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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Unheated Workshop


The Unheated Workshop 1
The temperature has been varying between really cold and OMG cold since the New Year, and unfortunately our indoor work temperature has reflected this. Our steel roll-up garage-style showroom door and super-high ceilings are major escape routes for heated air and our three gas powered reflecting heaters barely make a dent.

Are we part of a "proud" historic tradition? Amazingly, in days of yore cabinet shops in Europe and US, even in dank and chilly parts, were not heated.

Let's think about this for a bit. Iron stoves date from the mid 18th century, commonly available central heating from the end of the 19th. Light was essential for craft work, but glass windows were not common in Britain and the US prior to the middle of the 19th century. In the spring, summer and fall, craftsmen worked in front of open windows - a source of light and air. Rain was kept away by roof eaves. In the winter and in truly inclement weather, translucent oiled cloth over the windows gave some protection from the elements. Shutters secured the premises at night and when there was no work.

While fine sawdust from sandpaper wasn't much of an issue before the 20th century, sawdust from sawing and plane shavings did present a constant danger for a fire. And with all that dry wood around, any small fire could easily become a deadly conflagration. Thomas Chippendale's shop, for example. burned in a fire in 1755; although he rebuilt his shop, his personal fortune never recovered from the disaster. And so unlike those lucky blacksmiths who had forges and bakers who had ovens, woodworkers had to exercise extreme caution around fire. Even smoking was generally banned anywhere near the shop. Open fires of any sort were forbidden in shops -- and with that, no ready source of heat was available in shops.

Even in the 18th century, there must have been some small fires to keep the glue hot. The Joiner and Cabinetmaker (1839) describes the apprentice's job of preparing and maintaining the glue pot and makes note of the "serious accidents [that] have sometimes arisen" with improper care, such as when a "hot cinder sticking to the bottom has set the shavings and the shop on fire."

With the advent of iron stoves, it was possible to have some heat in a workshop. But the lack of insulation in the shop, and the probability of working next to the outdoor light meant that on a good day your back might have some heat on it but your front and hands would be freezing.

Fortunately, in the winter the workdays bowed to the reality of shorter daylight and were shorter too.

The funny part of all of this is that at the end of my workday I ride on a (mostly) heated subway and a centrally heated home. Up until pretty recently your frozen cabinetmaker went home to a house probably heated only by a fireplace in the kitchen and parlor. If he was lucky and well-to-do, maybe his bedroom had a small fireplace, but by and large, your workplace might have been freezing and your home was pretty cold too.

And don't get me started about the plumbing.

Join the conversation
01/10/2018 Eric Dobson
I've started working in an unheated, uninsulated detached garage in Montana. Being a rental, I can't really make any substantial heating improvements. I also don't want the fumes of kerosene or the moisture of propane. What I'm finding so far is it's really not that bad. Once it's around 0°F or the single digits, I can't do much of anything out there for very long. But those periods usually don't last more than a week or two at most. Soon enough it's back to the high teens or 20s, and I can get out there for some meaningful work. By the time it's in the 30s I can do anything except glue. Small projects can come in the house to glue. Large projects wait until spring.

Overall I like the pace this sets. I'm not running a business, so I can afford to be flexible. During the coldest periods I do more reading or work on restoring a vintage plane at the kitchen table. It makes me more connected to the weather. It's all too easy to sit inside, thermostat set to t-shirt temps, no matter how the weather fluctuates outside. Now I look more closely at upcoming temperatures and look forward to a warmer day, and don't let a single one go to waste.

The biggest surprise is I thought woodworking would come to a halt for about five months during our northern mountain winters. Turns out I can get decent work done nearly year round.
01/10/2018 Charlie Buchanan
Thanks for this. Now I know that my unheated detached garage workshop is “period correct”. I feel warmer already.
01/10/2018 Peter Bisaro
Funny reading this. 0700 here in Far North Queensland Australia and the temp is already 28c. I can't spend too much time in my shed this time of year because of dehydration and sweat staining my woodwork! I'm working on getting an air con.... don't know how they did it in the good old days
01/10/2018 Terrence Walsh
For several years my "workshop" was outside on my deck, in Virginia. The only obstacles to work were rain, serious wind, and serious cold. Light snow was not a problem as long as the deck was not icy.

Now I have a workshop! It's an attached garage in Massachusetts. As a garage it's well-ventilated. It's usually 15 to 20 degrees F warmer than outside. Rain and powerful winds are no longer a problem. I can recreate noonday sunlight at any hour of the day. So that's all good.

As for those really chilly days I recall a bit of Norwegian wisdom. Norway? They have some of the worst weather in the world. No problem. As they say, there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.
01/10/2018 Donald Kreher
Eric Dobson, do yourself a favour and get some 1.5 inch thick foam insulation board and cover it with ply wood. You will find your feet will stay much much warmer if they are off the concrete. If you can cover the entire shop floor with foam insulation board, Then a moisture barrier of plastic then two layers of (3/8) or (1/2) inch underlayment. Lay the top layer to cover seems in the second. Screw top layer into the second. Voila now you have a floor that will not only keep you feet warm, it will be less tiring to stand on and will protect tools from falling onto the concrete. Oh and it's not permanent.
01/10/2018 Morgan Holt
Very different set of discomforts here in Phoenix. The garage door is open and it is 75 degrees. OUR hell is the summer when it is 115 in the garage and sweat rolls off. No need to raise the grain before finishing, it is flushed in salt water as you sand.
01/10/2018 Bill Frarey
Here in MI we have two seasons. Winter and not Winter. To say it's been cold is the understatement of the year. While I may not have the fortitude to work in the cold the weather gives me time to restore some planes and get all of my sharpening caught up.
01/10/2018 Alan Bishop
My Great Great Grandfather emigrated from England to Australia, with his tools - he was a wheelwright by trade. He set up shop in rural Beechworth, in northern Victoria. When a fire destroyed his workshop, it was a disaster for him - not because he lost his workshop, which was not much more than a slab hut, but because he lost his tools.

Fortunately, he managed to get back on his feet, and was awarded a medallion at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition for constructing a wagon wheel using Australian native timbers, instead of imported UK timbers - as was the practice in the day).
01/10/2018 Chris Murray
What a pleasure to read your study of woodworking history, Joel. Your understanding of how all this went down, certainly makes sense, and is appreciated. And the counterpoints of these above comments make it all richer. 'Til I burn the place down, enjoying the woodstove in the shop!
01/11/2018 Evie Dechant
I am of the age where everything aches worse in the winter and my old shop is a 20x40 draft building with a monster wood stove in it. Even if I can remember to go stoke the fire before the temp starts dropping in there.. once it drops below 20 im out of there! Just can't take it like i used to.
01/11/2018 Juniper Grae
Move to New Jersey! There are an amazing group of Furniture makers out here just waiting for you. I'll hook you up with a great broker to find you a space at 1/2 of what you're paying in NY and it will have HEAT YEAR ROUND! You want a downtown storefront, we got'em, you want a warehouse space we got'em, you want a shop in the woods, we got them too. Suburbia is great. Everyone is cool and Urban these days (especially in NJ!) And the city is only 30 miles away.
What are you watiing for? Come on over!
01/11/2018 Dean in Des Moines
Avg lows in England and western Europe are at or above the freezing point. That's a long way from anywhere in the midwest US.
01/11/2018 Chad Magiera
Thank goodness they had thinsulate mittens and Goretex moisture wicking long-johns!
01/18/2018 Mike
I am in the Chicago area - I find 55F to be my favorite working temp. I am comfortable in short sleeves and I never break a sweat. My shop is heated with a natural gas furnace and I could easily keep it at 70F, but I only do so for finishing. Other than that 55 is perfect. I do very little in the summer. Above 75F and I get crabby.
02/26/2018 Erik Hoover
My unheated workspace is OK with me about 95% of the year. But certain days when high humidity air hits the super-cold shop fixtures and machines are dreadful! Moisture clings to not only the cast iron equipment, but the underside of many horizontal surfaces.
I know there are ways to prepare for this and mitigate against its effects, but it is a fairly big undertaking - one of many that deserve my attention.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.