Monday, January 9, 2012

Organizing space and mind, part III: 3 simple rules of good work flow

The essence of working smoothly is very simple. You sit down, do what you need to, and you get it done, without too much effort. The work area should be clear, and the necessary supplies should be at hand to make this as easy as possible.

Sounds simple, right?

When I started learning woodworking, my projects were small, and so organizing them wasn’t really so hard. But over time, with bigger, and more complicated projects, I learned that there’s a lot more to working efficiently once the project is bigger than the bench can handle.

Rule 1: Work space is not storage space.

The first, simplest, and (for me) least obvious rule of work flow is that the work area is not a storage area for ANYTHING, and that includes parts for the current project. It always seemed natural to me, if I was building a table, for instance, to have the parts at hand. The problem with this is that if they’re in the way, they will either get bumped, or need to be shuffled around to somewhere else. Even with an eight foot bench, this is logic. The face vise is at one end, the tail vise is at the other, and if I’m moving from one operation to the next, then the stuff in the middle of the bench is in the way, and probably sitting right on top of the dog hole that I need. An auxiliary table to hold parts, or even just a pair of sawhorses, is part of good work flow, because you’re free to do what you came to do, without having to rearrange piles of crap.

This is something I noticed in my kitchen while I’ve been musing over this entry. The actual work space is a small butcher block island that’s two feet by three feet. Pots, pans, knives, and ingredients are all close at hand, but on the block, I only work, so it doesn’t bother me that it’s so small.

Without the compulsion to cover your bench with stuff, the work area only needs to be as big as necessary to perform the task at hand. That’s worth thinking on, too, especially for those of you who are dreaming of expansive work benches. Once you learn to keep your functional work area clear, you may find that you need less of it than you think.

This rule isn’t just for bench work, it’s for the machine room, too. Each machine has a platform for doing work, but not to store parts. And there aren’t many other horizontal spaces in the machine room, except for infeed and outfeed tables. So I built a rolling work table with shelves underneath, that’s a cross between a cart for moving parts and assemblies from one station to another, and storage for those parts. It helps me to keep the working spaces clear of junk... sometimes. I was also lucky enough to have the foresight to make the height of the table match the height of the band saw table, so that if I’m resawing something heavy, the cart can support the other end, and roll along as I feed the wood through the saw.

I’ve seen one shop where the work table didn’t move, everything else did. Rather than move pieces from machine to machine, this guy moved the machines one by one to the table, where all the parts were sorted out. Ingenious system, really. It was a very small shop, and he didn’t have much space to speak of. But he had enough space to move the machines around, and careful planning of the work kept things moving smoothly along. For those who are partial to machine woodworking, the Festool system of tools lends itself to this very nicely. No infeed, no outfeed.

Rule 2: Work space should be functional and easy to use

Basic functionality is easy: everything that you need to work at that station should be there. As an example, I have a drill press station with drawers to hold all of the various bits and gizmos that I use at the station. Lathe tools are next to the lathe, bench tools next to the bench, and water stones are in the bathroom next to the sink.

Easy to use is a little harder to define. One my earliest learning moments on this subject happened in my basement. I’d set up lateral lumber racks against one wall, and set up my chop saw against the other wall, with my bench in between, because that’s where things would fit at the time. But once I started to work, I realized that I had a problem. Every board I pulled down that was longer than a few feet had to be ‘helicoptered’ overhead while I turned around to put it down on the bench. Heavier or longer pieces were even worse, because I had to hold them up without swinging them around, while I did a pirouette underneath, trying not to drop the board on my head while I shifted my grip around. Putting the chop saw under the lumber rack solved that problem. Reach up, pull down, chop, was much simpler. In my next shop I set up the chop saw underneath the lumber rack. And I set up my jointer and planer very close to my chop saw.

Rule 3: Keep the walking around to a minimum.

One of the exercises that I read in The Toyota Way involved drawing a map of the shop, and tracing the footsteps involved to bring a product from raw material to finished product. This is one very good reason to keep all tooling and accessories with the tool that they belong to. But there’s more to it than that.

After I bought an 18” bandsaw, I started to resaw lumber. The bandsaw was on one side of the shop, and the jointer and planer were on the other, very close to the chop saw. And I had my sawhorses set up in between. As a result, the process of resawing and milling up lumber involved taking a board from the pile, cutting to length on the chop saw, walking around the pile, cutting it apart on the band saw, walking around the pile to get to the jointer and planer, and mill the board. Put more simply, every time I resawed a board, it meant making a lap around the shop. This particular shop space was less than 800 square feet for bench space and machines, and I was astonished at how much walking I was doing in such a small space. Moving the big band saw closer to the jointer and planer saved me hours of work on some jobs, and probably a mile or two of walking.

After this, I started to lay out a basic flow for most of my work. I really wanted to lay the whole shop out to minimize the walking around, but I ran into problems with this pretty soon. In short, a custom shop is not an assembly line, and after milling and dimensioning rough lumber, there’s no easy way to know what’s coming next. So, most of the other shop equipment is on wheels, and I can roll related workstations together when I need to. I also use the rolling work table with shelving underneath, that can be rolled around from station to station if that’s easier.


There’s more to good work flow, obviously. This is just a decent starting point. The Toyota Way is a great book if you really want an in depth look at keeping a shop running smoothly. Not everything applies, but enough of it is relevant that it’s worth reading.


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

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