by Chris Black
Years ago when I was in the service, we had a system for maintaining vehicles and equipment called PMCS, which stood for "Preventive Maintenance, Checks and Services". Basically, it was a to-do list divided into daily, monthly and yearly routines. By checking the timetable, the list reminded you what to do to keep things running smoothly and operating safely. With spring arriving, I thought it might be nice to go though the shop and see what needs to be done.
Every morning after turning the lights on in the shop, I kick the bottom bag on the dust collector to see if it's full yet. Usually I find out it's full when the motor starts to scream because the thing is clogged with chips. I've become nicer to my machines lately, so now I actually dump the bag when it needs it even if it means daily trips to the trash. Along with the main collector, I also visually inspect the prefilter on the air scrubber to make sure it's not choked with dust.
Daily inspections usually involve things you're probably already doing like checking fences with a square, sharpening chisels and lubricating stuck bearings. It may also involve things you might not be consciously thinking about like removing trip hazards, unplugging machines that might be inadvertently turned on and looking for other safety hazards. These things don't necessary need a physical list hung on the door, but are subconsciously part of the workday that make things go more efficiently. The point is to develop positive and timely habits that make for a healthier shop.
At the end of the day, I like to break a few minutes early to get ready for the next morning. First, all hand tools go back in the chest and the hand held power tools go back on the shelf. Next, consumables get recapped, stored or thrown out. By the way, that scrap on the floor is trash too, so out it goes. I promise you it will never become a knick-knack box or whatever. Now, give the place a proper dusting, sweep the floor, hit the lights and out you go.
Knowing when to knock off is just as important as getting started. I worked with a guy who used to quit when he reached the point of diminishing returns. All that means is the more you work the less you get done, and that can be hard to admit to especially when you're trying to get a job done. Get some rest and perform some maintenance on yourself.
Monthly checks are more specific than daily maintenance, and you may actually want to write them down. A physical list is especially important if several people share your shop space. You can even assign tasks at the first of the month with a check off spot so everyone knows what's to be done. Of course, your list will reflect the specifics of your shop, but it should include items like checking tooling for sharpness, inspecting belts and pulleys for wear, swapping out furnace filters and a more thorough check of jigs, fences and fixtures. Most shops have a compressor, and tanks need to be drained and separators emptied. Other equipment may come with a list of its own, and should to be added to the schedule.
A consumables shopping list goes next to the maintenance schedule. As things run out, blunt or break, the item goes on the list, so you're not constantly running all over town for glue, saw blades and stain. A little organization, no matter how painful it is, will save you an enormous sum of money over a year's time. I can hear me mum now from the summers of my distant youth, "When you use the last of the epoxy, put it on the list!"
Here's the big once a year clean and my favorite bit. Like some great woodworking rebirth, the benefits of the annual shop purification are innumerable. Oh, light some incense, if you must. Pick a day and dedicate an afternoon to purging, cleaning and maintaining. This is the day all those various cans of lotions, potions and goo get tossed. Check the dates and shake those cans. Stuff that's older than the agency that regulates it has to go. Varnish that doesn't swish I guarantee won't brush either. Remember the cutoffs you didn't trash? Out with them! Pull it all out onto the street and clean it. I bet you find at least a boxful of "I thought I lost that's." Out with them too. Look around and evaluate what you use and what you're just storing. Some things that were once useful are now shop clutter. Give it away. Think how happy you'll make someone by increasing his or her shop clutter and decreasing yours. Tool mass cannot be destroyed; only stored on someone else's shelf. Everything older than a year that you can't possibly part with must fit in a coffee can, so that next year it will be easier to pitch.
As for those machines, give 'em the once over. Get out those manuals and actually change the gear oil in the thickness planer. For that matter, sharpen the blades and reset the rollers. You know the table saw needs a date with the air compressor. The point is to do what you already know needs to be done. The actual date just gives you a reason not to put it off. It's only once a year.
The last thing to do, before everything goes back, is the final dusting and sweeping. Throw a handful or two of sweeping compound on the floor and get the place right. A renaissance of woodworking is just a broom and a dustpan away. With all the routine stuff done during the year, the annual event shouldn't be that daunting.
The importance of these checks and services must be underscored. I worked in a shop of independent craftspeople where we shared machinery and fixtures. Since it was everyone's job to look after the equipment, it was no one's job. Maintenance never happened in a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. As a result, the quality of our work suffered and productivity died. More importantly, it became a discouraging place to work.
Preventive maintenance is more than just shop safety and long-term thrift. Constructive habits add to the underlying joy of our craft. Properly working machinery, sharp tools and clean benches all contribute to an overall sense of well-being and a positive work environment. Besides, it's nice to have things work when you need them the most. Be safe and enjoy!