When Shop Night Goes Wrong: Rock, River, Retreat


Sometimes when you’re in the shop, things just flow. You make a lot of progress, time passes without notice, the tool you need is always within reach. Every joint is snug and square.

When this happens, you are in the flow.

And then, there are nights like Thursday. GAKMAN couldn’t make it Sunday so we tried for a different weeknight. I’m usually in the shop Wednesday, so we tried for that. We ended up resetting for Thursday.

This scheduling ping-pong should have been my warning.

Thursday started out fine. We did a very small project for Miss Cupcake Lemire at work. She just needed a simple cleat for the hanging rail in her office, to hang Master Chief. This went very well, the right size wood for the project fell into our lap, and router table setup and cuts went perfectly. When I had the perfect screws but they were too long, I shortened them on the grinder. I was in the flow.

You can see Master Chief on Miss Cupcake Lemire’s wall below.

Master Chief

So let me tell you about the flow. I once heard this parable, maybe it’s Buddhist or something, about the rock and the river.

Which is stronger, the rock, or the river? You may think it is the rock, because the strong things are made of rock: homes, castles, walls, etc. But you’re wrong. The river is stronger. The river flows right over and past the rock, and the rock cannot hold it back. The rock fights the river, but loses, and is made smooth by the river over time.

Well, Thursday night GAKMAN and I were rocks. We were definitely out of the flow. We were dumb as rocks.

I was tripping over cords, unable to think through basic problems, and I stripped a screw in my PC690 base plate when I didn’t even need to use the tool. We plodded our way through some trim, making slow progress, and called it a night early. That was probably the smartest decision we made that night.

So here’s my list of things that contribute to a bad shop night. I’d love to hear what other woodworkers have to say based on their experience.

Discontinuity

When you spread a large project over multiple short work sessions, it’s hard to get into the flow. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a shop night thinking about what I should be tackling and in what order.

Suggested Remedies:

  1. When leaving the shop, write down the steps you completed, and what’s next. If you bill for your work, write down how long the steps took. Next time you’re in the shop, you’ll have a record of what you did, how long it took, and most importantly you can jump right into what’s next.
  2. Try to save long tasks that require flow for your big chunks of time. Little chunks of time get little pieces of work, big chunks of time get big pieces of work.

Mental and Physical State

If you’re too tired, preoccupied with something else (like taxes), or just not into it, you’re asking for trouble.

Suggested Remedies:

  1. Don’t force yourself into the shop if you’re too tired or not thinking clearly – this is clearly a road to one less finger.
  2. If you’re lacking inspiration, then try to find it. Listen to a podcast, pick up a magazine, or go into the shop and clean up. If the inspiration and mental clarity comes your way, use it! if not, at least your shop is cleaner and you feel like you made some progress.
  3. If something else is bugging you, get it out of the way. Go finish your taxes so they aren’t on your mind when you’re pushing wood through your saw.

Shop Mess

It’s hard to work in a messy environment and you’re more likely to have an accident.

Suggested Remedies:

Short-term: Clean your shop!

  1. Every time you enter your shop put 10 things away, even if you’re just passing through.
  2. Pay a neighbor kid or relative to come over and sweep.
  3. Get rid of all those little scraps you will never use that are piling up!

Long-term: Prevent messes! Think about how and why your shop gets so messy.

  1. Do you need better dust collection?
  2. Do you need to build shop carts and shop storage so that everything has a place?
  3. Are you hoarding scraps that should go into the burn barrel (or cutting boards, or other small projects)?
  4. Do you need to finally complete that pile of “almost finished projects”?
  5. Do you need to hire that neighbor kid or relative to long term?

The goal here is to figure out the root cause and deal with it, being realistic about how and why your shop gets dirty and what you can do to fix it.

Shop Flow

I’ve found recently that my shop needs a redo. My shop is in my garage and I am constantly moving things around, tripping over cords, squeezing in between machines, etc. My tool layout needs to shrink when I’m not working so that wifey can park her car. On shop night the car gets pulled out and the tools are moved out into the garage.

Suggested Remedies:

  1. Understand what kind of woodworker you are and the projects you do, and how that drives requirements for your shop (power tools vs. hand tools, wipe on finish vs. spray booth, pens & boxes vs. full kitchens).
  2. Do your research to discover the tricks of the masters. There are lots of books and magazine articles on workshop layout.
  3. Think about how materials come into the shop, work their way around stations, and emerge as finished products.
  4. Measure your space, create a plan, and execute that plan to make the best use of your space.
  5. Be flexible and revisit your shop design annually. As you evolve as a woodworker your shop will need to evolve with you.

Tool Maintenance

When you’re working in the shop, you’re supposed to be working with wood – not fighting your tools. If you find yourself fighting with your tools, stop – you’re just begging for an accident

Suggested Remedies:

Put your project on hold, and do a tools audit:

  1. Do you have the right tools for the job?
  2. Are your tools properly organized and stored?
  3. Are your tools properly maintained?
  4. Are your tools safe?
  5. Are your blades sharp?
  6. Are the tools you don’t need put away, or in the way?

Taking care of the above list will reduce frustration, decrease your accident risk, and most of all clear your head so you can make real progress.

Retreat to the Couch

And here’s the most important tip. If you’re in the shop and things aren’t going well – leave. Forcing your way through is likely to lead to a project error or personal injury. Don’t be as dumb as a rock.

5 thoughts on “When Shop Night Goes Wrong: Rock, River, Retreat

  1. Marc

    I am definitely lucky since my shop time is usually very long. But I know the feeling you describe here. I used to deal with it all the time when working a regular full-time job. I think you outlined some really solid guidelines for dealing with it. Nice article!

  2. Will Wilson

    Hi Matt. As usual, very good posting. I really like how you provide suggestions to the problems you encounter. I agree with you – a clean shop is a happy shop. It is hard to think with too much clutter. My shop is a mess right now and I committed to building shop cabinets before I do any other projects.

    This is very hard because I am so tempted to build other things but I have stayed true and am getting the cabs done in 30 minute increments. To “Keep the Flow” as you say I usually write down my next step so when I come back to the shop I can jump right in. This method seems to work pretty well. I look forward to more posts. Thanks!

  3. Matt Vanderlist

    Very insightful, I’ve been both in and out of flow more times than I care to think about. When I’m on, there’s practically nothing I can’t accomplish, but when I’m off…well I’m nowhere near being able to get anything useful done.

    Finding that right balance can be difficult, but I think your pointers are a great resource for anyone who either can’t identify their flows or just don’t want to admit they’re in an off flow mindset.

    Great job!

  4. Pingback: Out-takes from the Upper Cut Woodworks blog post on Tom's Workbench | Upper Cut Woodworks

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