Most shops grow through a slow but steady process of accumulation, sort of like that nasty mineral build up in plumbing. This has certainly been the case with my shop. I have added machinery and tooling as I have had the resources, and often through a specific commission that promised to at least partially fund the upgrade. As I added tools, I squeezed them in where I could, since expanding the footprint of my shop is not on the table.
My vision has degenerated with age which has led to adding clip lights above most of my machines. I’ve added dust collection in a haphazard manner. And, frankly, I did not spend the time to look at machinery that had been acting less accurately and reliably, always rushing to finish one project and get on to the next.
A self-imposed house arrest, due to Covid-19, has led to more time in my shop and less running around. And, of course, fewer customers. I realized that it provided time to reevaluate all the systems in the shop and to do some much-needed reorganization and make a few upgrades. I work in a two-car garage that parks one car every night. Except for the lack of windows, I am content to stay in this space. The overhead is low, the commute is non-existent and good coffee is readily available.
During my estimating and pricing process for commissioned pieces, I have always tried to include all the scattered and difficult to keep tabs on expenses. In addition to a daily “cost of doing business” charge that is added to each estimate, I also add a small percentage for repairs and replacing machinery and tooling, sort of like depreciating machinery on your taxes. These funds go into a rainy-day account and I try not to look at the balance so that I don’t pilfer from it for other expenses, such as a Vegas gambling spree. I recently realized that this account was pretty hefty and that it would support a couple of upgrades that I have been contemplating.
Last year, I taught a small shop design course and in getting ready for it, I stood around and looked at my shop. What, I wondered, worked well and what did not? What changes could I make that would be worth the time and expense? I had a list of several things at that point, some of which I did immediately, and some have waited until now. If you find that you have the time inclination, here are some areas to think about that I found to be important and economically viable.
Lighting and electrical
LED lighting has come up in quality and down in price. It’s one way that we can make our shops safer and more pleasant places to work. They are cheaper to run, cooler to use and can turn a dingy, unpleasant space into a happy place by making it appear to be sun lit. I got rid of all the humming fluorescent fixtures and brought in the crisp, clear light that LED’s afford. In most instances I was able to get rid of those clip lights as well. But if I could not, I changed the bulbs to LEDs at the same time.
One of the weakest systems I had going was my 110-volt lighting circuit. While the ceiling lights were on a switch, none of the other outlets were. This resulted in a web of extension cords and a frequent switching routine. To remedy this, I rewired the ceiling with an H-pattern of double duplex outlet boxes, and added more wall outlets. Some of the boxes have both switched and hot outlets in them so that I have the option of leaving some things operable all the time.
I also reviewed the machinery wiring. I had been borrowing power from the 220-volt dryer line. A couple of years ago I ran a dedicated line and shutoff box. I have been pleased with this, from both a safety and electrical draw point of view. I included several outlets that were not used at the time. This has allowed me to leave that part of the system alone. My stationary sander was originally wired for 110 volts. It was always bogging down. I changed the connections in the motor (there was a diagram in the housing) to 220 volts and it runs like a champ now. Again, my goal was to eliminate extension cords and longer wires and to make everything work as smoothly as possible.
I have a 220-volt, 2-hp system with 4” ducting. I have not been good about turning the dust collector on every single time I turn on a machine, or turning it off when I finish. The result is an occasional clogged duct and more dust in the air. I had eight machines connected to it but realized that the system really did not work at all well for three of them. For reasons I cannot explain, I had routed the machine furthest away from the dust collector all the way around the perimeter of the shop rather than a direct route across the ceiling. I reviewed the whole system, took the three dysfunctional parts out and removed more than 40’ of ducting. Given that I am working in a space that is around 420 sq. ft., this is really a big decrease in the overall length of the ducting.
In advance of installing an automatic gate system, I finally went through the task of grounding the entire system and purchased automatic blast gates from Grngate. I bought a system that will service five machines. It cost just under $750 plus shipping. It took me a while to realize that I could now place gates up high – or low down – and out of the way, rather than at every machine where I could reach them. This makes the system work more efficiently and alleviates the need for space for the gate right at the machine. It took a couple of hours to remove the old blast gates and then four hours to install the new system. The shop floor and the air stay cleaner and I will be healthier. I am really pleased with it and it is so nice not to have to take the extra steps to turn the system on and off.
Part of what we do regularly is service machines. But usually, I don’t pay attention until something is amiss. One of the little pebbles in my work shoe was my old radial arm saw. It’s a pre-1962 DeWalt/Black & Decker with a 16” blade capacity. I have it because it can cut stock 4” thick and 24” wide with no problem. Well one, actually. The blade did not track well, which meant that I did not use it for anything that had to be clean and accurate. I spoke with a repair man in Ohio who guided me through adjusting the bearings that move the motor on the arm, and with less than 30 minutes of work I had an accurate saw again. This led me to think about how I handle material in the shop and its path of movement from one machine to the next. I realized that if I had a quick and accurate way of setting the cut-off length, it could handle the bulk of work that was going to my chop saw, which is ill-equipped to handle long, wide and heavy sticks.
There were two downsides to this upgrade, both sizable. First, cut-off fences are expensive and most of them are meant for installation on portable chop-saw carts. The system I had in mind, the Saw Gear fence from Tiger Stop, has an impressive array of functions and replications. But I rarely move the radial arm saw off its square cut position. And I rarely repeat sequences of cuts, since a big portion of my work is one-off pieces. Would this upgrade pay for itself? I dithered for weeks about this. In the end I realized that the Tiger Stop fence that I had installed on my table saw several years ago has been impressive in its accuracy, efficiency, and ease of programming. I really enjoy having it and it makes my work so much easier that it seemed that doing something similar for the radial arm saw was a nobrainer.
And second, the system comes with a pretty chunky fence – about 4-1/2” square. It also runs 24” longer than its longest cut-off dimension. The area to the left of my saw, where this would be installed, was a jumble of toolboxes and cluttered with drills, chargers, and other stuff. The gauntlet was thrown down. It all had to come out and I built three tool chests for the area with 11 drawers. My mantra was to only use scrap from other jobs. I reused left-over sliders and made the pulls. Drawers are both exacting and boring and I had put this bit of organization off because I simply did not want to bother. But it’s done and it is a pleasure to look at and wonderful to use. I can find anything and everything.
The Saw Gear fence needs 120” for a 96” working length of cut-off. I just squeaked by on that front with an inch or two to spare. The pusher flips up and out of the way if I need the full length of the bench.
And last was my chop saw. I made 8” side supports for it when I bought it 15 years ago, but just as a temporary solution. I realized that I could fit 24” supports along either side. I had enough room to install two drawers, which pull out to support stock as long as 60” on each side. Between the chop saw and the radial arm saw, I can cut things to a repeated length accurately with ease and efficiency.
I am done, for now. But I just might upgrade my band saw in the future and that will lead to another round of careful evaluations and possible redesign. It all helps make my little workspace more efficient, safer, and more pleasant to be in.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.