Inside the Workshop of Alan Holtham

Monday 9 July 2018

My current workshop, my 9th or 10th, is hopefully my last and I have been using it for the last decade. The layout, however, recently underwent a major reorganisation when I acquired a small room next door to use as a dedicated turning workshop.

The workshop inevitably changes and develops as your working style evolves and your personal requirements may also be very different from those of someone else.

My mode of working requires using machinery and power tools to make up for my lack of hand skills. A more traditional bench joiner would probably require far less in the way of machinery and much more hand tool storage.

The trick is to try and build in some allowance for these changes, keeping the whole arrangement as flexible as possible, and never to be afraid to make drastic changes if necessary. No matter what your starting point, the workshop will never be big enough. You just have to make the most of what is available and this sometimes takes several attempts to get right.

My only regret with the main workshop is that there is not a bit more space around the workbench area, otherwise the compact arrangement of machines works well for what I do.

Drill press

To the left of the door is the drill press. Because it is instantly accessible it is used a lot. The pedestal version is easier to move around for odd-shaped workpieces than a bench-mounted one.

Double doors

The double doors have proved to be a real blessing because unrestricted access is essential. Although taking up a lot of wall space they have made access to the workshop so easy, particularly with long pieces or sheet material. It is also nice on warm summer days and, more importantly if I am using a solvent-based finish, to open the doors wide and work in the fresh air.

Bandsaws, morticer

The large capacity of the Startrite 401 bandsaw has gobbled up all that I have thrown at it. This is fitted with a three-quarter inch blade and since I use this machine more than any other in the workshop the initial high investment has been very worthwhile. The siting of it is flexible enough to allow it to be moved around to suit the job in hand, though normally it is just slightly angled to allow me to rip long lengths. A roller stand is essential as a take-off table when I am working on my own.

To save space several of my machines are mounted on heavy-duty castors for effortless moving. This is particularly true of the morticer which is tucked in behind the bandsaw but pulls out in seconds ready for use.

I have also fixed wall boards by every machine to take all the necessary tooling and adjusting spanners. As well as keeping everything really neat and accessible it allows an instant check that nothing is missing before you throw out all those shavings. If you can find the tool to adjust the machine you will do it.

Next in line is another bandsaw, this time fitted with a narrow blade for profile work.


The combined belt and disc sander next to it has been a bit of a disappointment, or rather the disc part of it has been as regards accuracy, but I have now overcome this with a separate disc sander. Another good lesson here. Do not put up with machines you cannot feel comfortable with. Bite the bullet and either get rid of it or change it for something you do like.

Hand tools, aids

In the corner are my compressor and clamp store and a few shelves for my most regularly used hand tools. All the others are in a small cabinet under the right-hand end of the bench. More tools are stored on a wall board behind it.

Planer, thicknesser

After years working in a commercial workshop I just could not hack having a combined planer and thicknesser and having to keep swapping functions, so I still use a separate planer and thicknesser. However, amateur woodworkers should find that a combined machine will suffice.

I managed to squeeze both machines in along the back wall. Once again, angling the machines slightly allows you to deal with long lengths without them interfering with each other, though the outfeed of the thicknesser now uses the space of the little storeroom in the corner, where I keep my power tools, with screws, nails and fittings housed in drawer units.

Machine benches

Further round from the planer is a bench with a selection of small machines. I use the excellent small jointer for planing straight edges, but there is also the most useful bobbin sander and a much better dedicated disc sander.

To the right of the door as you come in is the long bench for the radial arm saw. The bench for this saw is a very substantial affair to allow for plenty of offcut storage underneath.

The location of the bench allows very long pieces to be supported on the drill press table while they are being cut. This was not the result of good planning but a lucky chance – another reason for not being too rigid in your ideas at the initial planning stage.

Bench, mitre saws

In the middle of the workshop is my bench saw with a scribing blade, essential for clean cuts on laminated materials. This does take up a lot of space, but being angled the sliding table pushes well out of the way when not in use.

The mitre saw is also in the middle of the workshop and is currently looking for a better home.

Spindle moulder, router table

Down the other side of the centre island are the spindle moulder and router table. Tooling for the moulder is expensive, so once again I have provided a wall board to keep it all together safely and highlight any omissions, along with a secure cupboard for the router cutters.

Sharpening studio

Going out of the main workshop we reach the little studio next door which houses all my sharpening gear, a dry grinder, wet grinder and drawers for all the various honing stones. In addition to being clean this room also has a sink and running water, with office drawers for storage. Sharpening is now a pleasure rather than a chore, so I do it regularly and the resulting sharp tools have improved my standard of work significantly.

Timber storage

Storage is another ever-present problem in any workshop, particularly if you are dealing with sheet materials, and my rather crude outside rack is the answer, having a small roof to offer protection from rain and sun. Bear in mind though that timber stored outside will absorb moisture so it will still need to be conditioned inside before you use it in a finished project.


All my turning has now moved to a separate building across the yard, giving me a dedicated space for this messy pastime, and after all these years making do with a cramped corner it is a wonderful improvement.

Workshop heating

You cannot work comfortably and safely if you are cold, so the workshop needs an effective means of heating. The first step is to insulate the structure thoroughly and eliminate any draughty gaps. This goes a long way to minimise the drastic temperature fluctuations that lead to condensation and rust.

Up-and-over metal doors need a covering of insulation or they just act as a giant radiator to the outside air. At the very least try a heavy curtain if you cannot install anything permanent.

Cast-iron stoves

Cast-iron pot-bellied stoves stuffed full of shavings and offcuts may seem like a good idea, but are dangerous owing to finishes containing flammable solvents and the danger of fine dust which is highly combustible.

However, if you have the space to separate off a dedicated area with a concrete base then the economics are indisputable, and they are great for heating the glue pot and kettle. I know many workshop owners swear by them, but I hate the idea of locking up at night knowing the fire is still burning. Also, your insurance company may take a dim view of the arrangement and if you are in a smoke-free zone it is a definite no-no.

Paraffin heaters

Other heaters using fuels such as paraffin generate huge amounts of water vapour that can have a serious effect on your tools, so are not a sensible option. If you are working in a garage the ideal solution is running a radiator off the central heating system. Fit it with thermostatic valves and you can then leave it on very low to keep the workshop frost-free when you are not using it.

My workshop has a small central-heating system fired by a gas boiler so I have the best of both worlds, but it can be expensive to run.

Oil-filled radiators

Many polishes are susceptible to frost and shellacs in particular seem to suffer with excessive cold and need to be kept warm, so I have a small radiator in the sharpening room which also houses spare polishes and all my abrasives.

Central heating was not possible in my new turning workshop, and in this situation there is nothing to beat oil-filled electric radiators. These have come a long way in recent years and now have built in timers and thermostats. You can set them to heat the workshop just how you want it, even when you are not there, and they are not expensive to buy or run.

Fan, halogen heaters

Fan heaters may seem a good idea, particularly if you need to get up to temperature quickly, but they do tend to blow the fine dust about and the element can get covered in dust which then burns, so I do not use them. Halogen heaters are not ideal either unless you are sat in one area the whole time – you really do need to get the whole workshop area and its contents warm.

Workshop lighting

Proper lighting is vital for comfortable working so I installed fluorescent fittings with daylight-balanced tubes for a crisp light. I am aware of the potential strobe effects with these lights making moving machinery appear stationary, but as I have never seen this for real in over 30 years of workshop experience I am happy to keep using them. I think it is one of those cases where theory does not translate to reality, the chance of synchronous tube flicker and blade speed being remote.

Extraction system

The extraction system seemed rather like overkill at the time, but it has made an incredible difference to the general cleanliness of the workshop. I was a little constrained by the headroom for putting in the pipe runs most effectively, and I wanted to minimise their intrusion into the working space, so I had to use rather more 90 degree bends than I would have liked. Nevertheless it works well. Because it is such a permanent structure it was important to leave the installation until the end when all the machine positions had been finalised.

Power sockets

Another real winner has been mounting the sockets at ceiling height above the bench area. Using several powertools at once is always tricky, and if you have wires trailing across the floor to the nearest plug they become a real trip hazard. The overhead sockets have eliminated all this and I shall probably install a few more.