The scene shop, part 2: work areas

Back in college, our shop foreman was a gentleman who had retired from the movie industry after thirty-odd years as a scenic carpenter and prop maker. He ran the shop like a Navy ship (more on this later), but his goal was to get us ready for the professional world, whether in live theater or the movies and TV. One of the things he insisted on was a clean shop, with everything organized “just so.” He made a huge impression on me: ever since then, every time I’ve seen a scene shop that wasn’t working all that well, I’ve thought of our college shop.

Sidebar: This guy was serious. He insisted that every cabinet, sawhorse, tool stand, and similar item be painted a standard color (dubbed “shop gray”) and stenciled with SCENE SHOP in black. So, after spending a good chunk of my first year as a work-study assistant in the shop and getting to know him, I went and bought a gray T-shirt, had SCENE SHOP appliqued to it in black letters, and wore it at my next shift. He knew I was busting on him, so he told me and everyone else that I was now part of the shop equipment and couldn’t leave.

In this post I’ll be covering items, other than tools, that I’ve seen in numerous scene shops and that help make working there a pleasant experience. I’m not including drawings or plans for these just because there are so many available out there  —  and, like me, most people will want to create their own anyway. But I’ll post a photo or two.

Work and layout tables

Reading some of the old scenery construction books, it’s tempting to think a huge table for laying out flats is a necessity. This may be useful in a professional scene shop that builds scenery for different theaters, but it’s not all that necessary elsewhere. A better choice is to have two, three, or more, reasonably-sized work tables that are large enough for a project but small enough to not get in the way.

One shop I worked in had two tables, each about five feet square, which were clamped together when a large layout surface was needed, but were separate otherwise. A few times they were clamped a few feet apart, via 2x4s, to accommodate really tall or long units. The tables had butcher-block tops and metal lockers underneath, so I suspect they came from a vocational school. Casters were added somewhere along the line, as well as woodworking vises. These tables were used constantly and were somewhat similar to this one:


When building new tables or adding casters to old ones, it’s a good idea to make them  the same height as the table saw; that way they can be placed behind the saw to catch long pieces as they get cut.

The size and quantity of these tables will of course depend on your own shop, but it’s important to make sure everyone knows they are work tables and not storage surfaces. To keep things organized, it’s a good idea to dedicate the space underneath to something specific (like the lockers I mentioned above) instead of making it one large open shelf. One possibility here is to build cubbyholes for clean wood cutoffs in different sizes, such as 12″, 24″, 36″, and 48″. As I mentioned in Saving stuff (or not), not every little piece of scrap needs to be saved: they just end up taking space forever.


These are handy for any number of things, primarily creating new layout surfaces by laying a sheet of plywood on top, or working on very long or tall pieces. Ideally they’ll be the same height (once a sheet of ply is laid on top) as the work tables and the table saw. The ones I’ve seen in many scene shops are along the lines of the sketch below, and, because they fold flat, several of them can be stored on a rolling cart that’s the same height as the sawhorses, essentially creating another sawhorse. A word of caution, though: these are not intended for people to stand on them. For safety, a sturdier design is necessary.

Shop stools

Simple shop stools are nice when you want to work on a smaller piece at one of the tables or do some detail work on a long piece laid out across sawhorses. These are often available at large department stores, art suppliers, or online, and you can always build a few in the shop.

The tool crib

Many shops have a dedicated, lockable space for storing tools and supplies. These can be actual rooms, or made of ply sheets or chain-link fence. The internal layout can be as simple as wall-to-wall shelving, or a combination of shelving and cabinets, or a combination of those and pegboard. The biggest issue, however, is to make tools easy to find when you need them and to replace them at the end of the day.

If you’re planning a new tool crib, be sure to think way ahead: tools accumulate over the years and you want to make sure there’s room for them.

Here are some thoughts (in no particular order) from tool cribs I’ve seen:

  • Generally, a combination of shelving, cabinets, drawers, and pegboard works well. Portable power tools can go in dedicated spaces on the shelves, expensive or specialty tools can go in the cabinets, and some hand tools can go in drawers while others can go on pegboard or special racks on the walls. Extension cords can hang on pegs on the wall.
  • Very deep cabinets, in the long run, tend to not be very useful, as things find their way to the back never to be seen again. We had a pantry in our kitchen which was about two feet deep, and, after a while, we felt like Indiana Jones digging around back there and discovering stuff we had forgotten.
  • Broken items should never be placed back in storage; they should be turned over to the TD or master carpenter for repair or replacement. I’ve seen cribs where broken tools, casters, drills, drill bits, and other items were right in there with the good ones, and it was annoying and a waste of time to pick something up and go use it, and then discover it was broken.
  • Generally, shelves should be just far apart vertically to hold whatever goes on them. Otherwise they tend to end up with stuff piled up and hard to access. This is even worse when the shelves are very deep and too far apart.
  • A counter area is very handy for small tasks like changing batteries, sharpening drill bits, and similar things.
  • Cordless drills, batteries, and chargers all want to be in the same dedicated area. If possible, have several chargers and about twice as many batteries as you have cordless tools. And, ideally, the batteries should be interchangeable among all the tools. Here again, batteries that have reached the end of their life should not be put back with the good ones.
  • One drawer can be dedicated to “precision” tools like calipers, compasses, good scissors, and similar items. That way they’re less liable to get lost or damaged.
  • I haven’t seen this in a scene shop, but in my garage shop at home I have an area for “kitchen items” like toothpicks (apply glue or paint in small places), Q-Tips (ditto), resealable sandwich bags (small nuts, bolts, washers, or similar stuff I’m working with), plastic wrap (temporarily closing paint cans or wrapping wet brushes), aluminum foil (pour a bit of glue or paint on a small piece and pick it up with a toothpick or Q-Tip), paper towels, and similar items. Saves having to go to the kitchen every time I need one of these items.
  • Screws, nuts, bolts, and similar fasteners can go in clearly-marked industrial plastic bins, either placed on shelves or hanging on racks on the wall.
  • Clamps can hang on pegs on the wall.
  • Some shops hang hand tools on pegboard or nails on a wood surface, then outline each tool with a thick magic marker so people can see where things belong. This is a good idea, except for one little thing: as tools accumulate, you may have to reorganize that surface several times, which means re-painting it and re-outlining everything. In my experience, it’s just a matter of getting crews to develop the habit of putting things back where they belong.
  • Clean out the crib now and then, maybe once a year or so, and get rid of stuff you no longer use. Otherwise it just takes up space.
  • I am covering shop rules in another post, but a set of tool crib rules, prominently posted, can be a huge help in keeping it neat and organized.

First-Aid kit

Not much to say here, except every shop should have at least one, stocked appropriately and maintained regularly. Since laws and regulations can be so different and change so often, it’s a good idea to talk to someone “in the know” about the kit and what should go in it — as well as where it should be located and how to keep it accessible. A lot of shops also have eye-wash stations and similar items.

Safety gear

Items like disposable gloves, dust masks, respirators, eye protection, hard hats, and similar things should be kept in a dedicated cabinet, clearly marked and readily accessible, and maintained regularly. Who has access to it — the entire crew or just the TD or master carpenter — needs to be established early and clearly, and any applicable rules posted right on it.

This brings up another issue: whether the entire stock is there and available all the time, or whether it’s replenished as necessary. It may be desirable to “put out” just enough gloves and similar disposable items for a week, or a show, or another time period, and keep the rest secured elsewhere. This way you won’t find several boxes of the same item open at once.

If some items (such as eye or hearing protection) are used by different people, you want to include a box of sanitary wipes. You may also require that crew members wipe them down after each use and again before each use. This is another area where talking with a qualified individual can make a huge difference.

Fire extinguishers

These are generally provided and maintained by the facility itself, so I won’t cover them here — except to say that everyone in the shop should be trained in how to use them.

Keeping the shop clean

Two things that can help make a shop far more clean and efficient are a bunch of trash cans spread out in the shop, and a definite place to store brooms, dust pans, and other cleaning tools.

I’ve seen shops that had one large trash can pretty much dedicated to each major stationary power tool (table saw, drill press, panel saw, etc.), and had a few others here and there. They encourage workers to toss small cutoffs and other waste right into them instead of just putting them aside. Some shops also have one or more cans dedicated to wood that can be recycled, such as clean (unpainted) 1×3 and 2×4. Adding casters to the cans, or placing them on small wheeled platforms, makes it easy to take them out to empty.

The brooms, dustpans, and such don’t need a lot of space: often just a small section of wall with hooks and maybe a small shelf is fine.

Future posts will cover tools, the paint area, and related subjects.