My Personal Top Eight Shop Tips (learned the hard way)

Posted by Steve on Tue, 12/23/2008 - 11:47pm

We've all heard Norm's boilerplate at the beginning of every episode of New Yankee Workshop: "read.. know.. safety glasses", etc. They're common sense "givens". I won't belabor them by repeating them here.

But every shop owner has acquired his own set of lessons from "life experience" and I thought I'd share some of mine. Some are safety tips but some are productivity ideas.

* 1 Keep your shop clean.

A cluttered shop is an accident waiting to happen. Trip and slip hazards are especially dangerous while operating a power tool. But stumbling over a board or tripping on an extension cord while carrying the precious cabinet door you've just spent eight hours constructing is almost as painful.

Clean your shop after every major construction step, which includes returning your tools to their proper places so you don't spend three hours looking for the router wrench, which fell into your scrap pile.

I also use just one extension cord in the shop. That way I don't have a rat's nest of wires waiting to catch an ankle and send an expensive belt sander crashing on to the concrete floor.

* 2 Avoid distractions.

Most shops accidents happen because of inattentiveness, not inexperience, and this particular lesson is one I seem have to learn over and over again.

Case in point: the other evening I was building some simple bases for my neighbor's wig heads. I was working on the chop saw with my fingers just a little outside my comfort zone so I knew I had to pay attention and not get distracted by her conversation. But, sure enough, I let up my guard for a half second, the board turned a little bit and... major kickback! The mutilated board shot eight feet across the shop and hit her in the ribs. She wasn't injured but she's got an ugly bruise to remind her, and me, that shops are dangerous.

* 3 Don't force it.

Power tools will often give you an audible early warning by bogging down when you're about to get into trouble and an experienced user will know that the worst thing you can do in that circumstance is to push the machine even more. If the tool starts to sound like it's laboring, back off carefully, kill power to the tool, hold the work still until the blade or bit completely stops, then check what's wrong.

The motor is loading up because friction is working against it, and increased friction is a sign that the blade is starting to get too cozy with the wood. Forcing it isn't only dangerous, it's murder on your blade, bits and the wood.

* 4 Don't trust your math or your measuring.

This is my upgrade to the old "Measure twice, cut once." In fact, measuring twice is pointless if your calculations are wrong. At least half of my measuring mistakes are in fact math errors. Always double-check your calculations from scratch and then eyeball the mark to ensure that it makes sense. If applicable, drop a long straight edge across the mark to make sure it's where it's supposed to be. Then you can do the "measure twice" thing.

Be very careful when using a dual standard tape measure -- one of those tapes with inches across the top and metric across the bottom. It's very easy to get blinded by all the tiny little lines and forget which is which.

* 5 Unplug and cover your unused tools.

Big red switches are an invitation for kids and newbies to put their fingers where they don't belong. Covering the tool doesn't just increase its security but protects it from damage.

This is especially important for steel and iron decked tools. Look what happened to the deck on my brand new Jet jointer after only three months. People were using it for a drink coaster, a place to dry off paint brushes, whatever. It took an afternoon with Boeshield to get those stains and tar off.

You don't need to buy fancy covers. I use plastic contractor garbage bags, which have the added advantage of also being waterproof.

* 6 Keep your blades, bits and edges scary sharp.

When it comes to shop tools, a dull blade is much more dangerous than a sharp one because a dull blade tends to shred the wood rather than slice cleanly through it. As a result, there's greater opportunity for it to catch a knot or a hard vein, which can turn the piece slightly and cause kickback. It also means you have to increase the force on the work which can bring your hands into contact with the blade much more easily.

One of my most used tools in the shop is my Tormek wet wheel sharpener. It takes care of my chisels, planer and jointer blades as well as scissors and even my kitchen knives. My saw blades are returned to the manufacturer at least once a year for sharpening and resetting. I replace my router bits when they start to scorch the work.

* 7 Don't rip a 4x8 panel on a table saw.

Well, you can if you're lucky enough to own a full panel, sliding bed table saw and you've got the strength to muscle it in place. Otherwise, it's very difficult to keep a heavy panel tight against the fence. I've had table saws actually tip over on me with the weight of a heavy panel.

I found a better way.

Drop the panel on the floor on top of a couple of 4x4 sheets of rigid 2" styrofoam insulation. Using my clamp fence as a straight edge, I set my circular saw to cut a half inch deeper than the thickness of the panel. I cut the piece about a half-inch wider on both axes than I need and then use the table saw to square it to finish dimensions.

* 8 For router tables, don't adjust the fence -- adjust the work.

If you've got a router table you've probably (hopefully!) learned that you never make deep cuts in just one pass. Instead, you close in on the finished profile in a series of steps. But this means you either have to adjust the fence or adjust the depth of the router between each pass, which is time consuming and can create alignment problems. There's a better way.

Slice up a few sheets of scrap 1/4" and 1/8" hardboard. Set your router bit to the finish depth and height and use these scrap sheets as shims, taped against the fence or laying on the deck of the table.

For instance, if you have a base molding profile bit with a 1/2" depth, you'll probably want to close in on it in 1/8" passes. So you would tape three 1/8" strips of hard board to the fence and remove one after each pass.

Easy breezy and you only have to set up the router once.


These are some great tips to live by when managing your tool shop. Like you, I have learned many of these the hard way. I think the most important one is to definitely keep your shop clean and organized. This way it is easier to find things and get things done with less clutter around.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Great article. Measure twice, cut once reminds me of an old russian saying that goes like "Measure seven (times), cut once" :-) So true
Having one of the sliding table saws however, makes the work you described much easier and safer.