finish feels great- this is hard to describe, but it feels thick and waxy, without looking like a layer of plastic on top of the wood.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, the product comes in a box-
 well, in a bag inside of a box- and you just pour it into a container and brush it on.
As with any finish, I suggest making a sample to see how the finish will look on
your project.  I hadn't expected the color to pop so much in this old, reclaimed
wood, but I loved it.  I scuff-sanded the piece with 220grit paper between coats.
Here's the before photo: the reclaimed wood in this
bench was kind of cool, but it looked dirty and
dingy and the colors were pretty lifeless.
After 2 coats of PureShield Protect, the bench was totally transformed.  I now want to use this stuff ALL THE TIME!  It is
an amazing finish that I highly recommend.  Full disclosure: PureColor sent me a kit to try out, but my review is unbiased.
 I couldn't recommend something that I don't love.

Here's a couple of links to learn more:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Making a Mallet with a Round Tenon Cutter

I've been wanting to make a mallet for ages now, but never got around to it 'til now.  Today I got a new toy (aka, tool) that I was itching to test out, and a mallet seemed like a good fit for the job.  I picked up a round tenon cutter at a local tool supply company.  They cost $20-30, and are available in a variety of sizes.  I went for the 3/4" diameter one, as I have some projects in mind where I think 3/4" tenons will work out just right.  Be advised that these cutters require a drill with a 1/2" chuck, but other than that, they're a snap to use.  I'll provide a couple of tips below.

I started with a seasoned chunk of oak that I was given by the good
folks at a local hardwood supplier.  It was big enough for a couple
 of mallets, really, and in hindsight I wish I had made an extra.
You're going to see lots of cordless tools in this pic- our power was
out on the day I did this project, so I couldn't rely on my bigger
tools as I usually would.  I used a circular saw to rip a 1" x 1"
handle blank from a piece of roughsawn oak.  This isn't the kind
of project that requires fastidiousness at every step, so a
circular-saw-rip was perfectly fine.

The chunk of wood that I used for the head of the mallet had
originally been part of a pallet or shipping skid, so it had a couple
of "fins" that protruded on the edges; I sawed them off with the
circular saw.

A block plane leveled the remains of the fins, creating a
(basically) rectilinear blank.

A simple crosscut gave me a 5" long blank for the head of the mallet.

I used a spade bit to drill a hole in the head.  I usually would've
used a drill press, but with no power... this method worked
just fine.

Here's my big tip for using a round tenon cutter like this- make
sure to ease the leading edges a bit with a block plane, rasp, or
sander.  It'll make it easy for the cutter to get a purchase on
the blank without slipping.
Again, a 1/2" drill is essential.  I found that it worked best for me
on the faster speed setting, and I pulsed the trigger a bit rather
than going all-out.

I didn't measure, but the cutter has about a 3" capacity, which is
pretty impressive.  It cut the tenon in seconds, and it was
really clean and even.

The cutter actually created kind of a burnished finish- I
scuffed it up with some sandpaper afterwards, under the
theory that it might help create a better glue bond.

Its a simple project, but that's part of what makes it so satisfying.

I used a handsaw to cut a groove into the end
of the tenon.  I went down about 1.5".

Here's a pic of the spline, after being pounded into the groove.
Leaving the tenon exposed is just an aesthetic choice, but I do
really like it that way.

I used planes and sandpaper to  create a comfortable profile on the handle, but
other than that, I kept the overall feel of the mallet kind of rough.  I'm not fussy
in my approach to tools, so this one suits me rather nicely.