Let’s talk about process
June 5, 2023 | 11:03 am CDT
Matt Buell shop layout

Matt Buell offers a sketch of his basic shop layout for building custom woodworking projects.

I define the process of woodworking and furniture building as every aspect of workpiece creation from raw materials to completion. Most people think process looks like an assembly line and they are not wrong; that is a process. However, I prefer to view it in use as a forward and reverse assembly line. For those of us without giant buildings and a large set of employees, the forward and reverse perspective is more realistic. 

It’s important to have a defined process or as defined as possible. Without it, your work life will be riddled with inefficiency and chaos. Your process should be based on what you make. For some it is a few set pieces for replication. For professionals like me who build lots of different types of pieces, a larger scope process is still important and can be developed in a more generalized way based on general woodworking practice.

Matt Buell shop layout with workflow
Arrows and numbers show the order and direction of workflow in Matt Buell's shop.

Let’s break it down to the two main elements of process; shop layout and workflow. 

The layout of your machines and work areas will determines your process. It should be a layout that helps make your process more efficient. For example, I have always found it best for my process to have my glue rack or gluing areas close to my machines or in between machines and work tables. This allows for material to move from machine to glue area and then to work tables or to move in reverse back to machinery and then forward again without having to travel far in the shop. It is still surprisingly fluid. 

To better explain it, I cut a bunch of boards and get them ready for the first round of gluing together. After they come out of the glue racks, they go back to the machines for squaring up or surfacing, and back to the glue rack again. Then they can proceed to the worktables. This is a good example of the forward/reverse process. This is also creating a workflow that is conducive to being efficient, less messy, and less physical labor of moving materials around because the machinery is placed intentionally.

Your shop layout should serve as a physical roadmap for your workflow. The workpiece should move through your workspace in as linear fashion as possible (remember this also helps with the forward and reverse concept). 

Here is a full process in detail from beginning to end. Lumber comes in, goes to the machinery for the roughing or squaring work, then to the glue rack, back to the machines again, then to the workbench for joinery, back to glue for assembly, then back to the workbenches for sanding, and finally to finish. You can also make the argument that process actually starts with pen and paper and design. Although I somewhat agree, that is an entirely different autonomous process in my experience. 

Matt Buell shop layout showing forward-reverse flow
Forward-reverse flow in the shop can be important for smooth, damage-free handling of workpieces.

The last part of process I want to throw in for you to think about is the ease at which the material physically travels through your shop and layout. 

Most professionals find different sized rolling carts are your best bet and also need to be considered for space and pathways when laying a shop out in a process-minded way. I intentionally designed my entire layout to be mindful and utilize open pathways for different size cards to pass through and is less effort to move back-and-forth. The workpiece also takes on less damage from handling, and that’s a game changer when it’s getting into the later stages of the build.

Young Wood Pro-Grizzly logo

Many of you will have a very different take on this, and that's OK. The main purpose of writing this article is to just get your mind starting to think about it. Even if you already have a process it doesn't mean you can’t improve it. My main goal is to always challenge you to be better. We can always improve. 

Do yourself a favor and take a look at your layout. Think about the process in which you go through building things. Ask yourself honestly if there are ways you can do better with just a simple change in perspective.

(Editor's note: Watch the video below to walk with Matt through his shop to better understand his process and work flow.)

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user mattbuell
About the author
Matt Buell | President/Owner/C-Level

Matt Buell of M. Buell Studio the host of the 2023 #YoungWoodPro contest and lead coach for the people who make up the YoungWoodPro audience. Buell has achieved national acclaim for his custom furniture and was honored as a member of the Woodworking Network 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.