“His room, a regular human room, only a little on the small side, lay quiet between the four familiar walls.”

(Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis) 

As a pastor in the United Methodist tradition we move with relative frequency. We’re usually in one place for several years, but any given year we might hear the voice of our Bishop or Superintendent on the other end of the phone line telling us it’s time to pack our bags for a new appointment. In terms of woodworking, this means above all that my shop has to be mobile. It also means I never know what it’s going to look like until I get to the new parsonage.

Luckily, the parsonage at my current appointment has a spacious two car garage connected to the house. As soon as we moved in I knew that I wanted to clear out space to for a workshop but a year and a half ago as I had finally finished unpacking and moving boxes out of the garage I got the phone call telling me that my dad had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I’m not going to go into all the backstory with what happened next, but what is important here is that instead of my beautifully empty garage becoming a workshop it became a storage unit for everything that had been in my parents’ house.

I have worked tirelessly through that pile over the past fifteen months – saving the things that are important and letting go of things that were not – and, in that time I have thought long and hard about what I want to leave behind when I shuffle off this mortal coil and my daughters have to sift through the artifacts of my life.

I’m happy to say that I’m about two-thirds of the way back to a usable space, but all of this reflection has left me with some lessons that I’ve been trying to apply to my evolving workshop.

Lesson #1 – More is not always better. A few quality things are worth truckloads of their “value-priced” counterparts. It’s pretty easy to see how this applies to tools, but it has been reinforced by the number of century old tools I’ve been able to dig out of the pile and put back into use after proper maintenance.

Lesson #2 – Artifacts are best when they’re still useful. I can’t count the things I’ve run across that were “saved” just so they could dry-rot in boxes. This has helped me to see that I only need as many tools as I can reasonably keep in rotation. I’m not a collector. I’m a woodworker. I’m starting to learn the difference.

Lesson #3 – What you have is only worth having if you have space and opportunity to enjoy it. This is, in some ways, an extension of the other two. If you focus on owning fewer, better and more useful items and keeping them in useful condition, you’re going to want to use them and you’re going to need space to do so. In music, the concept is simple: a rhythm is not defined by the notes you play but the spaces in between them. All of the very best composers knew that the notes need space to accentuate, punctuate and elevate the melody. Same with shop life. You need space to work in order to appreciate the work you do.

That last bit has really been on my mind lately.  I have been able to clear out a space for a work-table (haven’t been able to build a proper bench yet) and some places for my tools, but as I’ve transitioned from power tools to hand tools my needs have changed and my workshop has not. It’s like I’ve sort of woken up in the same place, and I’m different but everything else looks the same. That needed to change.

First things first. I had been storing my wood stacked up and stickered beside my bench. There were some 12′ cherry boards in there that I didn’t have room for anywhere else and the pile just sort of grew up around them. There were no up-sides to this, and I regularly cracked my shin into the pile when I was coming around my bench for tools. I needed a better system so I spent some time re-configuring some storage shelves and clearing off space for wood storage.

I don’t keep a lot of wood in the shop at any one time (because I don’t have the luxury of knowing how long I’ll be in any one place) but I do like to keep the next 3-4 projects lined up. This is the perfect solution for that and it opened up the floor space dramatically.

Of course it meant that I had to move about a thousand mason jars to a newly constructed shelf across the garage, but hey, look at that beautiful rack!

If you look at a wider shot of what I’m working with you can see I still have some organizing to do around the wood, but now it’s at eye level, it’s accessible and it’s less subject to dampness.

Right now I’ve got my main worktable serving as a workbench and another table set up to the right with my go-bar deck and other assorted odds and ends.

I need less odds and ends for starters, but I’d also like to get to the point where I can get rid of that smaller table and use the larger one for its intended purpose of assembly. That will happen when I finally build a workbench.

Another big goal should be evident from this picture and that is tool storage. I need a place that is not my bench to store the tools I’m not using at any given time. I have it on the list to build a tool-chest in the anarchist tradition, but that is at least two projects down the line so I need a solution in the meantime.

I have been just storing tools in my craftsman toolchest, co-mingling routers and spokeshaves, and keeping my saws on nails in the wall, but that needs to change. This is sort of an in-progress shot. What still needs to happen is that I need to build a saw till, move that ladder to the shed, work out an arrangement for those small metal shelves and somehow make it all make sense. Maybe I need a rug to really tie the room together? Maybe not.

The saw till is up next, and there’s still a long way to go, but for the first time in a few months I’ve really been able to breathe in here so I know I’m going in the right direction.

Anyone else ever had a shop epiphany like this? Has it changed the way you worked or the quality and nature of your work?


One Comment Add yours

  1. “…Anyone else ever had a shop epiphany like this? Has it changed the way you worked or the quality and nature of your work?”

    I can certainly sympathise with this, Jim. Until February of this year we had been bouncing around a number of different rental properties in various cities in the UK, and I’d grown accustomed to squeezing myself into whatever workshop space was available, often sharing it with gardening kit, spare furniture, and the inevitable fridge freezer. It is only since we bought our house early this year that I have had the luxury of a dedicated workshop space. And I think it does make a difference, because a dedicated space inevitably becomes more ergonomic, and you spend less time shuffling things around and more time actually working. Th other big epiphany was building my Anarchist’s Tool Chest last year, as I now have a single repository for all my tools, and I automatically know where each tool is at any given moment.

    The one other observation I have is that while I spent a fair amount of time setting up the new workshop before we moved in, I’ve now realised that a workshop is never actually finished. Sure, all the big jobs are done in there, but the more I settle into my new space, the more I find smaller organisational tasks to do which will make it even more ergonomic. So in short, I think that a workshop evolves with our working practices and skill sets.

    Liked by 1 person

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