Woodworking for Beginners Part 22

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This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.

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Set Up Working Areas

woodworking-for-beginners-part-22In a smaller shop, you may not be able to set up an area where you specifically work, and another where you make cuts and shape pieces.

However, if you can have an area where you perform the majority of your work, then you will be able to work better and without as many distractions.

Most woodworkers work at some sort of a bench or a table. This is not where the cuts are made and the pieces are milled, it’s more of an assembly area.

Also, it’s an area where the fine work is done after the initial milling and creating of the individual parts is completed. Again, this is typically the bench, and having this working area is a huge bonus to the beginning woodworker.

Your bench area should be a places that is free of clutter, and not loaded up with tools. If you need to place one tool on your bench (like a drill press or sander) for space purposes, then go for it, but in general you want the bench area to be for assembly work and detail work.

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If your bench is covered with a small table saw, a band saw, a spindle sander, and a lathe, where are you going to build? An area that is free of these tools is the best place, and you can make dedicated areas even in the smallest of shops.

My first shop, and I use the term shop loosely, was half of a one car garage. My father had the other half, and I worked in a very small square. Even in this tight of a space, I was able to make a bench that was about two feet by five feet, and do all of my building operations on that bench.

I used risers from an electronics store to boost my tools off the floor, and arranged them all around me. I essentially created circle of tools around an open center, which is where I would walk from tool to tool.

The smartest thing I did was to ensure that the workbench was not part of the area where the tools were stored, and it allowed me to have the entire bench for assembling and building.

Since I was building guitars at the time, the space was just perfect. It was only that good because I did not have to share it with all the rest of the tools, and it was an open space to work.

Having a dedicated work area makes a huge difference, and you don’t even need that much room. Depending on your project, you may need as little as a few feet by a few feet to do all of your building and assembling.

If you do larger projects, you may need more, but when the tools are out of the picture, you really need less space than you think.

Another benefit to having a certain space for cutting and sanding is that you don’t mess up your working area with all the dust and debris. A belt sander is a master at making tons of sawdust that will get all over your tools, and into your working area, especially if you have it right on your bench.

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This can make assembling things a nightmare, because everything is covered with a layer of dust. It can make gluing operations rough too, because that dust will affect your joints, and need to be blown off all the time as you are working. When you keep the bench clear, you don’t have to worry about all of that mess, and you can just keep on building.

Finally, an unobstructed and uncluttered area in the shop gives you a space to breathe and work without feeling like you are in an ever shrinking room.

Even in my smaller woodworking space in the 1/2 single car garage, I never really felt boxed in. I always had my bench, which was clear and inviting. The rest of the area could be total chaos, but my bench was always in good shape.

If you can have a space to work in that your tools are not part of, then do so. Even if the space is small, having a place that is not right in the action and mess of the tools will give you a better chance at building your projects.

Rubber Mats on the Floor

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Concrete floors are common in woodworking shops and in smaller shops in homes. This is because the shop tends to be in the garage, or outside on the porch.

A very hard floor over time can be tough on the joints, and tough on the feet. If you can, find some anti-fatigue mats or alternative mats to make the floor more bouncy, and it will make your joints feel better after a long day in the shop.

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One way that you can find these mats is to buy them from a woodworking store. They are going to be expensive, but you can make do with a single small mat in the area right in front of your bench.

This is the space where you will be standing for the majority of your time in the shop, so this one area can be projected for a small investment. If you are moving around the shop more, and you need more mats, then try looking for them online or in second hand markets where you can find a deal.

An alternative to the purpose bought mats is to use rubber flooring that is designed for use with small kids. If you buy them from a store, they are expensive, but you can find them in second hand stores all the time.

These are most often colored rubber squares that fit together with a toothed pattern on the edges. Sometimes they look like puzzle pieces, other times they look like a zipper on the edges. Either way, they fit together and create a large area where you reduce the hardness of the floor.

I was lucky enough to find a whole set of these, about 50 pieces that were eighteen inches square in a garage sale for $10. I was able to cover my entire shop floor with the squares, which I laid face down so they were black instead of multi-color.

Those kinds of deals are out there, but even if you end up paying twice as much, you are still getting a deal over the price of new mats from a woodworking store or online.

One mistake that I made with flooring in the past is thinking that carpet would be a good choice, because it was cheaper than floor mats. At the time, the carpet I was going to be using was free, so there was not a better deal in town.

Once it was in place, it felt great. Nice and soft. It was like woodworking in the house! The best part was that it was totally free, and it made me feel much better when I was out in the shop all day.

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That unfortunately, was where the benefits of carpet abruptly ended. Cleaning carpet in the shop after a long day of making sawdust was a nightmare.

The carpet fibers held on to the dust and particles really well, so even my shop vacuum had a hard time getting them out. It was a matter of getting on my hands and knees and roughly scraping the carpet with the vacuum hose to effectively clean the carpet, so needless to say the romance over the free flooring was lost really quickly.

If you have an offer for free carpet for your shop, politely decline and wait for a deal on some rubber mats or some kids flooring. When you put that stuff down, it’s much easier to clean, and you won’t have to bend over and crawl on the floor.

All the fatigue that you saved from your back while standing goes right out of the window when you have to crawl around the shop and clean the floors. Wait for rubber, and save your back, it will be worth it.

If you are working on concrete, look around for a way to make the surface more forgiving on your body by adding some mats to the floor. You can splurge on one or two for the areas that you work in most, or you can wait for a second hand deal on some rubber mats or kids flooring.

Either way you go, covering the concrete with something softer will make your body feel better after a long time in the shop, and it will also help you work better because your body will feel better.

Keep Everything Plugged In

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make in your shop is to not have everything plugged in. There are a number of reasons that this happens, and it causes a lot of problems while you are working.

Save yourself the headache, and make sure that all of your big tools are plugged in, and ready to work when you need them.

The biggest reason that people tend to not plug in everything in the shop is that they do not have enough outlets.

Most shops are in garages, and in most garages there are only one or two outlets. In a case like this, you should invest in some power strips or other means of expanding your outlets so you can power all of your machinery.

It’s important to remember that electrical safety can prevent fires, electrocution, and injury. Don’t do anything unsafe as you are setting up the shop. However, you can find ways to get power where you need it without sacrificing your own safety.

Even in cases where multiple tools are plugged into the same power strip, you are only going to be using one tool at a time, so in most cases your load limits will never be crossed. If you were going to try running eight tools on one strip all at the same time, then you would be asking for trouble.

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However, one tool at a time usually does not pull as much current.

If it really comes down to a power issue in the home that a strip cannot fix, then you may want to see what the cost of adding another outlet will be. If you are operating a modest shop, then a couple to a few power outlets should handle the majority of your power needs.

For a one time fee, you can have new outlets in different areas of the shop, and you can use them to power everything that needs to be plugged in.

Another reason people don’t power everything is that they think they are not going to be using the space that much or they think that it’s too much of an effort. The effort that you will exhaust unplugging and plugging in tools every time you need them will waste ten fold the amount of time that you would spend just setting up the shop the right way.

You are going to waste so much time finding a plug, and plugging rearranging the plugs so that you can power the tool you are using, that you might as well double the time it will take you to make the project.

Also, tools that are not plugged in and the wires concealed well cause tripping hazards in the shop. Loose wires and plugs tend to get in the way, where as when you plumb and trim everything out first, you tend to hide away the cords as you set it all up.

With the cords hidden away, you reduce the risk that you will trip over them, and this means a safer experience in the shop.

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Finally, with everything plugged in and operational, you will be able to move from tool to tool in a much more efficient way than before. This is a huge time saver, and you will find that you work better and more efficiently when everything is set up well.

The only exception to the plugged in rule is when you have a power strip on your bench. If you are going to be using several small tools, you can plug and unplug them freely on the bench as needed.

These tend to not be tools that stay out all the time, and they are all portable enough to move around as needed. This is a big contrast to the larger power tools that stay in one place for a long period of time.

If you are going to go through the effort of making an area for your table saw, jointer, band saw, or any other tool,make the time to run power to that tool. Plug in the tool, and then conceal the wire or eliminate the tripping hazard afterwards.

Do this for every tool that you set up in it’s own area, and when you go to that tool it will always fire right up when you flip the switch.

Not only will this save you a ton of time as you are no longer looking for cables and power, but it will also make your shop safer because there will not be random plugs hanging around everywhere.

After you are done, conceal and cover the cords in areas where they can become tripping hazards, or where they can be in the way. For example, if you are pulling power from a ceiling outlet, tack the cord to the ceiling as you bring it to the area where it will drop down.

Then, tack it to the wall (using purpose bought wire guides) so that it is not in the way when you are working. Getting all of this done early will make your shop a more enjoyable place to work, as well as a safer place.

Invest in Good Lighting

Nothing is as dreary to work in as a poorly lit shop with bad lighting. It’s a mood killer, motivation robber, and can also be unsafe.

Bad lighting is something that is easy to fix though, and you should really make your shop as well lit as possible for the best chances of making great projects.

Imagine for just a moment trying to build something in the dark. While you would never do this, and it’s a ridiculous example, it is really more of a basic example at the highest degree.

When you work in zero light, it’s the worst. When you work in perfect light, it’s the best. So, anything other than perfect light is a percentage of working in total darkness. It may not be terrible, but it’s still not a good decision.

Most woodworkers are destined to spend long hours in their shops, which tend to be in garages and in basements inside the home.

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These areas are typically after thoughts of the home builder, because they are not as commonly used as the other areas in the home. For this reason, most new shop users will have to do something about the lack of lighting.

Start by looking around for the available power that is in the area you are working with. Garages tend to have at least one light, and then another power outlet that is ran to the center of the ceiling for the garage door opener.

These are two places that you can draw power from, and use for adding more light to the area. The type of power and the length you will have to go to make it work can vary, because depending on the lighting that you buy, it might plug in, or it may have to be hard wired.

The easiest way to get lighting into the shop is by buying a set of lights online or from a store. The LED lights that you can buy now are amazing. They are super inexpensive, and you can find them in a lot of places.

LED lights are incredibly bright, use almost no power, and cast a very white, outdoor looking light that is a much appreciated break from the common yellow looking glow of normal light bulbs. This will give you a better feel in the shop, and allow you to take better pictures too.

Look online for the LED lights that look like single bulb fluorescent lights. These literally look like a four foot long single bulb sitting on a housing. They are very small, and they are incredibly light.

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When you order a set of these, they come in small packages of four, with bigger packages of six to eight being the most common. They also come with all of the connectors, brackets, screws, and switched cords that plug right into a normal outlet.

I put up a set of eight, 2200 lumen 6500 Kelvin lights in my shop a while ago, and I can’t believe the difference it made. I can see things I never knew were in my shop, and the light is so clear in color that everything looks very natural.

Long gone is the yellow tint, and I can actually see everything in my shop again.

The lights clip to the ceiling with small metal brackets that come with the lights. They were easy to screw to the ceiling, and the lights snapped right in. This is the easiest, and the least expensive set of lights I have ever bought, and the set was only about $65.

For the last of the corded options, you can also look at normal interior lighting that is more basic looking but capable of handling a higher wattage bulb. If you are working with less lighting options, then a fixture with multiple bulbs that can handle brighter bulbs can be a really good answer.

Even better if you can find something that lets you move and point the lights to some degree. A unit like this can cover the whole shop, you just need to find it and wire it in.

Wireless lights are a new thing, and can actually be more powerful than they look. These are great for people that are not sure about cutting into their walls or can’t because they don’t own the shop space.

They are going to be more money than traditional lights, but you can put them anywhere. Once you have enough of them, they can leave with you when you find another place or get into a new shop.

Either way you go, spending some time getting the right lighting in the shop will make a huge difference to the enjoyment that you feel in the space. A dark shop makes things harder to find, harder to see, and you will make more mistakes.

It’s amazing how much you miss when the lighting is not where it needs to be. It can affect your measuring, which will trickle down and affect your projects and your state of mind. This is the real danger in not having good lighting.

There are going to be times when you need to go into the shop, and you will just not want to. Even with professional woodworkers, and woodworkers that are extremely passionate about their craft, there are times when you just want to sit on your butt rather than go into the shop.

This happens under the best of conditions, and will be amplified under less than perfect conditions.

On those days when your shop is not on the top of your mind, thinking about squinting while you are measuring, or needing to haul around a portable light to every tool you use because the lighting is terrible will make you not want to go out there at all. It’s a psychological thing.

If the space is not inviting, you will not use it. It’s on these kinds of days in particular that you want to have a well ran, clean, and well light shop.

There is also another danger. When you are new at something, you are building associations in your mind about the activity and how it makes you feel.

If you constantly associate frustrating, hard to see, dirty, dangerous, and stuffy with woodworking, then over time you will think that woodworking is just not for you. In reality, that might be the farthest thing from the truth.

It just may be that anything you did that was frustrating, dimly lit, dirty, dangerous, and stuffy would bother you.

For starters, just get some of the plug in LED lights that you can find online, and get them set up over your tools and the common areas that you work.

Supplement that with some smaller directional lights, like articulating desk lights or shop lights, and you should have more than enough to get started. With the LEDs, you may not even need the extra lights at all.

These lights will brighten up the shop, make it more inviting to you after a long day at work, and keep you in a good mood while you are working. You will make positive associations in your mind about woodworking, and it will keep you coming back for more.

Part 22 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 22 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place. 

Happy building.

Continue to Part 23 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking Here!

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
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  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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