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What is the absolute first thing any new homesteader should do?
Set up a workshop.
Believe me, as a guy who’s still getting started with his homestead, I understand the excitement of diving right into the "glory projects": gardens and bees and solar panels and chickens and rustic fences and sheds with green roofs and more chickens ranging freely in a chicken moat. As I’ve said before, these are the things that motivate us to become more self-sufficient. However…
Having a comfortable space where you can work on, store and stage projects – regardless of time or weather – will make completing each and every project (glory or not) so much easier.
I spent the first two years of turning my home into a homestead dinking around with various projects – getting them started and struggling to finish them – because I didn’t have a dedicated space to work. To lay out materials. To easily find the tool I needed. To set aside a project when something more pressing demanded my attention. To make a mess and not care about it.
I’m not talking about constructing a workshop that could grace the glossy pages of the finest woodworking mag and be the envy of its readership.
I’m talking basic, functional. A workshop simply to get you started.
Set Up Your Space
Dedicate a specific area as “work” space. It’s not an area where “working” will conflict with “living”(like spreading out in the living room to paint the chicken coop siding, piece by piece). And it’s an area that can’t be allowed to devolve into a “dumping” space, either.
Make sure the area has a roof, a floor and at least three enclosed walls. No, this isn’t just stating the obvious; you want to be sure the area will keep the weather off you and whatever you’re working on. An enclosed shop area will give you a place to work all year round, because you’ll soon discover that the projects you’re working on aren’t always the ones you plan. And they don’t care about your schedule or the seasons.
Lighting is a must: bright, clear, clean, helpful lighting. Not just a single 60W dangling by the cord. Effective lighting gives you the option of working at any hour and not limited by daylight. Effective lighting lets you see your project clearly from any angle and work in any corner of your shop without pools of shadow getting in the way.
I highly recommend LED lighting, bulbs or strips. The price can be a little higher. But the durability, miniscule energy draw and – above all – clean light make it completely worth it.
Set up a solid, quality workbench: a long, wide, flat surface that allows you to stand comfortably while working. I built my own bench from 2x4s and 2x3s for less than $75. Like the workshop itself, the workbench makes completing projects so much easier.
Set up some storage space, especially if you want to keep your workshop from becoming a dumping area. Shelves are simple and maximize the use of vertical space (build up, don’t spread out). I like using plastic bins to organize things on the shelves. Also, set up a tool rack or two; keeping your tools organized and in plain view will help move your projects right along.
Gather Your Tools
Unless you come to your homestead with a tried-and-true collection of tools, you’re going to have to put together a kit. But don’t feel like you should get every tool possible at the very beginning. In fact, keep your collection as simple as possible at the start: get some basic tools and then add as needed with every new project. This will ultimately save you money and go a long way in reducing clutter. What’s more, with fewer tools, you develop an intimacy with them; you learn how to use these tools properly and effectively and for a variety of purposes.
As for a recommendation about what to start with, here’s my Top 5 Favorite Tools. These are my go-to tools. I have used them for every project I’ve worked on so far, and can’t imagine doing any project without them.
Knife – Everyone should have a good, solid knife in his or her possession. It’s probably the most important tool ever created by humankind. A well-maintained blade is incredibly versatile. In the workshop, you can shave and shape wood, get lost screws out of crevices, remove a splinter from your finger, and even sharpen your pencil for marking your measurements.
Hand Saw – Not just a single saw. A collection of hand saws for a variety of purposes: crosscut, rip, carcase, tenon, long, heavy, short, light. If wood will be your medium of construction, embrace the saw. Learn how to use each kind for its intended purpose and you will suddenly see the world in completely different ways. I’m not kidding.
Rasp – And while you’re at it, embrace the rasp. For the beginner, the rasp is invaluable. It literally smooths out the bumps along the Learning Curve. It lets you correct mistakes that might otherwise prevent the precise joining of two pieces of wood and require starting all over again. The rasp is a time, energy and resource saver.
The rasp is also a primary tool in it's own right. For example, I have found it to be a key step in crafting axe and mallet handles. It allows incremental fine-tuning of the grip to fit your hand and of the neck to fit the eye of the tool head.
Cordless drill and screws – The knife may be the most important tool ever created by man, but the cordless drill is a darn close second. Used to drill pilot holes and drive screws, you have incredible building power at your disposal. I mean, my God, how did humanity build anything before the advent of this tool combo? The screw is a fantastic fastener when comes to building stuff: screws hold tight but can be easily removed (unlike nails), which means you can take apart something old, without ruining the materials, and repurpose those materials for something new. Like the rasp, screws help ease the Learning Curve.
Tape measure – Measure twice, cut once. Don’t believe me? You will after the first time you try to construct something that requires even a modest amount of precision. I carry my tape measure with me at all times. Inevitably, I’ll be walking the homestead, take a look at something and think, “Hey, I wonder if I can…?” The idea for a new project is born and a few quick measurements help to shape what I’ve started scheming. Or put an end to the scheming.
Of course, to round out your kit of basic tools, you should also have the following: hammer, wooden mallet, t square, screw drivers, wrench, pliers, pry bar, circular saw, some saw horses, table saw (with a set of dado blades), 12-inch quick-grip clamps, a wide variety of screws, and both ear and eye protection.
Learn How to Maintain Your Tools
How can you get your projects completed efficiently with tools that don’t operate like they should? Even more to the point: how self-sufficient can you really be if you don’t know how to take care of your own tools?
Make the time to maintain your tools. And don’t skimp on the time, effort and resources to do it right. You won’t regret the investment. This year, February was my month for tool maintenance. I knew the big projects I had coming up in the Spring – raised garden beds and a new chicken coop – so I knew which tools needed to be in good working order by then.
Maintaining your tools is also going to require getting some additional tools: files, sharpening stones, a saw vice, and so on.
With this in mind, you should set up your workshop to accommodate maintenance. For example, you should have a place for a saw vice or be able to easily attach one to your workbench. You should have a space to work on your tools without getting in the way of other projects in process.
Think Long Term
Of course, your workshop is never really “done”. As you grow your homestead, you’ll realize your work space also needs to grow: one more tool, another workbench, additional storage and lighting, insulate the walls, maybe a woodstove for working in the winter, and new shop doors that actually hang square and look good.
Breathe. All in good time.
Get yourself started with some dedicated space, the basic tools, and the knowledge to keep those tools in shape, and the glory projects will flow.
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