A Woodturner’s Wonderland

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This article is from Issue 28 of Woodcraft Magazine.

With floor space at a premium, Russ created uncluttered pathways around his tool-filled shop, reserving the middle for his major milling operations.

Instant gratification is how 

J. R. “Russ” Blaser, 82, describes the appeal of woodturning. Starting with seasoned wood, the retired manufacturing plant manager can sometimes turn a rough blank into a signed and finished work of art in a single evening. But the path to today’s quick success actually spans seven decades of woodworking. And at a key point during Russ’s development as a turner, a Woodcraft employee provided help that transformed raw interest into polished skills. 

Russ’s first major piece of shop equipment was a radial-arm saw purchased in the 1950s, shortly after he married Jacquetta. “We started with nothing,” Russ chuckles, “not even a pot.” So he scrounged up second-hand furniture and used the saw and an assortment of hand tools to mend broken legs, busted drawers, and other woodworking problems. 

But Russ wasn’t content to merely fix items that other people had broken. He expanded his tool collection as resources permitted, and broadened his skills. Russ eventually designed and built a wide range of cabinets and furniture, including tables, curio cabinets, and accessories.

Throughout his business career and well into retirement, Russ always had a basement shop accessible only by a flight of stairs inside the house. But he finally convinced his wife that they should look for a new home that combined two benefits: a modest downsizing and a walk-out basement. The couple spent a year searching for a new house that they could call both home and shop.

The unfinished basement represented a “blank slate,” so the retired plant manager tapped his deep well of experience to create a workshop that’s comfortable, safe, and efficient. 

In terms of overall layout, you’ll see that Russ laid out three lines of machines: one down each long wall, and another straight down the middle. That way, he can move in a linear fashion from one machine to the next in a single row. For example, he can break down a long piece of stock into project blanks at the mitersaw located just inside the shop door before jointing and sawing further down. But he can also work side to side among machines that are clustered nearby in adjacent rows. One good example involves the lathe, grinder, and honing wheels clustered at the one end of the shop. And even though the machines are only a few steps apart, the setup doesn’t feel crowded.

Within a step or two from his lathe, Russ can put his hands on this collection of most-used tools, accessories, and supplies. Small chucks and other wood-holding systems also share this space, but his large vacuum chucks hang on the wall just to the right of this cabinet.

The Workshop at a Glance

Size: 17 × 39' plus 10 × 17' finishing room; 7' 10" ceiling

Construction: Poured concrete basement floor; 2×4 exterior walls with fiberglass insulation; 2×4 partition walls.

Heating and cooling: Natural gas forced-air furnace and air-conditioning system shared with the house above.

Lighting: (26) 4' dual-tube fluorescent fixtures in shop area. Lathe area contains additional task lighting via incandescent lamps clamped to joists and on portable stands. Finishing room has (10) 4' dual-tube fluorescent fixtures.

Electrical: Two 120-volt, 15 amp lighting circuits. Four 120-volt, 20 amp wall-outlet circuits. One 220-volt circuit at 30 amps serves the lathe, dust collector, and planer.

Dust collection: 1.5 hp Delta dual-bag unit fed by galvanized metal ductwork and controlled by blast gates located at each major collection point.

Controlling dust in a shop is a must. Russ’s whole-shop dust-collection system and air-filtration units work together in chips, sawdust, and fine dust.

Designing multiple production paths into his shop reflects Russ’s keen awareness that a home workshop needs a flexibility that’s different from setting up a manufacturing line that cranks out identical products every day. “In a home shop,” Russ comments, “you might restore a trunk one day, build a cabinet the next, and turn a bowl after that—or sometimes have all three going at once. So a real key to efficiency is a layout that adapts to the needs of multiple projects instead of forcing you to work in only one way.”   

Russ designed plenty of storage into his shop, so that accessories are within arm’s reach of the tool on which they are used. A three-tier rack near the drill press organizes dozens of bits and countersinks. He can swing out an individual storage block to make his selection, or lift it off the pivot and carry the organizer to his workbench.

Russ’s shop-made contractor’s saw stand on locking casters keeps blades and accessories in easy reach. The top and sides provide space for pushblocks, throat plates, and other essentials. The central door, opened in the Inset, conceals the PVC dust-collection fittings.

Russ’s base for his contractor’s saw also reinforces the maxim of storing equipment where it’s needed. The drawers organize blades, throat plates, wrenches, and other items needed at the table saw. 

Subtle storage strategies even play a role in making Russ’s shop a safe place. For example, he stores a pair of earmuff hearing protectors atop his shop vacuum, forcing him to pick them up before he can turn on this wailing machine. “When you integrate safe practices into your shop’s design,” Russ says, “using safety gear becomes a natural part of the work flow, not a separate chore.”

But safety also has a more prominent role in the overall shop design. Fluorescent lights provide a high level of ambient light in the work area, and additional task lighting—especially at the lathe—keeps detailed tasks brightly lit. Russ takes on dust control with an aggressive multi-faceted approach explained in “The Floor Plan” on page 51.

Twin cabinet towers support Russ’s mitersaw station and provide handy storage space in drawers and behind doors. The Inset shows a fence system that permits precision repeat cutting. The stopblock attached to the calibrated fence has an extension that reaches right up to the blade. 

Russ’s three principles of good shop design:

1. Positioning stationary tools so that they can be used in sequence or as a clustered workstation.

2. Storing accessories at the tool that uses them.

3. Engineering safety into the overall design.

The Floor Plan 

At a manufacturing plant, the manager is responsible for all phases of operation, including production, efficiency, and worker safety. And as you study Russ Blaser’s shop, you’ll see that he is still the take-charge plant manager, even if he is also the sole “employee.”

Dust control is a subject that Russ takes seriously because of the health risks involved. Nearly every machine connects via ductwork to the 1.5 hp Delta dual-bag dust collector. To supplement that first line of collection, Russ also designed and built a pair of wall-mounted air cleaners (page 52). 

Russ mounted them on opposing walls, with each exhaust aimed in an opposite direction. That way, he creates an overall circular airflow within the shop to improve the system’s efficiency and the shop’s air quality. The cleaners feature blower motors having dual-speed capability. This lets Russ run the motor at the high setting when he’s making dust fly, but he can then throttle back (and save energy) for continuous air filtration.

As Russ focused on developing his turning skills, he retooled his shop to reflect his interest. He made a serious investment in a new lathe: a Oneway 2416 shortbed, which can swing a workpiece 24" in diameter and 16" between centers. Everything about the tool—including the price tag—is heavy-duty. Its massive construction—about 650 pounds of steel and cast iron—dampens vibrations from out-of-round workpieces. Even with having a ground-level door to his shop, Russ remembers, moving in the lathe was an adventure. 

Russ prefers an upright working posture, so he set his workbench top 39" above the floor. He repeated this dimension at virtually every other workstation in the shop, enabling the tools to perform supporting roles for each other. For example, when he places a long board at the mitersaw, its end rests on the router table. And when he routs a long piece, the mitersaw returns the favor.

Russ took an economical approach toward lumber storage. He built a 2x4 wall at the end of his shop and drilled horizontal holes into the edges of the studs. He then cut pieces of ½" electrical conduit, and put them into the holes to support the lumber. This setup is very strong and allows free air circulation around the boards. Inexpensive shower curtain liners on rods near the ceiling shield the stored lumber from wood chips created at the lathe. This strategy eliminates a tedious clean-up chore.

The clutter-free finishing area features generous cabinet storage, an explosion-proof exhaust fan, and a lazy-Susan table (see page 52) that makes it easy to apply a uniform coat on turnings.

Smart Ideas for the Taking

Wall-mounted air cleaner: 

You can easily change the dimensions of this cabinet, shown in Figure 1, to suit almost any furnace-style blower motor, just be sure that you can utilize a standard filter size stocked at your local hardware store or home center. 

Use glue and screws to make the cabinet strong, and take extra care to build it square. (If the carcase twists, you’ll have a tough time sliding in the front panel.) To reduce weight and conserve materials, you could make that panel from 1/4" plywood.

You can buy a new blower motor assembly at an industrial-supply house (such as Grainger: grainger.com), but scouting up a used unit is an environmentally-friendly and economical alternative.

Lazy-Susan finishing table: 

Russ takes advantage of the time-saving convenience of spray-finishing his turnings. The finish is always ready, and there’s no messy cleanup. To ensure consistent results, Russ put together a revolving finishing table, as shown in Figure 2, so that he can easily maintain a consistent distance to the surface. A 9" lazy-Susan bearing (Woodcraft #124300) offers good stability and smooth action, even under heavy loads.

The relatively small scale of Russ’s work allows him to bypass the need for a compressor. Instead, he uses the inexpensive Preval aerosol system (Woodcraft #142198). Russ pours his choice of finish into the glass reservoir and screws on the power unit.  

72-drawer hardware chest: 

Russ drew on his manufacturing background to produce a storage center that keeps hardware neatly organized and instantly accessible. Figure 3 gives you the essential dimensions, and you can even upsize or downscale the unit to serve your individual requirements. 

Here’s a tip that will ensure precision and save time. Saw or rout all of the dadoes for the sides into a 14"-wide blank, then rip the individual sides to width. A 26"-wide board will yield four vertical dividers, so you’ll need two of these blanks, dadoed on both sides.

 Russ kept drawer construction simple, relying primarily on glue and air-driven brads instead of fussing with intricate joinery. His one upscale touch involved routing a dovetail slot for the drawer’s content-identification card. The card springs securely into place, but you can change it in a wink.

J.R. “Russ” Blaser—passionate woodturner/successful plant manager

“Russ” Blaser capped his long career in manufacturing with a 27-year stint at H. D. Hudson Manufacturing. The firm’s name is well-known to any gardener who has ever used a compression sprayer, but the company previously also made a wide range of metal products for farmers and ranchers. By the time he retired in 1990, Russ had served as plant manager at several of the company’s factories.

For most of his life, Russ used a lathe for strictly utilitarian needs: replacing a broken leg or spindle on a chair, for example. But that outlook changed completely in 1993 during an Elder Hostel class at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

Russ returned home with much more than a few turnings—he was also brimming over with enthusiasm for a new-found passion. One of the people Russ talked with was John Larson, then an employee of the Woodcraft Store in Lenexa, Kansas.

Every time Russ visited the Woodcraft store, he and John brainstormed about starting a turners’ club for the Kansas City area. John talked up the idea among the store’s patrons, and he and Russ hosted the first meeting in 1994. Starting with only a dozen charter members, the organization now numbers 150 turners. The Kansas City Woodturners Club (kcwoodturners.org) outgrew the back room at Woodcraft, so the members now gather at a leased facility of several thousand square feet in the Kansas City suburb of Merriam, Kansas.

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