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The Top Ten Things You Can Do To Whip Your Shop into Shape

Past shop experience without a dust collector taught me that productivity suffers greatly when you’re breathing clouds of dust. So, because the payback is continuous, I took the time to design and install a full dust collection system so I could go about building the rest of the shop.

To build your dream shop, you kind of need a functional shop first.  That’s what trips a lot of people up; they don’t know where to start with their existing shop.  I solved that problem by creating a highly functional “temporary” shop that many would consider their permanent shop.  That’s what I’m using now to create all the things I need to realize my design.

Operating in a cluttered shop with no walking space, tools and parts in haphazard locations and uninsulated walls will only delay your shop renovation.

Below are the top ten things I did or am doing to whip my shop into shape while I’m constructing my ideal design step by step.

10.  Don’t Buy Things That Solve a One-Time Problem

While perusing the woodworking catalogs, it is tempting to buy a bunch of things that you’ll use to solve a problem that rarely occurs.  I dog-ear dozens of pages in magazines and catalogs, but I generally buy things that will have a frequent pay-back.  You have limited resources, so it’s necessary to prioritize what you buy.  If I spend all of my monthly budget on random supplies, there’s none left over to buy stuff I’ll benefit from like insulation, lights, electrical wiring, circuit breakers, dust collection ductwork, wood to make my bench and assembly table, etc.

As part of my design, I’ve listed what I want to buy to stock my future shop and put all of that in a certain order.  But there are things in there that I can use now to help fabricate parts of my shop, so I added those to my Buy List.  These include pneumatic sheet metal shears, hole saws, Forstner bits, an electric back-up drill, handheld power planer, pneumatic staple gun, some measuring and marking devices, a bunch of extra clamps, and a more complete set of hardware.

9.  Keep Your Aisles Clear

It doesn’t cost anything to create a clutter-free shop.  In fact, having your walkways clear will help you identify what your layout should look like.  You’ll start to get a feel for what paths would be the most convenient for how you typically like to work.

A few ways to keep the floor clear is to first have a home for everything, even if it’s a temporary clear plastic storage box, and then set up some additional horizontal table surfaces.  I use sawhorses to support a temporary bench and assembly table to use while I finish my “ideal” one.

WoodChip Tip: Use clear boxes to store stuff, so you don’t have to keep opening lids to see what’s inside.  For hardware, I like to use a hot glue gun and stick a sample of what’s inside to the outside of the box.  I also bought one of those handheld labelers and labeled the heck out of everything. Now, it takes around 20 minutes to clean up.

Until I “officially” design all the storage to be integrated into each station, I use clear plastic boxes and put typed labels on them. This way, I can clean up fast, and I know where everything is.


8.  Clear Your Horizontal Surfaces, and Create a Permanent Place for That Stuff

This dovetails with #9.  Once you have your horizontal surface tables set up, don’t use them for permanent storage unless you have a shelf below the table.  The whole point of the top surface is to give you a place to stage your projects, assemble parts and subassemblies, and to do hand work.  This is why you see many bench designs with a shelf underneath, and sometimes a recessed tool tray to encourage a clutter-free top.  You’re not gonna want to start working in your shop if you always have a mountain of stuff on each table and tool surface.

7.  Put a “Buy List” in Your Pocket

I have a lot of stuff on my keychain, in my pockets, and on my belt.  I just like to have things within reach.  But if forced to minimize what I keep with me, one of the things would be a “Buy List”.  I write what I need at any given moment so I don’t forget when I happen to be at a store.

If I’m at Rockler or Lowes, I just refer to this list and pick up the things I need most.  It’s just too easy to have a frustration in the shop and then forget about it when you leave for lunch only to re-experience it again another day.

As a companion to this, you can also mount a small whiteboard and use a dry-erase marker to note things you’d like to incorporate in your design.

Often the simplest things work best, and pay you high dividends. This Buy List is always with me, and if I happen to be at a Rockler or Lowes, then I don’t have to stress over what I “might” need.

6.  Deal with the Most Offending Wall or Roof First

My order of attack to increase comfort is: 

  1. Install radiant barrier flex panels between each truss bay at the roof.
  2. Install radiant barrier foam panels between the studs on the East, South, and West walls, and completely seal each stud bay.
  3. Drill soffit vent holes and cover with a tight screen to keep out brush fire embers, and increase the gable vent opening to more than double the code requirements for attic ventilation.  This will help convectively cool your roof sheathing using the fact that hot air rises to let it out of the shop attic space.  For free.
  4. Install fabric-covered foam panels on my metal roll-up garage door, which faces West.  I have a foil backing facing the door, with a 1″ air gap.  The light weight of the foam panels is no problem for the garage door opener motor.
  5. Install insulation to fill up the wall stud bays completely with rigid foam, with a minimum R-value of R-25.
  6. Install a ceiling below the roof, and make it totally air tight.  I’ll have a sealed attic access, and insulation above the ceiling.  This ceiling is my “envelope” at the top of the shop.  The roof itself serves only to keep out rain and to reflect solar radiation via the radiant barriers.  The attic ventilation will serve to keep the attic temperature as close to the same as the outside as possible.  It’s the inside of my shop that I want at a comfortable 72 deg. or so.  According to Building, this is the most cost effective roof system, even though they seem to favor sprayfoam insulation right at the rafters. 

I’ve found that I’m highly prolific when I’m comfortable, and very lazy when I’m hot or cold.  Knowing this, I set up my environment to naturally encourage stuff to get done.

The hot roof sheathing was the biggest offender for radiating heat into the shop and making it unoccupiable. So, this was the top priority this summer. If there’s something preventing you from being in the shop, that should be absolutely your only project until it is done.

5.  Build Yourself a Shop Cart

I haven’t done this yet, but it’s high on the list.  This will complete the usefulness of your Work Clusters.  I’ll be using it to plop infeed stock yet to be machined and have a separate spot on the cart to stash the outfeed stock.  Then wheel it all to the next station.

4.  Don’t Forget Some Creature Comforts

I can’t live without my radio.  By having that background of talk radio or my MP3’s, I tend to stay in the shop longer and get more done.  Otherwise, I’d gravitate toward the TV in the house.  I have a TV in the shop too, but I find that I don’t watch it much because I have to keep my eyes on what I’m doing.

One thing I’m putting in my design is a loft sitting area.  I have a very tall attic, so I might as well take advantage of the space.  And having a place to sit and rest IN your shop is better than going inside your house and plopping on the couch for hours.

One of the first things I do when I enter the shop is turn on the radio or play some MP3’s.

3.  Install at Least a Temporary Dust Collection System

Not sure what your ideal Dust Collection duct routing needs to be?  No worries, just run some flex hose to your machines.  You can use quick-connect fittings so you can change which machines are hooked up.  But, try to get your ideal layout settled as soon as you can so you can install the permanent system.  This is one thing you want to automate.

I’ve got mine pretty much done, and I take for granted how much more I enjoy not sneezing or blowing my nose every 10 minutes.

2.  Get Non-Woodshop Stuff Out of the Workflow

There are some gardening tools inside my garage shop, but they’re all on one wall, and off the floor.  My plans call for a separate locking shed in the side yard, but until then I’ve minimized their impact on the workshop.

The same goes for “site construction tools”, like tool belts, concrete cutting tools, drywall tools, electrical and plumbing tools, etc.  I’ve put these in isolated corners that are totally out of the work paths.

I’d also recommend training your car to be an outdoor creature.  Mine is, and I love having the dedicated space.  Having to wheel stuff around just to start a shop session is a deterrent to going out to the woodshop in the first place, which is costing you shop time and enjoyment.

To make for a comfortable shop time, all the non-woodshop stuff, if it needs to be in there to begin with, should be out of the workflow.

1.  Create Tool Clusters to Start Experimenting With Your Ideal Layout

I’ve done this already.  You can’t rely solely on your paper design to come up with an ideal shop layout that flows.  You have to walk it and go through the motions.  I’ve changed mine several times as a result of trying out various configurations.

Once I’ve settled on the arrangement, I began to route the dust collection duct and come up with a circuit plan to get the electrical set up.  Now, I have 80% of my dust collection ducts where I want them, and my outlets are done.  Effectively, I have a very functional shop to use to elevate it to the next level.

Of course, I add to my design all the deficiencies I experience in the shop.  My hope is to capture all this before I finish construction.  But even if I don’t, there’s always the opportunity to begin designing Woodshop 3.0.

As I was perfecting the layout that felt most comfortable for me, I benefitted from things being in the right place. If I take a year to design the shop but don’t implement anything, then I lose out on that year of comfort, and it’ll take me longer to build the design in the first place.

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!


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8 Responses to “The Top Ten Things You Can Do To Whip Your Shop into Shape”

  1. Bobby says:


    I think if I took marquetry classes or turning classes I’d be adding some stations to my shop for sure. I wish there were an “install update” button for that…

    Your dust cloud scenario is familiar to me…before I had a complete system I’d just make a few quick cuts without it, and within a half hour the whole shop had a fine dust cloud in it.

    By suspending sheet metal ductwork, picking a spot for a simple 1-stage Jet DC-1100 Collector, and making some joints removable with foil tape, I can both change my layout and the dust collector model with minimal hassle. I’m so happy I did that.

    And post pictures of your shop evololution over the next year! I love to peak into other peoples’ shops without feeling like a creepy stalker.


  2. Bobby,
    Timely advice. I’ve been doing a major re-org of my workshop and these are great suggestions. One big lesson I am learning is about dust collection. I bought a good dust collector a couple of years ago and at the time decided that I’d just have one flexible hose that I’d moved from machine to machine as I need it. Now I find that I waste a lot of time moving the hose or worse just don’t use the collector to do “just one cut” that turns into the dust cloud from hell. I really wish I just bit the bullet at the time and installed a permanent system.

    The other mistake I made is not really thinking about what I was go to do in my shop. At first I thought I’d have a lot of power tools but now I find that I’ve got only a couple of big machines and most work is done with smaller hand tools.

    I got real interested in doing marquetry and veneer work this last year so now I’ve got to re-think my set up. So the project for me now is to go back to basics and figure out the workflow for the work I am really doing – not what I thought I’d be doing. At one time I thought I’d be doing lots of cabinet work but now most I work on smaller art pieces (pictures, boxes, etc).


  3. Dave Stanton says:

    Hi Bobby. I am enjoying your shop evolution as I also generate a new space for my tools to which I refer as “The toy room”.
    You show great patience and fore thought, a personality that many will not be able to copy although they may try for a few weeks before falling back into their old routines. I speak from experience, but I am slowly changing over 50 years of habit to be a more organised wood worker, lol.
    Please keep up the good work to maintain my motivation. I may even by some gear through Rockler via your site. Is it the same deal as Marc from the wood whisperer has, click the link and a percentage goes to you? If so, I would be more than happy to help support your site through this manner.

    Cheers, Dave from Oz (Australia)

    • Bobby says:

      Thanks, Dave. Yes, by clicking on the links it’s the same price to you but I get an affiliate commission. I appreciate it; helps keep the hosting and other expenses under control.

      I do admit that I often have to re-evaluate my own habits and correct along the way. I figure the more good advice becomes a habit, the happier we’ll be.

  4. Dave Stanton says:

    Just a quick thing I noticed. You mention R 25 insulation. Did you mean R 2.5 ?

    • Bobby says:


      I meant R-25 for the wall cavities; I’m filling the whole bay with foam instead of batts. I seal around the edges with expanding foam. Foam is about R-5 per inch, & since I’m furring out the wall to give a 1″ airspace plus around 5″ of foam, it’ll wind up being R-25-ish worth of insulation.

      My goal is to make the time-lag of the outside temp from reaching the shop many hours. In the summer that’ll keep things cool until the evening, and in the winter it’ll keep the expensive heated air in the shop while I work.

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