The Nomadic Workshop

This winter, I built a large dining table out of reclaimed Douglas Fir. I started that adventure at the Station North Tool Library, milling the planks and gluing up the top. For the rest of the process, I moved the table to the massive, unheated basement of a semi-vacant building nearby. A friend of mine had a shop in there, so there were a few tools and the occasionally coffee, but it was definitely a guerilla setup.

Over the years, I've built furniture all over the place. Guerilla Furniture Design mentions some of these ad-hoc shops -- basements, driveways, garages, living rooms -- but didn't really get into nomadic workshop design. As my tool collection has expanded, it has become more unwieldy, outgrowing a collection of bags and store-bought solutions. Faced with a long-distance move, I decided to consolidate my stuff into four plastic break-pack totes. However, after months of projects and reshufflings, I ended up with five disorganized totes and a pile of homeless gear. 

The forces of entropy at work. 

The forces of entropy at work. 

Loosely speaking, I had five crates: fasteners, finishing, hand tools, and two power tool collections. The fasteners had descended into an unredeemable level of chaos, piled into unsearchable stacks of tupperware tubs. Drill bits had gone down a similar rabbit hole, collected in a ragtag pile of random boxes. My power tool collection was in its own collection of containers. 

What I wanted was a clearly marked set of boxes, partitioned according to task. I wanted the fasteners to be instantly readable and accessible. I wanted to pare down the weight of each container by getting rid of excess (read: minor hoarding) or unused tools and materials. After a hectic afternoon, a bag of trash, and two bags of recycling, I had it slapped into shape. 

Crate 1: drill/driver kit and charger, corded drill, drill bits, Kreg jig kit.

Crate 2: circular saw, angle grinder, Dremel, hole saws.

Crate 3: router, 1/4 sheet sander, ratchet set, extension cord, clamps.

Crate 4: hand tools, including measuring tape, box cutter, speed square, hammers, chisels, planes, pliers, wrenches, shears, work gloves, ear muffs, safety glasses. 

Crate 5: finishes, including wax, pickling stain, butcher block oil, lacquer, wood glue, epoxy, rags, gloves, brushes, painter's tape.

Crate 6: fasteners, including bolts/screws, sewing/electronic, hooks, rivets, staples, and miscellaneous tape, glue, etc. arranged in clear-lidded suitcases from the big orange store, allowing their contents to be assessed at a glance.



The fasteners were the bulk of the work.  Always be knolling.

The fasteners were the bulk of the work. Always be knolling.

Now, I have a stack of sorted tools and two collapsible sawhorses, all of which can be thrown in the car as needed for whatever task is at hand. With my guerilla roof rack (also in the book), I can also forage for material as necessary. But, beyond my small-scale victory in the endless war on entropy, it's really just a stack of tool boxes that keeps my apartment looking semi-presentable. I've often thought about a better solution for the nomadic builder. To varying degrees, this seems to be a problem that also keeps much of the internet up at night.

At the top of the heap are the full-on tiny house workshops, crammed in a truck or trailer and featuring all the comforts of home. Ron Paulk is the godfather of this approach, retrofitting a box truck with a total woodshop for his finish carpentry business in Washington state. He has also designed (and sells plans for) a clever portable workbench based on sturdy plywood box modules. The founder of technomadics, Steven Roberts, built out his Polaris lab to accommodate permanent exploration. From there, wheeled workshop design spirals into vast tracts of YouTube territory populated by carpenters, survivalists, and kooks. 

Ron Paulk's shop,  via C ore77.

Ron Paulk's shop, via Core77.

The next level of portability is the mythical "universal tool," a sort of woodworking unicorn that was first chased by Shopsmith, whose Mark Series can run a table saw, lathe, jig saw, drill press, air compressor (and more!) off a single motor and frame. Rolling Trades, a small independent company, makes a cart-based version of this idea that integrates a chop saw and a small table saw with storage for hand tools. Timothy Wilmots built out a system based on high-end Festool equipment that has an extremely small footprint. Predictably, there is also a wide variety of knock-off products of questionable quality. 

On the smallest scale, a few folks with healthy backs have prototyped some (wo)man-portable options. IamWe, one of my favorite Instructablers (and prize winner of the recent Guerilla Design Contest), has a portable bicycle-borne solution. Bricobart, another Instructable resident, cooked up this hard-sided backpack rig that looks like quite a workout. In that same vein, there are a number of commercial backpack solutions

Ultimately, I'd like to take a few of these ideas and adapt them to a low-cost, truly versatile tool system. First, I'd need to slim down my collection to some essential tools while filling in current gaps with more multipurpose solutions. The breakpack totes fit together in neat stacks, so some kind of custom hand truck would make them easier to move. And I'd like to design a backpack system for truly nomadic builds, integrating a hard load-bearing frame, soft harness, and modular storage adapted to the task. Stay tuned to the O.G. blog for further design explorations . . .