The His-and-Her Workshop

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This article is from Issue 22 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Michael L. Maine

Can a husband and wife share the same basement workshop and not drive each other up the wall? 

Buzz and Nelda Kelly of Indian Springs, Alabama, have been doing it for the past 10 years and couldn’t be happier.

Ten years ago, when Buzz Kelly first gave serious thought to retiring, he decided to check out a class offered by the Alabama Woodworkers Guild. His wife, Nelda, offered to drive him. They arrived a little early and the doors were still locked, so Nelda hung around, just to make sure Buzz wasn’t stranded. She ended up taking the class too, and together they discovered a hobby to last a lifetime.

“I don’t think at that point I realized it would cause such a change,” says Nelda about their newfound hobby.

Both in their 50s, Buzz and Nelda’s routine days are vastly different. Now retired from an information technology career at Birmingham Waterworks, Buzz spends much of his day in the shop. Nelda works as a technical planner for a local bank. “I am so jealous,” Nelda says, referring to Buzz’s shop time. “If I didn’t have a really intense, busy job, I’d probably go crazy.”

A pair of 7 x 9' garage doors provides easy access and plenty of fresh air to Buzz and Nelda Kelly’s workshop. At the center of the shop is the table saw with outfeed table and a rolling auxiliary table built to the same height. That’s Buzz in the foreground cutting wood; Nelda is in the background at the European-style workbench—a favorite work station. “We wish we had two,” Nelda says. Colorful foam tiles provide an easy-on-the-feet insulated floor surface. Overhead a central duct attached to the HVAC ductwork carries dust to a central vacuum.

Both are avid students of woodworking. They frequently take classes sponsored by the local guild and elsewhere, learning new skills and then applying them to projects in their own shop.

“The good/bad thing about both marriage partners becoming woodworkers is that ALL of the money goes to the workshop,” Nelda says with a laugh. “Another is that a week-long woodworking class becomes a very viable, even attractive, vacation opportunity.”

They credit their rapid development as woodworkers to other guild members for willingly sharing their knowledge. The best payback, Buzz says, “is learning what they’ve done, and then coming home and using our tools to perform these skills on our projects. Sometimes we tweak what we’ve learned to make it our own.”

Conceding that they needed more workspace, Buzz and Nelda opted to close off one of the garage doors and use the space in front as a sliding compound mitersaw workstation. A plywood shell around one side captures dust. The back of the shell functions as a clamp rack, as does one side.

Interjects Nelda, “What Buzz is trying to say is that we are incapable of following instructions.”

Fortunately for the Kellys, at the same time their woodworking interests took off, a relative decided to part with his tools, so they bought them. That got them started with a minimal investment. First they built a simple workbench made of 2x4s. Next, they moved up to more finished-looking tables for the compound mitersaw and table saw outfeed table, and then graduated to the European-style workbench they both love.

“For three years or so, it seemed that all we built were shop projects,” Nelda recalls. “It’s hard at first. What they don’t tell you is that to build a shop you need a shop.”

Equipped with multiple vises and a tool tray, the European-style workbench serves as one of the shop’s most versatile tools. Storage space is in high demand in a shop with two woodworkers. Screws, tacks, and saw blades occupy one area; various finishing materials sit on the shelves behind Buzz.

The Workshop at a Glance

Size: 33 x 43' with separate space for wood storage.
Construction: Cinder block basement that includes two 3 × 6' windows, two standard 7 x 9' garage doors, and one 2' 8" x 7' exterior door. 
Heating and cooling: Household HVAC system provides heating and cooling.
Lighting: Fluorescent lights; three 8' dual-tube fixtures; seven 4' quad-tube fixtures; two 4'dual-tube fixtures; plus task lighting and magnifying work lamps.
Electrical: All the Kellys’ 220-volt tools draw from a shop-dedicated sub-panel.
Dust collection: Oneida Super Gorilla 3-hp cyclone; two jet 1/5-hp air cleaners rated at 1,044 cfm airflow.
Air compressor: Single-stage Porter-Cable rated at 6 hp.

Over the years, they have accumulated a full power-tool collection, including two lathes, two scrollsaws, a sliding compound mitersaw,  a bandsaw,  a table saw, two drill presses, an 8" jointer, several routers, a dedicated mortise machine, spindle sander, belt and drum sanders, two router tables, 15" planer, a couple of sharpening systems, and numerous hand tools.

“They say it takes about $10,000 to get started, but $10,000 is a drop in the bucket,” Buzz says.

“Things we would change include buying bigger the first time around,” adds Nelda. “We bought a 6" jointer and then a couple of years later replaced it with an 8". Our advice—buy the best equipment you can afford. You’ll be glad you did.”

The Kellys go through phases, in both the types of projects they make and the woods they use. They’ve made projects out of oak, maple, cherry, and walnut, but most of the projects—a blanket chest, a barrister bookcase, a lamp, and two card tables—used mahogany. That was followed by the “walnut phase,” says Nelda, when they created such pieces as hunt boards and spice cabinets. Currently they are in an “ornamentation phase,” which involves adding stringing and inlay into many of their projects. Recently their matched pair of Federal-style card tables earned blue ribbons at the guild’s annual show. Their favorite finish is a hand-rubbed oil finish (see Buzz’s “recipe” below.) All pieces remain in their home or go to friends or family.

“Those card tables have some stringing on the tops that wasn’t in the original,” says Nelda. “That’s the thing about making your own stuff. Each piece is uniquely yours…sometimes on purpose.”

One of Nelda’s current projects is a walnut spice box with nine inlaid drawers. Here she’s using a foot-controlled Dremel tool to groove a drawer for string inlay.

BUZZ Kelly’s Show-Stopping finish

A patient and meticulous person, according to Nelda, Buzz gets the credit for the show-stopping finish on their projects—a hand-rubbed process that takes about a week. 

1. Sand the bare wood to 220-300 grit.

2. Flood the wood with boiled linseed oil—HOT. (We use a small Crock-Pot to heat the oil.)

3. After drying overnight, sand with wet/dry 400-grit sandpaper using boiled linseed oil as a lubricant to create a slurry. (You can add rottenstone to highlight the grain and help fill open-grain woods.) Wipe the wood dry again.

4. After 4-5 days, scuff-sand with wet/dry 400-grit sandpaper; wipe down. Apply 1 lb cut shellac with smooth (Viva) paper towels (one or two coats).

5. Scuff-sand with wet/dry 600-grit sandpaper. Use mineral spirits for lubricant if desired. Wipe down and let dry overnight.

6. Apply Waterlox sealer with a paper towel. Let dry overnight. Scuff-sand with 600-grit wet/dry sandpaper using mineral spirits for lubricant. (Repeat this step three to four times.)

7. Scuff-sand with 800-grit wet/dry sandpaper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant.

8. Buff with buffing compounds 1 and 2 to medium gloss.

9. Wax and buff.

Buzz and Nelda won a blue ribbon for this pair of Federal-style card tables. Buzz’s table is shown with the top open; Nelda’s with the top closed. Both convert to full- or half-circle tables. 

A Common Sense Layout

Buzz and Nelda’s shop layout is constantly evolving. Initially confined to one bay of the attached basement-level garage (the other bay reserved for their car), they contemplated building a separate shop. They decided the basement shop was so convenient that, instead, they built another garage for the cars.

“This way we could take advantage of the heating and cooling from the house,” says Nelda. “There is a bathroom at the top of the stairs, and it was pretty easy to put in a telephone and rig it with a light that flashes when the phone rings.”

Now the shop occupies the entire former garage space. The locations of major tools and workstations have changed as the Kellys invested more in their shop and refined their skills. However, the locations of the four posts lined up through the center of the shop have remained central to the workflow (see floor plan above).

“The posts can’t be moved because they hold up the house,” Buzz explains. “So we set the tools around those posts. I ran all the ductwork and wiring down the posts to try to save as much space as I could.”

Metal ducts extend from the major power tools and up the posts where they connect to main duct wired to the overhead HVAC duct, leading to the Oneida 3-hp dust collector. It is controlled at each piece of equipment by a blast gate that turns the system on and off. A recent acquisition, the dust collector prompted yet another reorganization of shop tools. “Before that we had two dust collectors that I put on each machine. It was awkward. The (new) dust collector freed up a lot of other stuff,” says Buzz.

At the shop’s core is the Powermatic 66 table saw and rolling side table along with the adjacent Performax drum sander. To the right is a 15" mobile planer; to the left, a stationary jointer. The bandsaw and belt sander are clustered around the end pole. Storage shelves, workbenches, and other tools—including a pair of drill presses, router tables, compound sliding mitersaw, and a scrollsaw—are strategically distributed around the perimeter. Wood is stored in an attached room that also serves as a tornado shelter.

Colorful playroom tiles purchased at a local home center offer several advantages. They are comfortable to stand on, have prevented many a dropped tool from denting or breaking, and provide insulation by covering the bare concrete floor.

“In the winter, the temperature would fluctuate significantly,” says Nelda. “With this flooring, we have a 65° constant temperature.”

Smart Ideas for the Taking 

Blade safe: This white mahogany blade safe brought order to the Kellys’ blade collection. A joint project they completed several years ago, the safe features 20 drawers. It’s easier to build than it looks. “Simple joinery and a ¼" dado cutter,” says Buzz. 

Plywood guide: Cutting large plywood panels down to size on a table saw can be a bit cumbersome, so Buzz devised this plywood cutting jig. When down, the flip-up fence shows the exact location of his circular saw blade, eliminating a measuring step. “Now I just measure one time, flip the board and cut the line with my saw,” says Buzz. The jig is adaptable to other portable power tools, such as a router and jigsaw.

3 & 4 Panel sled: Buzz built this panel sled years ago when he had to cut a large piece of countertop, and it has been a fixture in the shop ever since. Designed for safety, the sled is constructed of ½" plywood on the bottom and 2 x 6" risers. Wooden runners on the bottom fit into the table saw slots to guarantee smooth, square cuts. 

Fence support: Another safety device is this simple sliding fence, ideal for cutting stock on edge. The workpiece is clamped to the sliding fence and the cut is made as shown here - fingers well out of harm’s way. “It’s much easier than trying to balance a board on edge, like when you are cutting a raised panel,” Buzz says.

Tool rack : Although they continue to outfit their shop with new tools, the Kellys occasionally put their old tools to good use. They acquired this lathe and collection of turning tools from Nelda’s brother-in-law. The simple angled stand keeps the tools within easy reach.

Buzz and Nelda’s Toy Build-A-Thon  

In 2007 the Alabama Woodworkers Guild donated 7,400 toys to local organizations. Various guild members hold build-a-thons at their home workshops in the fall as the deadline for completing the projects nears. On Fridays, guild members meet at the local Woodcraft store and use the store’s shop for build-a-thon projects. Cars, jewelry boxes, and game boards are the most common items.

Buzz and Nelda host one or two sessions at their home each September and October. On these days, a shop usually occupied by one or two woodworkers may see 27 guild members at work. In about four hours they can complete 300 cars and jewelry boxes. Many of the cars are left unpainted so children can paint them as part of their physical therapy. 

Toys are distributed among several organizations, including the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, the Alabama Department of Human Resources, and the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind. 

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