9 super-simple small shop hacks
Sections of carpet are great for protecting workpieces from getting scratched while being worked on. Sanding and assembling are prime times for picking up dents and scratches, but carpet can help protect against this sort of thing. I have about 10 pieces of carpet cut to 28″ × 16″, and I use them almost every day.
You may be able to find some excess carpet at a carpet retailer. Ask nicely, and you might be rewarded with some plush, colourful extra pieces to add character and function to your shop. You can also ask any friends who are renovating older homes, or any contractors or floor installers in the business of removing carpet.
With your remaining carpet offcuts, you can make a few great padded supports. I use these for placing large sub-assemblies, and nearly finished work, on the ground or on a large work surface, without getting damaged. Cut a 2×4 to length – I chose 28″ – then cut the carpet to size and warp it over one face, two sides and both ends of the 2×4 and nail it in place with some large-headed nails.
Don’t pitch the thick blue elastic band keeping your broccoli together. Or the large one wrapped around your mail. They come in very handy for keeping power cords neat and tidy in the shop. I used to use twist ties to tame power cords, but they quickly break and are fiddly to use. Keep your eyes open and you’ll quickly collect a wonderful selection of heavy-duty elastics for shop use.
Talk about simple and effective…visit your local office supply store and grab a file folder storage bin, along with some hanging file folders. Label them for the different grits you use, fill the file folders with sandpaper, and you’re ready for your next sanding celebration. While you’re at the office supply store, check out the small drawer units they have. Handy and accessible screw storage, anyone?
With storing lots of small items on the mind, how about repurposing some of your kitchen jars and tins? Dowels, biscuits, wood plugs and many other small items fit perfectly into these household containers. The clear ones don’t need to be labelled, but a piece of masking tape across the side or top of the rest will allow you to label the contents easily. Metal tea boxes come in some beautiful designs, but old peanut butter jars work great too. I’ve been using an old glass instant coffee container to store #20 biscuits for over 25 years now, but I’m sure when it eventually comes crashing to the ground I’ll wish I’d opted for a plastic container. Some minds take a good example to make a change, and I’m guilty as charged.
Yoga mat sections
Yoga mats wear out over time, but there’s gotta be a shop use for these mats, right? No question. I cut an old mat to length so it fits nicely on my router table. I mainly use it to help protect workpieces from getting scratched as I near assembly time, but the grippy surface also does a good job of keeping your parts in place while you sand them. Yoga mats come in different thicknesses. Up until now I’ve only used a thinner mat, but I’m looking forward to when my current mat gets so ratty and worn I’m embarrassed to take it out of the house. Even smaller yoga mat offcuts are great to have around. Squares about 5″ × 5″ come in handy for protecting corners, edges and surfaces while you work.
With a few plywood scraps, you’ll have yourself a woodworking throne to sit on, and a soapbox to stand up on, whenever the need arises. If there’s no crowd around to listen to you speak, there’s always the option of reaching up into the rafters or high storage to grasp seldom-used materials or jigs. Whether you’re spending long hours in the shop, or just a bit of time here and there, it’s nice to know a seat will be there for you if needed. This will bring you down to work comfortably at a lower level, while taking weight off your legs. I’ve even used my little plywood seat as an assembly support from time to time.
A top, two sides and one divider, all made from 3/4″ plywood, come together to make this lightweight yet bombproof stool. Overall dimensions are 16″ h × 13″ w × 16″ d. I added plastic hammer-in glides to the underside of each corner, and it now stays put when I want it to but will move quietly when I need to reposition it. Glue and screws bring it all together. A few cleats under the top, and between the divider and sides will make this stool even stronger. If you add a few drops of glue around the perimeter of the top surface, it will give you a bit of texture for traction.
Small Moveable Lights
I have a few clip-on work lights that throw off a good light, but you could just as easily have a strong flashlight on hand. A clip-on light can be temporarily positioned, or more likely, manipulated with one hand to illuminate whatever area you’re working on. I sometimes use these lights to brighten areas I’m working in, but mainly they get used while I’m hand sanding. A raking light highlights the tiniest flaws on the wood’s surface so it can be removed before a finish draws attention to the flaw. Even good overhead shop lighting isn’t enough to highlight these flaws – you’ll be surprised about how many of these little dings your work has on it, and your finished furniture and woodwork will look a whole lot better at the end of the day if they’re removed.
And speaking of sanding, another item every self-respecting woodworker needs is a decent pair of gloves. I used to have fingers and palms that cracked and were very dry, especially after long days in the shop. To protect my hands from gritty surfaces like sandpaper, files or other workshop hazards, I use a standard medium-duty work glove. When carrying larger sheet goods, I use gloves with a rubber coating on the palm and fingers, and that fits my hand snugly. Your hands will thank you.
I’ll admit that a decent shop apron will likely cost more than all the other items on this list combined, but it’s worth its weight in gold. And considering a well-made apron is made of heavy-duty material, that’s saying quite a bit. I used to have to search around the shop like a procrastinator on Christmas Eve every time I needed to mark a line or take a measurement. Now my pencil, tape measure, 6″ rule, general-purpose knife and a host of other often used items are constantly within arm’s reach. It always surprises me when I learn of a woodworker who prefers to have their pockets fill with shavings as they work, and who spends more time searching for their pencil than using it. Decent people don’t let their friends go apronless in the shop.