Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Getting Into Fine Woodworking, Part 1: Location, Location, Location!

A friend of mine recently asked me for advice on getting started in fine furniture building. I thought this would make a great topic of discussion here.

There's a lot of ways to get into fine woodworking. Maybe you inherited a workshop from your parents or grandparents and decided you want to learn how to do something with it. Or maybe you saw woodworking shows like New Yankee Workshop or The Woodwright's Shop and became inspired by the craftsmanship (or power tools).

No matter how, getting started in the craft tends to work pretty much the same way.  So, I want to discuss what I think are the most important parts to getting started quickly, and largely how I got into the craft myself.

The Important Stuff

Let's face it — before you can do anything in your workshop, you need to have somewhere in mind to put it. Typical locations for most people center around a garage or basement. There are of course plenty of other options, from detached buildings (either on you home property or elsewhere), to the living room of your apartment. (Yes, some people do this!) For the purposes of this post, I'm only going to discuss the two main options, the basement and garage.

This isn't quite an optimal lighting solution...
Before we get into specifics, there's several things every shop design needs to take into account:

Space. This one should be obvious, but it can come back to haunt you later on if you don't consider it up front. When evaluating where to put your shop, don't just think about the shop you'll have in a month or so. If all goes well, you'll have this hobby for quite some time, accumulating all manner of woods, machines, and tools. So, error on the side of bigger here.

Ventilation and Dust Collection. Woodworking generates a ton of dust! Every time you cut wood, sand it, drill into it, plane're generating fine dust particles that can get in the air and linger for even hours! And, unless you swallowed a HEPA filter, that stuff will get trapped in your lungs and cause all manner of problems for you down the road. Add to that the fumes that get into the air every time you open a can of finish. Protecting yourself from this nasty stuff is essential! A good first step is having a ventilation plan for your shop.

Lighting. A well lit shop is a productive and safe shop. It's far easier to get into trouble if you can't see what you're doing. Be prepared to get some quality lights in your shop.

Wood Storage. OK, you've got a nifty new shop with all the machines you could ever want. But you forgot to plan for how to store your wood. Now you have to store it in the back yard under a tarp. Yeah, you want to plan for this too, even if it's only a short-term solution (my initial solution was laying boards up against a wall).

Maneuverability. No matter where you put your shop, you're going to need to get around in it, and move things around on occasion. Where and how you lay it out can play a part in how easy this can be.

Comfort. The nicest shop in the world won't get used if it's too hot or cold to be in. Considering how you'll keep your shop comfortable is important to your health and your happiness.

OK, so how does each location stack up on these key points?

Kick Your Cars Out of the Garage

A fully-tricked-out garage workshop. Just imagine...
The garage is probably the most popular place to put a hobbyist wood shop for a variety of reasons. Many residential houses, especially in suburban locations, have at least two-car garages, some three. These garages can provide plenty of space to put a good sized workshop (so long as you're willing to give up using that space for cars) — plus, when it's nice out, you can expand to the outdoors! Add to that, garages are typically very wide-open, providing plenty of maneuverability for you and your machines and wood. Ventilation is a snap too!  Simply open the garage door! (Though, this shouldn't be the only solution you have — more on why in the next installment.) Finally, garages being located so close to the great outdoors typically start out better-lit during the day than basements.

There's a bunch of other benefits to the garage location too. For one, garages are separated from the house either completely or via storm doors.  This eliminates the possibility of your sawdust getting into the rest of the house, and can also serve to provide a sound barrier, keeping your noisy craft from disturbing others in the house.

One thing typical home builders don't take into account when building garages is heating and air conditioning. After all, why would you heat or cool the place your cars live? This makes garages more difficult to stay comfortable in, especially if you live in a climate prone to more extreme temperatures. This also can impact finishes, as many will dry slower (or not at all) if the temperature is too low.

Overall, the garage makes a lot of sense as a place to put a shop.

Be a Basement Troll

Of all the possible locations to put a shop, the basement is the most challenging.

Let's start with the good points. In most suburban houses, the basements tend to be decent-sized to downright spacious. If used entirely for a shop, you could put a professional workshop fit for full-time production.  If you're lucky enough to have such a basement, this is a strong plus as a location. Basements also tend to be easier to heat and cool, as they're part of the house (and most houses have their heating/cooling system in the basement anyway). So, keeping the basement comfortable becomes more tractable.

Another concern: moisture. If this is your basement,
think hard about putting a woodshop here...
But, as I said, basements are also some of the more challenging locations for a shop. Unless you have a walk-out basement, you're going to have to plan for how to get things in and out of it. This is especially true for large equipment. (And your finished projects!)

There's also the ventilation problem. Most basements have few if any windows, and those they do have tend to either be well windows or tiny top windows. Opening these isn't going to give you much ventilation (but will bring a ton of cold air in). Keeping your shop free of dust and fumes will have to be much more carefully planned in this case.

As for finishing, think about this very carefully. Most finishes are flammable, and most basements contain open-flame gas appliances. These two things don't mix. If you plan to do any finishing in your basement, you'll have to find a way to isolate your finishing area from the rest of your basement, and ventilate it outdoors*.

* Wait! That air has to come from somewhere! If you just point a blower out a window, it's possible the air can back draft down the chimney of your gas furnace or water heater, filling your basement with carbon monoxide gas!

Speaking of dust, your basement is attached to your house. You likely have forced-air heating. This means you have lots of conveniently exposed tubes to carry sawdust throughout your entire house. You're going to have to go through considerable effort to control the dust and ensure it doesn't get into the rest of your house.

So yeah, basements are definitely not what I'd call the best location for a shop. But, if that's all you have to work with, it can be made to work. I know, my shop is in my basement.

What I Did

My basement workshop.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I went with a basement workshop, not out of desire, but out of necessity. My house, being old and in a more urban environment, doesn't have a garage at all. It does have a very spacious basement though, so this was the natural choice.

Setting up my shop in the basement came with several advantages. One, I don't have to worry about dust getting into the rest of the house, as my heating is completely hot-water radiant. This means no ducts and no flowing air. Perfect!

Ventilation is still a concern, but the old house makes this a bit easier. See, my basement leaks. Like, I'm outdoors it leaks so much. (Well, OK, it's not quite that bad, but it's far from sealed.) This means I get plenty of fresh air, and don't have to worry about pointing fans out the windows (which are large and plentiful, thankfully). It does mean I have to worry about temperatures though, particularly in the winter. Being in Seattle though, this doesn't pose much of a problem, at least, not one that can't be solved by wearing a jacket. Finishing does take longer when it's cold, but is still possible. But, when I don't want to open a window, I have a ceiling-mounted air filter to help clear out dust from the ambient air. (Plus, I always wear a dust mask!)

Add to this, my old house came with a coal room in the basement. This is the perfect place to set up a finishing setup — I can isolate it from the rest of the basement and vent it outdoors!

It does get moist down there, and for that I sometimes run a dehumidifier. But it's rarely bad enough to cause problems. Also, I have two ways into the basement, one from the outside and one from the inside (upstairs). This doesn't necessarily make it much easier to get big things in and out, but can help a bit if I can roll the thing around the side of the house and bring it in from outside. Definitely better than just the inside stairs alone.

— ● —

Wherever you decide to put your shop, it's important that you be able to make it your own, and be happy with it. But it's also important to make it with your health and safety in mind. In the next post, I want to focus heavily on one key part of this, dust collection

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