The High-Powered Gift Shop

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This article is from Issue 21 of Woodcraft Magazine.



Every time Peter Howell’s job took him to another city, he ended up with a workshop bigger than before. But the last move, to the West Virginia town of Hurricane 12 years ago, didn’t provide a suitable offering. “Previously my shops were not as big as I would have liked,” Peter explains. “So this time, the workshop was my primary criteria. If the workshop space didn’t check out, we didn’t consider buying the house.”

After three or four months of disappointment, Peter decided what he wanted either didn’t exist or wasn’t available. “We couldn’t find any with a large basement, so I decided to design and build my own home,” he says.

The result was a 20 x 58' main workshop in the basement with plenty of room for expansion. Not big enough?

Meeting Peter’s needs for safety and precision, his 7.5 hp sliding-table saw has a computer controlled fence, electronically controlled blade height and blade angle with digital readouts, a riving knife, and enhanced dust collection.

“I have learned through my industrial experience that the macho culture of American males is totally wrong. Men are not always tough, and the accident doesn’t always happen to the other guy. Safe practices and safety equipment like safety glasses, hearing protection, and dust and toxic fume respirators don’t make you a wimp. They show that you care about protecting yourself and your family.” 

The Workshop at a Glance

Size: Main shop, 58 x 20'; panel saw area, 24 x 17'; spray booth, 13 x 13'; lay down and storage area, 22 x 14'. Shop area also includes office and full bathroom. 

Construction: Basement shop with 12"-thick concrete-filled concrete block with rebar. Interior 4 x 2 stud walls with fiberglass insulation. HVAC system is separate from house above. Suspended ceiling with acoustical tile. 

Heating and cooling: 80,000 Btu furnace; 3-ton condensing unit.

Lighting: 37 four-tube, 40-watts-per-tube fluorescent lights.

Electrical: Phasemaster rotary phase converter rated at 40-hp (200 amp 220 volt single-phase panel).

Dust collection: Camfil-Farr 10-hp dust collector; four Gold Cap Duraplete cartridges rated at 99.99% removal of 0.5 micron dust with nylon over-bags.

Air compressor: 5-hp, two-stage Quincy, 80-gallon tank.

Gifts for the kids

Shortly after moving into his new home, Peter joined the local woodworking club. Valley Woodworkers of West Virginia has been making toys they donate to the Salvation Army since 1991. The toys are distributed to underprivileged children at Christmastime.

“I got very involved with the toy project and within two years was selected chairman of the toy committee,” says Peter. “One of my observations was that it took too long to produce the toys.” 

With the acquisition of some high-end European machinery (which Peter first saw at an industrial woodworking show that he attended out of pure curiosity), club members cut the production time for each cradle from 6 hours to 2½ hours. In addition, they were able to add rocking horses, alphabet block and wagon sets, and toy wagons. Overall production increased from 100 items annually to 300. 

Not only does Peter donate his time, energy, and main workshop to this cause, but he also donated his basement family room—it’s the only place where the new panel saw would fit and still allow the main workshop to function smoothly.

Peter was instantly attracted to the European tools for several reasons. Their bases and cabinets are made of thicker cast iron and steel resulting in less vibration and noise, and they are more precise. Although very pricey, these top-shelf tools have saved thousands of hours of shop time.

“Before, we spent countless hours hand-sanding each part. This not only wasted time, but led to results that were less than uniform,” Peter says. “These tools were expensive, but now all we need to do is put the 400 parts through the machine once and that’s it. There is nothing left to fix.”

When drilling holes to insert tails into rocking horse bodies, Peter clamps a special jig to the drill press table with the drill guide hole positioned directly below the drill chuck. A 5/16"-diameter guide pin penetrates the jig and slides into an alignment hole drilled into the horse body. A 5/8" drill bores a 1"-deep hole into the body. Once all horses have been drilled, the bit is replaced with a countersink. The hinged top section of the jig is then opened and a chamfer is cut around the edge of the hole to ease insertion of the tail. A flexible hose connects the dust collection nozzle to a Fein Turbo Vac III. Mounting the nozzle on an articulated arm helps maximize chip collection.

The addition of two shapers to Peter’s shop dramatically reduced production time. After running components through the bandsaw to cut them to approximate size, club members can cut project parts to final size by pattern shaping. The components are clamped to a pattern jig (several are shown on the wall in the background) that rides against a rub collar mounted below the shaper cutter. The cutter cuts the parts to final size and rounds over the edges in one pass. The shaper shown on the right has a Tapoa guard that serves as both a dust-collection hood and a guard to minimize the risk of fingers getting too close to the cutter. And it includes a spindle that will tilt from -5° to 45°; the left-hand shaper has a tilting spindle as well.

Safety first

A chemical engineer with 40 years experience in the chemical and petrochemical industries, Peter has developed an expertise in industrial safety. That expertise carries over to his shop, and during the toy production period he’s got more than just his own well-being to think about. From September through November from four to six club members at a time can be involved in some facet of toy production. Keeping them safe is a high priority for Peter, another reason for the European tools—he was impressed with their safety features. For example, they include multiple safety interlocks. “If the machine isn’t fully ready to run, it won’t turn on. This prevents the machine from turning on when making adjustments,” he says. Other features include dust collection that is integral to the design (to protect the machine’s circuitry as well as to help clean the air); easy to find emergency stop buttons that activate a brake to stop the blade/cutter; and better designed guards (to discourage the user from removing an inferior guard that gets in the way).

Beyond machinery, Peter has taken additional steps to make his shop safe. 

• Depending on the task, all workers must wear hearing protection, safety glasses, and respirators.

• Guards that are on the tools must stay there.

• Jigs and hold downs keep hands away from danger.

• A dust-collection system that doubles recommended air flows.

• Steel duct instead of plastic pipe for dust collection. (A grounding wire along plastic pipe makes the system a capacitator and increases the amount of charge that can be stored.)

• Anytime 100% of wood dust is not collected, Peter wears a P100 NIOSH-approved dust mask.

When he designed his workshop, Peter had no idea it would be Santa’s toy workshop part of the year. Good thing he had extra basement space.

“The one thing that changed was converting the family room to a shop so I could put the sliding panel saw there,” he  says.

But the original design, which Peter finalized before the house was built, was on the mark anyway. The tools were arranged to maximize available space. Tools that needed long space to function properly—the radial-arm saw, jointer, planer, and workbenches—were located along walls. Other equipment was located next to support columns to reduce the impact on workflow. As a result, four club members at a time can form a production line vastly increasing the overall volume.

The tool arrangement in the main shop lends itself to high-volume production. A workbench and radial-arm saw are aligned to facilitate cutting rough stock to manageable lengths. A few steps through an unobstructed area takes the worker to the jointer. A few steps right takes him to the planer for surfacing, back to the table saw and the adjacent bandsaw. From there, it’s just a few steps to the shaper for final sizing, then over to the wide-belt sander and flap sander. Carts Peter designed (see illustration on page 53) allow for the easy transfer of project parts from station to station.

To keep the work area more spacious, the air compressor sits in a separate room; the dust collector is outside.

 Lumber is stored over the four-car attached garage. Peter had it specially designed, including a steel beam and columns, to support 300 lbs. per square foot. Sheet goods are stored with the panel saw.

Smart Ideas for the Taking

1 Resaw jig: This resaw jig that Peter designed reduces waste and improves the quality of the cut pieces. Here, Peter inserts a walnut board between the jig and the fence. Two featherboards mounted on short pieces of angle iron allow them to be positioned both vertically and horizontally, depending on the height and thickness of the board. A tight, secure fit ensures resawn boards will have uniform thickness and smoothness. The jig itself is clamped to the bandsaw table.

2 & 3 Hose rack and drill support: Peter designed this hose reel (left side of photo)15 years ago and it remains a standard in his shop today. “It seemed like I had vacuum hoses lying all over the floor or I was trying to hang them on the wall. I had difficulty finding them sometimes,” Peter explains. The reel holds 20' of 1½" hose on the lower rack and 30' of  2½" hose on the upper rack. A collapsible leaf at each end of the drill press table gives Peter the flexibility to easily work on vertical pieces, but when locked into the horizontal position, larger pieces, such as rocking horse bodies or wagon parts, get plenty of support. 

4 Shop cart: Peter designed this cart with the express purpose of controlling clutter and speeding production so club members could easily move project parts between work stations for the next machining operation. Before he designed the cart, Peter says, “We had piles of wood and components scattered hither and yon on workbenches and saw tables. We were constantly moving components so we could use the table saw or workbench.” 

5 Spray booth: Here’s a safe solution. With 300 toys that need finish coats, club members spend a lot of time in Peter’s spray booth. Peter inserts a ¾" plywood panel into the 36" exterior door. The panel holds the ¾-hp, 24" explosion-proof fan. Four large screened windows in the office are opened to provide clean makeup air while the fan clears fumes and overspray. The booth walls are covered with 4 mil plastic sheeting; a canvas drop cloth protects the floor. The spray gun operator is fitted with a full-face supplied air respirator when working with toxic materials. A cartridge respirator could also be used, Peter says, but the cartridges would have to be replaced frequently.

Inset: a block glued to the plywood panel provides a filler allowing the clamp to hold it securely against the doorstops. “It works well. I’ve been doing it this way for a long, long time,” Peter says.

Peter Howell - safety engineer and toymaker 

“Making toys for the Salvation Army not only helps underprivileged children but also is a great way for our club members to learn the basics of woodworking and how to safely use tools and machinery."



Peter got his introduction to woodworking as a youngster, making wooden boats, planes, and cars under the watchful eye of his grandfather, a master carpenter. His interest never waned, but other than woodshop classes in middle school, working with power tools had to wait until Peter graduated from college, got a job, and had an income.

“I bought a radial-arm saw with my first paycheck,” Peter recalls. “In those early years, I used my income tax refund each year to buy another piece of machinery,” including thedrill press and combination belt/disk sander he uses to this day.

As a chemical engineer, Peter spent 30 years involved in the design, operation, maintenance, and management of chemical plants. For the last 10 years he has been self-employed as a safety consultant to the chemical, petrochemical, refining, pulp and paper industries, and the federal agencies that regulate them. Yet, at age 63, he has no plans to retire any time soon.

Peter joined the Valley Woodworkers of West Virginia Club after moving to the Charleston, West Virginia, area 12 years ago. It was his first experience with a club, but his knowledge of woodworking and workplace safety was instantly valuable. He served as chairman of the club’s Toy Committee and offered his basement shop as headquarters for the club’s annual toy-making program. From September through November, club members produce over 300 toys, in this and other members’ workshops,  that the Salvation Army provides to underprivileged children as Christmastime.

Peter says there is significantly less activity in his shop during the December-August “off-season.” As time allows, he makes furniture and toys for his family.  

With the addition of new power tools several years ago, club toy production increased from 100 cradles each year to 175 cradles plus alphabet blocks with wagons, rocking horses, and wagons. The club has donated 5,540 toys since 1991. The toys are made from local Appalachian hardwoods such as ash, cherry, walnut, and maple, which the West Virginia Forestry Association provides. A local business, Evans Lumber Company, donates hardwood plywood, and other local businesses donate steel axles, lacquers, and other supplies, which cover about 90% of the total cost. The balance comes from the club’s treasury.

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