Get Smart! Top Tips for Your Workshop — And Your Life

Get Smart! Top Tips for Your Workshop — And Your Life

This article is excerpted from the new book Tips and Tales from the Workshop, Volume 2 by Gareth Branwyn. Check it out, along with the original Tips and Tales from the Workshop — both available now from Maker Shed and fine bookstores.

Like its predecessor, Tips and Tales From the Workshop, Volume 2 draws from the best shortcuts, workarounds, and workshop practices found in the pages of Make: magazine, on the Make: Community website, and amongst the wider online maker community.

My great hope is that this second collection will further the conversation even more. Please share with me your favorite tips, tool recommendations, and tales from your workspace. I love to hear stories about how you learned a useful technique, how you came by a beloved tool, or about how a project went epically great or horribly wrong. Bonus points for project redemption stories.

Let’s keep the conversation going …

Shop Organization

Pegboard Tool Shelf

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

If you have scraps of pegboard, you can mount them on pegboard brackets as a shelf, and even use the peg holes to organize drivers and other similar tools.

Storage Cases With Removable Bins 

If lots of your components, hardware, and other bits and bobs are small, consider investing in plastic portable storage cases with removable bins inside. You can find these at online tool warehouses for $6–$10 each. I bought several dozen during my shop re-org and still have a few in the closet if I need more.

No-Roll Pencils

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

Here’s a great WDITOT (why didn’t I think of that?): There are a number of marking tool designs and tool modifications that address the problem of pencils, pens, markers, and scribing tools rolling off of workbenches. And then there’s a little flag of masking tape.

Measuring and Marking

Finding the Thickness of a Wire

If you need to find the thickness of a wire but don’t have a micrometer or calipers handy, wrap the wire around a dowel many times in a tight helix leaving no gaps between the coils. Now, measure the width, of say 30 coils (as an example), with an ordinary ruler and divide by that number (in this case, 30). The more coils you wind, the more accurate your measurement. Even if you’ve got top-quality digital calipers, it’s more accurate if you use this wind-and-divide method than if you measure a single thickness.

Determining If Hardware Is Imperial or Metric

If you’re not sure whether a piece of hardware is measured in metric or Imperial, measure a dimension of it with your calipers and switch between mm and inches. The read-out that is closer to a whole number is likely the system of measurement used.


Correctly Set Your Blade Depth

When cutting material on a circular saw, make sure your saw’s blade depth is set correctly. You might not think this really matters, but it does. You want your blade to only be ¼” to ½” below the bottom of the material you’re cutting. This is not only safer, it helps prevent binding (the blade getting stuck) and allows for a more efficient cut.

Prevent Tear Out With Masking Tape

Sawing through plywood, especially with a jigsaw, can create a lot of “tearout” (where pieces of the material you’re cutting give way along the edge of the cut). To prevent this, cover your workpiece with masking tape around the area of the cut. As a bonus, you can draw your cuts/project layout directly onto the tape.


A Tip About Glue Tips

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

Have you ever noticed that many glue bottles have stepped tips to their applicators? It may be obvious, but still worth pointing out, that these are there to allow you to cut the tip so as to control the amount of adhesive you wish to apply.

Labeling Glue Flow Rates

As stated above, many glue bottle nozzles have two or three steps molded into them to indicate where to cut to establish a thin, medium, or thick flow. If you use a lot of glue in the shop, you might want to have three different bottles with different flow rates cut into their tips for different applications. Label them accordingly.


Turn an F-Clamp into a Wheel Clamp

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

From the YouTube channel Create comes this brilliant idea. Attach a skate wheel to an F-clamp to create a wheeled clamp that you can use for moving large boards and sheet goods around.

Simple Clamp Rack

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

Elisha Albretsen of the YouTube channel Pneumatic Addict cleverly used Strong-Tie connectors as the basis for her clamp storage wall. For bar clamps, she attached a short length of 2×4 to the Strong-Tie horizontally, and for spring and band clamps, she attached a vertical length of 2×4. You can get Strong-Tie connectors — this style is called a rafter tie or hurricane tie — online and at any home store.

Kitchen Tips

Getting Cork Crumbs Out of Wine

It’s inevitable that you’re going to have floaters once in a while — pieces of cork that end up in your fancy (or two-buck Chuck) bottle of wine. An easy way to get them out is to use a straw (before serving). Stick the straw down into the bottle’s neck and place the end of it over a cork crumb. Place your thumb over the other end of the straw to create suction. Remove the straw and lift your thumb to release the crumb. Repeat to remove any additional crumbs. Pour and enjoy.

Keep the Trash Bag Roll in the Trash Can

When I talk about tips, I’m always interested in the ones that stick. I read about this tip in Family Handyman magazine and have been using it ever since. I have a “thing” about emptying the trash (perhaps childhood trauma over being the family garbage man). I hate it. For a while, I was triple-bagging the trash can (so that you peel off the inside, full bag and you have another all ready to go). But then I read about just leaving the whole roll of plastic bag liners in the bottom of the can so that you can quickly grab a new bag after you remove the full one. Game-changer.

Burger Stack Hack 

How often do you get a restaurant burger, or grill one yourself, and before you’re finished horking it down, the soggy bun has lost the will to live and disintegrates in your hands? Here’s my fix for your fixin’s. Don’t place the meat directly on the bun, or the condiments on top of the lettuce. Place the lettuce between the meat and the bun, and between the condiments and the bun. No more soggy burgers.

Life Hacks

Wheelbarrow Recliner

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

That moment when you realize that your wheelbarrow can also be used as a surprisingly comfy chair (cold beer optional). From the Homestead/Survivalism Facebook group.

Soda Caps and Contact Cases

Illustration by Richard Sheppard

Make: pal Miguel Valenzuela made a wonderful little discovery and posted it to Facebook. A soda bottle cap’s threads perfectly match those of a contact lens case. The discovery was actually made by his 2½-year-old daughter, Charlotte. In response to the posting, Lenore Edman of Evil Mad Scientist Labs reminded us that you can also use contact lens cases as tiny parts holders, especially for tiny surface-mount components.

This article appeared in Make: Volume 80. Subscribe for more tips and projects delivered directly to your mailbox.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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