Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag - Shop Design

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In this episode, Robbie O’Brien offers advice on shop layout and design. He provides tips on shop efficiency, pulling from his years of experience deep in craft.

Video Transcription

[on-screen text reads: Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag]

Mailbag question: I'm building a new shop and would like to get your input

Robert O'Brien: Today's Tips du Jour Mailbag question comes to us from Wisconsin. "Dear Robert, I have never seen you do a video about your shop. I'm beginning to design my shop and would like to hear your input. Thank you for all your videos, Peter in Wisconsin."

Peter, this is one topic that I've learned a lot about over the years, not only in my own shops, I've had several of them over the years, but I've also visited and been in countless shops of other luthiers from around the world. And I think I have a good idea of what works best for me. Now, I'm going to put some of this information out there in no particular order and perhaps some of this will be beneficial to you.

Shop space

Let's start with space. It's never enough. If you have a 50 square foot shop or a 50,000 square foot shop, you'll always fill it up.

That's just the way it is. I have learned that the smaller the shop I work in, the more efficient I have to be working in that shop and that can be a benefit. With that in mind, let's talk about tools. Your style of work, whether you work with more power tools or more hand tools, is going to determine the amount of space you need in your shop. Now, I use a combination. I'm more of a hand tool guy, but I have all of the big tools and stuff too to speed the flow up if I need to. When I was working in a smaller shop, one of the things I learned is to put everything on mobile bases.

Luthier tools

All of my tools, even my shop today, I have a much larger shop, but all of my tools are still on casters. When I worked in a small shop, what I used to do is have what I call a tool parking lot.

One little corner of my shop, all of my tools were parked in there, sometimes two and three deep. And when I needed one, I'd call the valet guy and we'd pull all those tools out and we'd use one and then put it back in there. That worked to my benefit as well because all of the dust was confined to one small area of the shop. I didn't need a large dust collector system. I just had one small vacuum. I'd wheel the tool over to it, plug it in, when I was done, I'd wheel the tool back into the parking lot. So it's not ideal, but it worked. But to this day, all of my tools, even some of my benches are still on casters.

Luxury items

Some of the tools that you choose to use in your shop, you think may be a necessity. However, some of them are luxury items. For example, my dual drum sander, I worked for years with a safety planer, scrapers and hand planes to thickness my lumber.

Now, the thickness sander is definitely a luxury item. It speeds things up, but you don't have to have it. People get built guitars and still build guitars without those. Larger tools like large table saws, band saws, things that you use perhaps only once in a while, think about it before taking up a large part of the real estate of the shop with those larger tools. Also, table saws and other benches have a tendency to collect junk. The more benches you have in your shop, the more junk you're going to put on them. If you limit your bench space, perhaps you can help keep your shop a little cleaner.

Storage is also another problem. You got to have space to store things. Your tools, for example. Now wall space is great if you have it and try and maximize your wall space. That's not always possible if you have windows and things like that, but try and maximize the amount of wall space you have. If you don't have it, which I don't have a lot of wall space in my current shop, what I use is drawers under my benches.

Now the drawers under the benches allow me to store a large quantity of tools and supplies without having to take up a lot of wall space or bench space. So it's dead space basically under your bench, and that's where I store a lot of my things. I've made a bunch of drawers and things like that and that works for me. Speaking of benches, I have several of my shop, but I do a lot of teaching in my shop. I have a lot of people in and out, so I need a little bit of bench space for people to work. Perhaps one main bench is all you're going to need in your shop. Make it a sturdy bench and one that's useful, one that has vices, ways to hold things, bench dogs, things like that, so you can... It's useful for you to hold things and work on it.

Be careful of the height of the bench. If you're always leaning over to work on your bench, it can cause undue stress and muscle pain. So stand up, find a bench that's a little taller. I built my bench personally for me. I'm a tall guy, so I made my bench a little higher and it works for me.

Cabinets over your bench

One thing I learned the hard way is never put cabinets over your bench. I had a row of cabinets over my bench where I worked one time and I had a nice high-end guitar there on the bench, and all it took was one time for me to open the cabinet to reach in and get a tool, and that tool jumped out onto my guitar and you know the result there. So I had to do a little bit of repair. So I don't recommend cabinets over your bench space. That's another reason why I put drawers under my benches now and all the tools are under the drawers and I don't have that problem.


Let's talk about lighting. Lighting is very important. You got to be able to see what you're doing and the older you get, the harder it is to see things without proper lighting. Daylight, natural daylight is the best. Now, if you don't have that option, I don't have that option here in my shop. I'm below grade in my shop, and so I have a couple of small windows and that's it. So I'm locked into artificial lighting. When I go with the artificial lighting, I go with the daylight deluxe fluorescent bulbs. I want the most amount of light that I can get in my shop that imitates the natural daylight. Now you can get the cool fluorescent lighting or other types of lighting. It's just not enough in my opinion. I like it bright. So when you design your shop, make sure that you have enough lighting in there so there's no shadows in some areas and you can see what you're doing with the light that you have.

Dust control

Let's talk about dust control. It's so important that I recently wrote an article for the Guild of American Luthiers magazine on the subject. There are many, many types of dust control systems out there. The main thing you need to decide is where to put that sucker and to get the best efficiency out of it. How are you going to run your ductwork?


Now, if you don't like listening to the noise of the machine, you might consider putting it in an outbuilding or outside your shop and then piping in your ductwork. If you don't have that option due to environmental reasons or HOAs or neighborhoods, things like that, you have to put it on the inside.

And that's what I've done in my shop. I have a nice unit in the corner there. What I've done is I've run about 15 or 20 feet of piping to the left and about 15 or 20 feet of piping to the right. And I have blast gates where I can shut off the right side or shut off the left side, and that improves the efficiency of my system. I only run one side at a time. If you try and run both sides at once, then you're losing CFM and the efficiency of your machine. Keep the filters clean as well. Now I also have a few shop bags in my shop. I talk about this all on the Guild of American Luthiers magazine article. I highly recommend shop vacs. I use the bigger dust control for my tools and machinery, and then for the floors and things, I use the shop vacs and those work very well.

So make sure that you study dust control before you design your shop. It's very important.


Something else that you need to control is your relative humidity or your RH levels in your shop. I've talked about this before in a couple of videos. Behind me here, I have a climate controlled room and in there it stays a pretty constant 45%. I also have a Go-bar deck in that room. If I'm building a guitar for a high relative humidity environment, then I can actually glue the guitar together, build it in the climate controlled room. Now, if you don't have that luxury, then store your materials in that climate controlled environment, bring them out, work them on your bench, and periodically through the day, put them back into that controlled environment and that will help. That's what I had to do in Brazil. There was 80 to 100% humidity all the time.

I had a little portion of my studio apartment that I had bumped down with the dehumidifier to 50%. And I would put my lumber in there before I started working. I'd bring it out and work on it, put it back in there periodically throughout the day or before glue-ups to make sure it's dry. So relative humidity is very, very important. I've mentioned this in some of my videos before.

If you're starting your shop from scratch, in other words you're going to pour a slab and things like that, think about controlling the moisture content coming up through the slab, whether you seal it from the inside with epoxy or if you're talking to your contractor or somebody else who's going to pour the slab for you, make sure that they put a moisture barrier or something underneath it. They keep that moisture from seeping up into the concrete because it will happen.

Anti-fatigue mats

Also, if you have concrete floors, your feet are going to get tired throughout the day, especially if you spend 8 to 10 hours a day in your shop like I do. So you might want to think about some type of anti-fatigue mats in your shops. However, I found it's a little harder to keep the shop clean if you have a bunch of anti-fatigue mats all around your shop.


Another item that I like to have in my shop is water. Not only for drinking but for washing, and I have a little utility sink in my shop here that is very useful, especially for things like sharpening. I need water stones. That's the way I sharpen my tools so I have water, for washing my hands, for cleaning up afterwards. Water is very important. So if you have a water source in your shop, it's very useful.

Mini fridge

Another thing that I have in my shop is a small mini fridge. Now I know what you guys are thinking. That's for the beer. Well, occasionally yes, some beer goes in there, but beer and power tools do not mix. So be careful. But I like storing things like glue, my LMI white glue, my CA glue, all of that stuff is stored inside there. So a small mini-fridge is a good thing, if you have the space. Now, you may not have the space, then you don't need it.

Shop stools

Some place to sit down every now and then is also important. Now, I have a bunch of shop stools around my place here because I have students coming in all the time. Now, occasionally those things get in the way when I'm working by myself. So you need to decide how many stools you need in your shop.

If it's just one for yourself that you're the only person that's going to be in there. If you're going to have visitors, occasionally you need to have places for them to sit. Also, if you have people coming in and out periodically to try out your instruments, to sample your instruments, you need a place for them to do that. So think about that. Where are you going to store your stool when you're not working with it? Get it out of the way. When you need it, you want it close at hand.

Workspace optimization

Workflow is also very important. You don't want your tools scattered all over your shop. You don't want to be walking 20 feet that way then walking another 20 feet that way to pick up the tools you need to do the job in the middle of the shop on your bench. You're going to be very tired at the end of the day. So work efficiently in your shop.

Put your hand tools, your bench tools around your bench. I've seen guys that have them on the other side of the shop and it just doesn't make sense to me to walk all the way across there and come back to your bench. You do that 50 times a day, you're going to feel it at the end of the day. So work efficiently, store your tools where you're going to need them.


Cleanliness, shop cleanliness is also very important. Not only do I think it affects tone, but it's also an impression on your work. If you have visitors visiting your shop and it's all the time cluttered and dirty, then your work, the impression that they have of your work perhaps will be cluttered and dirty. So keep your shop clean.

Air compressor

If you need compressed air in your shop, think about where you're going to put that compressor. Think about how large the compressor needs to be. Think about the noise that it's going to cause in the shop. Now I've got mine up in my garage and I piped the line in. And that works very well because I don't have to listen to the compressor.

It also could be a bad thing too because in my shop I have vacuum hold clamps and I use a Venturi valve hooked up to my compressor in the shop and it's designed so I don't have to listen to the hissing of the Venturi valve. But sometimes I forget to turn it off and I'll go watch TV or have dinner at the end of the day, go to sleep at night and I hear my compressor in my garage kicking on because I forgot to turn off the Venturi valve. So think about something like that. 

Venturi valve

Now, my Venturi valve, I've got positive and negative pressure on the same line. And I'll show you how that works.

The way my Venturi valve works is I come in from the garage with a PVC line and that's my positive pressure. I tee off of that and that goes over to my sanding station. So I have positive blowing pressure over by the sanding station. Then I have a switch that I can flip and the air will continue and I put it in a quarter inch clear line and take it back out to the compressor where the Venturi valve is hooked onto that line. That line then comes back into my shop, and as long as that valve or that switch is on, I have positive and negative pressure. In other words, I have a vacuum sucking on my [inaudible 00:11:59] clamps and I have positive blowing pressure on the same line. So that works pretty efficiently too, and it's outside where I don't have to listen to it.

Finish work

When it comes to finish work, you need to decide what kind of finish you're going to do and how you're going to apply it. If it's just french polish, you can do it right in your current shop. You can even do it on your kitchen table. If you're doing any amount of spraying, you need to think about that. Am I going to install a spray booth? Am I going to go to the time and expense of doing that? Am I going to take up valuable real estate in my shop for a spray booth? So think about that as well.

Fire safety

Peter, something else that's very important to put in your shop or to think about when designing your shop is fire safety. Have at least a couple of fire extinguishers hanging around. We're working with some very flammable products. Sometimes even wood dust can be very flammable, so you don't need a fire in your shop.

Make sure that you have a fire extinguisher in your shop and that it's accessible. I have mine on the wall, near the door to my shop. So if I have them on the way out in the dead run, there's the fire extinguisher.

One of the most important tools in my shop is the Guitar Builder's Can of Whoop Ass. Now, this tool has many applications throughout the guitar bending process and comes in extremely handy. And yes, it has saved my hide more than once. Sometimes just placing this on the bench next to the work makes the work go smoother. So I highly recommend Guitar Builders Can Whoop Ass.

Shop dogs

And if you are a dog lover, having a shop dog sometimes just helps the stress melt away. But be careful though, don't trip over the dog, especially if you're carrying sharp tools. Also, if you have a high end instrument, you're doing some repair work for a client or one of your own, if you trip over the dog, yeah, it could be a bad thing.

I've heard about that happening, so be careful there if you have a shop dog. Shop dogs are great, but you need to be careful. Also, be careful if you have visitors coming into your shop. Not all visitors are dog lovers, and sometimes that can be a turn-off to some clients. So make sure that anybody visiting the shop is dog friendly.

So Peter, thank you very much for your question. This is a topic I've been wanting to address for a long time. However, I could probably write a book on this subject. There's so much information you need to think about. I'm just beginning to skim the surface here in this small video. So I hope it's been helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Also, there's a lot of websites out there that offer great insight into shop layout. So thank you very much Peter, and happy building.

[on-screen text reads: More Luthier Tips and online courses available at Private and small group guitar building and finishing instruction available.]



Robbie O'Brien

Luthier and Instructor, Lutherie Academy