Hands, Mind, and Heart

What started as a handful of passionate enthusiasts has developed into a major force—and a significant component—of the aircraft industry.

Workshop Observations and Tips

By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, June 1984)

Contrary to what your friends might believe, most homebuilts are not constructed at the airport but rather at home in the somewhat confined quarters of the family garage.

Surprisingly, a lack of space for building an airplane is one excuse that seldom deters an inspired and determined builder.

Instead, he doggedly believes his garage will be big enough to at least get started. He figures, and rightly so, he can turn the garage into a fairly acceptable workshop after he removes the lawn mower, garden tools, bicycles, household stuff, the cardboard boxes jammed with who knows what…and, of course, the family car. What? Move the car outside? Sure, why not? Well, that may not be so easy to do if THAT car belongs to his wife. Here’s an argument that might help.

Just think about it. All day long the average car is exposed to the blazing sun, wind and rain. Then, when night comes and the elements are at their tranquil best, what do you do? You stick the car in the garage where it hogs most of what could be suitable workshop space for building that homebuilt.

Now, I really can see some excuse for such a practice if you live in the frigid snow country, and I guess you’d have to settle for a basement workshop. But here, in the temperate southland, keeping the car outside is no great sacrifice…year-round at that.

Incidentally, my garage has never ever had a car in it…going on 30 years now.

With all of its imitations, a garage is not the least inviting work space a builder may have to use for his/her project…yes, there are girl airplane builders out there, too.

Some excellent aircraft have been built in carports, covered patios, spare bedrooms, attics, basements and sometimes in an unimproved outbuilding (shed). Has anybody out there ever built one in a tent? All in all, a two car garage can, I suppose, be considered to offer rather luxurious accommodations by comparison.

Fortunately, a large impressive workshop is not an absolute necessity, nor is it a guarantee that a project produced in it will be any better than one you can produce under less desirable conditions.

As opportunity would have it, even a modest work area can be expanded in a number of ways to provide more elbow room and improved working conditions…in short, a better workshop.

If you have not yet started on your project, you can jump-start it by beginning now to arrange the best shop you can in the space you have at your disposal. On the other hand, even if you are already well into your project, you might find in the following pages a few ways to make your shop conditions more pleasant and your project more enjoyable.

Now, Let There Be Light!
No garage or for that matter any other make-do work space I have ever seen was adequately lighted… nor did it have a sufficient number of lights or electrical outlets. So, what can you do about that? If you are in position to rewire the garage, or whatever place your workshop is going to be in, by all means, do try to get that done. If you can, provide each workshop wall area with at least one electrical outlet.

As for lights, obtain several 4-foot, chain hung, fluorescent shop lights. Such two-bulb light fixtures are sold by all home improvement centers for approximately $12-$14 per unit. These are handy plug-in units you can hang from the ceiling or rafters-or directly over your workbench.

Acquire at least six of these units to supplement whatever lighting you already have. Hang them where they will most effectively light your favorite work areas.

Supplement your permanent lights with a good 25 foot extension cord shop light. There are a number of these so-called "drop lights" from which to select. The most practical type will have a built-in receptacle in the handle which will provide a convenient place to plug in an electric drill (or whatever) wherever you happen to be working.

One of the best presents I ever received was an 18 inch portable fluorescent work light. It has a hook on one end that allows me to suspend it where I am working. It is a most valuable addition to my shop…especially when my projects reach the point where I have to work inside the fuselage or peek into the wings.

Electrical Wall Outlets
It seems there is never a nearby wall plug when you need it.

One problem creates another. So, when wall outlets are few and far between, it doesn’t take long before you have a maze of extension cords cluttering up the floor…not a very safe working environment. If you have too few wall outlets, consider purchasing a 4-outlet or 6-outlet power block (multiple plug unit) you can plug into a single wall outlet allowing you to plug in several electrical devices at one time.

Although there is always a risk of overloading a single circuit with a multiple outlet adapter, I have found this is a remote possibility.

Here’s why. You will probably be operating only one piece of equipment at a time even though you might have a couple of other things plugged into the same circuit. Fortunately, things like clocks, radios, cordless drills and screwdriver charger units don’t take a lot of current.

A judicious distribution of your electrical needs will allow you to obtain the flexibility you need from a minimum of wall plugs…without the risk of overloading any single circuit.

Of course, if you have to operate several large motors like those in your air compressor, bench saw and drill press, take that into consideration. Put only one such unit in a circuit…don’t overload those circuits. Hopefully, they have capacitor motors.

Workshop Goodies
You can do better work if your workshop has a few important furnishings-modest luxuries, if you will. For example:

    1. A large wall clock to remind you that you got started late today, or that you should have already quit because it is way past your bedtime…time flies when you are having fun.

    2. A wall mounted relative humidity indicator.

    3. A wall mounted thermometer of some sort.
    These last two items are important devices for anyone doing dope and fabric work-or, for that matter, anyone who is building with wood, fiberglass, and composites, and is using temperature sensitive adhesives, resins, and dope.

    4. A radio. An old hand-me-down clock radio from your bedroom is good enough. Anyway, this will give you an excuse for buying a better one to replace it. I find that background music has a relaxing influence on me and I believe enables me to do more accurate work. At any rate, classical and western music has that effect on me. I don’t know what kind of work I would do if I had to listen to adrenaline producing rock-and-roll discords blasting out of the speaker.

    5. A space heater. Even in Texas a bit of heat is most welcome during several months of the year. Of course, if you are building a wood or composite airplane, the recommended working temperature for most resins and adhesives is about 70 degrees F.  If you can’t obtain that working temperature during the winter time, consider rearranging your work sequence and fabricate and assemble other parts that are not temperature sensitive. This would include making the metal parts and fittings, jigs, mock-ups, instrument panel, the instrument panel avionics installation, and the like.  When temperatures are on the chilly side would also be a good period during which you could devote some time to studying your plans, ordering parts, doing some local shopping, and perhaps visiting other builders to elicit and absorb whatever ideas and information you can.  Be especially warned not to work on Plexiglas™ windshields and canopies in a cold shop. Those expensive items become quite brittle in cold weather and careless handling can result in a cracked windshield or canopy.

    6. A window air conditioner. A one ton, 115 volt unit can be a blessing during the months of July and August … at least for builders who live south of the Arctic Circle. Such a unit can provide acceptable working conditions even for an uninsulated two-car garage workshop. Sure, closing the doors helps … so does a fan.

Use Your Space Effectively
A completely assembled aircraft is a space hog-but so are its major structural components…the fuselage and wings, for example.

That being the case, try to keep your major components mobile so you can move them around. Otherwise they will be using most of the available space in your shop, leaving you but little in which to work. For example, you can build a mobile wing rack, a mobile stand for the fuselage, and temporarily store the engine on your mechanic’s creeper.

Don’t waste valuable space by locating things like the air compressor, drill press, bench grinder, welding rig, bandsaw, and bench saws where they will often be in the way. Keep in mind the fact that some of this equipment may not be used for days or weeks.

Equipment like that is best located against the walls where it will take up the least amount of usable floor space.

This basic concept can be made even more effective by the addition of shelves and/or cabinets above such equipment.

A Place For Everything…And Everything In Its Place
You realize you have a challenging storage problem when you first open the crates containing your kit project and are confronted with long metal pieces, sheet metal, cowling parts, wheel pants, canopy and windshield pieces and lots and lots of smaller parts and bagged hardware.

That’s what will confront you when you order a complete kit and take immediate delivery. There is something to say for ordering only a single kit (tail, wings or fuselage at one time). Your storage requirements won’t be as demanding, and you will have more space for working.

Nevertheless, sooner or later you will have to acquire and accommodate all the components and parts that make up an airplane. Here are a few options for coping with an overflow of airplane pieces and parts:

    1. Overhead Racks for long items like longerons, tubing and spar stock. Simple racks close to ceiling can get all that stuff up out of harms way and won’t clutter up your work area.

    2. Shelves. You can’t have too many. Unfortunately, most shelves require some wall space. Wall space is valuable and may already be in use for a variety of other purposes.

Some builders hang completed tail and control surface components on the walls. When you do this, you naturally limit the wall’s ability to accommodate nice pictures (of airplanes, naturally), posters, shelves, tool racks and the like. Storing the completed assemblies on ceiling racks is another option.

Here’s a practical way to acquire plenty of useful shelf space.

Obtain a wood book case and hang it up on the wall leaving space underneath it for a compressor, welding rig, bench grinder, or similar piece of equipment.

A large corner storage shelf. This large temporary shelf, about 2 feet below the ceiling, can be installed in one corner of your workshop. A large sheet of crating material (plywood) will provide a smooth surface on which you can store bulky and fragile component parts. This corner haven is especially suited to serve as a safe place to store your canopy, windshield and cowling parts until you need them. Here again, no valuable floor space will be wasted.

Don’t overlook the possibility of building a shelf or two into each workbench. A permanent workbench along one wall can be very useful. If that is not practical, consider building a large assembly bench utilizing a single sheet of 3/4" plywood. Under this bench you can make a rack for storing fairly long pieces, and a full width lower shelf where you can pile sheet metal or plywood scraps to your heart’s content.

Between the bottom shelf of a bench and the floor is usually a space that can be used for additional storage. Boxes or large wood bins which you can slide underneath are very handy for this purpose.

A service cart. Service cart? That’s right. When you are working on the wings, fuselage or whatever, you have to lay your tools down someplace… on the floor, or most likely, on some part of the structure you happen to be working on.

A service cart on casters is ever so handy for keeping your tools and materials close at hand while you work. It’s the next best thing to having an assistant who can hand you what you need for the operation.

Mechanic’s creeper. Every workshop should have a mechanic’s creeper. It is fine for working under the fuselage or wing. And, as already mentioned, it can serve as a makeshift engine pallet you can move around easily. Besides that, it also is a dandy rig for laying back and thinking out your problems…provided you don’t doze off.

What To Do With All That Hardware
Before you finish your airplane, you will have acquired hundreds of pieces of hardware. Tossing all that stuff into a large cardboard box is not a good solution.

For one thing, all of the nuts, bolts, washers, rivets, bearings, screws, and other small pieces will get mixed together and you will waste considerable time looking for the right size bolt and nut.

Those popular small plastic storage cabinets are ideal for separating aircraft hardware and making it readily available. True, it will require a bit of self-discipline to take the time to open up all your small parts packages and label the drawers for each item.

Two large sized cabinets should be sufficient for storing all of your small hardware and electrical parts. These storage cabinets with their 25 to 40 see-through drawers are well worth the $12-$15 price for which they sell.

Other Suggestions
You may have noticed that very little additional cost is required to expand the usefulness of your workshop. Simply make use of the plywood crating your kit came in and take the time to make or find a safe storage place for everything.

In the course of completing your airplane you will have to use a considerable number of volatile fluids like lacquer thinner, MEK, Naphtha, primers and paints. Why not keep these things out of the workshop until they have to be used. That outside metal storage shed (where by now you should have exiled your garden stuff, bicycles, etc.) is a good safe place for them.

These suggestions and the ideas you might find for yourself in the accompanying photos should give you a good start in setting up a practical workshop especially suited for building your airplane.

And, oh yes, just in case, mount a good fire extinguisher near your door. Naturally, it will never have to be used because you have one available.

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