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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 5/26/00

A book review: Jim Mattson
Title: Setting Up Shop
Sandor Nagyszalanczy

Published by: The Taunton Press Inc
63 South Main Street
Newtown, CT 06470-5506
ISBN 1-56158-360-X
Price Softcover: $29.95 (Canada $46.50 )
220 color pages

Twenty-four years ago found me setting up my first shop in a single-car garage. At the time, this operation was financed by my day job - driving delivery for a hardwood lumber yard. Every day I would load the truck and head off to several woodworking shops. While there, I'd try to pick up some useful info I could bring home to improve my garage woodshop - it was great!

Since those times, it's been my pleasure to set up seven more shops as I moved to larger spaces, helped others set up their shops and finally building, from scratch, my "permanent" shop. With this in mind, I approached this review with some air of authority and a bit of regret - why didn't Taunton ask me to write this book? ;)

As it turns out, "Setting Up Shop", by Sandor Nagyszalanczy (pronounced Näts-a-länts-ee) more than melted my attitude problems and turned out to be a pretty good read. To make this review a bit more expansive, I looked at two other books which are popular with woodworkers who want to construct their own shops - "The Workshop Book" by Scott Landis and "How to Design and Build Your Ideal Woodshop" by Bill Stankus. Both were purchased from Amazon.

Sandor's book (yes, I'm dropping his last name...:) is noteworthy for it's illustrations and color photos - they must cover half the book. Included are many information tables, example sketches and ideas for shop accessories such as down-draft tables and lumber racks. Though I didn't much like the font selection (too confusing), missing from "Setting Up Shop" is the grim seriousness which often typifies other releases from the expert folks at Fine Woodworking. The book reads plainly and down to earth, and without looking down it's nose at the audience. In this regard, it's extremely easy for even the rank novice to warm to it's pages.

Along the same line, this isn't a "how-to" book as much as a "what-to" book. Sandor doesn't attempt to tell you how to build something he might think you want. Instead, he explains what your options are for many given situations and let's you choose which direction your shop should grow. Included are detailed chapters on various design spaces, construction techniques, lighting, electricity, noise, dust abatement, tool layout and safety. Perhaps these are basic to such a theme, but you'll find them welcome nonetheless.

So, it's safe to conclude this is an excellent book for the new shop builder. For those of us who are experienced in this area and find most of the book's information very familiar, Sandor throws us a juicy bone for our reading pleasure. Sprinkled throughout his book are two-page photo-spreads peeking into the shops of America's most famous woodworkers. For those of us 40+ year-old woodworkers who occasionally ache from the rigors of active woodworking, it's heart-warming to see so many old geezers still practicing their craft. Here you can find such notables as James Krenov, Art Carpenter, Sam Maloof and many others, still kicking and making furniture. I loved it.

Sadly, us readers miss a great opportunity when it becomes obvious Sandor didn't approach these grand-old-men of woodworking and probe them for advice about "Setting Up Shop". Mostly these areas comprise a few excellent pictures and a short description of a master's workspace and that's all.

I also found an error concerning coupling sizes for compressed air fittings and it's likely other experienced readers will find something or other to nit-pick about. And though this book strikes an excellent balance for the information it provides, there are a few topics which weren't stressed which I have found useful. My thoughts on these areas are footnoted at the end of this review.

Should Taunton have encouraged me to write this book? No, Sandor has done a great job and it's likely his energy level would have surpassed mine by a long shot. How does his book stack up against others on the market? Let's find out.

The Workshop Book by Scott Landis
Scott Landis once flattered me very deeply by including my bench in his Workbench Book. He also bought me dinner at Denny's in reparation for the lateness of our photo shoot. Had he taken me to a better restaurant, my objectivity would be a serious question...;)

Weighing the content, the two books are very similar with poignant pictures and valuable information. This isn't to say there are no distinct differences. Where Scott's book excels on the history of woodshop development, Sandor's book excels as a reference to pertinent information - his lighting chapter is much more illuminating.

The Workshop Book takes another different tact; what Scott writes is a "why-to" book. He's constantly asking questions of the shop-builders he interviews, looking for little nuggets of ingenuity wherever he can find them and the reasons for their application. This makes Scott's book more interesting and lets it read better, but in the end, The Workshop Book wanders slightly away from our main purpose of Setting Up Shop.

How to Design and Build Your Ideal Woodshop by Bill Stankus
This book is broadly similar but without the depth of illustrations and photographic skill we've come to expect from the folks at Taunton Press. Bill Stankus has his own writing style, more succinct and pedantic - instead of getting the referenced info we find in Setting Up Shop, or the wisdom-probing depths of The Woodshop Book, Your Ideal Woodshop mostly exudes the beliefs of the author. This isn't to say his thoughts aren't valuable but it's obvious you're getting the author along with the info. He also jumps around a lot, putting "Budgeting for Shop Setup" between "Relating Machine Function To Layout Considerations" and "Planning Machine Location"....Why?

Another thing I found wanting were the few example layouts illustrating machine placement. Where Sandor shows you pictures of particular tools and why they are where they are, and Scott includes some of the prettiest artwork of layouts from the shops he visited, Bill has a couple layouts where the jointer is in a corner and a tablesaw heads into a wall - too confusing.

Before listing any preferences or recommendations, let me say all three of these books deliver the goods and are a far cry above anything you could buy when I was putting together my first shop. I know it sounds cliché but it's true.

That said, most of you don't need these books. Common sense and a little experience will go a long way towards building an efficient workspace for woodworking. Hopefully you have both in hand before making a commitment of such magnitude. Take it from me - having a shop ties you to one spot and the more work you invest, the heavier the commitment.

This is especially true for beginning woodworkers. If you buy one of these books (or all three) use them for only general woodshop ideas and not a step-by-step for constructing a shop. Woe is the woodworker who spends a small fortune on an "ideal" woodshop only to find out that sawdust makes him or her sneeze and routers bring on a migraine. Of course, a nice shop sure is great for impressing your buddies!

If you're still in the hunt, I think about 25% of you will find "How to Design and Build Your Ideal Woodshop" by Bill Stankus the best value. You're the type of woodworker who hasn't yet broken from the plan-building mold to experiment with your own designs. You'll probably like the way he parentally leads you through the design and build process. Even if he jumps around a lot, he definitely knows what he's talking about.

I see Scott's book, "The Workshop Book", appealing mostly to the advanced woodworkers who already have their shops on hand and maybe need a few ideas to help push it over the top into the realm of "dream-shop" status. Besides, it's the sort of book many will just enjoy reading - he's a great writer!

The rest of you will likely find your money best spent on Sandor's book. You're the type of woodworker who is tired of working off of sawhorses, tired of tripping over extension cords and tired of dust clouds hanging in the air. Your commitment to woodworking is sound and you can't buy more toys...err...I mean tools, unless you get more space. You need a shop and Sandor's book is the "practical" way to go.

If you buy Sandor's book, here are a few aspects of shop construction which were omitted or not stressed enough... in my humble opinion:

1) I hate cleaning up. So, I've taken great strides towards making my shop as easy to clean as possible. Many woodworkers like their tools displayed for everyone to see but dusting chisels and glue bottles is a pain. Putting your tools into drawers and behind doors not only keeps them safer, they will make more dust than they collect. Open shelving and pegboard is the worst. And even if you only work with hand tools, you can benefit by scribing your storage cabinets to the floor making it easy to sweep up.

2) Speaking of floors, Sandor mentions the benefits of having a wood floor but only in the context of putting one over a concrete slab. I suspect this reflects his California origins where slab-on-grade is the norm. My last two shops were built on piers and used regular floor joists to support the loads. It's a bit more expensive than concrete but it gets your walls away from termites and having wood under foot is much better for your feet and legs - not to mention having crawel-space access to underfloor electrical wiring and dust collection systems.

I've found 2x8 joists work fine for 8' spans, 2x10s for up to 12' spans and 2x12s for any joists longer than 12'...16" on center. A solid floor is one layer of 3/4" plywood subfloor topped with a layer of 3/4" particleboard. Gap the Pboard an 1/8" all around and then caulk the gaps. Paint to taste for the smoothest sweeping.

3) Some spaces you might choose for your shop might some day need to be something else. Putting all your plugs at 48" off the floor and then covering them with drywall might not be too bright if you want to convert the space to another application some time down the road. Unless this is your permanent shop, start your design for normal usage and you won't have to backtrack later.

4) Some municipalities require electrical circuitry in pro woodshops be dust-proof. Typically this utilizes EMT conduit, compression box connectors and weathertight boxes. This type of circuitry is easy to add after the drywall goes on, you can sometimes add a new circuit within existing conduit, and the expensive parts like boxes and recepticles can be re-used in a new location should it become necessary.

5) From my own experience, the setting-up process ends rather abruptly when active woodworking takes over. A kind of inertia sets in and the evolution of our personal "dream shop" never quite reaches an end after the tools get plugged in. My advice: try to postpone making furniture during shop construction. Get as much done as you can in the beginning. That last coat of paint is much easier to apply without a lot of powertools laying about.

Enjoy your new shop!
Jim Mattson

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