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Years ago I was asked to judge a building contest put on by Bosch that pitted young technical students against one another for a big cash prize and a whole bunch of tools.

For the contest, the students were given a plan, some wood, some tools and a certain number of hours to get it done. As judges, we had to watch them to ensure they were safe and to observe their work practices.

The Bosch officials were interested in the project the students built, but they were equally interested in evaluating how efficient and tidy their work habits were. Most of the students were total slobs and they became more and more frustrated as the day wore on. But a few of the students swept up, organized their parts and tools into discrete piles and never panicked.

These students were the finalists.

Now it might be easy to chalk up the score for neatness to Bosch’s Teutonic roots, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Workshop efficiency – and for me, joy – comes from having every operation flow smoothly, from picking up a knife, to sawing a tenon to gluing an assembly.

This wasn’t something that came naturally to me. It took years of frustration in the shop, which was amplified by the fact that I shared the shop with a bunch of other people at the magazine. We shared all the machines and hand power tools, and we had a bunch of shared hand tools.

I quickly realized that sharing a chisel is as good an idea as sharing a handkerchief in February. I bought my own hand tools and began organizing them so they were always at hand.

Then one day I noticed something else. When I worked in the shop, it became cleaner and cleaner every hour. When some others worked in the shop (no names, I promise), the floor became piled with dust and shavings, and tools (and their wrenches) were everywhere.

Now that I work only at my home shop, the following habits have become ingrained in my daily routine: Every tool that was used gets wiped down at the end of the day. Everything gets put away. The floor gets swept. The garbage emptied.

It might sound crazy, but all these little things make the stressful operations – cutting wild dovetails, finishing, etc. – much less stressful.

I was reminded of all this when carpenter Jeff Burks sent me an article by James Waring See (1850-1920), a machinist and shop foreman who wrote articles for American Machinist magazine circa 1880 under the pen name “Chordal.”

His column, Chordal’s Letters, was very popular and the articles were assembled into a book. Burks says he admires this column because it is about human nature.

“I try to read Chordal’s Letters every year, because it speaks so much truth about my experience in the building industry, and people I have had to work with,” Burks wrote. “You may find something for yourself in his words.”

Burks sent me this selection that was reprinted in the Chas Strelinger catalog in 1895. It describes three kinds of mechanics. You might see yourself in these words – or you might be in denial.

Check it out – it’s a great read.

— Christopher Schwarz

And if you want to know what sort of mechanic I am, the best place to learn that is through my book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which describes the essential hand tool kit for the woodworker in great detail. What’s important. What’s junk. And you get to build a tool chest. It’s available in

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Showing 11 comments
  • willynilly

    I wish I could concentrate better. My problem is that my concetration is broken when I stop to put things away right after using etc. I usually do my best work around a big messy pile. I do clean up after a lengthy task but only after completing it. I do agree to get things to flow is all important and it comes with experience. This is what I always try to achieve because it helps the whole process and decreases frustration. I guess it is the “Zen like” state that I am after. Whatever it takes to get there then I am all for it.

  • Eric R

    Knowing where stuff is located is half the battle.
    It lets me concentrate on the more important parts.
    A little bit of clean up after each session becomes automatic, and it gives me the renewed feeling of excitement every time I walk through the shop door.

    Thanks Chris

  • shannonlove

    Organization has nothing to do with how a workspace looks. It has to do with how much effort the person using the workspace must expend to find something at any particular point in time. A workspace is “organized” if the person using it doesn’t have to think much to find something but can instead focus on the work at hand.

    In other words, organization largely occurs in the mind of the worker. If workers mental model matches the current state of the workspace such that they can just reach out and find a tool or resource without moving the focus of their concentration off the actual work, then then the workspace is organized regardless of its appearance.

    We’ve all seen people with chaotic appearing desks, closets or workspaces who can nevertheless quickly lay hands on anything they need. I read a psychology study on this phenomena years ago and they concluded that “messy organizer” actually had a rather rigid set of rules for where they put things. It might seem random to an outside observer but it made intuitive sense to them. Since their mental map of their workspace matches the physical reality, they can find things without thinking.

    In a wood shop, such rules might be something like, “hammers are always set down to the right and screwdrivers to the left” or “drill bits are always set closer to the edge of the table than the drill.” By automatically and thoughtlessly following the rules they made up, “messy organizers” can actually have what is, from a functional viewpoint, a highly organized space.

    I think organization absolutely key to productive work and I think people we perceive as being both messy and productive aren’t really messy but just following their own system.

  • MHomer

    In all honesty and pardon my french I hate clusterf**ks I hate having lots of things because there is no place for them all. Even when I first started woodworking I told myself that I would buy the only essential tools I would need and 2 years down the line I already have a stack of tool boxes filled with unused, unneeded tools. And that is just my personality, I like to keep it simple,neat and as much of less shit as possible.

  • pcott

    I don’t know about this whole neatness is paramount thing. Two of the best woodworkers I know are total shop slobs. One thing I have noticed in life is that neat people think being neat is the natural order of things, and us slobs are somehow wrong in the way we do things. Us slobs generally live and let live. That being said, I do put away my tools every day. But my tiny shop looks like a bomb hit it most of the time.

  • Jim McCoy

    Something that has always encouraged me to keep a clean shop is that if I accidentally “pop” something off the piece I’m working on, I’m much more likely to find it if all the shavings and chips from the previous day were swept up before I started working. Since I don’t like to clean the shop first thing in the morning I got in the habit of doing it each night before I quit work. That same routine included putting away the tools I used that day so I didn’t have to clean around them, or worse accidentally knock one off the bench. As I’ve gotten older I’m finding that more and more “good stuff” ends up on the floor despite my best intentions. I’m not a hundred percent perfect about it but when I start getting lazy I generally drop something or watch a piece go flying that I didn’t intend to separate from the work piece, and feel the immense depression set in associated with crawling around on my hands and knees pawing through all the crap on the floor looking for my “needle”. That generally cures my laziness, at least for a while.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it.

  • Floss

    “A man who makes caliper fits with confidence holds the universe in his hands…When he raises a sledge hammer he hits where he intends to. He don’t wonder where that hammer is coming down.”



  • woodmagnet

    A very enjoyable read Chris,and to
    be very honest,I am a very ordered,
    confident and tidy worker. Notice
    I didn’t say woodworker, because I
    am the same whatever job I am doing.

  • John Passacantando

    Poet Gary Snyder in his classes at Cal State, Chico, says, Don’t try to write anything new. Everything worthy has already been written. Write something that is new to the ears of your generation. So reading Chris this morning I am reminded of the opening two paragraphs of “The Classic Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzo, first published in 1906:

    “Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. the fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism — Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

    “The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.”

    All very different language from our dear Schwarz, but to the same end, I think.

  • Mitch Wilson

    My father ran a service station for 35 years, although he was not, himself, a mechanic. He always tried to hire experienced mechanics who had their own tools. Not because he was cheap, as he always bought very high quality tools for the station and he respected that better quality tools led to better work. No, it was because of the way these employees treated the tools. Their own tools they caressed, cleaned thoroughly after using and put away properly immediately. They also rarely let anyone else use their tools. But my father’s tools! These were never cleaned, rarely put away and were often thrown around and/or dropped on the floor. Sometimes they were left under the hood or in the engine to be driven off with when the car left the shop. And trying to get them to keep the work areas clean was quite a challenge. And, to be perfectly honest, it is often not a whole lot different in a dental office. (Gag me with a spoon, eh.) Some employees never get it.

  • jimballew

    When I started working it was in a shop with only 5 mechanics at the end of the night everybody just walked away from their work, tools laying as they may and at the end of the job you picked everything up and cleaned up tools and your bay. That was a family run business. I then went out on my own and worked out of a truck and had to clean up as I went along, but normally it was at the end of the job or when I had to go after parts. Next job I went to work for a shop that ran 24/7 and you had to keep your tolls picked up and you area clean or your tools would disapear. If the job you where on you did not finish the next shift would come in and pick up where you left off. You had to be clean and work clean. Now that I no longer work in that kind of enviroment and now in a shop of 2 it is hard not to fall back on old habits, I struggle. I wish I had started off in a shop that ran 24/7, just so I would work cleaner.

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