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Design the Bottlenecks Out of your Woodshop Workflow

Working in my “apartment shop” taught me the importance of minimizing unnecessary tool set-up time. Designing a general workflow isn’t enough; the various bottlenecks need to be identified and designed out of your shop.

Think of your daily workflow in your shop like a highway system—eliminate the bottlenecks and you’ll experience what workflow implies:  continuous progress.

You step into the shop with the intention of getting something pretty specific done.  Ever wonder why it took three times as long as you thought?  You guessed it, unexpected speedbumps.

You can continue to encounter them, spend time dealing with them as you go, then move on.  Of course, you’ll re-discover them the next day or next week.

I find that most of these “bottlenecks” in my workflow are recurring, and can be designed out of my shop.

Interruptions in your pre-planned sequences also mean interruptions in thought, which leads to frustrating mistakes.

If you draw your design using a computer, you can overlay some path studies to determine your ways of working, and you can start to notice patterns. You can do this on a paper drawing, using a dry-erase marker and a piece of clear plastic.

One Word:  Strategery

Think through your overall shop layout goals first using these posts as a guide, then you take it the rest of the way.

Then, make sure that the bottlenecks and speed bumps mentioned below, as well as a list of your own (probably a long list, like mine), are dealt with deliberately in your woodshop design.

Automate Your Dust Collection

How useful is a carefully designed workflow when you have to walk over to the dust collector, turn it on, then walk back to the tool station again before a cut?  What about walking to the back of the table saw to open the blastgate?

As part of your Dust Collection design, integrate a remote control start/ stop.  It’s really pretty inexpensive, too.  I paid around $70 for the one Rockler offers.  Totally worth it, especially since it affects me every time I’m in the shop.  I hang the keychain on the wall at the entrance door, and I pick it up and put it on my belt-loop at the beginning of every shop session.

An often-forgotten bottleneck in your shop flow is where you put the blastgate.  Most of the time, it’s located on a duct drop toward the back of the machine, and a flex hose is attached to that.  There are several considerations for how to route this duct drop.

    • Keep the flex hose out of the way of outfeed and infeed stock
    • Keep the blastgate within arm’s reach while standing at the front workstation
    • Keep the flex hose off the floor or at least out of walking paths

The above three things all have to be considered, and one of them may be compromised somewhat, but the important thing here is that you think about it and make it a part of your design.

Dust Collection Remote at Door

As I walk into the shop, I grab the keychain and put it on a belt loop, so it’s there when I need it.

Designate Areas for ‘Out of Workflow’ Stuff

When planning your shop layout, think about the spots in your shop where you rarely set foot.  For me it’s all four corners, the overhead “attic” space, behind a door swing, and along the wall that divides my garage and house.

So, figure out what things must be in your shop zone, but aren’t really in your primary workflow for you.

These probably include:

    • Garden Stuff
    • Dust Collector
    • Shop Vacuum
    • Off-Site Construction Tools, Belts, Bags
    • Finished Product Storage
    • Sharpening Station (unless you are a turner, then it probably should go near your Lathe)
    • Library/ Info Station
    • Mass Lumber Storage
    • Non-Shop Storage (Bikes, household storage boxes, camping gear, etc.)

Once you have your list, look at it again.  Does all that stuff even belong in your shop space?  Could you (remember you are a woodworker…) build some storage cupboards or other built-in storage  compartments inside your house, a garden shed, or outdoor cabinet to house some of this stuff?  It’s a perfect excuse for a project, and you’ll benefit from it daily.

Do you have overhead space you’re not using?  Put rarely-accessed storage in dust-protected clear plastic boxes, label them, and stash them up high.

I use this when I install stuff at someone’s house, but I think it’s too bulky to wear in the shop. So, I store this out of the general workflow.

Identify Repeat Processes, Design Your Layout Around Those

In the article Tool Clusters!, we looked at how creating process cells around a series of operations requiring several tools could make a tedious job much easier and less tiring.

The most common set of tasks for nearly all woodworkers is stock breakdown.  These are the first things you do when you take a raw piece of wood and start to shape it into your designed part.  It could be cutting long boards to length, breaking down large panels, or ripping planks to rough size.  This begs for the lumber storage racks to be close to these machines, and lots of infeed/ outfeed space. 

The next most common set of tasks involves milling boards to become flat, probably square, and have faces (usually) 90 degrees to each other.  Typically this is “S4S”, or surfacing 4 sides of the stock.  This sets the stage for other cuts and shaping operations, because you know that those faces will sit flat on your work tables, and the other faces are either parallel or perpendicular to that.  From that precise base, you can now cut accurate angles, notches, grooves, etc. without worry.

Walking yourself through the above tasks, in order, will let you know what machines will be in the tool cluster, and then you can begin putting them in sequence to match how you work.

Once you have the basic cluster together in your shop, play-act (or actually perform) the typical sequence so you can tweak the machine station angles and distances.

Watch for infeed and outfeed room, room for you to maneuver, open space for a shop cart to hold the infeed and outfeed stock for you without cluttering the machine tables, and an overall shortening of travel distance.  You may have to shuffle the machines a few times to get it right.

You may have some specialty processes that are unique to you, like turning processes, a production run of specific kinds of parts you often need to make, or hardware installation involving drilling holes and hinge mortises using templates.  Ever think of creating dedicated stations or station groups for a few of these?  Having duplicate tools to reduce set-up time?

Label and Color-Code Stuff

If you find yourself looking for something, stop and think about why that is.  Could you do something to avoid that next time?  Perhaps have several copies of that item around the shop?  Paint a fluorescent spot or stripe on it?  Color-code it?  Put a bold-text label on its container?

Looking for stuff is definitely an interruption in your workflow and train of thought.  Things I used to look for repeatedly were my marking pencil, ruler, engineer’s square, and those dang safety glasses.  I solved those issues by keeping those attached to me the whole shop session.

If you notice, I have a Brother P-Touch labeler.  Totally worth it.  I label things to make finding them faster.  A lot of the store-bought containers are clear, so I can quickly see what’s inside without opening each lid like a treasure hunt.

How to Keep Your Shop Tidy, Naturally

In the recent Storage article, I went through why I realized it’s critical that everything, down to every fastener, needs to have a logical home in my shop.  Rather than fight against nature, I figured out how I naturally tend to keep things, and how things tend to stay clutter-free vs. messy.

Don’t force your storage locations; instead bend to your tendencies, even if it’s not in the “How to Organize Your Life” manual.  Leaving masking tape on your assembly table surface may not be ideal, but don’t put it “away” across the shop.  Instead, have a place for it within easy reach right at your assembly table.  That way, when you clean up your shop, all you have to do is move most things a few feet and you’re done and clutter-free.

Tool Set-Up Slowdowns

When I first began woodworking (in my apartment bedroom shop), I was forced to slow down my woodworking.  I’m talking super-turtley.  This was because I could only “make noise” when my downstairs neighbor wasn’t home.  When he was home, I’d do things that didn’t make sound, like marking boards, stacking them in order, writing out a tasklist in the right sequence, setting up blades and bits, and of course, using hand tools.

In a way, since my woodworking processes were very fractured, I didn’t mind the time it took to set up blades and fences.  But sometimes, when my neighbor would leave to the gym, I’d only have 2 hours of shop time.

This meant that once I machined one stack of boards, I’d have to quickly re-set blade heights, fence distances, and router bits before the next batch of cuts.  That was when I realized that tool set-up can take half of your shop time.

‘How could I make this faster?’, I thought,  ‘Is there a way I can pre-set all of these beforehand?’  Well, not without having two table saws, or 3 router tables.  Hmmmm…maybe that’d be worth it.  Now, my current workshop design calls for at least a dual router table, and two bandsaws.  For processes that are very common for you, this will repeatedly make you happy.  I think that’s worth a few hundred bucks, right?

One more thing, very carefully re-think that cool-looking hide-away, flip-up planer cart with the scroll saw shelf.  You’re just adding to your set-up time.  I understand that limited room can drive you to saving floor space this way, but anything that you use often should have a dedicated station.

If you must use “transformer tools”, then design it so that your set-ups can stay intact when the tool is rotated or flipped out of the way, and you can make it fast.  You don’t want to have to re-hook up dust hoses and change your settings every time you want to use it.

I really make sure that the table saw surface stays clean; otherwise I’m spending time clearing it off whenever I want to use a sled.

Horizontal Table Surfaces

Assuming you’ve taken care of your clutter-tendencies through smart storage design, you still need plenty of horizontal workspace.  Workbenches for heavy-duty work, assembly tables to hold things up at the right height while you work on them, a shop cart by your side to temporarily hold stuff for you within arm’s reach, and giant outfeed and side-extensions all can help to keep your workflow uninterrupted.

Ever find yourself wondering where to put all of those just-cut pieces during a cutting operation?  Make one!  You ARE a woodworker; make something for yourself today.

One thing I’ve learned is that if I have horizontal work tables, they can get cluttered.  But, if I have shelves under these tables, I can quickly clear them off.  I also integrate easy-to-access storage for the exact items that tend to accumulate on each of those surfaces.

Independently Functional Workstations

I know, you’re hurting for room.  Despite having a 3-car garage sized shop, even I wish I had an extra 10 foot wide space to ease up the walking paths a bit.  But, dealing with what you have, and what individual workstations you can reasonably fit, strive to make them functionally independent.

What I mean by this is every time you have to leave the station to get something, flip a switch, or put something back, stop yourself there.  Ask if this happens often.  Could you buy another one of those things to keep right at the station?  Maybe move it to a drawer at the bench permanently?

When designing your storage “strategery”, think about ALL the things you’ll often use at that station or tool zone, and put them as close to arm’s reach as possible, in order of desired accessiblity.

Open Floor and Walking Paths

I know, no space, right?  Well, it feels even more cramped if you use your floor as a shelf.  Same thing goes for how you’re routing your dust collection flex-hoses.  Are they on the floor?  If so, do you have to step over it?  I like to suspend them from overhead to keep them out of the way.  I don’t find that they interfere with carrying long boards around the shop.

I also keep floor space-hogs to a minimum, which is why I don’t have a clamp cart.

In one of my first posts, I noted how my layout preserves two decent-sized “open areas” in my shop.  This is because I don’t know everything that’s gonna happen in my shop while planning the layout.  What if you get a truckload of barn lumber like Vic Hubbard of TumbleWoodworks did?  So plan some flexibility in yours.

WoodChip Tip: While drawing your layout, use a 24” diameter circle to represent you and the space you need to walk around the shop.  Despite how it makes them feel, I tell my tools all the time “I need my space”.

WoodChip Tip right after a WoodChip Tip: Now that everything is on wheels, you can freely experiment with your shop layout to get it just right, test it for a few weeks, then adjust it again!  As your working style evolves, you may want to do this every few years.


Besides the additional mobility these double-locking casters provide, they also give a bit of vibration isolation, dampening energy transfer between the motor and the floor. I typically add neoprene pads and rubber washers to further this effect.



In the post Musical Machines, I describe how and why I make most of my stations mobile. Again, this goes back to flexibility mentioned above.  If you don’t want your stations rolling aimlessly around the shop, don’t worry.  They make double-locking casters for that; they lock both the wheels from spinning, and the entire caster from rotating.  Still not convinced?  You can always use the Rockler bench-casters that fold up entirely out of the way until you need them.

Oh, and don’t forget to allow enough slack on your dust collection flex hoses and power cords.  You want to make sure you can move them in all directions at least a few feet so you can allow for infeed/ outfeed  adjustments, as well as clearing some open space for large projects.

While my machines stay in the same position most of the time (after all, that’s why I so carefully designed a layout!), I want them to have the ability at a moment’s notice to move them.

WoodChip Tip: Another reason having everything mobile (on wheels) is that you’ll be more likely to do a major cleaning, since it’ll be pretty easy to move things to one side of the shop, clean the heck out of it, then rinse and repeat on the other side.

Take Notes in the Shop!

Thanks, Captain Obvious!  Well, this is often forgotten during the excitement of being in the shop.  But, if you experience a frustration or bottleneck in your workflow, at least write it down on a paper you keep in your pocket.  When I’m at Starbucks working on my design, I can figure out a solution most of the time, and if that doesn’t work, I flip through the Rockler catalog to see if I can find something that’ll solve it.

A dry-erase board can be used to keep a tasklist so you know where you left off, and to put (maybe in a different color) shop improvement suggestions or problems to solve.

For more guidance in assembling your Woodshop Design, click on the Starting? Go Here! category and read those first.

Connect with me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter for more ninja tips to Optimize Your Woodshop!

And, if you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow #woodchat every Wednesday night, at 6:00 pm, PST.

Gotta get more clamps,



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