Setting Up Your Shop
An excerpt from Nick Offerman's Good Clean Fun
This is one of the most titillating steps in a woodworking practice, not to mention one of the easiest to accomplish. Easy, that is, if you just execute it in your imagination. Why, I have set up many amazing shops in this way without breaking a sweat or spending a dime. For that matter, I also find it very satisfying to strategize about how I’m going to fit my imaginary vintage automobiles, boats, and TARDIS collection into my imaginary vehicle barn/fort/hobbit-hole on my nonexistent Fun Ranch (it’s gonna be so dope!), but that’s neither here nor there. Using one’s imagination, a scale rule, and a sketch pad is a great way to start planning what tools and machines to put where, in whatever space you may have available for your shop. (It occurs to me to mention here two books by Jan Adkins that I love for their brilliant simplicity and artistic presentation: Line: Tying It Up, Tying It Down and Moving Heavy Things—these volumes have been invaluable in helping me remember the old-fashioned ways people have historically moved things like a massive planer or blocks for the pyramids.)
People often ask me what kind of woodworking they can get up to in a small/clean place like a big-city apartment or the bedroom of a house, and my suggestion to them is that the less electricity they can use, the friendlier their craft will be to that restricted environment. I generally find that the more electricity I use, the likelier I am to produce sawdust pollution, unless I have a really good dust collection system, which is, in turn, usually very loud. If you can set up a sturdy table or bench, there are a lot of projects to be achieved using only hand tools, like small boxes, picture frames, toys, puzzles (!), and chairs and stools. You could make your own Japanese-style hand planes, perfecting your work until other woodworkers are paying handsomely for your creations, and then you can use that revenue to rent a shop space.
If I had only a small bench/vise in the corner of a city living room, I might get myself some good clamps; a few good bench chisels in sizes like 1/4", 1/2", and 3/4"; a block plane; and a coping saw. A good cordless drill is always handy as well, or to keep it old-school get a bit and brace or an old eggbeater-style drill. With this small collection I would make small lidded boxes for things like jewelry, fishing tackle, or tea . . . or maybe gold coins (if you’re burying your gold, I suggest a rot-resistant wood like teak or lignum vitae).
To some I also suggest a small lathe in this circumstance of limited space. Wood turning is incredibly fun, and there are a great many projects that can be created on the lathe. Again, use your cleverness to improve your situation. For example, turn an inventory of blackjack-like cudgels on your small lathe, then sell them to the weaker children at your school so that they can wield them to ward off the bullies on the playground. Use your earnings to improve your shop. You’ll be making a buck and performing a valuable public service. Now, if you happen to be a bully yourself, you obviously won’t want to be arming your victims against you, so I would instead recommend you learn to turn some cool wooden pens and stop being a jerk. Nobody likes a bully, pal. A lathe makes more of a mess, so you’ll want to protect your mother’s afghans with proper dust collection and screening.
If I should be lucky enough to have some real space and the inclination to be setting up a shop of my own, there are some things to consider before I begin to spend my wife’s earnings on the latest monster band saw from Laguna Tools.
First of all, I think of my neighbors. Will my shop be the sort that makes what my mother calls “an unholy racket” (a good deal of very loud noise)? Will I be able to contain my dust output so that it doesn’t seem like a light beige snow has blanketed the surrounding properties every time I fire up my palm sander? When I lived in the Silver Lake house known as Rancho Relaxo, my only shop space was two sawhorses and a tabletop that I would set up in the narrow street of our cul-de-sac. I did my best to limit my power tool use to the hours of public decency: eight a.m. to six p.m. After each day’s work I would sweep my dust assiduously and hope that my neighbors would be kind enough to tolerate me again the next day, but it was far from ideal.
If you do have a situation in which you are upsetting your neighbors, try to make them some kind of tribute or gift that they will like very much. This makes them complicit in your transgressions, and if you have chosen the gift correctly, then the next time they think to complain at your sanding noise, they might instead look at the LA Dodgers cutting board you made them and think better of their bellyaching.
When looking for a space to set up your board-shortening operation, be sure to investigate all potential areas in your sphere. Chances are you might find a neighbor, or building super, or handyman/‑woman who knows an available spot for projects in the parking structure, on the roof, or in the steam tunnels. I have found that if one exhibits an interest in back-scratching by, say, helping a groundskeeper to rake leaves, then you might find yourself with access to some tools, a workbench, or even a bit of teaching. The worst thing you’ll have made is a new friend. (If, on the other hand, the person looks at you strangely whilst wielding some rope in a “snaring” motion, then best not follow her to the steam tunnels.)
Garage, basement, attic, or shed space can be nifty for small projects. Depending upon your personal constitution and local climate, even an awning, carport, or tarp can provide a haven for your habit. If you hope, however, to be producing medium to large woodworking projects on a consistent basis, then you’ll want a dedicated shop space that is dry, level, and as spacious as possible, since the more freedom you have to operate with care, the safer you will remain. No matter what you’re looking to produce, unsavory people do like to steal tools, so having a lockable space that you can heat or cool is the realistic ideal.
From this book and our website, you can get the general idea of the sorts of pieces we like to make at Offerman Woodshop. We really love live-edge slab tables, for example, of all shapes and sizes. Using the massive tree slabs necessary for this furniture style requires some hardy table space and equipment. If we were only making kazoos and coasters, we could get away with much less space.
I have been extremely spoiled in setting up my own shop over the years. My dear friend and fellow woodworker Martin McClendon and I first began making our own push sticks and featherboards and other assorted wonderfully geeky accessories for the shop machines around 15 years ago. (I have done a great deal of work here on my own, which has its advantages, but from that experience I can attest that anytime you can involve two heads on a project, it is vastly superior to one.) We laid out the workstations to our liking, but I would recommend always maintaining a malleability to your machine stations, since your needs can change. You don’t want to bolt a whole bench area to the wall, only to discover it’s in the way of your planer’s outfeed, etc.
I’ll run you through the tools that I love, and give you an idea of what they can do. Of course, every shop is as different as every woodworker, so start small and engage in some trial and error before you take out a second mortgage. I always recommend spending as much time as possible with an experienced hand, to see and feel the methods by which we make our shops work.
Excerpt from GOOD CLEAN FUN by Nick Offerman. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016 by Nick Offerman.