What are the common challenges with woodworking and how does Cortland Woodworks tackle these?
Working with wood carries a unique set of risks. Most tools have sharp spinning and cutting parts. Many older tools were designed with poor guarding, the pieces that physically prevent a user from coming into contact with a blade, belt or other moving part. Tools that are not regularly maintained or fitted with the right blade or bit can pose an additional hazard. I am often surprised by the number of tools I see in home shops, at garage sales and auctions where guards are missing or broken, electric cords are frayed, and a blade is bent or plain worn out.
Perhaps the greatest safety risk is uncertainty on the part of the operator about how to use a tool and about knowing the limitations of each tool – what it can and cannot do. Some folks do not have someone to turn to for honest how-to guidance and support.
Having ready access to hearing, eye and dust protection are other common safety challenges.
At Cortland Woodworks, safety of all members and class attendees is an absolute priority. We first maximize the safeness of the environment by investing in modern professional-grade tools that employ the most advanced safety features. For example, our table saws are exclusively SawStop. The blades on these saws carry a small electrical signal. Should someone accidentally contact the blade, a brake is engaged into the blade, stopping it in less than 5 milliseconds. The table saw, often considered the most dangerous tool in the shop, is now one of the safest.
Secondly, we have a rigorous weekly inspection and maintenance program for all shop tools, making sure that guards, blades and equipment are in proper working order. And, we have a number of jigs and other tool aids (e.g. push sticks, clamps) that are openly available for use by shop members to help maximize their safe operation of tools.
That said, the biggest investment we make at Cortland Woodworks is with you, the woodworker. No matter your skill level, there is mandatory training to educate members and class participants on the features of each piece of primary shop equipment. During these trainings we demonstrate the proper technique and specific capabilities of a given piece of equipment, and individuals demonstrate their competency. Individuals must obtain safety certification before using a piece of equipment. A shop supervisor is on hand to ask questions and provide guidance as needed.
Finally, we provide all members with access to safety eye wear and hearing protection. Wearing protective eye wear is required in the primary shop area. Many of the primary shop tools are connected to a central dust collection system with a HEPA media filter, which drastically reduces airborne dust.
Woodworking can quickly get expensive. Purchasing quality, safe, and precision-manufactured tools costs a lot of money. Often times a home woodworker can struggle to justify purchasing a needed tool because of the limited use it will see. The cost of wood and fasteners can also really add up with some projects. Some folks, particularly those who rent or who live in apartments, often don’t have a space to even begin to consider working with wood.
I remember starting into woodworking while renting a two-bedroom apartment, with the “shop” in one of the bedrooms. Needless to say, building anything of size, and making noise and dust, was a real challenge. For property owners, the cost to maintain a home shop, or to take up room in a garage or basement, is not insignificant... particularity when you include the expenses of building or maintaining a space and providing heating, cooling and lighting.
At Cortland Woodworks, a monthly membership is available for what amounts to less than the monthly cost of a small storage unit or a decent dinner for two. Learn more about our membership plans here.
A membership opens the door to accessing over $150,000 worth of professional shop equipment in a comfortable and well-lit space. Membership also provides access to an on-site inventory of heavily-discounted supplies, namely rough-sawn hardwood and softwood lumber of varying dimensions and a selection of commonly used fasteners. We often obtain materials from non-traditional methods, including auctions and private sales, and pass on the heavily-discounted savings to our members. Wood glue is provided for on-site use with projects at no additional charge. Finally, members receive a 5% discount with any offered class or training event at the shop.
I also like to think about the valuable money-making or money-saving opportunities that open up for when someone has access to a woodshop. The opportunity exists to build something you need, to make presents for others, or even sell what you make. Make it better than you can buy it, for less than you can buy it. Personalize it or customize it. Experiment with a new product to sell online or locally. Carpe Diem!
When I first started building things, one of the biggest challenges was the weather. Working in an unheated garage, barn or basement can be bone chilling cold in the winter, damp in the fall and spring, and a sweat lodge in the summer. These conditions limit personal comfort but also put a real strain on shop tools, the stability of lumber, and the performance of paints and glues.
I remember building a set of maple cabinets in an old detached garage. Even with electric heaters, the cold set in fast and wearing bulky coats and gloves compromised the ability to use many tools. Accuracy was further compromised as the wood moisture was too high in the unheated space, leading to too much wood movement and shrinkage once the cabinets were finally moved indoors. The electric motors and bearings of the tools would whine in protest each frigid morning. The application of a finish had to be timed precisely with the weather to achieve minimum drying temperatures, and managing dust during the finishing process was a challenge. The cabinets turned out ok in the end, but the stress on myself, the inefficiency of the process, and the excessive wear on the tools was hard to justify.
Given these sorts of challenges, the Cortland Woodworks facility is entirely climate-controlled, to be comfortable year round. The main shop has a wooden floor, which is more comfortable to walk and stand on for periods of time compared to concrete. A separate, connected, “clean room” provides an ideal space for finishing projects. On-site lumber is also stored in the climate-controlled space, with the ideal low-moisture content for immediate use.
In the name of comfort, we also have a full kitchen (have a hot lunch!); coffee and assorted drinks; a break area; a computer for ordering supplies and brainstorming; WiFi-access, and; clean women’s and men’s restroom facilities. See all of these spaces on the virtual tour.
Having the right tool for the job can make all the difference in the world. There are dozens of different types of saws for cutting wood. Each is designed to do a specific job a little better than their counterparts. Likewise, there are many different kinds of sanders. Again, each type made to perform a certain task quicker, better, or safer than the others.
At Cortland Woodworks our goal is to have the right tools to enable you to complete virtually any woodworking project without compromise. We've invested over $150,000 in modern (and vintage) power tools, hand tools, workstations and jigs to make the shop complete. There are even duplicates of many primary tools in the shop to reduce the chance of downtime to use a table saw, miter saw, and many other essential tools. Check out our current list of primary shop tools here.
What does it mean to be sustainable, truly sustainable? Well, to us sustainability is about taking stewardship of scarce resources - whether these resources are things or time or money.
Cortland Woodworks provides tools that are built to last, and that can be shared and justified because they are frequently used by many folks to build great things. Contrast that with what happens when each woodworker tries to go it on their own, often purchasing cheaper tools that either sit unused for periods of time, or end up breaking and being thrown away every few years. Likewise, individual woodworkers each have to dedicate and maintain space to keep all these tools. There is more waste, more utility consumption, more space consumption, and higher costs to woodworking when we each try to go it alone. Time is also of the essence. With the right tools and know-how, the time it takes to create at Cortland Woodworks is more focused on the process rather than on struggling to make-do with tooling or space constraints that make woodworking a much more time-consuming and challenging endeavor.
We can take the sustainability platform even further. How sustainable is it for us to continue to purchase cheap imitation home furnishings that rarely last long before falling apart and heading to the landfill? How sustainable is it for us to buy furniture made with high VOC solvents and glues with the known health effects of long-term exposure to these chemicals? How sustainable is it for us to continue to meet our need for home good from suppliers that assemble products and transport them thousands of miles? Well, it's not really, if you consider the alternative. Build something that will last for generations. Build something finished with natural oils and waterborne glues that will have a negligible VOC content. Build something from local wood that goes directly from the shop to your home. Let's take ownership of the stuff we need and let's take the initiative to meet those needs in a more sustainable way.
Woodworking is tough in tight spaces. I've grown up with starter shops in basements and garages. I know what it is like to spend a half-hour moving out the car, the bicycles, and rolling around various tools just to be able to cut or plane a board. It can be harder to get motivated to work on a woodworking project when you know that just setting up the space and tools is a job in itself. It's also sometimes unsafe. Trip hazards, a mess of extension cords, and balancing plywood and long lumber to fit between walls or other tight obstructions is a bit of a circus act sometimes. We do what we can to build, but the process is definitely made harder by the limitations of space.
At Cortland Woodworks there is over 4,000 square feet of space with a tall cathedral ceiling. Over half of the facility is dedicated shop space, and the remainder is dedicated for wood storage and conveniences (restrooms, kitchen, computer station...). Each primary cutting tool is laid out to cut at least an 8 foot long board without having to move the tool. Storage areas are organized and labeled to make finding things easier. There is a dedicated clean room for painting and finishing. The right spaces make a difference!
Gaining experience, and getting comfortable building things, takes time and practice. It is especially challenging when you're unsure how to use certain tools safety and effectively. Having someone to ask questions of, and who can take time to teach and share options can be invaluable to beginners and experienced woodworkers alike.
At Cortland Woodworks, we strive to have approachable, encouraging staff who realize that we all make mistakes and that we learn through the act of doing. We provide structured tool trainings to help make the process of building fun, effective and safe. We also provide classes geared to multiple skill levels, from novice to expert, which are great guided opportunities to grow your skills. You might very well be amazed at what you can make!