Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Shop Apron of my (Pleasant) Dreams

Every time I bend over in the shop, I feel like I’m being just a little disemboweled.

By that, I means that all the important stuff , 6″ rule, pencil, tape measure, small square , goes spilling onto the floor. And I get the nastiest knot in my stomach when I see all these expensive and easily damaged items crash to the concrete floor.

This is the fault of the standard shop apron, which must have been designed by someone with fused vertebrae. (Or by, conspiracy theory ahead, someone who makes replacement 6″ rules.) The chest pocket in every shop apron I’ve used is hazardous to your tools.

And further in the matter of Schwarz v. The Nefarious Shop Apron Industry, I present exhibit No. 2: Crappy side pockets. This is where you are supposed to put your tape measure so it will automatically leap to the floor. Or it will sometimes hop onto the top of your running table saw (very exciting!). In all fairness, Lee Valley’s shop apron has a marsupial-style pocket that helps solve this problem.

Exhibit No. 3: Shop aprons generally are too long. I don’t know about you, but I generally wear pants in the shop, so I don’t need a floor length hospital gown. And the length can be amusingly hazardous to your forehead. Once I tried to straddle a board on some sawhorses. The end of the board caught the apron between my legs. I tipped forward, almost whacking myself in the head with the board.

Exhibit No. 4: Some shop aprons are too heavy. We tested out some shop aprons years ago that were made from a woven ballistic nylon. Honestly, the guy who sold them to us said they would deflect knockback like a bullet (or even if you were shot by an 18-gauge nail. I have no comment on that last feature).

These shop aprons were like wearing a portable sauna. You would take them off and you would have a sweat stain that was the exact shape of your body. Leather shop aprons do this to me as well. Maybe I have a gland problem.

Exhibit No. 5: Some shop aprons are too flimsy. I’ve worn out the seams and the material in many pockets. One shop apron had five divided pockets when I bought it. After four months the five pockets had disintegrated into a big uni-pocket, where could have lost an entire wheel of fine brie.

But I would rather light a candle than curse your darkness.

A couple years ago I started sketching up ideas for my own shop apron , something with cutouts surrounded by marabou feathers, to enhance my nipples (hey, I was just making sure you were still reading). In truth, here’s what I want from a shop apron:

1. A better chest pocket. My mom was a chef at several restaurants. She had an apron that had a horizontal pencil pocket. Your pencil never ever fell out. So I’d like two or three horizontal pockets that will fit a couple pencils and a 6″ rule. This sounds crazy. I’ve seen it work (unless you do “jazz hands” and “Riverdance” while you work).

2. Side pockets with just a little elastic at the top. I’d like to line the pockets so they bunch up just a bit at the top. It’s a balance , you want the elastic to keep the tools in and the chips out, but you also want your hand to have easy access.

3. I’d like the shop apron to end right below my waist. I like the kind from Duluth where the straps wrap around your shoulders (not your neck) and tie behind you. However that apron (which I don’t think is made anymore) almost sweeps the floor in our shop.

4. A tough but lightweight and breathable material would be great.

5. Reinforced seams. Grommets for the straps.

I know I’m asking a lot. In truth, an apron with the first two features would probably make me squeal with nutty delight.

So if you can sew (or know someone who can) feel free to incorporate some of these ideas into your own apron. Your 6″ rule will thank you.

– Christopher Schwarz

32 thoughts on “The Shop Apron of my (Pleasant) Dreams

  1. Eric Watson

    I too have had many of the same issues with shop aprons. I would like to recommend the apron from Shopsmith. I have no business connection to this company. Their apron is hands down the best one I have tried. Look aike a woodworkers apron made and designed by woodworkers.

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    Ah Kerry,

    I grew up where bib overalls (and nothing else under them) were all the rage. I swore never….
    ——————
    Christopher Schwarz

  3. Kerry Doyle

    Pointer brand, of Bristol TN, offers a comfort solution for shop attire. Their overalls come standard with a zip pocket and numerous side pockets plus one option allows a zip-off nail bag on some of their models. They come in traditonal blue, white, and (fashion editor Megan are you listening?) hickory stripe.
    I’ve been accused of looking like a train engineer but nothing compares to the comfort and utility of wearing these overalls. They’re made right here in the states.

  4. Mitch Wilson

    A shop apron that is "too hot" sounds too good to be true to me. Ever since I insulated the two and a half inch cast iron pipes that come off of my boiler, working in my basement shop has been similar to working in Howe Caverns, where it is 52 degrees year round. A little extra warmth would be fine with me.
    As far as the "put the pencil behind your ear" technique goes, just remember that that only works if you have hair on your head, which some of us, due to heredity, no longer have.

  5. Gye Greene

    Chris,

    This all begs the question: why do you need a shop apron? (To hold your knick-knacks? To protect your clothing?)

    Holding stuff: hip pouches, like carpenters wear on their belts.

    Protect your clothing: a denim cooking apron (they tend to come down to the height you prefer). If you rub it in BLO, it becomes sailcloth (so I’ve read), which will keep the liquids off you (and make it easier to clean/wipe off.

    Seems unlikely that you’ll find a suitable tradeoff between ruggedness and breathability… 🙂

    –GG

  6. John Fox

    Just a few seconds before reading that last post by Jim Campbell, I had a thought. I still have a Cruiser Vest from my long ago job land surveying. Good ones (Filson) are quite a bit more expensive than shop aprons but they have tons of pockets including the ones which keep pencils and rulers secure and one in the back in which you could even cary a #7 jointer plane if you were so inclined. We always wore them open and carried tons of gear in them none of which ever fell out when bending over.

    John

  7. Rob in Roseville

    Ryan already mentioned these folks, http://www.aprons.net, The Morgan Company, in Placerville, Ca. The Morgan Company makes a great apron, reasonable price, made in USA and other cool stuff too. CK them out. VERY WELL MADE.

  8. Michael Faurot

    > A couple years ago I started sketching up ideas
    > for my own shop apron – something with cutouts
    > surrounded by marabou feathers, to enhance
    > my nipples (hey, I was just making sure you
    > were still reading).

    You’re a very strange little man. I like that.

  9. John Cashman

    I don’t like aprons either, but I’m a fat guy and sweat too much as it is. Pencils are for ears.

    The biggest problem I had with shop cleanliness was years ago when Titebond developed their second formula. I was used to wiping the residue of original Titebond on my clothes, and it came right off in the wash. Titebond II does not come off in the washing machine, and I end up with dried glue on a lot of clothes.

  10. Steve

    Bruce,

    It seems to be pretty random. I’ve had comments go in the first time, and I’ve had to try four (or more) different codes before the comment would be accepted.

    I think it may have something to do with how long it takes you to write your comment; the code might "expire" after a while.

  11. Jeff Jones

    Amen and hallelujah, it’s about time someone addressed this! Thanks Chris. I too like the Lee Valley the best but I find myself cramming the top pockets with too much stuff so they won’t fall out whenever I bend over. I used to have a machinists apron with that top pocket only sewn along the top so it hinged away from the apron when you bent over.

    Maybe ‘ol Norm had it right all those years using a carpenters belt!

  12. Bruce Jackson

    Can anyone tell me why it is that you have to double-pump your comments? I have to enter the anti-robot code twice (sometimes thrice) before I’m posted. Thanx. Just wondering. BTW, Happy Holidays to all. Stay safe. Hitting the sauce is no time to hit the shop.

  13. Bruce Jackson

    I agree with Mitchell. Besides, when you’re covered head to toe with humidity, sweat, and sawdust, that blankety-blank apron is just one more thing to shuck before you spray yourself with the garden hose. I’m a one-man shop so I don’t have to worry about making room for another guy (or gal) and can have an extra table / shelf where I put the stuff everyone else put in their aprons.

  14. Dave Anderson NH

    Hi Chris,

    I usually wear an apron in the shop under only 2 conditions; working at the lathe, and when I sneak down for a few minutes in decent and unstained and torn street clothes. My lathe apron has a high velcro neck which prevents chips going down the front of my shirt and itchin’ like hell, a formerly regular occurance I choose not to repeat. The other scenario I’m sure every married guy can understand. Sue has had less than kind words for me on several occasions when street clothes were torn, annointed with dye, varnish, or shellac, or otherwise rendered into a condition where she choose to pretend she didn’t know me in public. I’m predictable enough that she can just look at the way I’m dressed and note, "So I guess this is a shop day."

    While you have your woobie, I have an assortment of "shop clothes". Tee shirts with stains, tears, various crustations (no, not crustaceans), shorts and blue jeans with torn knees, pockets with holes in them, asssorted spots stiff from varnish spills, and the obligatory sawdust and wood chips in the bottom of the slightly holey pockets. Yes, I am a sartorial delight when attired in any part of my dedicated shop wardrobe.

    Hey, a contest for the most grungy shop attire might be something to consider for the future.

    Best regards,

    Dave

  15. Mitchell

    I don’t know, guys. All this seems to me to sound a little, well…unmanly. Shop coats, aprons, floppy pockets, sheesh. You are all working in a shop, for goodness sake.

    You don’t need anything special to hold a pencil. That’s why God gave you ears. As for something to hold your little rule, isn’t taking a break every few minutes to hunt it down part of the shop ritual? Besides, the one bit of fun my wife gets out of the shop is giving me a hard time about ruining another t-shirt.

    Swinging from the rafters without a nail apron is crazy, but wearing something "special" while standing in front of a bench? Naw. Not for me.

  16. Dan Pope

    Okay I guess I will chime in. Chris, since you blogged about the Lee Valley last year, it went on the Christmas wish list. Being in Texas, most of the year the shop attire is shorts so I don’t have much experience with shop aprons. I have used the Lee Valley Mk II for a year and really love it. Pencil holders seem to work well but a few more are needed. I do use the pad pocket for my 4" Starrett double square – that pocket needs to have a straight top rather than slanted – the double square is the only thing that has fallen to the floor – UGH! Bottom pockets hold folding rule, 16′ tape measure, etc. and keep the crud out.

    So adding some horizontal pencil pockets and a tighter middle pad pocket would do it for me.

    Chris – I am sure Robin Lee already has his guys working on the Mk III based on the "Chris Schwarz" model.
    Dan

  17. Wilfred

    I don’t wear an apron, I wear a shop coat. It has long sleeve and reaches to just below mid thigh. It has a small breast pocket in which I carry a pen, mechanical pencil and a small magic marker, all with clips.
    Best of all it has two large oversize pockets below the waist like a sportscoat but larger.
    Because it is a coat, there is no weight on the back of my neck. It’s covered with paint spots, stain and gunk, but my clothes are clean. It is made of a light weight synthetic weave. It may also be worn in the summertime.

  18. Rick Lasita

    Chris, nice article. I have tried several over the years, my wife has even made me a couple, but the one I settled on is the Lee Valley Mk.II Canvas Apron. Front pockets are deep seems to hold my mechanical pencil, 6" rule, and marking knife very well, the only thing I don’t use is the upper middle "pad pocket. Anyway, thanks again for the post.

  19. ryan

    I purchased an apron from "aprons.net" about 7-8 years ago. I purchased the "builders apron" which was intended for finish carpenters, but found loading up all the pockets made the apron far too heavy, as well as pokey in the stomach. It never really worked out on job sites (because of the amount of tools one tends to load up on), but I still use the same one in the home shop. it has straps that cross so the weight is on the shoulders, a wide variety of pockets that "billow" nicely, and it doesn’t get too hot.

    As a federal employee, buying can be a tricky endeavor, and I am just about willing to go through the hassle to get them to buy one for me at work.

  20. Jonathan

    Chris – Your words are the like the Gospel. I don’t understand how they can call them "shop" aprons when they only work at holding things is in the kitchen… and that is when I don’t drop a carrot on the floor. We are not talking rocket science people. How hard is it to make a pocket for pencils, and have the pencils stay IN THE POCKET. Ugh!
    Whew. I have purged the demons.

  21. John Cashman

    I can’t believe there has only been one comment about the marabou feathers so far. You are pretty skinny, so I’d say you’d only need a training apron. Do you want the hooks in the front or the back? Lifts and separates?

  22. Jamie

    Chris,

    I have had trouble for years with shop aprons: no one apron had half the features I wanted. I’ve finally settled on a leather one from Klingspor’s Woodworking Shops: Item PI23320. I have to keep my shop at sixty degrees to be comfortable in it, but it works (I tend to destroy lighter-weight aprons.) Pencils and rules tend to stay put, but I added rare earth magnets on to the back of the pockets with some epoxy. Now my mechanical pencil and 6" rule stay put until I move them.

  23. Ed Furlong

    For me, whether it is over the shoulders or the neck, wider apron straps are a must. I modified a short canvas apron with wider nylon webbing and with the black plastic snap buckles commonly used on backpacks. Perfect fit regardless of the amount of clothing you have on (my shop is unheated) and the 1" webbing is wide enough, cheap, and readily available. A sewing awl (used for home repair of tents, packs, and boots, among other tings) makes these kinds of modifications simple.

  24. Steve

    Chris,

    I’d be happy to make you an apron with the marabou feathers, but in order to ensure that it fits properly, I need to know your internipple distance. Have Glen measure it for you.

  25. Mike Siemsen

    Chris,
    I made an apron years ago that had a flap style pocket for the pencils. I was only attached at the top so when you leaned forward the pocket stayed vertical. You didn’t want to lean too far over a running table saw. I like the horizontal idea. I am thinking semi horizontal, but his makes for a right or left handed apron. I modified some from HF. I will have to make more adjustments.
    Mike

  26. Aric

    Chris
    I have worn aprons as a professional for the last 9 years after the first journeyman that I had told me to go and buy one as soon as I started to work with him. I have tried the cheap ones from the big box store(Kuny’s) and the Lie-Nielsen leather one that I sewed two pockets on. I also have used the newest Lee Valley one and I must say that it is the best one yet. I can heartily agree with the leather being too hot and also pockets open at the top collecting all manner of chips and what not,though sometimes the pockets have saved an errant screw from flying under the bench. The side access apron pockets on the Lee valley seem to keep most stuff out. I did like the upper pocket on the Lie Nielsen because it didn’t seem to eject pencils too much. I don’t use a six inch rule much. I carry a folding rule in the bottom pocket usually. I blather on though but it always amazes me how a simple apron can speed up work in the shop and seems to be so hard for companies to get even remotely right. I for now like my Lee Valley one and being Canadian, eh, will continue to support them. My two cents

    Aric

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