Why is Your Shop So Clean?

Article - July 30, 2014

Whenever I post a picture of my shop, I get more than a few comments about how clean the space is. Most of them say something like, “Way too clean!” or “You must not do any woodworking!” or “A real wood shop is never that clean!” I also see these comments come in on other people’s Shop Tours just because the shop owner thought it prudent to run the shop vac before snapping a few pictures for the world to see. While I think this sort of commentary is just harmless woodworker banter, I thought it would be a good discussion topic to dig into.

shop-cleanliness-03First thing’s first: my shop isn’t as clean as you might think it is! Like anyone else’s shop, every phase of a project brings with it a new mess. I made a few plywood bending forms recently and between cutting at the bandsaw, flush-trimming at the workbench, and drilling at the drill press, there’s plenty of dust and debris on the floor. But whenever taking photos for the website or my social media pages, I try not to focus on the mess. Instead, I keep the camera up high allowing the eye to focus on the object of the photo. I hope I’m not wrong in assuming that folks want to see the actual work being done and not the garbage on the floor. If we start judging the quality of our work by the mess we leave behind, I think I can start calling my 2-yr old son a “master craftsman” whose medium of choice is milk and Goldfish.

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Of course I realize that “messy” is a very subjective concept and many of you will look at my pictures above and laugh. Using my best Crocodile Dundee voice: “That’s not a mess….. THAT’S a mess!” But there are a few good reasons why my version of a mess really isn’t all that messy and why my shop is typically cleaner than most.

I’m a Neat-Freak
My desk is usually clutter-free. My comic books are arranged in nice little stacks. I only wear one color and brand of socks. I never have more than a few icons on my computer desktop. I have a very specific burger to fry ratio. Simply put, my shop is an extension of my personality. Your shop is likely an extension of your personality as well, for better or for worse. Some people may feel right at home in a messy or dirty environment and I’d never begrudge that. For me, I find a messy space incredibly stifling to my creativity and motivation. There’s just something about walking into a nice clean and organized shop that gets me amped up to create and build.

Of course my penchant for cleanliness can only go so far with a 2-yr old in the house. It takes about 5 minutes for it to look like a hurricane ripped through our living room. But the shop is “Daddy’s playroom” and I have complete control over its appearance and condition. It’s comforting to know that the shop will always be in the exact state I left it.

I Had A Master Plan
I’m sure most of you remember the video showing how the shop was built. I was incredibly fortunate to build my shop from the ground up for one singular purpose: to support woodworking and videography. As a result, I have sufficient dust collection, power where I need it, ample space for spreading out projects, and proper storage for tools, finishes, and lumber. While things aren’t perfect and I still have a lot of organization and storage options to work on, the space functions very efficiently in its current state. If you ever have the opportunity to design a shop space from scratch, I guarantee you’ll end up with a cleaner and more organized space. If you don’t, you may have done something wrong.

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It’s a Studio Too!
Everything I do in the shop is documented, either with still photos or video. That means I have very expensive equipment that isn’t exactly happy in a dusty environment. The less dust in the shop, the longer my gear lasts. Also, I am constantly moving a rolling tripod around from one shot to another. Leaving scraps laying all over the floor is a great way to end up tipping over the camera.

Safety First!
I practically live in my shop. I probably spend as much time there as I do in my home. I hope to do this woodworking thing for a long time so I’d rather not force myself to breathe any more dusty air than I have to, especially since I often have to remove my respirator to talk on-camera right after making cuts. So good dust collection is an absolute must and a clutter-free space is much easier to clean with a vacuum. I’m also much less likely to trip and fall on my face.

I Have an Arlie!
The final reason why my shop is so clean is something of a a luxury. My step-dad Arlie really enjoys cleaning and I pay him a few bucks to vacuum once a week. I don’t always have the time to clean the shop to my liking and having Arlie come through with the shop vac is really what makes the shop the clean, neat, and organized space I need it to be. If you don’t have an Arlie, I highly recommend getting one. They’re so choice!

A Few Tips

The thing to keep in mind here is that there are two things that comprise a messy shop: dust/shavings and clutter. Those are the two things you need to evaluate when trying to figure out how to keep a cleaner shop. For dust, the solutions are easier said than done since they usually involve extra labor and equipment. I can’t just say, “Get a ClearVue” since that may not be in your budget or you may not have the space. But you should at least try to work up to a dust collection system of some sort. Put a cyclone separator in front of it and collect the dust at the source. Connect your small portable power tools to a shop vac and be sure to use a filter bag. Otherwise, that dust will just clog up the pleated filter and shorten the life of your vac. Also, don’t be shy about running the shop vac daily. Try to get into the habit of running it for a few minutes at the end of every day. Yes, I know you’re tired, but investing a few minutes cleaning while you’re already dirty and sweaty is much better than walking into a dirty environment the next morning when you’re freshly-showered and ready to start your day.

As far as clutter is concerned, you just need to get a little more organized. Consider building a tool cabinet to store all of your tools in a small compact space. Build some decent lumber storage so your materials stay off the floor. And don’t forget the old “ten-things” trick. At the end of every shop day (before you vacuum), simply put ten things away. It doesn’t matter what they are, a screwdriver, a drill, a jig, a can of finish, anything goes. Just put ten things away at the end of the day and you’ll find your space will be much less cluttered.

I would never imply that my method of work and personal preferences are right for everyone. I’m only offering this article as a bit of an explanation for why my space looks the way it does and it gives me something to link to when the inevitable shop-cleanliness comments come in. The advice here is intended to help folks who feel they might benefit from a cleaner and more organized space, not to convince people they need to be clean. So if you’re happily disorganized and dirty, all the power to you! There’s nothing that says you can’t be incredibly creative and productive in a messy environment. I just can’t.

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