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Tool Clusters!

Figuring out the best way to arrange your tools is to break down your most common tasks into groups, then arrange the machines into logical clusters. The S4S process is most convenient to me in a circular arrangement at specific angles to each other.

Stack of boards.  I can’t even get started making this cabinet until I’ve milled all 4 sides of these 30 boards.

Tedious tasks like this can be made less annoying by adjusting your “manufacturing process” to eliminate unnecessary things like walking around, picking up all the boards only to put them down again, and losing track of what you’ve just machined.

Optimizing your layout is easy once you narrow down your options by logically thinking through your common ways of doing woodwork tasks.

I found myself going to 3 different parts of the shop while doing one series of operations.  That meant I didn’t have everything I needed right in one area.  I could continue making the project but really it’ll just happen again on the next project.  Somehow I needed to take my most common procedures and clump them together.

For me, that’s mostly stock milling, joinery and shaping, and assembly.

In my prior shops, I had the Table Saw in the middle of the shop to make room for infeed/ outfeed, and the Planer and Jointer nearby but not in any particular position.  I tried putting the Jointer directly adjacent to the Table Saw, but it wasn’t convenient to get to the Planer.  It was then I decided to really figure this out.  What follows is how I did.

To start, just pick one area of your shop and refine only that.  If you try to do your whole shop at once you may not get around to starting.  Do one group of tools, and once you see how it works, you’ll be inspired to redesign the rest of your shop. Even if your shop is one garage bay, you can create at least 1 or 2 tool clusters to speed things up and help you stay organized in your tasks.

The first thing I did was put what I do in my shop activities into convenient categories:

  • Lumber Storage and Acclimation

A separate building for bulk lumber is preferred, but you can use a section in your shop to store lumber for your next few projects.

  • Stock Breakdown (Initial Wood Processing)

Breaking down large boards and sheets to rough size.

  • Wood Prep/ Milling (S4S)

Surfacing all four sides of a board is the most common process here, basically you’re refining rough stock

  • Shaping/ Joinery

Machine or hand tools are used to create tenons, mortises, dovetails, box joints, etc., sometimes putting a decorative edge on a board or cutting dado grooves to receive shelves or other cross-members, drilling holes for later assembly, cutting biscuits or Dominoes.

  • Artistic/ Decorative Detail Work

Small shaping, inlays, carving, hardware provisions, veneering, scroll saw work, cutting complex curves.

  • Finish Preparation

Surface and edge preparation to receive finish; clean-up of milling marks, getting each piece ready for final fit, correcting mistakes.

  • Assembly

Dry fitting of your assemblies or subassemblies to test your clamping strategy, final glue-ups, driving fasteners, test fitting of hardware, applying drawer slides, hinges, etc.

  • Finishing

A separate building or room is best here, but if it’s in the shop a spray booth is a good idea.  You’ll be applying oils, dyes, stains, clear coats, pre-stain coats, wood-filler, and doing some buffing and polishing in here.

  • Shop Support

These support other operations and stations.  This is often forgotten and is usually a part of your other processes, and some elements are out of the common workflow.  These support other operations and stations.  Shop carts, sharpening station, measuring tools, safety gear and clean-up supplies are shop support items.

The very next step is to pick ONE of these, and list the machines in each.  Here is a handy PDF, which is my list of each process and the tools I use.  You can use this as a guide to create your own list, free.

Which Process Did You Pick?

What process for you is really out of control?  Is assembly occurring amongst a big pile of dusty lumber and tools?  Is your milling process disorganized and taking 3 times as long as you think it should?

Pick the process that is the most haphazard in your shop and just start there.  Below, I’ll walk you through my lumber milling area, which is to me the most boring part of a project besides scraping and sanding.  So I’ve turned it into an efficient manufacturing area.  Then you can walk yourself through one of your processes.

Once you’ve thought about the processes for several of your most common projects, rearrange your machines and test it out.  Either play-act it when no one’s looking or start a project and purposely take notes on what you notice.  Slide things around and rotate things until you feel comfortable.  Even if it’s a pain in the butt to totally rearrange, question the whole thing if it doesn’t feel right and make bold moves and reverse the layout until you think you got it.

Remember to accommodate the most important or most common things; don’t try to adjust to every movement perfectly or you’ll wind up sacrificing the main things.  Stop and take a 50,000 view here and there.

Another view of the arrangement. The Planer stand will get its wheels and overhead dust collection soon. There are a few other tool locations I’m experimenting with to optimize the sanding process.

List your Tools in One Area, Then What?

Ok, you’ve picked the category to revolutionize, and you’ve listed your tools.  I picked Wood Prep/ Milling, and listed Table Saw, Jointer, Planer, Drum Sander, and Resaw Bandsaw.  Sometimes I’ll use my Drum Sander or Resaw Bandsaw to rough dimension but not really all the time and usually before S4S.  Also, the Drum Sander is most often used after a glue-up of a solid wood panel, so I placed it between the Milling Area and the Workbench.  The Resaw Bandsaw usually gets used right after I cut the stock to length on the miter saw so it gets put next to the miter saw and lumber rack.

So here I’ll consider the most common for me, the S4S process, and play with the Table Saw, Jointer, and Planer.

Start with what you know.  I have three tools, and I know I want them together.  I also know that I want my Table Saw to be towards the middle of the shop, and not against a wall.  The Jointer could be against the wall, but doesn’t have to be.  Same with the planer.  I need around 8 ft. minimum infeed and outfeed clearance for each machine.

Now consider the order in which you do things.  See the Workflow Diagram PDF to see a flowchart  of a typical project workflow.

When I have a stack of boards already cut to rough length, say around 2 or 3 ft. each, I start by using the Jointer to flatten two adjacent surfaces, usually an edge and a face.

I take from the stack of “to do” boards, run each one several times, and stack them in the “already done” stack.  I mark all 4 sides with chalk so that the two surfaces that have no chalk I know are machined and done.

Then I take the “already done” stack and run the opposite edge through the Table Saw to guarantee both edges are parallel.  The already jointed edge rides along the Table Saw fence.

Once this is done, many times I like to go back to the Jointer to run the edge I just cut on the Table Saw to smooth it and remove any burn marks or curved blade marks.  You may not have to if you have a super premium blade (which I plan on getting, like the Forrest Woodworker II).  For now, I cut the workpiece about 1/32” strong to allow material removal at the Jointer.

The Drum Sander is sometimes used after the Planer in my shop, but it’s usually used after I do a glue-up on the workbench. So this will go in a place that’s most convenient for that.

From there, I have 1 face left unmachined.  The best tool in my opinion to take care of this is the Planer.  The jointed face rides face-down on the planer table and the unmachined face gets to be cut by the Planer blades to guarantee the face is parallel.

Now I have 4 sides (two edges and two faces) both flat and parallel to each other.  The last operation may be to cross cut one side square, and cut the other end to the exact length I need.  So I can do all of this with 3 machines.  If they’re arranged in a cluster, and oriented at convenient angles to each other, it’ll be a breeze to run 30 boards this way.

Adapt to Your Habits

Now I have an understanding of each step in my S4S process.  So I have to be able to go from one machine to the next, and several times back to the previous machine.  So my workflow isn’t exactly linear; I have to be able to double back to the previous machine just as easily as to the next one.

To keep this compact, I found it easiest to start with a circular arrangement.  I angle my Table Saw to give me the outfeed room I needed (around 8 ft. or more).  So the Table Saw was set.  Then I considered the Jointer next.  The Table Saw and Jointer have to be close to each other, and ideally I’d like to be at the Jointer and just turn around and be at the Table Saw like magic.

So the Jointer and Table Saw were positioned opposite each other.  I play-acted running a board through the Jointer, and angled it so that I could easily turn around and be at the Table Saw infeed without much movement.

Then I practiced running boards through the Table Saw, turned around to see if I was at the Jointer infeed, and discovered I had to move the Jointer a bit from right to left to make this happen.  Now I had two tools sort of set in place.

The Planer was next.  After using the Jointer to clean up the edge I just ripped on the Table Saw, I had one more face to mill.  I want to walk as few steps as possible and be at the Planer infeed to finish up the S4S milling.  I placed the planer in the missing part of the circle, and had a dilemma as to whether to feed the stock left to right or right to left.  This has flipped several times.  Now I’ve settled on going right to left to go from the outfeed of the Jointer directly to the infeed of the Planer.

The tool cluster I’ve arrived at after trying out several configurations.

Now I have all three machines grouped, and in the optimum position (both distance from each other and at an ergonomically friendly angle).  Make sure you have enough clearance to comfortably stand and work, AND you’re close enough to the next machine that it’s not a pain to pick up the stack of boards to carry them over.

WoodChip Tip: This whole workflow thing works better if you have a small rolling shop cart.  This is used for stacks of boards you need to process.  For example, instead of putting all the pieces on the infeed of the Jointer, and as you run them, stack them on the outfeed of the Jointer (they may not fit and this interferes with machining), you can stack them on two-shelf shop cart.  You could just have one shelf with two distinct surfaces so you can have two stacks.  Don’t try to make a giant does-everything cart that holds 38 clamps and 42 bottles of glue.  Just make one for workflow material handling!

Where Do You Go After Using the Machine Cluster?

Once you’ve decided on a configuration for a particular tool cluster, take a look at where you usually go after using those stations.  After S4S milling the boards, most of the time I go to the Router Table or Bandsaw to work on the joinery, and sometimes back to the Table Saw and change to a dado blade.

This will influence the angle or direction of the infeed/ outfeed of the last machine used in the cluster.  If you look at my current diagram, the final step in the process, the outfeed of the Planer, I can take the stack o’ boards directly to the Router Table, Drum Sander, Bandsaw, or even back to the Table Saw quite easily.

Rinse and Repeat

Now that you’ve thought about your first machine cluster, do this again for another common series of operations.  Use the Tool Organization list to guide you as to what machines you’ll consider next.  I found that I have several of these clusters, and most of the remaining tools and stations fall out of the typical workflow.  These occasional items, like my Sharpening Station and Information Station, I keep out of the way but they’re still close to the workbench where I’m most likely to be.

WoodChip Tip: Have a cool tool that you rarely use?  For me it’s the Lathe (oh, the shame!).  I put this out to pasture in the corner near the Dust Collector so I can still use it when I need it but it doesn’t interfere with the more common workflow.

Here’s the Woodshop Station and Tool Organization guide and also the Workflow Diagram , both free PDF’s that I used for my design you can download for your reference.  I’m sure it’ll help comb through your thoughts to help you design your shop!

The notes here describe some of my design requirements throughout the shop.

Mini-Rant (Bonus!)

Now why is it that every woodworking magazine that showcases a shop (or creates one as an example) has a layout that is inconvenient-looking?  Even if you take into account that there are differences in what people make, or what order they do things, almost every layout I’ve seen isn’t very well thought out.  This is especially true on the “local” level, at a group of machines.  For example, I’ll see a Jointer placed right near the Table Saw, but the Planer is off in the corner, or tucked under a wall-mounted workbench.  Do they use a planer??  How do they get boards to be parallel faced?  Unless you hand plane every board flat and parallel this is a very inconvenient set-up.  And if they hand plane everything, why do they have a Jointer?

I’ll always tweak my layout, and if my practices evolve enough I may rearrange things to suit.  But at least walk yourself through what you do and tailor your shop to fit YOU.  Think about what you’ll upgrade to and accommodate as much of that as you can (like a 220V Planer, Panel Saw, Radial Arm Saw, another Lathe, Wide Belt Sander or Drum Sander, etc.)  The whole key is to think from an overall view and keep going until you’re down to designing how many drawers you need for Table Saw blades.  This well-thought out layout thing is the inspiration behind this blog actually; I got sick of using all these references only to have to re-work them and figure out the principles behind good design every time so they made sense in real life.

One of the most helpful things I did was take a few sample projects and list the order of things like for my friend Sheldon’s cabinet.  It was a raised panel dual-door cabinet about 3 ft. tall, with base and crown molding, all solid wood (no sheet goods).  So I began taking myself through the steps.

Come home from the lumber yard with (most) of the wood, stack it to acclimate, and later take it to the Miter Saw to cut to rough length.  Then I marked out the stock for rails, stiles, glue-up pieces for the door panels, sides, shelves, bottom, and top.  Then it was S4S time for all those pieces.  A lot of pieces.

Once things were milled up, I glued up all the boards that were to become panels and let them sit in clamps.  Rail and stile joinery was next, and cutting of some molding on the router table.

The next day or so later I took the panels out of the clamps, scraped glue, then ran them through the Drum Sander from the Secondary Assembly Table (that’s why they’re next to each other).  Then I coved the edges of the door panels at the router table (which is also right near the Drum Sander).  From there I went to the Table Saw to do the final dimensioning of the glued-up sides, top, bottom, and shelves.  Then off to case joinery (switch to dado blade, still at the Table Saw) and use the lock miter bit at the Router Table.  Once I was happy with all the pieces, it was sanding time.  Drum Sander, Oscillating Spindle Sander, then some Random Orbit sanding at the Workbench.  Turn around and dry fit at the Assembly Table.  Everything fits?  If not, turn 180 deg. back to the Workbench and do some refining with hand tools.  Assemble and wait.  Then do the finishing work (in the near future this will be in a separate outbuilding so I can continue woodworking while other stuff is drying).

I did the same thing with a smaller project, a sculpted photo frame for my other friend Mike-e, to make sure that the workflow helped projects of nearly any size and scope.  Some things were tweaked that didn’t affect the larger projects but helped these smaller ones like including the Belt/ Disc Sander and Oscillating Spindle Sander in the workflow after the Joinery Area, before heading back to the Workbench.

Now, I don’t ALWAYS go in a certain order; depending on the project I’ll jump around here and there.  But I left plenty of walking path room around ALL the machines in the middle areas of the shop, so I’m not LIMITED to a particular path.  I just designed around my most COMMON paths while making sure that if I did jump around, I was able to walk over to any machine from anywhere in the shop easily without having to squeeze like a rat between stations.

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2 Responses to “Tool Clusters!”

  1. tony f says:

    hi bobby,
    i enjoy your website and blog. I do like to ask your opinion about my shop. I am considering adding a cyclone unit. I have a 20×20 shop where i rarely run more than one machine at a time. what is your opinion on potable cyclone versus stationary one?
    thank you

    • Bobby says:

      Thanks, Tony! I typically only run one machine at a time, too. I have a single-stage dust collector, but it’s on one spot. I duct it to the Table Saw, Jointer, Planer, Router Table, Drum Sander, and a floor sweep (eventually to my bandsaw and drill press, etc.). I have a blastgate at each machine that I just pop open while I’m standing at that station. You could use motorized blastgates, such as EcoGate. I use a remote control on/ off device I got from Rockler so I don’t have to walk anywhere to use the DC.

      I FAR prefer a stationary dust collector. Portable dust collection is really a temporary solution (something better than nothing). Think about it: you spend all this trouble arranging your machines for good workflow only to have to drag and reconnect the dust collector from tool to tool. I bet most people make cuts without using it because it’s so inconvenient.

      For my shop, I ran a 5″ diameter sheet metal main duct in two directions from the DC, then used 4″ Wye fittings to connect to each machine. Take a look at the article “Dust Collection Mastery” on the blog for more info. If you have any questions leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer asap.

      At some point would like to upgrade to a cyclone (2-stage) because it filters out the larger particles before the fan wheel sees it. Check to see that the cyclone you’re looking at uses an efficient fan wheel; single-stage units use a wheel able to handle a dirty airstream but they’re not as efficient. Cyclone units have a cleaner airstream through the fan wheel so they can use a wheel that has more CFM per watt of power used.

      You should be ok CFM-wise since you generally operate one machine at a time; but if you operated two or more, pay careful attention to the CFM rating at typical static pressures (air resistance) because the extra cyclone stage gives you more of a pressure drop.

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