Craftsman, Woodworker, Antiques Refinisher, Columnist, Author and Television Host
"Where should I work?"
First, put aside any preconceived notions that you have to have a professional workshop to get professional results. I have seen real junk come out of woodshops equipped with two thousand dollar table saws and every power tool you can imagine. Years ago I had a spacious professional workshop I assembled inside a century-old, two-story brick warehouse I had rennovated. Sadly, it has since been demolished and replaced with an apartment building, but before then I had a sealed, fire-proof spray booth, an area reserved just for stripping and sanding, and every major woodworking power tool available.
Today I work inside a two-car garage that still houses our two cars every night. Now, that wasn't always the case, but happy wife, happy life, right? But here's the bottom line: I'll put up anything I make, refinish or restore inside my garage next to anything I made, refinished, or restored inside my former professional workshop.
The secret is getting the most you can out of the least you need.
That being said, if you can identify and claim even a small corner of your garage or basement as your work area, one you can keep organized and expand as needed, even if just by parking your car outside on a Saturday morning, you will find yourself more apt to both start and successfully finish any project.
This little corner of your world can become your safe haven, a place where you can slip away, turn on some music, and forget about the problems of the world for a few hours. Regardless whether its a family heirloom you're restoring or a piece of unfinished furniture for the television room, its great therapy. Having worked everywhere from the top of a picnic table to a third-floor apartment balcony to a professional woodworking shop and now a two-car garage, here are a few suggestions I have offered to some of my readers:
Q. -My wife and I are cleaning out the garage and are going to set one part aside for our refinishing projects. How much space will we need and how large of workbench should we buy?
A. -As the present owner of five workbenches, let me say this:save your money.
Stains, finishes, tools, and removers will quickly mar the top of a beautiful new workbench, so why put yourself through the agony of trying -- unsuccessfully -- to stop it from happening? All you need -- and its what I use most often -- is a pair of folding sawhorses and a 4' x 4' sheet of inexpensive plywood. When not in use, you simply fold up the sawhorses and slide them and the plywood behind the lawnmower.
As for space, a 10' square corner is all you need, along with some discarded kitchen cabinets for storage and a pegboard for tools and brushes. Get an inexpensive dropcloth for the floor, some old newspapers to catch the drips and you are ready to go.
Q. -My garage is unheated.How cold can it get before I have to stop staining and finishing?
A. -All stains and finishes depend on evaporation for their drying process, so both the temperature and the humidity are critical factors. I would only apply stains and finishes when the temperature is between 65-80 degrees and the relative humidity is 50% or lower.
These ranges apply not just to when you are working, but the time afterwards when the products are drying. Also, let any cold products warm up before you apply them.
Q. -What is the best kind of lighting for my workshop?
A. -Natural is the best, so try to do your staining and finishing near your garage door or a window.
I have probably worked under nearly every different kind of light available and have come to the conclusion that the positioning of the light is more important than the type of lighting.
When reading, you want light coming in over your shoulder. When staining and finishing, its just the opposite. You want to face your strongest light so that (1.) you aren't working in your own shadow and (2.) you can easily and immediately spot any runs, drips, bugs, cat hairs and bristles.
I do keep one or two of the lightweight clamp-on lights handy, along with its own extension cord. When working on a large project, I clamp the light to a stepladder, the back of a chair or a sawhorse and move it around with me so that I am never working in the dark.
Q. -Do I need to install an exhaust fan in my garage?
A. -I have in the past, but unless you are spraying lacquer (which I do not recommend unless you have a professional, explosion-proof spray booth) I think you can achieve the better results for a lot less money.
I use a two-fan arrangement in my garage, utilizing just two inexpensive household box fans. I position one in the open doorway or window to blow fumes outdoors. I set the other on the opposite side of my work area, blowing air from my project toward the first fan.
I prefer this over blowing fresh air directly from the outdoors toward my project, for this way I get far less dust in my finish (more later in the website how to get rid of dust).
Q. -Do you advise finishing outdoors?
A. -Only when providing adequate ventilation is impossible.
It is easier to control a small workshop space than it is the great outdoors. While the sun may seem like the perfect light, you can't move it around as you work. In addition, the heat it generates can (1.) draw moisture bubbles out of your wood and into your finish, and (2.) cause the top film of your finish to dry too quickly, which then causes problems with the wet finish beneath it.
Also, you have no idea how many air-born particles float through your yard or across your porch until you brush a coat of sticky polyurethane over the top of a table. Before it dries, your tabletop will look like an old-fashioned strip of flypaper.
Q. -A friend in the automotive paint business has a steel, self-closing rag disposal container in his workshop. He says it prevents spontaneous combustion. Is this something you recommend?
A. -If someone offered to give you one, I wouldn't turn it down, but for the typical do-it-yourselfer, you can take the same precautions without buying an expensive fireproof trash can.
Spontaneous combustion occurs as the oils found in many wood finishing products begin to dry. In the process they produce heat, that, if not allowed to escape, can build up to the point where the material bursts into flame. The most familiar example is an oily rag wadded up and tossed into a garbage can. The oils dry, but the heat can't escape, so the rag catches fire. With fuel to burn and a supply of oxygen, a small flame becomes a fire.
Your friend's expensive rag can wouldn't necessarily prevent spontaneous combustion, but it would contain it. A safer, foolproof method is to immediately submerge your used rags or steel wool in a bucket of water.
Regulations vary on how to properly dispose of these materials and any remaining wood finishing products you don't want to keep, so check with your local authorities for specific instructions.
Three Important Rules: Always follow the manufacturer's directions, take all safety precautions and first test every product in an inconspicuous spot.