Building Workshops

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Tools need a home. Setting Up Shop is the best guide I’ve found for designing a workshop. It focuses on the practical details that other workshop books tend to ignore, like how to arrange the lighting, or set up dust collectors, design the placement of wiring, even determining the height of work surfaces. It got me thinking about aspects of a shop I had not considered before and helped me improve the plans for my shop. Its very thorough coverage of sound, light, air, and movement options makes it the most useful of the three books mentioned here.

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Workshop Idea Book is a scrapbook of hundreds of tips and clever solutions for a shop discovered by others. It showcases a lot of storage suggestions, and ideas for arranging stuff, such as how to handle large sheets of materials. Think of it as a kind of great, well-curated Pinterest board for workshops.

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Both of these books are biased to wood. A better version of either book would include metal and plastic working tools, which are ignored. This failing is somewhat countered by The Workshop Book which tours through a much larger variety of work places. It documents several workshops installed in trucks, or fit into apartments, or made portable with everything mounted on casters. I found the greater diversity of shops covered in this collection to be more useful to me since my shop is more general purpose.

The great designer’s guide to creating a small-time prototype shop with laser cutters, 3D printers, solder stations, as well as drill presses and table saws, has not be written yet. In the meantime, these three idea books will get you started.

-- KK  

Setting Up Shop
By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
2006, 236 pages
$17
Available from Amazon

Workshop Idea Book
By Andy Rae
2007, 170 pages
$8
Available from Amazon

The Workshop Book
By Scott Landis
1998, 216 pages
$17
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

From Setting Up Shop

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Three strategies for preventing long cords on portable power tools from ending up snarled and tangled are (left to right): Buy tools with detachable power cords, such as this Sawzall; fit each tool a short pigtail and plug it into an extension cord (using locking plugs) before using it; and refit existing power cords with tangle-resistant, self-retracting coil cords.

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A box fan, a furnace filter, three pieces of cardboard, and a little duct tape are all it takes to build a simple spray booth that sets up in minutes in front of a window or doorway, allowing you to spray-paint or clear-finish parts and small projects.

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Orienting Machines in a Line

By carefully coordinating the positions and table heights of stationary machines, you can reduce the amount of clearance between certain machines. For example, by placing machines such as a shaper/router table, oscillating-spindle sander or disc sander, and horizontal boring machine in line, then setting them up with all their tables level and at the same height, a long workpiece may rest or slide on an adjacent machine’s table (as shown here). Such an arrangement allows you to handle large or long work without having to rely on outfeed tables or roller stands for support. For this same reason, it’s a good idea to level the tabletops of benchtop tools that are in close proximity to one another.

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By setting tables to the same height and leveling them, a workpiece can pass over any or all of these machines.

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Machine Layout against a Wall

Machines such as a bandsaw, drill press, router table, shaper, stationary sanders, lathe, joinery machines, and overarm routers are ideal to locate along a wall. Power and dust collection are easy to hook up.

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From Workshop Idea Book

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THREE SAWS IN ONE. For serious production work, two or more saws combined into one sawing station let you mill wood and cut joints without breaking down your setups. The three cabinet saws at Placeways Woodworking share a central shopbuilt table, which doubles as an auxiliary work surface.

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PLUGGED PIPES. Make good use of inexpensive PVC pipe to store lathe tools and make them portable as well. Doug Stowe’s pipes are mounted to a French-cleat system on the wall and can be moved to the lathe when needed. The top of the pipes are cut at an angle to facilitate loading, and the bottoms are plugged with wood.

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SHOPPING IN THE SHOP. A converted shopping cart makes a convenient rolling hardware station. For his cart, dubbed the “piercing pagoda,” Gabe Aucott added a plywood top fitted with divided boxes to keep screws and other hardware neatly sorted and a staging platform at one end. Below, a large plywood box holds glue and other assembly tools.

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From The Workshop Book

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By hanging two narrow doors within two larger doors, Martha Collins can create four different openings to accommodate movement of objects large or small.

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Two plywood cabinets flank the box of Lester Walker’s Datsun Pickup truck. Walker, of Woodstock, New York, built one cabinet for woodworking tools and supplies and the other for camping equipment. On the road, the space between the two cabinets is covered with waterproof canvas and serves as a tent.

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Donald Kinnaman packs the contents of an entire workshop into a 90-sq. ft. metal shed next to his Phoenix, Arizona, home. He rolls the machines he needs out onto the covered patio behind his house and goes to work.

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Years ago, when I worked in a shop without electricity, I had a hand-cranked grinder. It did the job, and I liked the slow speed, but I found it irritating to hold the tool with one hand and crank with the other. Fred Matlack converted his handcranked grinder to foot power by adding a rope and a hinged pedal. He gets the wheel going with the crank, then keeps it going with the pedal. The arrangement frees both hands to guide the tool.




Uvex Tomcat S2451 Safety Glasses

I’ve been using these safety glasses as do-everything sunglasses for several years now. They’re dark enough to work in bright sunlight outdoors but not so dark that I can’t read the dashboard of my car, the instrument panel of the airplanes I fly, etc. The metal frames are fairly rugged — I’ve never broken a pair — and they’re ridiculously cheap. They’re also reasonably comfortable on my fairly large head, and they’re fairly stylish. Not outrageously attention-grabbing, but not obviously safety glasses, either.

Because they’re built as safety glasses, they seem to be of vastly superior quality to the comparably priced sunglasses you’d find at a gas station or grocery store. I’ve owned sunglasses throughout the price spectrum, from $3/pair to $200/pair, and these are the ones I keep coming back to.

The only major drawbacks are that the plastic lenses *will* scratch if abused (this is the only reason I’ve had to replace them — I’m hard on sunglasses that I wear literally every single day at work), and the hinges on the templates aren’t spring-loaded, which some people prefer for added comfort. At $8/pair, I can afford new ones every year and don’t have to worry about treating them with kid gloves at work, and if I need a pair of safety glasses for any reason, I’ve already got a comfortable pair handy.

-- Chris Lawson  

Available from Amazon



Unimat Machine Tool

I don’t own a Unimat yet, but have had the pleasure of borrowing a ’70s model for small projects from time to time. I’ve used it on metal, wood, and plastic.

It’s a miniature wonder tool, made in Austria. It transforms from a lathe, to a drill press, to a mill, and back again. The older model looks a bit like a home sewing machine and has similar dimensions. You can whip this thing out on a desk and start machining stuff.

It’s relatively inexpensive, especially compared to the larger individual machines that it imitates. I’ve created many smaller parts on a Bridgeport that could have been completed on a Unimat. Of course there are limitations on speed, power, and precision, but for certain projects it’s the perfect fit.

I’ve never used the newer black & red model that looks like it’s made from 80/20 beam, so I can’t speak to them. But the older ones are well crafted. They have the feel of a fine watch crossed with a classic kitchen appliance. The parts are solid and hefty. The motor is beefy. The design is simple and precise. A real joy to touch and work with.

For me the ultimate combo is a Unimat coupled with a 3D printer. Subtractive and additive making without leaving the office chair means maximum iterations on protoypes while still having the computer nearby for research or CAD’ing.

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Unimat demonstration from Dustin Firebaugh on Vimeo.

-- Aaron Nipper  

[Here's a video of Aaron's Unimat in action - Mark Frauenfelder]

Unimat Mini Lathe
Out of production since 1977
Check eBay for models and prices



Cupcake Pans

I like to do a variety of projects, from building guitar amps, to maintaining a couple of vintage cars, to restoring old machines. And often my attention is interrupted by dinner, kids, or phone calls.

To bring some order to these projects, I’ve collected old cupcake pans. I find them invaluable in keeping things separated. The typical cupcake pan has 8 cups. I number them 1-8 with a sharpie.

If I’m working on an engine, I might use the numbered cups to correspond with cylinders. With some projects, the cups might represent a rough sequence in which the parts were removed (and later assembled). With other projects, they might represent the physical location of small parts with respect to a larger object. If I’m interrupted, I can set the pan aside and know things are still in order.

I’m sure you can buy these new. However, I found them easily enough in the kitchen section of the local salvage yard for a lot less.

-- Christian Stratton  

Cupcake pans
Prices vary

Available from Amazon



Haddon Lumbermaker

I first used my Haddon Lumbermaker yesterday. I had a large maple tree in my back yard cut down (it was in danger of falling). I arranged for all the resulting logs to be left. I have been cutting, splitting and stacking firewood, and decided to try making boards from big straight logs.

I remembered my late grandfather had used a “Lumbermaker” attachment for his chainsaw. I searched the web and found, lo and behold, this product is still available. So I bought one.

Yesterday, I fabricated a reusable guide rail from a 4-foot length of 2×6 (by drilling and countersinking 4 rows of 3 holes 18 inches apart, and equipping the holes with nails and washers), attached the Lumbermaker to a 14-inch McCulloch electric saw with three set screws, and sawed my first two slabs off a 3 foot log about 10 inches in diameter. I’m halfway to making a rectangular slab from a round log! Going is slow, but nothing that can’t be solved if needed by using a more powerful saw with a longer bar.

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-- Marc Wolman  

Haddon Lumbermaker
$100

Available from Amazon



MyDIYCNC

I’m just getting into desktop CNC. It’s the essential element in scaling up from 3D printing to injection molding. The tools are five years (or more) behind 3D printing in ease of use (in part because CNC is an order of magnitude more complex) but it’s a field on the brink of a consumer reinvention, just like 3D printing was in 2007.

I use a MyDIYCNC, with MeshCAM software. It’s small but a cheap way to start, $795 fully assembled.

The previously reviewed Shopbot CNC has a much bigger build area than the MyDIYCNC. We use our little one for things like making Warhammer battlefields (carved out of foam) based on downloaded videogame maps. Mostly just silly stuff for now, while we’re learning how to use it.

-- Chris Anderson  

Sprite Desktop CNC Machine
$795

(Add $70 for the USB interface)



Vintage Machinery Website

So, you’re thinking that you’d like to make some things out of wood. Maybe you’ve watched some New Yankee Workshop, or admired Ron Swanson’s woodworking skills on Parks and Recreation, or you’re having flashbacks from junior high industrial arts class. Great! Time to tool up.

Woodworking requires tools, and for most people that means power tools. These power tools can be roughly thought of in two categories: stationary, where you bring the wood to the tool (table saws, lathes, etc.) and handheld, where you bring the tool to the wood (hand drills, hand sanders, routers, etc.) If you need to acquire handheld tools, times are great. Modern technology has made them lighter, cheaper, and more accurate than ever. Buy one with a reputable name on it from a big box store, and in all likelihood it will treat you well.

For stationary tools, though, times aren’t so great. These tools don’t need much in the way of high technology. In fact, the designs of some of the best tools hasn’t changed much in many decades. That said, they do need good materials and good workmanship, and that means lots of money. You can go the Harbor Freight route, and curse your machines every time you use them, or go the high end route, and curse your credit card statement.

Fortunately, there is another way. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, a huge number of good quality woodworking machinery was produced. If you need a table saw, jointer, band saw, drill press, or lathe*, get thee to Craigslist. An abundance of these tools are out there, and you will pay pennies on the dollar compared to new tools of comparable quality.

How do you know what is good and what is bad? How will you know how to get it running and keep it maintained?

That is where VintageMachinery.org comes in to play. They have a large database of manuals and photos of old machines. Chances are, if your machine is from a well known manufacturer like Delta, or even a lesser known, no-longer-operating manufacturer like Boice Crane, you’ll be able to find the manual for it on that site. Even better, they have a very active discussion forum full of people who love nothing more than their old cast “arn” and helping people get these machines going. The discussing archive is full of over 10 years of collected wisdom, and if you can’t find the information you need, ask away. You’re likely to get an answer in short order. It is also a great place to brag about a particularly good buy (did I mention the 1934 Delta 14″ band saw I bought at an auction for $25?).

One place where things have changed over the years with these machines is safety features. If you go the old machine route, please do take the time to examine the newer equivalent, and duplicate where possible things like switch placement, and blade and belt guards.

*(You may have noticed that “thickness planer” is not on this list. While there are some really nice old thickness planers out there, they are relatively rare, and are finicky to maintain. I recommend going with a modern portable planer.)

-- Clark Case  



Build Your Own Metal Working Shop Series

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could start with molten metal and make your own simple tools that made better more complex tools which make better tools…. and so on, bootstraping your way to a full workshop? You can. You start by making a foundry to pour molten scrap metal in the shapes you need, which you then use to make a milling machine and drill press, etc., each previous step enabling the next step until you have a full machine shop. That’s the lessons of these books.

There is a bit of a “doomsday backup” to the idea of being able to restart civilization from scratch if you had to, but the late author David Gingery main purpose was to make significant metal working tools he could afford. Through a series of seven books he demonstrates how to do this. But even if you have no intention of making your own lathe, the first book in this series gives very good instructions for making your own foundry so you can melt and cast scrap aluminum or pot metal. You start with charcoal, a 5-gallon metal bucket, a fan, metal from the dump., and your own sand molds. Pouring hot liquid metal is a primeval thrill which can lead to all kinds of adventures.

-- KK  

Build Your Own Metal Working Shop From Scrap
David J. Gingery
2011, 864 pages
One hardcover volume
$75
Available from Amazon

The Charcoal Foundry
David J. Gingery
1983, 80 pages
$8
Available from Amazon

Book website, with helpful videos

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The more than 20 years of research and experimentation that precede this group of manuals was inspired by a statement by someone I’ve long forgotten: “The metal lathe is the only machine in the shop that can duplicate itself or any other machine in the shop.” It followed then: If you have a lathe you can produce the rest of the needed equipment to make up a fully equipped machine shop. Of course my first problem was that I didn’t have the lathe.

The theme of the idea is remarkably like the recipe of someones grandmother for chicken soup, which begins “First you get a chicken.” Well, if you want to make chicken soup you’ll have to buy a chicken. Or, lacking the necessary funds, you might steal one. You can’t make a chicken, but you can build your own lathe, and with it you can produce the rest of the equipment to make up a full and practical machine shop.

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The photo on the previous page is of the lathe that was built as this series of manuals was being prepared. … All of the castings are made with the simple charcoal foundry, and the remainder of the parts are standard hardware items. The only power tool used was a 3/8″ electric drill, and there was no custom machine work of any kind. The lathe can not only duplicate itself, it can actually build itself. All of the machine work was done on the machine itself as it progressed step by step. When it was complete I used it to build another just like it.

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It’s always a temptation to “gussy” up a casting and include more in it than is really needed. In many cases it would be better to make two castings and bolt them together than to make a complicated casting in one piece.

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The Blast Furnace

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Building The Furnace

This is simple work, very much like working with concrete or mortar. It is likely that you have much of what is needed on hand, and the remainder won’t be hard to get. A clean 5 gallon metal pail, a piece of sheet metal about 18″ X 30″, some scraps of plywood, some wire and a roll of tape make up the body and form. Sand and fire clay are all you need for the lining, or you can purchase a castable refractory mix for the lining. Add an old vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer, a bag of charcoal and a pot for the metal and you are ready to go to work.

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The Drill Press

You could buy a drill press easily, but that only takes money. What you really need is the still and knowledge you will gain from building one. I can think of no metal project that will expand your ability better than this one.




Rotabroach Hole Cutters

You can use a regular hardware store hole cutter on soft material like wood, but it is difficult to cut really accurate large holes through hard materials like steel or tricky thin materials like sheet metal. For that you’ll need a Rotabroach Hole Cutter, which can make precise circular holes in plate steel and other metals. It can do this because it has machined teeth like a skill saw blade, rather than the stamped metal of a normal hole saw.  It also only requires a dimple in the center instead of a drilled hole which can make it trickier to get started, but you get the center piece out whole which is sometimes helpful.

-- Alexander Rose  

Blair Rotabroach Holcutter Set
$100

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Blair Equipment



Makita Cordless System

Cordless tools have taken over our shop. The saw, drill, grinder, driver, cutter that we reach for first is the cordless one. The key to going cordless is to settle on one make so you can use the same set of batteries for all. Several big tool brands offer a cordless system, including Milwaukee and Dewalt. We choose the  Makita 18v Lithium system because their drills and drivers were very light for how much torque they put out, are quite small for getting into tight spaces, have a nice LED light on them and can be set down on their pommel.  One quirk we have found about the Makita system is that you can run the lighter tools like drills on the small capacity lithium packs, but the larger tools only accept the large capacity 3 AH packs.  I assume Makita does this because the draw on the larger tools will heat up the smaller packs.  So we ended up always using the larger 3 AH packs as they work with all the tools and require less charging. It also simplifies your inventory. There’s a slight difference in the attachment shape of their 18v Lithium batteries vs the older 18v NiCads, but if you have some of those you can this widget for getting your old 18v tools to work with the new Lithium batteries.

-- Alexander Rose  

Makita 18-volt Cordless 7-Piece Combo Kit

$639

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Makita