The virtues of linear thinking: Good shop layout is just a matter of lines and transitions.

One challenge woodworking businesses constantly face is how to maximize production efficiency. It does not matter if you run a one-person operation working out of 1,000 feet or less or are a huge manufacturer; inefficient shop setup will rob you of hours which, over the life of your company, can turn into years.

While there is really no single “right” way to set up your operation, you will never go wrong if you remember one thing: Smooth workflow consists of lines and transitions.

Start with a ‘Lineup’
Manufacturing is the process of beginning with raw material at the front end of the operation and sending finished product out the back. Carefully organizing the steps in between ‚ in specific operations and within departments ‚ is a matter of thinking linearly. Visualize your company as a line between the front and back points. Along the line are natural “breaks” or transitions from one operation or department to the next.

It would be nice to have a building with the perfect dock on the front end for receiving raw materials, adequate length and width to set up operations through which work progresses unfettered and a similarly ideal dock for shipping finished product. But while we may be thinking linearly, our real-life lines won’t always be straight. This is no big deal ‚ provided you keep those lines flexible.

A Real World Situation
To illustrate, I will use the real-life example of Pennsburg Woodcraft Co., a growing shop where I worked early in my career.

When I joined PWC, it was consolidating into one building from two facilities: A production operation of around 10,000 feet and a separate finishing/shipping department of a little over 3,000 feet. The company’s new home would be a single 45,000-foot facility.

While lacking in many regards, the 10,000-foot building was perfect in many ways. Work flowed from front to back, where it was loaded on a company truck for a short trip to the finishing/shipping shop. When I was hired, the bargain was: Help get the new building ready and upon moving in, I would have a job on the production floor.

I learned a lot as I worked closely with the company’s founder, Rudy Romberg. The result was a perfect example of adapting the straight line in your head to the reality of a non-linear space.

‘Bending the Lines’
PWC’s new location was really three distinct production spaces (see Drawing 1), with limited access between each. Since Rudy expected his production workforce to grow in the next five years, he took steps to ensure that his plans could handle that increase and used lines and transitions to make the most of the area.

The overhead doors (“OH” on the drawing) were fine where they stood. The challenge was the interior walls, which were brick on both sides with a cinder-block core. The existing doorways through those walls ‚ each opening 10 feet wide and 8 feet high, with sliding, counter-weighted fire doors on either side ‚ worked fine in cases A and C, but the other two, not at all.

Door B was too far down the wall for what Rudy had in mind, and D would need filling in to accommodate his vision for what would be a new dust-free finishing room.

Drawing 2 shows these doors’ new locations, plus a fifth doorway in one of two new, 12-foot-high sheetrock walls. Most impressive was the innovation that enabled Rudy to make his dust-free finishing room a reality, an airlock.

I mentioned the need to keep lines flexible. Rudy did this, and with these few changes, he created an efficient shop through which work flowed smoothly, if somewhat circuitously, from front to back ‚ while allowing for custom touches that set PWC apart.

Follow the Arrows
To see what I mean, follow the arrows from start to finish in Drawing 3. You will notice lines and transitions: Rough Milling (a line along which raw material becomes parts) transitions to Shaping, or in some cases, through Door A to the Cold Press. (PWC used lots of “built-up” MDF to create tables and cabinets with heavy bullnoses and round-overs.)

From the Shaping area, material transitioned to one of two Table Assembly departments. Milled and/or shaped parts also went to Table Base Assembly, the Cabinet Shop or the P-lam Area.

A key innovation in making all this movement work was Rudy’s ingenious use of skids and dollies. PWC’s highly decorative faux finishes made attaching skids after-the-fact risky. Rudy required that simple skids of yellow pine, two inches greater than each piece in both width and length, be centered on the piece prior to priming. The skids were affixed to the dollies with coated nails whose heads were left proud of the skid surface for easy removal later.
The extra inch all around the piece along with the uniform height of the 18-inch by 32-inch dollies ensured that any collision during the assembled pieces’ trip through the finishing process would merely be between skids.Even better, each dolly had four swiveling wheels for maximum maneuverability.

Skids and dollies were attached at various points in the process, depending on a piece’s degree of completion. But no piece got into the Primer Area without the skid/dolly combo.

After finishing was done and final assembly complete (drawer installation, cabinet hardware, etc.), pieces were rolled into the Shipping Room. There, the nails securing skids to dollies were pulled and the pieces, skids still attached, boxed for transit.

By clearly delineating operations both in his mind and on his shop floor, Rudy was able not just to adapt, but also to leverage a challenging facility into a workspace that accommodated and even aided his company’s growth over the next five years.

You can, too. Just remember: Lines and transitions, transitions and lines.

Tony Noel owned and operated Noel Custom Woodworking for 15 years. His past columns can be found on

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