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Proofing Your Home Workshop*
Quick tips to help your tools and workshop survive a disaster.
A natural disaster has just struck your town. It might be an earthquake, tornado, flood, ice storm, blizzard, or hurricane. Imagine now that you arrive home after this disaster to find your family and neighbors all healthy, but the street where you live is a literal disaster area.
“That’s okay,” you tell everyone, “I’ve got lots of tools. We’ll have this all cleaned up in no time.” You then lead a band of your closest neighbors to your workshop, where you keep a collection of tools even Craftsman would be proud of. As you turn the corner of your house, careful to avoid that fallen oak tree, you find your workshop, waiting patiently. As you enter, you quickly realize that every tool you own has been dumped into a huge pile of rubble on the floor. The lumber pile, normally stacked so neatly on the back wall shelves, looks like a wrecking ball smashed through it at forty miles per hour, leaving sharp, broken spears of wood protruding in various places. The peg board with all your precious tools is still on the wall, although the tools are scattered everywhere. The gallons of paint, polyurethane, mineral spirits, motor oil, grease and other solvents act as a thick, hazardous soup for all the equipment now on the floor. As you stare at the mess, you try and remember where you left the gasoline and fertilizer that you were using in the yard last weekend, knowing those two make an explosive mixture. Even worse, all those glass jars of nails, screws, bolts, and thing-a-ma-jigs that you inherited from your grandfather are now shards of razor sharp broken glass ready to slice open all but the toughest steel boots.
So much for grabbing your tools and rescuing your house and your neighborhood. It may be weeks before you can navigate through all the hazards in your workshop to find the tools you really need.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be you. With a little work, a few hours in the shop, and creative thinking, you can become that tool-welding rescuer you always wanted to be after a disaster.
When preparing your home workshop for a natural disaster, first think about what disasters might impact your area. In my area of the South, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the occasional flash flood are the major threats, while a hurricane and blizzard don't normally present problems. Your workshop plan should take into account the disasters you expect in your area. For example, if earthquakes are a problem, don’t hang your extra saw blades on a nail tacked into the overhead rafters.
There are some basic guidelines that will help make your workshop safer and more secure during most natural disasters. I use three words to guide my plan:
Secure - It is important to secure as many large, heavy objects as possible that might sway or fall during movement such as an earthquake or strong storm.
Contain - In a disaster, things are going to get shuffled, broken, turned over, and scattered. Contain that mess to an area you can work with or ignore until a later time. Most likely, you aren’t going to be staining Aunt Becky’s rocking chair right after a disaster, so finding that stain becomes less important. The mess the stain might make should it spill, should also be contained so it can be ignored until later.
Minimize - For practical reasons, some items can’t be permanently secured to a wall or kept under lock and key. I use as an example, the rack of yard tools covering one wall of my garage. I can’t permanently secure them. Even immobilizing them would become a hassle every Saturday when I work in the yard. The key here is to minimize the damage these items might do in a disaster.
1. Cabinets. Base and wall cabinets should be secured directly to wall studs using at least three inch long, heavy wood screws or lag bolts, driven through the main cabinet frame. The screws should penetrate at least two inches into the studs and include washers to slow the cabinet from breaking away. Wall cabinets, lumber racks, and other tall structures should also be secured directly to wall studs. For these, you can use 90 degree “L” brackets with at least three screws on each side. For structures that carry a considerable amount of weight, such as lumber or pipe racks, it is a good idea to secure them at the top and bottom, as well as every few feet along the wall. As motivation in your work, remember that you may be standing beside it when a sudden disaster strikes.
It is always a good idea to purchase child-proof door catches to install on your shop cabinets. Not only does it keep the little ones out of your power tools, or hazardous paint chemicals, it will keep the doors closed in the event of a natural disaster. Securing cabinet doors will help contain any items inside so things don’t get dumped onto the shop floor. Be careful when opening these cabinets after a disaster however, because heavy items may be leaning against the secured door and will fall out when the door is released.
3” wood screws or lag bolts - $ 0.10 each
90 degree “L” bracket - $ 0.50 each
Child-proof door latches - $ 5.00 for a package of three
2. Large Equipment and Big Tool Boxes. It is well known that woodworkers and shop people love their equipment. The bigger, the better. Truth is, shop equipment tends to be large, bulky, and top heavy. So it becomes important to secure this equipment as much as possible to the nearest wall. However, if you are like me, you don’t have a huge shop, and what space you have is precious. I typically move a piece of equipment, like a table saw or planer, out of storage just long enough to use it, then move it back to it’s normal place in the corner when I’m done. In a small shop, bolting equipment permanently to the wall becomes impractical. I have found an answer that is simple to implement, holds equipment securely, and is easy to work with in the shop day to day. Begin by screwing a three inch lag screw eye bolt into a stud nearest to where the equipment is normally stored. Second, use a short, but heavy, cable or chain looped through the eye of the lag screw and secured around the top of your equipment. Finally, use a spring loaded link or quick snap hook to quickly connect and disconnect the equipment from the wall whenever it is needed. Always pull any slack out of the cable before securing it again to minimize movement.
Lag bolts with eye - $ 0.25 each
Short chain/cable - $ 0.50 foot – need 18” per equipment
Spring latch - $ 0.75 each
3. Large Appliances. Some shops include other pieces of home equipment, such as water heaters, freezers, washers, dryers, etc. An excellent way to secure these items to the wall is to use steel strapping, often used to secure heating and air ducts, or plumbing pipes. The holes in the strapping provide the perfect place for screws to be secured to the wall. Again, remember to use several screws on each connection point, and washers if there is a chance the screw head might slip through the hole if shaken violently. It is recommended to use two or more straps for tall equipment like water heaters.
Pipe strapping - $ 3.00 for a 10 foot roll
4. Workshop Chemicals. Paint, mineral spirits, paint thinner, stain, polyurethane, motor oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, cleaners and other chemicals should only be stored in secure containers that will not break or spill when dropped. When certain chemicals mix, even household chemicals, they can quickly become what fire departments call “Hazardous Materials”. Yard chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides can be extremely dangerous when mixed with flammable materials such as gasoline or paint thinner. These items should always be kept as far from flammables and sparks as possible. HazMat is one of the biggest fears of rescue workers after a disaster because few people know what will happen when dozens of chemicals are mixed. Poisonous gases, fire, and acidic mixtures can all occur. Using secure containers and storage bins can minimize the risk from these items.
Gasoline cans, propane bottles, and other flammables should never be stored in a workshop, but should always be stored in certified containers which are then placed into ventilated containment bins well away from any living areas. A 2x4 framed box, covered with heavy wire mesh and a hinged lid, makes a great storage bin. The bin allows fumes to be vented, allows you to see inside and can be cleaned with a leaf blower or water hose. Of course it should always be secured to a wall to prevent movement. Best of all, with the addition of a hasp latch and padlock, the bin can be locked to keep kids from playing with those hazards.
One last point about workshop fluids. It is common for paint, mineral spirits, motor oil and cleaners to be purchased in one gallon containers. Because of the weight of these containers, it is highly recommended that these items be stored on a bottom shelf or at least below waist level to an average adult to minimize injury should they fall on someone.
5. Containers. Since the invention of mason jars, shop people have been putting loose nails, screws and gizmos into old glass jars for storage. However, glass jars have a problem in that they tend to break when dropped. Not only is this a hassle in the middle of a project, but it can be extremely dangerous to anyone standing nearby, and can create deadly shards during a disaster. There are many sets of plastic drawers and bins commercially available, but I have found a cheaper solution that is just as practical. I grab the plastic peanut butter jars from the kitchen just before they go into the trash. Removing the label and cleaning them makes a perfect, shatter resistant substitute to the glass jars of days gone by. While it may take a while to replace all those jars, you’ll find yourself longing for a PB&J sandwich simply because you need a container for those wire nuts. The plastic jars will save many, many hours of cleanup and potential injury both during regular projects and after a disaster.
6. Shelving. Most shops have boxes, tools, “projects in progress”, etc. sitting on shelves around the work area. Should the ground or building begin to move, it would be wise to have these items blocked onto the shelves to keep them contained. Ocean vessels have been blocking shelves for hundreds of years but the technology remains the same. A single board, such as a 1x2 or 1x4 can be permanently secured to the back and sides of the shelf supports so items can only be removed from the front. Then, a board can be placed along the front of the shelf and held fast with a locking pin, wing nut, or other fastener. This method allows quick access to the shelf, while ensuring that nothing will fall out. This technique has the added advantage of safety should a child ever attempt to grab something from a high shelf. The blocking board will help stop the box or tool from falling.
7. Yard Tools. One of the best ways to minimize the danger from falling yard tools is to hang them with the “business end” close to the floor. This danger was driven home to me one afternoon when I tried to catch a sling blade as it fell from a hook in the tool shed. I’ve got a scar from six stitches in the soft spot between my thumb and first finger that can support this solution. Drill holes in the handle of all shovels, rakes, axes, tree trimmers, etc. and loop a six or seven inch piece of strap leather through the hole and tie it securely. Use this leather strap to hang all the tools, blade down. Then, when they fall, and they will all eventually fall for one reason or another, the sharp end should only fall a few inches before it bounces harmlessly off the concrete floor of the shed or garage.
8. Tool Storage. Remember, lower is better. This technique applies to most disasters except flooding. Earthquakes, storms, and wind can all cause things to fall. Regardless of your preparations, some things are going to fall. With that in mind, stand in your shop and look around at what might fall should the ground begin to shake unexpectedly. Do you store those extra rip saw blades on a high shelf? Or maybe on a peg over your work table? If so, maybe it would be a good idea to move them to a lower shelf. Another idea that has merit is to drill a hole through the peg and slide a cotter pin or wedge through it. The pin should hold your blades on the peg even during the worst shaking. (Assuming of course that the peg is securely attached to the wall.) Again, this technique is excellent for minimizing damage, cleanup and potential injury.
Using these techniques as a starting point, your shop should weather a disaster without losing most of your tools. Natural disasters occur in all parts of the country in one form or another. As craftsman, either professional or amateur, we have the tools and the talent to make a significant impact for the benefit of our communities after a natural disaster. However, in order to be effective, we must prepare beforehand to secure, contain and minimize damage to ourselves, our families and our equipment.
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