Wood Shop Al Fresco
I try to avoid cliches, but you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I moved to San Francisco from Chicago for what I thought was my dream job and my dream man. On the latter point, at least, I was correct: I gained a husband, but I lost my wood shop.
In Chicago, I rented a shop space of almost 1400 sq. ft. from the generous and deservedly renowned furniture maker, designer, and instructor, Jeff Miller. After two years of trying, I’ve found nothing in my general area of California that is truly affordable, secure, and accessible by public transit. There’s also what I can only stereotypically refer to as the “California flakey” behavior I’ve encountered: People who claim they’ll go in on a shared space and never follow through, and the supposed hippie “collectives” that actually mean “only metal workers.” Collective, indeed.
That means my “shop” is going on my outdoor deck.
|More odd shop spaces:
• A Mobile Workshop
• Studio Apartment Workshop
• A Tokyo “Dungeon” Workshop
• 36-sq.-ft Shop
A popular sentence in our household is: “We may not have a ________, but we have a deck.” We may not have a garage or shed, but we have a deck, and specifically a space about 13.5 feet long and 6.5 feet wide at its narrowest point.
Pros and Cons
Pro: Close to home. The shop will be just outside my bedroom, through a sliding door. I’ll actually get some work done!
Pro: Free. I can’t say this of anyplace else in the San Francisco area!
Con: Moisture! San Francisco is often foggy and sometimes rainy. My bench should be finished like outdoor furniture. Fortunately, FW had some recent recommendations on finishes to use for this.
When I thought about moisture, I also remembered the marine covers we had on our boats in the summer, on the Great Lakes. I ordered and received samples from Seattle Fabrics (which specializes in marine fabric) and plan to sew a two-piece bench cover: 1) a bottom piece on which the bench can always rest, protected from puddles and other moisture on the deck’s surface, and 2) a top piece shaped to fit the bench that snaps closed to the bottom part, protecting the entire bench from moisture. I may also place rubber feet on the bench, or place or a rubber mat between the deck wood and the bench bottom for additional moisture protection from below.
Con: Light. Direct sunlight can fade certain types of unfinished wood, like cherry. If you don’t believe me, try the experiment in which you leave a piece of cherry out in the sunlight with a house key or coin resting on it. You’ll be able to see the key or coin’s outline perfectly after a sunny day.
Pro: Ventilation. I’ll produce the same amount of dust (though possibly less, without my power tools around), but I won’t be in an enclosed space. I don’t plan to use a dust filtration system, save for those included with tools to suck dust away.
Con: Finishing. Bugs and dust will get stuck in drying finish, but finishing is a minimal concern right now. If necessary, I can use folded screens (Japanese style, for instance) or ask the landlady if I can briefly borrow the downstairs garage for finishing purposes.
Con: Wood and tool storage. I can’t store a lot of wood, so I’ll have to use it soon after buying it. This is acceptable. I have a minimal amount of power tools in California anyway (they would have cost a fortune to move, so they’re shacked up with dad for the moment), so I mostly use hand tools. Hand tools are small and easy to store inside my apartment. I’m considering adding a heavy, plastic storage container that could double as deck seating if necessary.
Con: The weather dictates work time. No woodworking on rainy days (one of the times it’s most appealing to me!).
Con: No big power tools. I may have mental block, but I can’t imagine leaving a table saw outside – and there really isn’t room for it.
Pro: Assembly space. I have plenty of room to assemble larger projects on the unused areas of the deck.
Pro/Con Lighting. As long as there’s sunlight, our energy costs won’t rise, but my work will be confined to daylight hours. I can, however, add some sort of light to the wall of the house beside the deck, or purchase a standing lamp that I can place beside the bench.
Pro: Power outlets. There’s one outside and another easily accessible through the kitchen window. An extension cord will do the trick.
Additional Bench Requirements:
- It needs a vise. No surprise here. I have to have one. I’ve done enough woodworking to know that a door across two saw horses won’t work for me at this point. Since you don’t buy many of these in a lifetime, I chose the Jorgensen that recently came out on top in FW evaluations.
- Budget: $300 (not including the vise) – and I’d love to do it for less.
- It shouldn’t be too nice. $1,200 for a bench that’s going to be outside? No way. This is also the first bench I’ll own, not borrow (“my” first bench was really a combo router-table-saw-outfeed table, and the real bench in the shop was a loaner from Jeff Miller).
- It can’t have a cast iron base. Bench parts will have to be carried by a 135-lb. female up a very tall flight of stairs to get to the deck (we live on the second floor of an old Victorian). Lightweight is better.
- It needs to be 37.5″ – 38″ tall. I’m 5’11” and short counters cause me serious back pain. I’m always standing with my legs spread out to make myself shorter. The 37-38″ target is tall enough but will allow me to exert enough downward force on a piece.
- Easy to build without an existing table or bench. My bench will be built atop a few sawhorses and, if necessary, on top of some styrofoam (lying on the deck which will enable me to saw through legs without sawing through the deck).
After a great deal of research, I was ready to go with the “Workbench in a Weekend” plan by Tom Casper. The plan is clear about how few starting materials you need: two sawhorses and the most basic of tools, and I recommend it. He’s also clear about starting with workhorses, then making a box that serves as a core piece of the bench but also doubles as the working table throughout.
I admit I looked at all the cuts (and thus pieces) involved in his design, and feel inclined to make fewer. I want to add some outdoor furniture finish to my bench and don’t want to finish that many pieces. I’m also hesitant about the soft lumber bench top and even less certain of my ability to get that soft lumber level and smooth.
Fortunately, I found an even simpler plan here on finewoodworking.com (no, they’re not paying me), along with a video (How to Build a Work Bench in Season Two of the Getting Started in Woodworking series). The video assuaged any concerns I had about assembly, and I think I can adapt the process to using sawhorses instead of a table. Hey, if they can make everything in an 18 minute edited video, I figure I can do it this weekend.
I’d love to hear thoughts and feedback before I go shopping this weekend and get started. What have I forgotten?What have I missed? What do I not know that I don’t know?
It may not look like much, but this space is 13.5 feet long (and the peas can be rolled out of the way).
This space is 6.5 feet wide (between the deck railing and greenhouse). The deck at large is 15 feet wide, save for where space is occupied by our greenhouse.