A Workshop Born from California Dreaming

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This article is from Issue 32 of Woodcraft Magazine.

As a nine-year-old, Fred Sotcher built his first shop in a corner of the porch at his parents’ home in Los Angeles, California. As his interest in woodworking and electronics grew, he relocated his operation into the garage. But even with his active imagination, Fred never dreamed where his hobbies would lead him as an adult.

Fast forward to 1989: past his first career as an aerospace engineer, his move to San Jose’s Silicon Valley, California, where he bought a small ranch house with his wife, Marion, and 19 years after founding Sotcher Measurement, an electronics specialty company in Silicon Valley. The location had already become famous for extremes. As the microchips produced there shrunk in size, real estate prices responded proportionally—in the exact opposite direction. So much so that today a lot of only one-eighth acre commands a seven-figure price tag.

Business was good, so Fred and Marion didn’t get too alarmed when they realized that soil settlement problems meant that they needed to address the structural stability of the house. And while moderate jacking and new piers would do the trick, Fred saw that he could lift the house and build a basement workshop. Ten months and $165,000 later, the house settled on the new nine-foot-high concrete block walls.

Fred and his wife raised their home and dug a full basement for a shop.

red knew that his diverse interests demanded a flexible shop design. Says the craftsman, “No matter how well you design a shop, things change over time.” As an electrical engineer, he made sure that every tool site offered the option of 120- or 240-volt power. With dual-voltage boxes, he could move tools or add new ones without the need for rewiring. The receptacles are spaced every 48" horizontally and a back-friendly 42" above the concrete floor.

The shop also abounds with hundreds of feet of low-voltage wiring that feeds music speakers, telephone and data jacks, as well as dust-control circuits. But you don’t see any of the cable, because Fred buried it near the ceiling for a neater appearance. All of the low-voltage wiring terminates in a structured wiring center that allows Fred to make circuit changes quickly and without pulling new cable. As in many shops, manually opening any blast gate actuates the dust-control system. But Fred went one step further, equipping his most-used tools with a small motor that opens the gate whenever he powers up the machine.

Cabinets above the table saw store jigs in space otherwise wasted.

The Workshop At A Glance

Size: Overall shop is 1,500 sq. ft., including an 80 sq. ft. office, 100 sq. ft. finishing room, and 80 sq. ft. of wood storage. A separate 128 sq. ft. wood-drying shelter sits outside.

Construction: Concrete block basement walls with R16 exterior insulation and R14 interior foam insulation. Ceiling insulated with R16 fiberglass batts for thermal and acoustic isolation. Poured-concrete floor. Walls and ceiling covered with ⅝" fire-rated drywall.

Heating and cooling: Natural gas forced-air system located outside of shop. Cooling not required.

Lighting: (29) 4-tube fluorescent fixtures 4' long recessed into the ceiling for general illumination. Incandescent task lighting at several machines.

Electrical service: 100-amp service feeding outlet boxes at every tool site with both 120- and 240-volt power.

Dust collection: Two-stage 2 hp unit in a sound-dampened room. Automatic blast gate switches at planer, radial-arm saw, and table saw; other gates are manual. Three-speed air cleaner hangs from ceiling above sanding area.

Air compressor: 3 hp compressor with 20-gallon tank located in garage; feeds lines throughout the shop.

The lumber racks carry forward the concept of adaptability because they neatly corral vertical lengths. But with the simple addition of 1×2 slats, they can also store short lumber pieces horizontally. Each ladder-shaped module begins with a pair of 2 × 2 × 8' fir uprights that have 3/4" dadoes 3/8" deep spaced 12" on center. The dadoes accept the ends of glued and screwed 1×2 fir “rungs” that are 21¾" long to make an assembly 24" wide. Fred screwed the ladders to the wall, spacing them on 24" centers.

But when it comes to multi-axis versatility, the real prize winner in Fred’s shop is a workbench mounted atop a dental chair base. “At a local woodworkers’ club meeting, one member offered up the heavy beast,” Fred explained, “and I shot my hand up. Everybody looked at me. They couldn’t figure out what to do with the thing. And at the time,” Fred admits, “I didn’t either.” But he soon designed a 30 × 30" workbench top of 3"-thick laminated ash perforated with round bench dog holes in a 6 × 6" grid pattern. He then added double-screw vise hardware and a full-width jaw. An undercarriage then mated the assembly to the electric/hydraulic base, animating it with a wide range of motion. “This bench is the best thing I ever did for myself,” Fred admits, “because it allows me to position a workpiece at the optimum height and angle for the work I need to do.”

Fred’s lumber racks create species-specific bins for vertical storage. Adding 1×2 slats (Inset) adapts the bin for stowing shorts.

Fred added a beefy top to a dental chair base, creating a fully articulating workbench.

To conserve floor space in both the shop and living area, Sotcher opted for a circular staircase. To provide a more practical path for lumber and machinery, Fred added an exterior stairwell. Plywood sheets hinged along each side of the 36"-wide steps convert to a 30° ramp. Free-handing a cart up or down that slope would be a bit too exciting, so he purchased an electric winch (Grainger item #55A18) with a lifting capacity of 4,000 lbs. Fred straps lumber and sheet goods to his shop cart and delivers them into his shop without breaking a sweat.

The Floor Plan

The two access points to the shop help define its overall geography. A space-stingy spiral staircase joins the basement shop to the living space above, while a set of steps to the side yard provides the entry for tools and materials as well as the exit for finished projects.

Next to the central staircase, Fred sited his table saw as well as a room for his dust collector. This island location is also home to other machines, including a router table, overarm pin router, bandsaw, shaper, and an always-ready sharpening station.

When sheet goods enter the shop via the exterior steps, Fred’s cart can easily deliver them to the table saw for immediate use. If the panels won’t be used immediately, they move to a storage area near the office. Lumber entering the shop can go into the species-specific storage bins or straight to the jointer and planer, conveniently located near the exterior doors. A radial-arm saw with long side tables makes crosscutting easy, and then it’s on to the table saw for ripcuts.

Tool stations along the exterior wall perform further machining.Project parts come together at the workbench and assembly table, again near the doors.

Smart ideas for the taking

Adjustable planer carrier sled

This jig flattens the face of twisted boards, short ones included, and even those wider than your jointer’s capacity. Place your stock on the board with the stop and then index the holes in the top component onto the dowels. Use pairs of tapered shims to immobilize the workpiece and remove any rocking motion.

Space-saving tool holder

An easel-backed chisel rack conserves space on your workbench and prevents hand tools from rolling. When not in use the tool holders hang on wall cleats as shown on page 50.

Modular tool holders

Storing portable power tools in the open means that you never need to root through toolboxes or cabinets. Instead, you simply grab and go. Here, storage flexibility provided by the interlocking French cleat hanging system puts every tool in plain sight.

A window on Fred Sotcher and his woodworking

Fred Sotcher, 72, hasn’t slowed down since he retired 12 years ago and turned over management of Sotcher Measurement to his son, Marc. In fact, Fred may have even shifted into a higher gear.

His furniture projects, such as a jaw-dropping corner cabinet, attest to highly developed skills. But when you talk to Fred about woodworking, he quickly turns the spotlight away from himself and shines it on his 140 students at The Girls’ Middle School in Mountain View, California.

In an 800-square-foot shop at the school, Fred runs a program that allows sixth through eighth grade girls to select and build a variety of projects from lumber kits that he prepares. The students are responsible for cutting parts to final size, and then shaping, assembling, and finishing.

“Over the years,” Fred says, “I’ve been able to equip the shop with a pretty good variety of equipment: six lathes, four scrollsaws, three drill presses, three bandsaws, and two mitersaws.” After a bit of prodding, Fred admits that he donated all of the equipment to the school.

Interestingly, the program is a long way from the structured woodworking curriculum found at public schools. “For the most part, the girls are not that interested in learning woodworking. What they are interested in doing is making things. So the focus is on allowing them to be creative.” When students are particularly enthusiastic about the program, he’ll sometimes invite one or two at a time to his home shop for personalized mentoring.

Even though Fred Sotcher is known as a woodworking teacher, the real lessons that the girls gain go well beyond sawing and sanding. They grow in creativity, confidence, and self-discovery.

One of Fred’s students made this jewelry box, complete with an intarsia rose on the lid.

Fred’s cockleshell corner cabinet features a hand-carved interior and door panels.


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