Planning Your Workshop Floor
Tuesday 24 August 2010
Alan Holtham looks at concrete and wooden workshop flooring, how to store and use your machines in a limited space and what to wear on your feet
If you are lucky enough to be building a workshop from scratch you will have the option to decide on the type of floor to install, but more often than not you will be using an existing space, so the choices are then a bit more limited.
However, there are measures you can take to make the floor more suited for your own particular purpose. There are two main options, either concrete or wood, and both have distinct advantages and disadvantages.
If you are a machine woodworker it is important to have a solid base on which to support the weight of the machines and minimise vibration. While a solid concrete floor is probably the best solution this can be uncomfortable to stand on for any length of time and is unforgiving if you drop your freshly sharpened edge tools. Nevertheless you cannot beat it for rigidity and durability, particularly if you have only a small space and need to move things around regularly.
Paint and seal
Over the last 30 years I have learnt to work around them. For a start, concrete needs to be sealed. Even old surfaces will continue to produce dust no matter how often you sweep them. A clear sealer will stabilise the surface and eliminate the problem instantly.
You can further improve the surface by painting it, with proper floor paint, but remember that the paint can peel if the concrete is not cured properly and the surface can become very slippery. Using a sealer before painting will minimise the peeling problem, but the slipping is a bit more difficult to conquer.
The painted floor surface is usually fine until you get it covered with a layer of fine dust which then turns it into a sheet of ice. There are special non-slip paints around which are claimed to help, but I have never found them to be 100 per cent efficient. In the past I have painted the floor and then sprinkled dry, fine sand onto the surface before it dries.
This works well but do not overdo the sand or you effectively end up working on a sheet of sandpaper which soon wears out your shoes and is also very difficult to sweep clean. Painted floors also need recoating on a regular basis as the paint soon wears off.
Uneven or damaged concrete floors can be repaired with special epoxy fillers and then levelled with self-levelling compound, but both these are quite expensive and again, if the preparation is not thorough enough the new surface will soon crack up.
It all depends on the condition of the underlying concrete and nothing will stabilise this if it is at all dodgy, particularly if you start dragging heavy machines around.
My current workshop has a pretty good surface, so I painted it and then overcame the slipping and fatigue problem by laying rubber matting. This is a very finely ribbed mat on a roll that I buy from a local rubber wholesaler.
It is only about 4mm deep so there is no danger of tripping over it, but it is so flexible that it stays dead flat though I have rounded the corners to help this further.
The only slight problem is that the whole mat itself can slide about, if for instance I have been sanding MDF. In this case I just take it outside and hose off the back and it is as good as new again.
I have a thicker specialist anti-fatigue mat in front of my lathe as I sometimes stand there for hours on end. For safety these have chamfered edges and are very comfortable, but the arrangement of perforated holes does again make them difficult to sweep. You have to lift the mat and sweep under it, which is fine, but the mat is remarkably heavy.
The ultimate answer is some of the new breed of PVC tiles. These are normally 500 x 500mm square and have interlocking edges so they can be installed quickly over virtually any existing surface without any adhesive.
They will withstand any amount of foot traffic and have great resistance to impact, abrasion, moisture and chemical damage.
They also provide a good degree of thermal insulation and the various options of surface finish allow you to minimise slipping and fatigue. As they are available in a range of different colours you can delineate working areas and walkways in larger workshops.
As a rough guide, a single garage will cost about 400 pounds to cover with 5mm-thick tiles, including some tapered ramps that clip onto the edges across the doors.
Wooden floors are usually either suspended or solid. A solid floor is often laid over concrete, so you get the best of both worlds, the strength of concrete with the warmth and comfort of wood.
A suspended wood floor is what you usually find in a shed workshop, with floorboards laid over evenly spaced joists that allow space for insulation, but it cannot be quite as rigid and strength can become an issue if you want to install heavy machinery.
Lathes in particular tend to drum if placed on an inadequately strengthened wooden floor. The answer in this case is to cut a hole in the wood and cast a concrete pad under the heaviest machines to isolate them from the rest of the floor. Admittedly this is a drastic answer, but if you are settled on the workshop layout it provides an excellent solution.
Chipboard and tongue-and-groove
The actual covering may be standard flooring-grade chipboard, which slots together to keep the edges level, or standard tongue-and-groove boards. Chipboard is cheap, quick to use, but not over-resistant to damage, particularly from point loads from, for instance, the castors of a heavy machine.
It is also prone to damage from moisture, so you have to take care with the installation to ensure it stays dry. A chipboard floor across a leaky doorway in a previous workshop just caved in one day.
Floorboards are obviously much stronger, but if they are not conditioned properly can open up enough for chippings and loose nails to get trapped in the gaps, which can make cleaning them a pain.
Otherwise I think they would be my flooring of choice, particularly as I am so clumsy and regularly drop tools off the bench. I have seen workshops where a wooden floor has been covered with hardboard to eliminate the gaps.
Once again the wood will need sealing well to harden the surface, but as with paint, beware of making it slippery and use a proprietary non-slip sealer like Rustins Slip-Resistant Floor Coating.
Most of us only have small workshops so have to develop different strategies for making our machines accessible and usable, usually by angling them or dragging them out as needed into the only available space. This is particularly relevant when you start dealing with long lengths and may then want to angle the machine for the work to pass through a suitable door or window.
Making your machinery mobile is the only answer, but then it needs to be secured so it does not move around as you start pushing wood through it.
The cheapest option is to buy heavy-duty castors and make a base for the machine to sit on, but if possible always spend a bit more to get at least two lockable castors.
The disadvantage of this arrangement may be the extra height this generates which may affect the usability. Personally, as I am quite tall I find an extra 4-5in on most table heights is a good thing, but it will not suit everyone. Sometimes you can just attach the castors to bolting-down lugs already on the machine.
Third-party wheelbases can be adjusted in size to suit the machine, and some are of the jack-up type that lifts the machine for transport, but allow it to be dropped down once it is in position.
This then does not affect the working height and also ensures the machine does not wander around when you start pushing against it. Just make sure you buy a base that is strong enough to withstand the machine you are fitting onto it, as many machines weigh in excess of 150kg so need plenty of support.
You may find that the machine manufacturer offers a ready-to-fit wheelbase. Often these are expensive and not much better than a far cheaper homemade alternative, but others are actually quite good and definitely worth the extra cost.
Pedal wheel kit
One of my favourite styles is the pedal wheel kit that also lifts the machine and locks it up for moving with a simple press on the pedal. Press again and the machine drops down to floor level. Sadly these bases are often fitted with rather small cheap castors, but if you upgrade them to something better it is transformed into a very serviceable base.
Other machines rely on a removable tug bar at one end to lift and move them via built-in castors at the other end. This also works well but is not as quick and convenient as a pedal kit.
Others still need you to take a lot of the weight to move the machine and are awkward to use, so have a good look at how it works before buying an expensive proprietary option.
You could store all your kit on mobile bases but of course all this mobility needs a smooth floor.
I even have a workbench on castors, so on rare decent days I can wheel it outside and work alfresco which is certainly my favourite workspace, particularly if I am doing something dusty or polishing with a solvent-based finish.
Whatever your type of floor, one of the easiest and cheapest things you can do to improve comfort and grip is to work in suitable footwear. My preference is for trainers, but I buy the industrial style with steel toecaps, as a dropped plank unerringly finds its way across your toes. The Health and Safety Executive website makes interesting reading as regards slip and fall accidents, and many can be put down to improper footwear.