Friday, December 9, 2011

Organizing space and mind, Part 1

I used to work as a mechanic in a bicycle shop. I enjoyed the simple pleasure of making something functional with my own two hands. Since then I've met a lot of other bicycle mechanics and cyclists (there's a lot of overlap) who have huge collections of bicycles, parts and frames. The common theme seems to be that when people learn how to build and fix things, they realize that it doesn't matter how old some of this stuff is, it all works well if it's properly maintained, and a lot of it can be reused. So, they don't throw most of it away.

I've seen similar behavior in woodworkers (including myself): I'll take the hardware off before throwing this out. This table is trashed but the material is good for repairs. These old tools can be cleaned up and used... and this old laminated iron is going to sharpen up really well. Don't throw that out, it's almost fixed! (Rough translation: after 6 months, I still haven’t put in the “5 minute” half of a day that it would take to do the repair.) I like the chisels that I have, but these are going to be really, really cool once I clean and sharpen them. Would you believe someone left this perfectly good tree trunk out for the trash? Can you help me load it up?

I'm not going to mention that tuning up all of the old tools that I've collected would probably be a concentrated month's worth of work and sharpening. I'm also not going to mention the scraps that just never find a home. And I'm not going to balance the virtues of recycling versus the hazards of potentially hoarding. Not today, anyway.

But I do want to help out those poor souls who haven't been able to do anything because their workbench is covered in crap.


My very first shop was in the basement. I built a plywood cabinet to hold things, and a bench to work on. I put up a shelf or two, and hung hooks from the floor joists overhead. Whenever I re-organized the shop, the end goal was to find a better way to fit 30 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag that I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing up. Fitting things into the space had a higher priority some days than getting finished work out.

I piled stuff under the bench and against the walls. I put new machines in where I had space... and eventually, this choked off productivity. After a few years I was forced to admit that the basement was too crowded to be anything more than tool storage. I paid more attention to building a bench and buying tools than how it was all going to function as a shop. And I really hadn’t considered storage. 

I can say from experience that when you’re short on space, a bigger shop sounds like a good solution to the problem. I can also say that it’s not the whole solution.

Years later, I realized that I was still having problems. I had moved from a  basement shop that was overcrowded, to a 2500 square foot shared space, with lots of light and high ceilings. I had towering shelves, an 8’ tall cabinet, plus an 8 foot long auxiliary table...  Lots of storage, lots of space. But  I was still having a hard time working effectively. So, I thought about other places, where the work moved more easily.

At school, we had just enough storage space around our bench for our tools, and one, or potentially two small projects that were in motion. That was it. Long term storage for lumber was up in the rafters. Space around the bench was reserved for tools and projects that were in motion. There was no room for anything else, let alone a collection of unattended projects and crap. Any storage in and around the work area was used for storing tools, or parts for current projects.

At the bike shop, I had a bench, a work stand, and a small box of tools that lived on the bench. Bikes were stored in boxes up against the wall, or hanging from hooks in the basement. The work area was for work, the storage area was for storage. Bicycles came out of storage to be worked on, and they went back into storage when they were done. The store had a significant amount of real estate, spanning a couple of buildings, and including basement space in all buildings. The vast majority of it is used for storage; the shop area is much smaller. Normal repair parts like tubes and shifters and cables and things were in a storage area that was directly adjacent to the shop area, but were not stored in the shop area. In fact, there was vary little in the shop area, if anything, that didn’t contribute to maintaining work flow.

The lesson was pretty clear: keep storage and work flow separate. I was still thinking like I was in my basement, and trying to fit as much in as possible. What I needed to do was to get the inactive stuff out of the active area, and keep it out. 

I moved the towering storage cabinet into an unused corner of the machine room, and I cleared (almost) everything out of the bench space, aside from my tool chest. Now I can park an auxiliary table there to hold parts, if I need. Or a pair of trestles to hold boards. I can roll an assembly table into place. I can pull a paper back drop down into that area for taking photos. Ultimately, I plan to clear out the shelves on the wall and use them for this purpose instead. The space is still evolving, but it’s a much more functional space now.

To do work, I typically need the following things in my work area: A bench, a place to keep my tools and supplies, and some auxiliary storage that will keep project parts safe and out of harm's way. This may include an assembly table, while the project is being assembled, or sawhorses.

I would never have been able to build this bookcase in my old cluttered space:

I’m going to go into strategies for dealing with and organizing storage in part 2, but if you find yourself staring at your work area this weekend, and you feel the need to rework the space, I’d start by dividing the room into ‘work’ and ‘storage’ areas. I don’t care if the storage area is all milk crates for now, as long as it’s off of your bench, and you can work, I call that progress.

To be continued...

Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

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