Shop Upgrades

Part 2: Keep it clean and organized.


Industrial pallet racks are relatively cheap, super-stable, and allow you to free up floor space.

In Part 1 of this two-part series on shop upgrades, we looked at coating a shop floor with industrial epoxy. In this month’s article, we’ll look at some smaller upgrades, most of which can be implemented in just a few hours, but yield big benefits in terms of keeping your shop clean and organized.

Dust Collection System

Combining a dust-collection system with a downdraft sanding table is a great combination. (Photo: Matt Stinemetze)

“As anyone who has built a composite plane can attest, the dust is invasive,” says Matt Stinemetze, an engineer at Scaled Composites currently building a 2/3-scale Bearcat. “You grind a couple times over in the corner—and you are always grinding something—and next thing you know, it’s all over your tools, the plane, the shop, your clothes, and in your skin. Oh, the itch!

“When I was building a Long-EZ,” Matt continued, “I was in Chuck Coleman’s hangar. (Chuck is a test pilot, airshow performer, airplane builder and designer.) He’s built many Lancair IVs in the basement of his home, and he swore by using a dust collector. It was more than enough to keep the mess down until I got deep into the body-working stage.”

When Matt moved into his own hangar/shop, a dust collector was the first thing he installed. “Shop vacs just don’t do the trick,” he explained. “I drag the hose around the shop and use it where I need to. I mix micro, etc. next to the Y pipe, but you could plumb to a downdraft bench if you desired. They are bulletproof and worth their weight in gold—think shop vac times 10! Now, if I can just find a hose reel for that 6-inch dust collector hose.”

Industrial Pallet Racks

Those giant steel shelving racks you find in box stores? You too can get them, although you may have to look a bit. Having once lived in a shoebox-sized apartment in Japan, I learned the trick to efficient use of space is to stack stuff to the ceiling. Heavy-duty 14-gauge industrial racks are just as cheap as the smaller/lighter-gauge stuff sold at the hardware store, but much beefier and much more shelf space per dollar spent. Uprights are typically 8-, 10-, or 12-feet high and crossbeams are 8-, 10-, or 12-feet across. Drop-in wire shelving is cheaper, stronger, and easier than plywood.

Foot pads distribute the load and allow you to bolt to the floor if you wish. Make sure your crossbeams and uprights use the same tab/slot design. These crossbeams feature safety buttons to prevent accidental removal.

No special tools are required—it’s all tab and slot assembly—and you can easily put up an entire rack in 30 minutes. If you buy used items, make sure the uprights and crossbeams use the same tab/slot system (usually a teardrop) and have lock pins (a safety feature that prevents crossbeams from coming out of their slots). Uprights with foot pads will distribute the weight better than padless. You can usually find both new and used pallet racks on Craigslist. Expect to pay approximately $60-80 per upright, $15-25 per step beam (two required per shelf) and $10-20 per wire shelving (two required per shelf). The pallet rack in the picture cost $800 (new) and provides 270 square feet of shelving.

Cool Tools—Cry Once

Without getting into a debate about the technical merits of, say, Snap-on vs. Craftsman vs. Harbor Freight, from a purely economic point of view used top-of-the-line hand-tool sets like Snap-on consistently maintain or appreciate in value. Notice that I said “used.” If you buy new, you will never get your money back if you sell the tool. Buying used, high-quality tools is a way to enjoy your build with the assurance that if you ever decide to get rid of your tools, you can almost certainly get back all of your initial investment if you have taken care of them. Craigslist, eBay and want-ads can be your best friends in putting together a nice tool collection.

Overhead Air/Electrical

If you decide to put in new/additional lighting (see the sidebar below), consider putting in retractable air and/or power while you’ve got the ladder out. This is so much more convenient than dragging hoses/extension cords around, especially when the hangar is full of airplanes and projects.

Notice in the photo below that there is a steel sheet between the power retract and the wood truss. Excessive power draw through a coil retracted on itself can cause significant amounts of heat. Better to stick to the manufacturer’s 10A rating, but the “firewall” is extra insurance. Also note that the compressed air is fed by copper pipe. Yes, it’s expensive, but this is the industry standard for routing compressed air. Copper pipe failure does not create dangerous shrapnel as would iron or PVC.

Overhead retractable power line and air hose reduce clutter on the floor. The air line is fitted with Cleaveland Aircraft Tool’s lightweight air hose kit, which, combined with their quick disconnects, is an awesome “leader” between the heavier 3/8-inch hose and your air tool.


For the purposes of this article, I purchased a like-new iRobot Roomba 770 floor cleaner off Craigslist to review as a replacement for the evening sweep. A fellow pilot raved about its ability to pick up cat and dog hair in her apartment, so I wondered how it would do with sawdust and aluminum. Not bad, it turns out.

iRobot’s Roomba can be set to clean every night. It’s pretty much geared towards picking up dust, pet hair and shavings, but if you have a hard time motivating yourself to pick up a broom, a Roomba can keep things from getting out of hand.

The 650 and higher series Roombas allow daily programming, and this seems to be the secret: The Roomba scoots around in a pretty much random fashion, so the cleaning is pretty haphazard. But when programmed to clean for an hour each night, in the course of a week, it seems to pretty much scour every corner of my 1800-square-foot shop. That said, Roomba picks up dust and shavings, not oil spills and 2×4 cutoffs, so serious cleaning is still up to you. Overall, I’m very happy with the Roomba, and it allows me to go significantly longer between sweeping up than otherwise.

Note that for large areas (like a hangar), Roomba may give an error message, so make sure you get one with a virtual wall lighthouse, which tricks Roomba into thinking the room is smaller than it is. After a few weeks, my Roomba seemed to have “learned” the layout of the hangar (or the human learned where to put the lighthouses) and it makes it back to its charging base 90% of the time.

MIG Welder/Steel Worktables

If you read my previous article, “So You Want to Get Paid to Build?” [Kitplanes, September 2015], you’ll remember that Bob Kuykendall of the HP-24 Sailplane Project recommended a single tool for any serious shop: a MIG welder. You can pick up a decent used welder for $300-500 on Craigslist, although in keeping with the top-of-the-line tools mantra, if you can get your hands on a used Miller 211 (about $700-900), you’ll never have any problems unloading it for what you paid if welding turns out to not be your thing. They are a pretty hot item.

Building a steel worktable is an easy way to learn MIG welding.

A great way to learn how to use a MIG welder is to fabricate some steel worktables. The table pictured took about eight hours and $200 to build. Use at least 3-inch wheels to make it easy to roll around, and make sure the bottom shelf is high enough for your broom (or Roomba!) to get underneath. For small tables, 1-inch square 16-gauge (1/16 inch) steel should be adequate; 1.5-inch square should work up to 4×8, and larger than that I’d recommend 2-inch tubing. Make sure you leave a couple inches of overhang so that you can clamp stuff to the table. You can make the tabletop and shelves from MDF or plywood; attach with construction adhesive.

Tool Storage

How about taking your plastic storage containers to the next level? “The last time our sponsor and friend, Andy Chiavetta of Aerochia, was in town I was finally able to get some pictures of his awesome portable toolbox,” says Elliot Seguin of F1 Team Wasabi. “Like Andy, I have been using the Plano StowAway tackle boxes for years. What impressed me about Andy’s rig is he was not only using the boxes, but the associated organizer rack also built by Plano. I was surprised how well the organizer rack fit in my old Craftsman two-shelf side chest. This seemed like something worth passing on.”

Below Andy Chiavetta’s toolbox are Plano organizer racks that hold the Plano StowAway storage boxes. (Photo: Elliot Seguin)

On the topic of tool storage, this is one area where I would not buy Snap-on class goods—you are talking mega-bucks but without the same resale profile as hand tools. Harbor Freight to the rescue! Yes, much of their stuff isn’t top drawer, but their U.S. General tool chests are actually considered by many to be a great deal (check out the many in-depth reviews at

Hopefully this article has given you some ideas about how to upgrade your shop. If you have your own brilliant idea for a shop upgrade, please send us a picture and a short description and we’ll consider using it as a shop tip in an upcoming issue of KITPLANES.


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