workshop, to have or not to have
From: Stuart Staniford-Chen (
Date: Wed, 22 Jun 94 14:44 CDT
Yesterday, Monica Stumpf wrote:

> The Monterey group is facing the decision whether or how large a workshop 
> to have.  People are lined up all along the contiuum from a large (2 car 
> garage size) to nothing at all.  The latter one(s) are concerned about 
> insurance cost.  

> What's the experience of the groups who are up and running?  What did you 
> do and what do you wish you had done different?   Any advice on what kinds 
> of tools to have?

I should speak to this.  I run the workshop here at N St.  We have a one car 
garage, equipped as a shop with, fairly exclusively, a woodworking focus.  
There are other kinds of shop of course (auto repair, metalwork, ceramics), 
but I'll confine my comments to wood.  We have a fairly comprehensive set of 
tools (radial arm saw, band saw, table saw, drill press, jointer, planer, 
routers, biscuit jointer, other sundry hand and power tools).  Most of them 
are either mine, or are cheap ones we begged and borrowed from friends of the 
community.  The shop sees regular use, but about 60-70% of that use is by me.

I see a woodshop as having three functions in a cohousing community:

#1) Supporting rough carpentry on exterior community projects (eg, compost 
boxes, chicken houses).

#2) Supporting interior finish carpentry for community projects (new 
bulletin boards, mailboxes).

#3) Supporting the woodworking hobby and/or furniture building projects of 
community members.

We have really gotten a lot of mileage out of use 1).  We have built various 
fences, play structures, compost boxes etc.  There's not much doubt that 
having a few tools and a place to work have been a big asset in doing that.

We have dabbled a little bit in 2).  Currently, though, we are debating 
building new tables and chairs for our common house, which would involve 
heavy workshop use in this category.

We have a fair amount of #3 going on, mainly me, but also three or four 
other community members at various times.

So, I definitely advocate a community having some kind of workshop, but how 
much?  There's the rub.  Your first task is how much of each kind of use you 
see.  Not much guidance I can give here, knowing nothing about your group.  
One thing I would say is be cautious in evaluating people's claims about how 
much #2 and #3 will happen.  If folks claim they will build all the 
community's kitchen counters, recognize that this is a many-weekend project 
if done by a small group of amateur enthusiasts.  Ask whether that kind of 
time commitment is credible.  (If some of the group have professional 
experience doing finish carpentry, that makes a big difference of course).  
Similarly, if people say, "I might be interested in building some furniture 
for myself if we had a workshop," it's probably safe to ignore them.  
Significant, sustained use of the shop will almost always come from people 
who are burning to do it, not just interested.  Evidence of serious 
commitment is: the workshop is the main reason they're moving in, they 
already build furniture in their garage and have lots of tools.  Etc.  You 
get the picture - just that it's important to plan for the likely 
eventualities, and not the fantasies.

Now, if the main use is #1 with small amounts of #2 and #3, then I would say 
a one car garage or a little bit smaller is about right.  A workshop is 
fairly useless (for general carpentry) unless it's at least a certain size.  
You need to get a few stationary tools and a workbench in there, and still 
lay a 4x8 sheet of plywood on the ground and have room to work around it.  
For big tools, you want a table saw and a radial-arm saw or compound-miter 
saw, maybe just one of the above, though both are much nicer.  Used cheap 
versions of these can be had for around $100 each.  New, cheap versions cost 
of order $500 each.  Good quality American made equipment costs $1000 and up 
per machine.  My opinion is that used cheap equipment is more than adequate 
to support occasional community project use - don't be sold on the argument 
that you need multiple thousand dollar equipment because it will last 
forever; it may, but your cheap equipment will last plenty long enough under 
occasional use, and will be cheap to replace with more of the same when it 
does die.  Small equipment that's useful is an electric drill or two, a 
hand-held reciprocating saw, a hand-held circular saw, and the usual 
assortment of framing squares, hammers, staple guns etc.  Optional is a 
drill press, a router, a belt sander.

If there's going to be a significant amount of #3 going on, then you will 
want to buy better equipment, and perhaps have more space.  My personal view 
is that if the main motive for having better gear is so that hobbyists can 
do better work and have more fun, then those hobbyists should be shouldering 
some of the extra financial burden (with luck, they'll already own the tools 
and just need a place for them).  Personally, (and this may be controversial), 
I don't think it's fair for a small set of woodworkers to 
expect the community at large to shell out $10,000 for filling the brand new 
shop with Delta equipment.  The only justification for this is a significant 
component of #2 use.  And as to that, caveat emptor.

Workshop design.  There are several books on this subject. (eg. a good one 
is by Scott Landis.  I forget the title.)  The main point is designing so 
you can handle the main cutting operations on 4x8 panels and 12' long 
boards.  Think about how to get materials in the door, and from there to 
wherever the temporary wood storage area is.  A note specific to cohousing 
is that when holding a workday, it's really nice to be able to drag all the 
tools out into the yard and spread them out so lots of people can work at 
the same time.  Cheap machines drag easily, expensive quality ones require 
mobile bases to support this.  Doors should be wide enough to make this 

If the workshop will support multiple uses, make absolutely certain you have 
enough separation between them.  Everything in an active woodshop gets 
covered in sawdust all the time.  If "everything" includes partially 
disassembled carburetors and green pottery which is drying, it's not a good 
scene.  My personal view is that you will need actual walls between the 
different activities.  Similarly, in a much used workshop, there needs to be 
a separate painting/finishing area with good ventilation and freedom from 
dust.  (We don't have this, but I wish we did).

You'll need plenty of storage for materials, extra tools that appear over 
time, jigs, scrap wood etc.  Another thing we have (in a separate place) is 
a storage area for re-used wood.  Every so often we acquire a bunch of old 
2x4s or such like from somebody, and store them.  Then when we need to do a 
project, we have materials on hand and can do it cheaply.  (Of course, most 
projects around here get built from 1x8 redwood, because that's what all the 
fences we've taken down were made from :-) ).

Policy issues.  Power woodworking tools are incredibly dangerous.  Insurance 
cover is certainly a good idea; we don't have it because we don't have 
insurance for anything (very shallow pockets).  We do make everyone sign a 
liability form.  It says in essence that if you cut off your hand, it's your 
own dumb fault and don't sue us.  I think it's important, both because it 
might well stand up in court (according to my law student wife), but also 
because it serves as a ritual to make new workshop users take the safety 
issue more seriously.   I copied our boilerplate from our University Craft 
Center's version.  I can mail it to anyone interested.

We also have a policy of absolutely no children under age 12 in the 
workshop.  I'm real rigid about enforcing this; I have had several community 
members wanting to work in the shop with their young child there at the same 
time.  I think they're crazy.  For one, there's so many ways in a workshop 
for a three-year-old to injure themselves while Daddy has his back turned, 
and for two, while Daddy is ripping a piece of lumber with his hand three 
inches from the table saw blade, Daddy needs to concentrate absolutely on 
that blade, his hand, and the piece of wood.  He does not need his daughter 
nagging him about how she wants to play outside now.  Children often don't 
understand this kind of thing well enough - they're just kids; it's not 
their fault, but I don't think it should be allowed in a workshop.  Children 
over twelve can use the shop with adult supervision.  So far no-one's 
expressed interest (we've had very few kids in that age range).  If we did, 
we might have to refine the policy - I'm not totally sanguine about a 
twelve-year-old using a jointer, even with adult supervision.

Enough.  I've spent too much time on this already.  Hope it's useful.

stanifor [at]     <---- note changed mail addreass
N St. Cohousing, Davis, CA.

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