Workshop renovations part 1

I have been talking about this for several months and now the time is finally here! Over the next couple of weeks, my workshop will be undergoing all sorts of transformations to hopefully result in something more efficient and less dusty. The plan is to a) build a couple of partition walls to separate the workshop from the furnace/utility room, b) enclose the laundry machines in a closet, and c) create new benches and shelves to maximize storage efficiency. Hopefully this will keep some of the dust that I create out of my “clean” clothes and out of the rest of the house. Once I have these walls in place I will also have more spots to hang shelves and tools, so everything should, in theory, become more organized.

My father and brother have generously donated a week of their time to the cause, so this week I’ll be learning how to properly build a wall, hang drywall, install doors, and possibly do a bit of wiring, rather than fumbling around myself as I so often do. Most of the time fumbling around seems to work pretty well for me, but other times, like today, I slip with a hammer and punch myself in the face.

Before they arrive I wanted to get the demolition part done and start on a few of the smaller things so that we don’t waste too much time on things that I can do myself. I’ll also be moving a lot of the stuff temporarily out of the workshop, but I haven’t yet decided where to put everything, and I don’t want to make Craig climb through my workshop mess for too long!

On the topic of workshop mess, I started this reno project about 2 weeks ago with a bit of a clear out. Over the 2.5 years that I have been here, I have managed to amass an awful lot of junk, scrap parts, and cardboard boxes, so I made a few trips out to the dumpster with armloads of unnecessary clutter. I am sure that there is more to go, so I’ll spend a bit of time this week getting rid of things that I don’t need or use.

Here’s what my shop looked like in the middle of that first clear out day:

Yes, I had my computer down in the shop and was listening to a video while tidying up – not a great habit, but it did make cleaning more fun. At some point I’ll install some kind of CD player or speaker in my workshop so that I can listen to music, but that isn’t top of my priorities at the moment.

What I’m working with

My workshop is in a 14′ x 17′ rectangular basement room with no windows and a few significant obstacles. First off, there are a couple of low ceiling/unusable areas due to stairways. Secondly, I have my furnace and water heater in the same room as well as the washing machine, dryer, and laundry tub. It is great to have the water source right there for clean up, but I do worry about dust getting into everything. For the past couple of years I have been using old sheets to cover up the machines, but that is not always practical, and I can’t do a whole lot about the furnace due to things like fire.

Because of these obstacles, as I said before, the plan is to build a couple of partition walls. Once this is done, I’ll end up with a lopsided T-shaped workspace with about 140 square feet of space. I’ll sacrifice some floor area, but I will gain an awful lot of wall space, which is almost as valuable in a workshop.

I am going to keep my main bench in the same location that it has been, but I will shorten it from an 8 foot bench to a 6 foot. I wasn’t using the full 8 feet anyway due to the washing machine location, and this will give me a little bit more floor space (likely for bike storage in the winter). I am also going to add a second, slightly smaller bench on the other side of my shop, which I think will be incredibly handy. Both of these benches will have smooth plywood tops, which will be a significant upgrade from the uneven slatted bench I have been using.

The drill press and bandsaw aren’t going anywhere, but I am going to add another piece of equipment in the next couple of weeks – a proper dust collector. This will go in the low ceiling corner where I used to have piles of wood.

Demolition

The first thing to go was the rough shelving unit on which I had been storing my wood. I moved the wood out of the workshop and gave the structure a couple of taps with a hammer, and the whole thing just about fell off of the wall! I think it was a good thing that I took it down – not sure how much longer it would have lasted!

I then used a bunch of scrap wood to create a scrap lumber bin to replace the old cardboard box. I created something out of all sorts of random offcuts, so it looks rather rough, but is quite serviceable. At some point I’ll add wheels – it is just about impossible to move around at the moment!

In the picture below you can see the corner where the shelf used to be and can catch a glimpse of my lumber cart beside the drill press:

After this was gone, the next thing to go was the bench, which was a physically demanding task due to the size and weight of the structure and how tightly it was tucked in between a post and the wall. I managed to get it apart for the most part, and also took down the shelf that was above the bench so that I would have a clean slate to work with. I don’t have a very good hammer or a pry-bar, so the bench top had to stay in almost one piece. I used a hand saw to cut it into 2 pieces so that I could lean it up against a wall to get it out of the way.

Getting rid of the bench meant that I had a lot of tools and junk to find temporary homes for…

It still looks almost like that – tomorrow’s task perhaps?

Construction part 1

I have not done much as I am waiting on a delivery from Home Depot, but I did manage to get a start on some basic tool storage. I decided to hang some plywood behind where my bench will be so that I have something solid to hang tools from. I started by strapping some scrap 2 foot long, 1 inch thick lumber to the studs in the wall, and then attached a piece of 2′ x 4′ plywood to the straps. This piece will be off-centre of my 6 foot long bench as I have a little shelving unit to fit on the left end. I used dowels and nails to create hooks for my favourite and most used tools on this board. I also hung another plywood board to the right side of the bench location where I can hang larger tools and things that I don’t need as frequently.

Finally I put a 4 inch piece of wood on top of the ledge above the plywood boards to create a narrow shelf for glue and finishes to have them easily accessible. I set up a temporary bench on a couple of saw horses so that I can do a bit of work this week.

And that is the current state of my shop. In about a week it will look completely different – I can’t wait!

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Small workshop series part 6: simplicity and selection

What follows here is the final instalment of the small workshop series. (Of course, I often change my mind as to whether something is complete or not, so I would imagine that at some point I will be adding a post-script or two).

In this post I just want to tie up a couple of ends and talk about the selection of the project  itself.

In my first post, I emphasized the importance of having the right mindset (the “good enough” mindset) for building a guitar in a small space, and recognizing the limitations of the shop. Here I would like to revisit this idea from a slightly different angle.

Select a project that is manageable in the space that you have

I strongly believe that any instrument can be built in a small workshop. This is completely up to you and your living situation. If you are living alone and want to build a harpsichord, go for it! Realise, of course, that a larger instrument will take up an incredible amount of your living space both during and after the building process. If you are living with one or more other people, I would remind you to be considerate of the needs of others with regards to space, mess, and dust.

Personally, I would love to build a theorbo. However, with the other demands on my living space (my partner’s needs, practising, teaching, and entertaining), it would not be a good idea for me to start building such a large instrument in my apartment. I can manage full sized guitars in my situation, however, even this is pushing the boundaries a little bit. My most recent instrument decision (a soprano ukulele) was probably my best yet. The smaller instrument size means less dust, faster clean-up, and fewer materials and tools taking up kitchen table space.

Select a project that is manageable in the time that you have

Of course, the dream  would be to have an endless number of hours to work away at an instrument. This is rarely the case. Most of us have many other demands on our time (for myself: school, teaching, work, performing, website, people, life, chores, non-guitar projects…). It would be unwise for me to choose to build a lute that needed to be completed within a month (or even three months). There is no way that I could complete this project.

If there is a timeline attached to the project (and there should be), make sure that both the timeline and project are manageable. If you want to build a guitar in a year, and have an average of 4 hours to devote to the project per week, this should be a manageable project (given that a basic guitar takes somewhere around 200 hours to complete). However, if you then decide that you want an intricate Grit Laskin-style inlay in the fretboard, this is no longer a manageable project.

Select details that are manageable with the skills and tools that you have

It would be lovely to work on intricate inlays for my guitars. As I mentioned, I would also like to build a theorbo. I plan on learning to make wedding cake roses for my Baroque guitars some day. I have many lists of things that I would like to improve on my classical guitars, however, I do not have the space or the time to do any of this with any success. I would need high quality specialty tools to do the inlay. I would need to build a large form for the theory (and where would I store that? hang it from the ceiling???). At the moment I can manage stripe detailing on my guitars, and three layer roses for my Baroque guitars. I can do striped or patchwork style rosettes, however, the traditional mosaic tile rosettes are out of my reach for the moment.

There is nothing wrong with a simple or “plain” guitar. If the workmanship is tidy and the guitar sounds decent, nothing else matters.

It is important to recognize the limitations of both yourself as a builder and of your workshop. Building an instrument will challenge all of your limitations, and there will be mistakes along the way (many mistakes, trust me), so it is important to recognize where you are at early in the building process. This will allow you to see the successes more clearly, and to celebrate to joy of building something that is, as Robert Lundberg say, “good enough.”

Small workshop series part 5: jigs and shortcuts

I ended up with a copy of Classical Guitar Making by John S. Bogdanovich a couple years ago because my guitar teacher had ordered an extra one. It is a beautiful book, filled with gorgeous colour photographs and intricate design ideas for building a classical guitar. Bogdanovich shows you how to fashion specialty tools for your workshop, make custom herringbone inlay for rosettes and create moulds and templates for every aspect of the guitar. While all of these ideas are lovely, they are a bit overwhelming for the first-time guitar builder. Before even starting to thin the soundboard, one would, according to Bogdanovich’s book, have to put in at least a hundred hours of preparatory work building tools and templates. And I have not even mentioned the extensive list of expensive tools and supplies that he recommends.

All of this makes for a fascinating read for the armchair luthier, however, I could not imagine using his method to only build one guitar. The number of jigs, moulds, tools, and templates would turn a 200-250 hour project into a 400+ hour project, and easily doubling the financial cost of the project.

When I have an established and permanent shop, I will probably build many of his jigs and tools. I would love to have transparent templates, side moulds, specific moulds for linings, a permanent shooting board, bench hook, bending machine, and sanding box. None of these, however, is practical for a small kitchen table workshop. I would also say without hesitation that none of these are necessary for a guitar builder who only plans to build one guitar (and when I say that, I laugh a little, because I cannot imagine the self control it would take to only build one guitar…). So until I have a permanent workshop, I will only dream of these beautiful jigs and tools, and will manage on a few, much more simple strategies.

multi-purpose MDF boards

I have two pieces of 3/4 inch MDF (thanks Dad). I use these for a multitude of purposes. They become my shooting board when I am jointing pieces of wood. I drill holes in one side of the board to support the 3/8th inch doweling that I use for my side mould. I use the smooth, hole-less sides as cutting boards for purfling stripes, paper, and small pieces of wood. I sometimes use them as surfaces on which to glue together pieces of wood. I have a small hole (1/8th inch) drilled in one of the boards that I use for my circle cutter.

I also have a two smaller MDF/melamine work boards that I use for smaller jobs. I would recommend having at least one piece of melamine hanging around. Keep this board clean and free of saw marks because the glossy surface makes this board wonderful for  gluing.

guitar shaped work board

This one is, again, thanks to my father. It is a work board made of two pieces of MDF sandwich glued together and cut in the shape of the guitar. I remember making this board several years ago, and it is not particularly difficult. Just purchase a big piece of 3/4 inch MDF, mark two “centre lines” for the guitar shapes, trace the shape of the guitar, include a neck, and cut the guitar shapes out with an overhang of 1/2-3/4 inch. Glue the guitar shapes together and smooth the edges. Drill a hole in the centre of where the sound hole will go. This will allow you to clamp the soundboard to the work board when you are using it. (but not quite as long/permanently as I did here…)

templates and plans

For every guitar shape/model that I build, I have a complete set of plans (back and soundboard bracing layouts as well as details on any tricky part of the build, for example, the heel layout or raised fretboard plans), and a half template. I use basic bristol board for all of these. Paper is too flimsy, wood templates are too much work for a portable workshop, and I am too cheap to purchase plastic and the tools required to cut it properly. To make the half templates more durable, I tend to glue two sheets together before cutting the template out. I make the half template first, and then use the half template to draw up the full plans. The plans then function as wonderful wall art for my living room. (A student actually commented that I could print the plans on nice paper and sell them as novelty art for people interested in guitars).

Other than these few things, I do not have any fancy jigs or moulds. This means that some of the work I am doing is quite free-form, and the symmetry of my guitars might be slightly less than perfect, however, it is not impossible to build decent guitars without all of the fancy bits and piece.

I will finish this small workshop series in a couple weeks with a final note on building guitars in small spaces. When I move to a more permanent workshop (hopefully in the spring), I will write another series on setting up shop to build more guitars with more tools. In the meantime, I will continue dreaming.

Small workshop series part 4: revisiting humidity

A while ago I broached the topic of humidity in regards to guitar building and my apartment in the summer. This post was written shortly after I bought myself a window mounted air-conditioner for the apartment. For the most part it did an excellent job of cooling the air and lowering the humidity in my apartment. Of course, in order to maintain a lower humidity I would have had to run the unit continuously and the machine was far too noisy for that!

Most guitar builders that I have spoken to are on one side of the humidity argument: Guitars built at high humidities are liable to crack and distort during times of low humidity (I.e. control the relative humidity in your shop so that your guitars survive). However, during my August holiday to Nova Scotia, I met a guitar builder of the other opinion. This was George Rizsanyi of Rizsanyi guitars.

One of our day trips in Nova Scotia took us through the small and extraordinarily beautiful town of Bear River which is filled with artists. George Rizsanyi had just moved to Bear River earlier in the year, and had a guitar building workshop that was open to the public. When I say open to the public, I literally mean open to the public. The workshop is on the first floor of a house, and the door was wide open when we arrived. It was a rather humid and muggy day, but this did not seem to stop Mr. Rizsanyi and his student from building, so I thought that I would ask him for his view on the question of humidity.

George Rizsanyi surprised me with his rather blunt answer. He simply did not concern himself with worrying about humidity. He figures that the guitar will be exposed to all sorts of humidities during its life, especially in Canada. The guitar might crack, or it might not. His opinion was that it is more important to build with sufficiently dry wood than it is to build in a tightly controlled environment. If the guitar cracks, he will fix it. In fact, he was fixing a crack in a guitar back while we visited his shop.

Although I am still of the opinion that in an ideal situation one would build at relatively low humidity in a tightly controlled environment, Mr. Rizsanyi’s more practical approach to Canadian weather made a lot of sense to me. Because of this chance meeting while I was on holiday, I will now argue that the careful construction of an instrument is miles more important than the conditions under which it is built. Of course, a guitar built in the tropics will probably not survive the Canadian winter, but perhaps this is not a problem with which we should be concerning ourselves.

Small workshop series part 3: storage

I live in a small one bedroom apartment. Prior to this living situation I lived in a basement bachelor apartment (with carpet). Before that I had a bedroom in a small house with shared living areas. Finding space to build and space to keep materials is an art in itself. In the first part of this small workshop series, I went over a few basic “rules” of a small workshop:

  1. recognize limitations
  2. maintain order
  3. vacuum religiously

This part of the small workshop series will focus on “rule” number 2: maintain order.

People who know me also know that I am not a naturally tidy person. People who know me better also know that I have a very strong desire to be a tidy person. I like when everything that I own has a place where it belongs and I like it when everything is in its place. The realization of this desire is a lot less peaceful and normally results in periods of disorder followed by binge tidying sessions. This is something that I am working on, and to some extent, I have to say that I am improving. Living with another person really helps me to avoid the chaos that seemed to build up weekly in my other apartments.

In a workshop, however, tidiness is not only to be desired. Tidiness is mandatory. Tools with sharp edges cannot be left lying around lest they become life-threatening. Scraps of wood left on the floor become trip hazards. A guitar left in the wrong place could end up with a hammer or chisel through the soundboard resulting in many tears and much work. Leaving tools and parts lying around is especially problematic when one’s workshop is in the same area as the kitchen, living room, or perhaps bedroom. (I have yet to use a bathroom as a workshop, however, I do recall one instance of my father using the bathroom at home to do work on my first guitar, Rosy).

I have established two rules for myself regarding orderliness in the workshop (and in the rest of my home, for that matter):

  1. whenever possible, clean up immediately
  2. everything must have one single place where it belongs

I have occasionally broken the first one. During the summer it occasionally made more sense to leave tools and materials out overnight because I would be continuing the same work in the morning.

The second, however, is vital. Tidying is miles easier when each item that you are putting away has a place. I know where each of my clamps lives, and where every saw, ruler, and plane resides. This not only makes it easier for putting things away, but it also makes finding things incredibly efficient. If I need my 1.5mm chisel, for instance, I go to the top shelf of my bookcase, grab the green shoebox, and open the larger of two canvas tool rolls. The tool roll is organized by chisel size.

I will finish this post by outlining a few of my storage methods and how I find that single place where a tool belongs.

Is it beautiful?

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OK, so this might not be the most appropriate question to ask yourself as a woodworker. After all, isn’t every tool beautiful? Well, perhaps not that ugly set of cheap screwdrivers or the roll of masking tape…

However, if you can trust yourself to be fairly discerning, select a few beautiful tools to use as decor in your living space. These might be particularly well crafted, interesting, or old. For me that is my Veritas plane, an old wooden mallet, and my guitar plans (they make interesting wall art). Although I am far from an interior designer, I think that having beautiful and functional tools out on display is a wonderful way to create talking points for guests and to add character to a room.

Another way to use tools in your decor is to keep them in pretty boxes or tins and display the box or tin. I have an old chocolate tin that has a winter scene on the lid. I keep my small miscellaneous planes in this tin and display the box on a shelf.

Hanging storage

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One of my favourite space saving ideas was to use vertical organization for my tools. I turned one side of a bookshelf into a hanging tool organizer using screws as hooks for my tools. This was a custom job, and there is only one way that the tools can fit on the shelf without overlapping or falling off.

I also hang my guitar plans on the walls of my living room, and hang a couple partially finished guitar parts from another wall.

Shoeboxes

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Shoeboxes are a handy way to keep small tools and guitar parts in an organized fashion. They are generally of sturdy construction, stack well, and fit on many shelves. I have one shoe box for finishing materials, two for special tools, one for small guitar parts, and another for upholstery bits and pieces.

Everything else

When you run out of clever storage solutions, it is merely a matter of finding all of the nooks and crannies left in your apartment or living space. I use bookshelves (both entire shelves and behind books), under the bed (mostly for wood and guitar cases), and behind chairs in our living room.

Once you have found a home for your tools, all you have to do is to return your tools religiously to that place. Your workshop will remain orderly, and I am sure that your flat-mates or partner (or cat) will be more willing to accept your decision to make an incredible amount of noise and dust in the living room.

Good luck 😉