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.

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