The Man With A Plan: John Uhler’s Basement Workshop

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This article is from Issue 20 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Rubber floor tiles make the concrete floor easy on the feet and kinder to dropped tools. Plenty of wall cabinets and drawers keep hand tools and small items dust-free and organized.

When you enter John’s shop, the first thing you notice is how clean and bright it is. Within a few seconds, you forget that you are in a basement. The next thing that strikes you is the amazing array of tools that occupy this modest 550 sq. ft. space.

As you cruise down the quiet suburban streets of America, most likely you’re not thinking about spectacular workshops, but it’s probably no surprise to many that below ground lie some of the coolest shops imaginable. Such is the case with Pennsylvanian John Uhler, an amateur woodworker who has managed to get just about every tool you can think of into his tidy basement enclave. It’s not a big deal to get a lot of stuff into a limited space, but to make it efficient and workable is no small feat. Yet that’s exactly what John has done.

John got the woodworking bug around age 14. Eight years ago, after he married and started a family, he went house hunting, seeking a place where he could pursue his passion. He wanted a place with a sound basement where he could assemble his dream shop. His purchase of a 1950s-era Cape Cod proved just such a place. It has an 8' basement ceiling, which is rare. John took measurements and had worked out the floor plan within days of his first house tour. Way before settlement, he knew where everything would go. As his precocious 12-year-old daughter Kim put it, “My dad’s a man with a plan.” Now 44 years old, John is settled in and very pleased with his shop.

“The fun of turning is to discover what beautiful surprise nature has inside the wood and trying not to spoil it once you’ve found it.” John spends most of his time in the back corner of his shop where his lathes are located. After buying a new Jet lathe, he decided to keep his old lathe so friends can join him for turning sessions.

When John moved in, the basement housed a small efficiency apartment with various partitions and a suspended ceiling, which meant that his first project was some demolition work. As he started to remove a wall that divided his shop area in half, he decided to leave about 12" of the wall hanging down from the ceiling and covered it with pegboard. This proved to be a wise decision because now it provides centrally located storage for lots of small clamps, saw blades, and other sundries. The next job was to paint all the walls white and install plenty of light fixtures. Despite the fact that there is little natural light, this shop is as bright and cheerful as any above ground. Interlocking rubber floor tiles surround all floor areas not covered by machinery.

Although John doesn’t get to spend as much time in the shop as he would like, he’s looking forward to the time when he can. When that day arrives, he knows that all of his planning will pay big dividends in efficiency and enjoyment.

The Workshop at a Glance

Type: Basement with outside entrance and inside access from first floor.

Size: “L” Shape, 22'-8" x 26'-9", with 8' ceiling.

Construction: Concrete block with concrete floor. Fiberglass insulation in ceiling between joists to dampen noise.

Heating: Oil-fired boiler located in furnace room off of main shop.

Cooling: Two ceiling drops from upstairs central air-conditioning unit.

Electrical: 125 amp sub panel with 110v and 220v breakers. 

Lighting: (8) 4'-long bulb fluorescent box-type fixtures, (7) 4'-2 bulb fluorescent open fixtures, and various task lighting at specific machines.

Dust Collection: Delta 2-stage, 2-hp unit is located in “root cellar” off of main shop. Ceiling-hung, 3-speed ambient Jet air cleaner plus six small shop vacs for collection at selected machines.

Air Compressor: 5-hp, 20-gallon, horizontal Campbell-Hausfeld unit.

John’s table saw outfeed table doubles as a large layout and assembly area when needed. There is just enough room to break down 4 x 8' sheet goods. Note the conveniently located overhead pegboard storage through the center of the shop.

Due to the limited amount of time that John can spend in his shop, he likes all of his tools to be “at the ready.” It’s not apparent in the floor plan but many of his tools have staggered heights so that materials will pass over the top or underneath other tools, which means he doesn’t have to move anything in order to work long stock. Note that his planer is positioned so that all he has to do is open his entry door to process extra long boards. A look at the floor plan also reveals that John has two bandsaws, two shapers, two router tables, two drill presses, and two lathes. As a consummate recycler, many of his cabinets and tool bases were rescued from jobsites or the landfill.

To keep noise under control, John installed his dust collector in the root cellar. The cellar doubles as a lumber storage area while still more lumber is placed on a small in-shop lumber rack and in an outdoor shed. The oil burner in the furnace room provides ambient heat for cold winter nights. And the carpeted study gives John a clean environment for his computer and large library. One more nice amenity: a bathroom, complete with tub and shower. When John gets knee-deep in sanding dust, he can wash up without using the upstairs bathrooms.

Smart Ideas for the Taking

1 Lathe tool rack: John’s attractive lathe tool rack could double as fine furniture if it wasn’t function specific. When he built it, he had a set of eight tools. Knowing his turning interest would grow, he designed it to hold 15. As his tool collection grew he realized the rack wasn’t tall enough to accommodate his long bowl gouges. He keeps them in holes drilled in the bottom shelf of his lathe. Fig. 2 shows the rack as he originally built it, but his advice is to build it to accommodate the longest tools you plan to own.

2 Table saw tenoning and splining jig: John’s tall right-angle fence jig clamps to his saw’s fence (A) and serves as the foundation for several accessories. The corner slot-cutting sled a (B) is used to make decorative reinforcement for smaller frames. The wedging effect of the free-floating 90˚ block eliminates the need for a clamp. Hold-downs on another sled (C) make it easy to cut splines for larger frames, and a simple sliding work support (D) is used to cut tenons. He recommends you make your jigs to suit your saw’s fence and the projects on which you intend to use them.

3 Assembly bench: When John found this carver’s benchtop at an outrageously low clearance price at his local Woodcraft store, he knew he found the nucleus for an immensely handy shop helper. To support the top, he used two trestles from a conference table he found in a dumpster. John made two long side rails from maple, milled two L–shaped slots in each rail, and attached them using ¼" threaded inserts and male threaded knobs. The side rails can be adjusted from flush to 1" above the top (A) perfect for containing work during sanding, planing, and shaping chores. A complementary riser rail can be inserted into the vise to create a perfect 90° clamping and assembly frame (B). One end has a pullout (C) that extends 10" to provide extra support for longer work pieces. A final addition is a sacrificial top from 1/8" hardboard. A cleat on one end can be clamped into the vise if necessary. Although he has larger benches, John favors this one for most of his assembly and finishing work.

4 Saw station and stop: Low tech, inexpensive, and very effective, the extensions can be installed or removed in seconds. Notice how the heights of other shop components play an important role in much of John’s planning. A clever feature of the station is a simple-to-make, quick-to-use reversible stop (inset).

5 Flip-top router table: The router table is pretty simple and straightforward on the outside but the real innovations are on the inside. There are casters on the back corners, which enable the table to be easily moved by lifting the front and wheeling it to a desired spot. When the top is lifted, the lid stay drops down and engages an internal shelf to hold it up. There is dust collection at the bottom of the trough. Below the trough is a pullout shelf for bit storage and an ample space below for larger items.

6 Multi-function drill press table: John designed this feature-packed drill press table when this bench-mounted model was his only drill press, and it’s still his favorite for daily use. Bolting the drill press to a heavy cabinet and rotating the head 180˚ gave him the capacity of a floor model. The aluminum (80/20) extrusion rail was salvaged from a job site and has proven to be an ideal fence. The table is long enough to support most stock and uses replaceable inserts to reduce tear-out. Check out the clever right angle table and fence, which are handy for drilling the ends of long stock when the table is swiveled under the quill. The right angle table is also adjustable fore and aft.

John Uhler - manager & woodturner 

“Woodworking gives us an appreciation of the past, a bond to share in the present, and a legacy to leave for future generations.”

A sampling of John’s turnings. Most of his turning stock comes from local sources, much of it free for the taking.

Although John’s shop is capable of handling just about any woodworking job imaginable, he enjoys turning the most because he can usually start and finish projects in a day or two. His job as a sales manager for a security firm and his role as a devoted husband and father keep him busy most of the week. As if this isn’t enough, he also enjoys gardening, volunteers at a local nursing home, and is actively involved in his church. It’s not surprising that most of his work becomes gifts for friends and loved ones.

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