Sunday, February 28, 2010

Workshop Discipline And Tool Storage

Before building any furniture, I had one last quick workshop project: converting my rolling toolcart for hand tool storage. I had built it several years ago to deal with the proliferation of Shopsmith doodads and small power tools. At the time I had a rough idea of workspace management that I've refined even more with hand tools.

My workspace: workbench to the right, sawbench in center, tool cart to the left, clamp cart in back. This is roughly according to Adam Cherubini's article "The Ultimate Hand Tool Shop" in the book "Hand Tool Essentials". I can reach anything on the tool cart just by turning away from the bench, so that's my primary tool storage. The shop is big enough to spread out if I need to, as well as keep a separate assembly bench.

My wife is an operating room nurse. The OR makes a good workflow model for a hand tool shop. The operating table is like the workbench. The instruments are like the woodworking tools (especially for orthopedic surgery: they should call it This Old Bone!).

The patient undergoing surgery is like a project made from the finest, most delicate, most precious materials. The surgeon never wants to lay his tools down on the workspace. The danger of injury and contamination is severe. So the nurses manage all the instruments on a back table (my wife will scold my lack of technical precision here, but you get the idea).

Everything is close at hand. No one has to step far to reach anything, and the field of work is kept clear. I built the cart to be my back table.

As I was building my Roubo workbench, I really understood the value of that. My tools were either on the wall, on a shelf, or in a cabinet. I kept having to walk across the workshop and around my old bench to get something. I kept a few things on the cart as I used them, but I wasn't nearly as efficient as I wanted to be.

So sometime during the project, I came up with the plan to convert the tool cart, with the goal of getting the tools for 90% of my tasks on it. I started using it that way, using the center shelf as my plane storage.

I forced myself to the discipline: always put a tool back in its place, don't leave it on the bench, where it will fall off and dull on the floor, get lost in the pile, or cut my hand as I work. This takes some focus, because I'm a clutterer. Like the Sirens calling Odysseus to his doom, the dreaded horizontal surface calls to me: here, pile your stuff here! But it improved my efficiency. No more wasted time searching for a tool.

Oh yeah: and clean up at the end of every day!

The original cart setup for power tool woodworking.

Playing around with saw arrangements. I could hang them on the sides of the cart in place of the Shopsmith attachments.

Chisel arrangement, for a rack attached to the top edge of the cart. It's a bit too crowded, though.

I took all the holders off the sides, replacing them with Shaker pegs and simple finishing nails for hooks, and drilled hanger holes in the items that needed them. I added dowel pins and extra nails on the sides of things to restrict their swing when I moved the cart. I added simple racks to the top edge sides. I also replaced the original 1 1/2" casters with 3" casters, since the old ones seemed to catch on every woodchip on the floor.

The resulting cart met my goal: almost every hand tool I own within reach. While it's compact, nothing is crowded. Nothing has to be moved to get to anything else. If I need to add things (and I already have), there's still some spare real-estate on the sides and shelves. If I need to tear a bit apart and reconfigure it, I can. I'll continue to optimize it as I work.

Front view: all planes on the middle shelf, with long and short winding sticks and plane hammer hanging on nails. Bench hook, shooting board, mallets and boring tools on the bottom. Top shelf clear for any additional tools I need to pull from secondary storage, with trays on the right for measuring and marking tools.

Closeup of the plane shelf. All my planes are easily accessible, except for my collection of wooden molding planes, which just wouldn't fit. I have the most frequently-used ones here, though, rabbet and plough.

Right side view: large handsaws, rip and crosscut in two lengths and tooth counts for rough-cutting. Top rack holds several measuring and marking items and scraper.

Rear view: Clamps and 3' straightedge, all reachable from the front.

Left side view: small saws, again rip and crosscut in two tooth counts for fine joinery. Top rack holds all my chisels.

Closeup of the chisel rack. An additional short row of plastic-handled chisels is on the back side of this rack. Each rack consists of two pieces sandwiched with screws. The front piece has dadoes fitted to each item, easily replaceable if I want to change the layout. The back piece is pegged to the top edge of the cart with four dowel pins, no glue required.

Rack construction detail: chiseling out one of the dadoes.

Cutting the shoulders for the next dado.

Closeup of the top left side. The plastic-handled chisels slip into mortises through the shelf.

Closeup of the top right side.

Which leads me to one last thing. In a previous post I had mentioned building portable storage to accommodate everything. I wanted to be able to have all my tools with me. But Bob Easton sounded the voice of reason: be selective.

So I took an operational approach: make sure I have the tools to do all the  operations I want to do, but without having every size available all the time. Consolidate a bit and make do with the smaller ones.

For instance, how often do I need to chop a 1" mortise? That 1" mortise chisel is big. And I don't need both #6 and #7 planes when I can get the jointing done with the 6. In the shop, it's nice to have all the choices, but when I go portable, I need to think about what I'll actually be working on and plan for the specific tools required.

The operations: break down a board and prepare the stock (crosscutting, ripping, resawing, jointing, thicknessing). Cut rabbets, mortises, dovetails, and other joints and fine parts. Make pegs and bore holes for pegged joints. Smooth to final surface. Attach hinges and latches.

Here's the much more manageable set of tools. The small panel and joinery saws. Minimum set of bench and joinery planes. A few mortise and bench chisels appropriate to the scale of work I'll be doing. The small brace and eggbeater and a few bits. A minimal set of measuring and marking tools. A pair of aluminum winding sticks. This can be finessed as required for a specific project, but is sufficient to build just about anything.

This can all fit in one chest with a deep section and a shallow till, plus allow for a turning saw held in the lid. Maybe add another shallower till for a few additional items, like sharpening tools. But this would all fit in something reasonably easy to carry and fit through doorways.

Update April 2012: since I posted this, I've outgrown the storage it provides and reorganized the workshop.


  1. Nice solution to a thorny problem. I have yet to solve this problem in my own shop.

  2. Great job and great post.

    When I hit your line, "I forced myself to the discipline: always put a tool back in its place", I really appreciated it. I'm still teaching myself that discipline and because I get so involved with the job at hand, it is a very difficult discipline to master.

    When I built my hand tool cabinet I wanted a design that gave me the feature that you and Bob decided against; being able to drag my entire tool inventory around with me. I still believe in that concept however, the inherent problem with any cabinet or cart is us. We never stop buying tools and as a result, that which was a perfect design one week becomes an overloaded jumble of tools a few months later. It is our curse and a cross we all must bare.



  3. Mitchell, yeah, I found a 5/8" Stanley 750 chisel in my flea market pile that cleaned up nice, so there goes my carefully laid out chisel rack! That's why I made it replaceable.

  4. I would add one tool to the essential tool set - a pair of dividers (actually two pairs). Those are essential for me for laying out both dovetails and mortise and tenon. Really enjoying your website by the way!

  5. Steve,
    I enjoyed the way this post took us through your thinking and "editing" of ideas. It's nice to know that more experienced woodworkers don't magically come up their solutions; it takes patient, thoughtful effort.
    Question: I noticed what I think is a Lie Nielsen dowel plate hanging above a panel saw in one photo. Do you have problems making a 1/4" peg fit snugly into a hole drilled by a Jennings/Irwin 1/4" auger bit? Mine seem loose, and Joel at TFWW said the auger bit diameters will not match up. Comments and solutions would be most appreciated. Thanks! Mark


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