Organize Your Bench

The next time you sit down at your bench, don’t think of it as just a bench. Think of it as the cockpit of a plane. That’s right, a plane. Sure, there are differences: Instead of dials, switches, and throttles, you have files, saws, and burnishers.

But the same principle applies: Just like a pilot doesn’t want a crucial switch out of reach, you don’t want to have to move out of your way to get a tool. Your setup should be carefully designed to avoid problems and to make working easy and fast.

Try it. Go to your workspace, sit in your favorite chair, and move your body and arms around, reaching for various tools: How comfortable are you? Is everything arranged for the smoothest working process, the easiest movements? If not, you need to find out why-and make some changes.

First, take a look at your chair: Does it have wheels? Wheeled chairs, while they seem to offer mobility, are actually among the most stressful to sit on because they’re constantly shifting. I know that when stone setting, I want a firm, immobile chair.

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Now think about the kinds of jobs you do at your bench. Which tools do you need most? Are they positioned for maximum accessibility? Go through the motions of a particular job and watch how you move, the natural paths that your body takes. Then position your tools along these paths in the order of how frequently they’re used. For example, when one’s right hand drops naturally down and hangs comfortably by the side, that’s where you can keep your most used file, at about palm height. It slides into a slot until just the handle sitcks out.

These days I have a number of tubes in a stack to the right of my bench pin, and that is where my files are kept, in the ‘dead space’, the unused space in my working area. And again the handles stick out so that I can easily take the one I want. A number of tools are slid into holes drilled horizontally into the bench top surface, so that they too only have their handles showing at the edge of the bench top- tools like burnishers, scribe, pencil, miniature screwdriver and so on. You want to avoid tool positions that make you reach too far, twist around, or otherwise stress your body and limbs. Remember: Your benchtop work area should be only as deep as your hand can reach without straining.

You should also neatly assemble your tools: in rotating bins, in movable blocks with tools sprouting from them, on tool boards, or in open shelves and compartments. (Drawers are considered more stressful to use.) Have lots of good pliers around. (ergonomically designed pliers are now available), as well as multiple flex-shafts to avoid having to change bits-many professionals have at least three.

Just as important as having tools within easy reach is putting them back as soon as you’re done with them. That’s what surgeons, dentists, and smart machinists do to work efficiently and safely. I heard of a young man who watched a glass cutter one day for a while, wondering why he returned each tool to its place as he used it. Then he noticed this cutter worked very fast-faster than he would have if he had been forced to search for a tool every time he needed one. Our parents’ instruction to “put things back where you found them” makes more and more sense as time goes by.

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Organizing a workspace can have amazing results. During a discussion on Orchid, jeweler Mark Zirinsky described the reorganization of a manufacturing workshop: “Our shop foreman took all the clutter in our production area and moved it into the hallway, then brought each item back piece by piece into storage areas, inventory areas, work-in-progress areas, and testing areas, until everything was neatly organized. When he had finished, the production areas were completely bare except for a workbench, a stool, lighting, a soldering iron, and the exact number of parts needed to complete the piece being worked on at that moment.”

Up until then, Zirinsky says, the shop’s average cycle time was about 20 minutes; after the reorganization, it dropped to eight minutes, and the defect rate fell from 4 percent to less than 0.5 percent. Not only that, but the assemblers’ daily break increased from a half-hour break to 1.25 hours. “Our production went up, costs went down, everyone was more relaxed, everybody was happy,” Zirinsky reported.

An organized workspace is not only more efficient, it’s also safer. Accidents happen less often if things are tidy and organized Just like a chemistry lab, try and have work surfaces empty most of the time. And, to reduce the chance of eyestrain, make sure you have correct lighting. In general, the lighting levels required for fine bench work are about twice as high as for fields such as woodworking. Some tips include:

  1. Keep the light sources themselves out of your field of vision.
  2. Use matte rather than shiny surfaces for benchtops.
  3. Have your strongest light on your bench pin-the spot where you are actually touching and looking closely at your work object. This light level should be 10 times brighter than the background lighting in the room, and the lighting on the rest of your work surface should be about three times brighter than the background. It helps if the strong lighting on the working area is diffuse, such as from a daylight spectrum fluorescent lamp.

No matter what jobs you may have, everything on your bench should be arranged for the smoothest working process. The more details you’ve considered about how you work to move, the more you’ll be able to speed production-and the more money you’ll be able to earn. So remember: Treat your benchtop like the cockpit of an airplane-and get ready to watch your profits soar.

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Copyright © Charles Lewton-Brain 2001
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