What's in your shop apron?
If you spend any time in your shop, you've almost certainly spent too much of that time
searching for your pencil, your six inch ruler, your tape measure, or some other
frequently used small tool. In any shop, tools, especially very small tools and pencils,
tend to disappear. In fact, the probability of your not finding something you need seems
to be directly proportional to how badly you need it!
The probability of not finding a small tool you need seems to be directly proportional to how badly you need it!
Any shop apron will be of little use unless you make a deliberate effort to put the tool
back into its pocket as soon as you have finished with it!
I've tried various strategies over the years to solve this problem including several
different kinds of shop aprons. It wasn't until a couple of years ago when I discovered
what I consider to be the perfect shop apron that my troubles seemed to get a bit more
manageable. The apron I found that works for me is sold by the Marc Adams School of
Woodworking. Any student at the school can purchase one of these aprons while at the
school, and I'm sure if you phoned them and asked nicely, they would probably agree to
sell you one and mail it to you.
This particular apron works for me because of how the pockets are arranged, and the
number of pockets available. This vest was designed by woodworkers for everyday use
by woodworkers. But, like anything else, it will be of little use unless you make a
deliberate effort to store the small tools you use every day in the same pocket in the
apron. More importantly, you must put the tool back in its pocket as soon as you have
finished with it. I've made great strides improving my ability to quickly put my fingers
on a frequently used small tool, but I still sometimes become distracted and leave my six
in rule or my tape measure on a bench and walk away. Still, most of the time I seem to
remember and most of the time I have the tools I need at my fingertips.
So, what do I keep in my apron? Obviously, this will be different for each woodworker
and will depend a lot on the kind of work you do. For me, here is what I keep and how
I've organized it:
My vest has three pockets at heart level where I keep the following:
- The leftmost pocket contains the control for my central dust collection system.
My particular control has a pocket clip designed to help it stay put in a pocket,
and I've found that since I'm right handed, reaching up to my left-most top pocket
to turn the dust system on and off is very natural.
- The middle two pockets are small, narrow and designed to hold a pencil. I do
keep a standard pencil in one of the pockets but reserve the other "pencil pocket"
to store two small rulers. The one I use the most is a six inch Starrett ruler. This
is a high quality easy to read ruler that I use often because it is more accurate than
a tape measure for measurements of six inches or less. The other small ruler I
keep in the same pocket has a metric scale. I have a few tools (mostly Festool)
that use metric measurements and I use this ruler when I need to measure in
- In the rightmost pocket I keep two high quality mechanical pencils. One uses
.5mm lead and the other uses .7mm lead. I use the .7mm pencil the most for
marking and layout. I use the .5mm for my Incra ruler that has tiny slots cut into
it to precisely locate layout marks. These two pencils are somewhat unique
because each will totally retract the lead into the body of the pencil when you
push a button. This is very important for pencils with tiny lead because otherwise
it is very easy to catch the small lead on the apron fabric when you are putting it
away. I got mine at Dick Blick Art Supplies. I mentioned that these are very high
quality pencils that I paid over $10.00 each for. You may find something you like
for less but you will probably not be very happy using the very cheap mechanical
pencils. My experience is that these are simply not well suited to the dirty and
dusty environment in most workshops. On the other hand, you can by a dozen of
the cheap ones for what one high quality one costs. But once you convince
yourself that you can use the same pencil over and over again and not loose it
because you always put it back in the same place in your apron, you may
eventually opt for the higher quality one.
At waist level the apron has three pockets.
- Since I'm right handed I reserve the rightmost pocket for larger tools I use the
most. The first is a twelve foot tape measure and the other is a folding utility
knife. I find it surprising how often I reach for the folding utility knife and having
it handy saves me a lot of time searching the shop for one of these easy to loose
- The center pocket contains two layout tools that have become indispensable for
the kind of work I do. The first is a small high precision machinist square. Years
ago I purchased a set of three such squares and the smallest one is the only one
small enough to carry around all the time. This little square is very handy to
check that fence on the jointer or that two edges are at 90 degrees. The second
tool is the one I use most often, and that is the Veritas Saddle Square sold by Lee
Valley. It is surprising how often we need to transfer a line from one surface to
another perpendicular surface. This little tool has become the single tool I use
most often for layout.
- The left most pocket is the one I have the most difficulty reaching with my right
hand, so it is reserved for a couple of items I use the least, yet often enough to
warrant being with me all the time. The first is a small woodworking calculator.
I'm quite good at adding and subtracting fractions, but I do, from time to time,
pull out the calculator when I'm a bit tired and prefer to not rely on my math skill.
The second tool I keep is a small magnifying glass that houses the glass inside a
leather pouch. I don't use it often, but when I need it, I need it and I always know
exactly where it is.
Once you find an apron you really like, you have to strike a personal balance between
what you decide to keep in the apron and how much the apron will weigh every second
you have it on. How well the apron fits your particular build and how it distributes the
weight it is carrying in all those pockets is something that is very personal and probably
can only be resolved by trying and discarding a lot of aprons. I certainly did exactly that
but I do still keep a couple of those rejects around the shop for use by a visitor.
I hope this little monolog gives you some good ideas about how you can better organize
your shop time and spend more of it doing happy and productive work and not searching
for that d*&m tool!