Damp buildings for workshops

Question:

My workspace is currently an English, unheated single garage attached to my house. As we get closer to winter it’s obviously not such a great place to do woodwork from the purely personal and physical point of view, but is there any reason why you can’t (or personally wouldn’t) do woodworking in such a space?

Does the cold have a detrimental effect on the wood stored in such a space? Does it “shrink” the wood, or make it harder to work? I know glues come with warnings of working temperature ranges, so should gluing up be avoided in such spaces?

 

Answer:

This question comes up frequently enough and is a concern in various parts of the UK and the US and so it is generally an international problem. Garage, shed, outbuilding and so on all have issues when it comes to dampness. Damp and cold do affect the working conditions and heating does help greatly.

In my view wooden structures, when well crafted, can offer the easiest structure to maintain controllable levels of moisture for woodworkers. With good insulation, ventilation and such, you create a controllable environment. That said, when the region is filled with humidity it can present real issues for woodworkers. In Britain most garages are brick built using a single wall of 4 1/2″ brick or cinder block or stone. All three absorb and retain high levels of water if indeed rain hits the walls or the atmosphere is saturated for any length of time outside. This water is transferred through the wall to the inside and when doors and windows are constantly shut the inside of the structure becomes an enemy to fine work, fine tools, fine wood and all materials and equipment.

Property improvements

Any structure can be waterproofed and waterproof barriers can be installed inside or out and that is the best place for anyone to start. Other damp issues with brick and stone structures can be via the underside of the roof when no insulation is installed, and rising damp when brick or stone alone. Many older properties may find the damp proof course or membranes are either missing or fractured or deteriorated so as to allow ingress of water on a continuing basis. Again, this needs remedial action. Without correction in these key areas, you will always have continuing issues with damp. In the USA, where most houses are wood-framed structures, the answer is much simpler. Good exterior cladding guarantees not transfer of water to the inside surfaces. Good insulation and the right vapour barrier means you can add a modest heat source and keep everything in good shape. The issue in the USA for the main part in most regions seems more to do with periods of high heat and moisture say in coastal regions. This then requires air conditioning of some kind and there are many options.

Storing green wood

Storing green wood in the workshop is generally bad practice. That is unless the workshop is capacious and well ventilated. In small workspaces the storage of green wood or wood with high levels of moisture becomes a problem. There are few parts of Britain where the weather conditions are ideal without some source of heat and walls that are well built and well insulated.

Storing wood indoors

Whether storing wood indoors is possible and practical depends on several potential influences. People create humidity and you see this evidenced when four people travel in a car or bus on a damp day. A lone woodworker will create less humidity than a family of five with a dog, a cat and lots of washing, bathing and cooking taking place within a thousand square feet. Things get steamier in wintertime in the UK when we really do not have freezing weather but we do have lots of rain and damp. In the USA most people have to use lip balm and other face treatments because in many states everything is indeed frozen solid for months.

Cold doesn’t generally affect wood until moisture comes in and wood absorbs the damp. Cold and freeze are two different dilemmas, but frozen wood alone is not usually an issue. Usually we do allow our wood to stand and reach room temperature over several hours before gluing up as this affects the glue and allows better cohesion.

I though to ask some of you how you deal with moisture in your region if indeed you have issues with the different sources of humidity be that sea, mountains, lake districts and woodlands.

29 thoughts on “Damp buildings for workshops”

  1. For me (in the South East of the UK), rust on tools is an infinitely bigger problem – as is working in freezing temperatures in the winter.

    Although I wouldn’t remotely consider myself to be a skilled woodworker (that is, working to fine tolerances), I do tend to try to bring parts for larger projects into the house for a few days before final trimming or glue up. I also store sensitive glues in the house to protect them from temperature extremes.

    Ironically, most of this experience originally came from final finishing of loudspeaker cabinets made from MDF. That’s a million miles away from fine furniture, granted; but issues of movement used to cause me problems with some paint finishes.

  2. Hi Paul,

    In the western part of North Carolina, US, we have a generally moderate climate. Seldom above 100 F in the summer, generally not below 35 F for very long in winter.

    We do have a fair amount of humidity, however, and that’s year round.

    For years I kept a dehumidifier running in my shop/garage to avoid rust on tools. A few months ago I started working more with green oak and was very concerned about checking and splitting.

    So I’ve shut off the dehumidifier. No rust on any tools yet. And it’s even quieter in here than before.

    Much of the wisdom on working green wood seems to be passed down orally rather than on the “interwebs”. In a way it’s nice because I can experiment and explore without anyone’s ideas in my head.

    To avoid splitting and checking . . . . on a whim I used some coconut oil. If you’ve never seen it, at room temperature it’s a solid, hence easier to work with than linseed, in addition to not being flammable.

    It seems to really lock the moisture in the wood and as a side benefit my shop now smells wonderfully tropical . . . .

  3. Hi Paul,
    I vanquished the moisture monster in my garage by applying a product called Dry-Lock on the poured concrete walls. That, with a new garage door and some minor repairs I would say I reduced the moisture by probably 70% or better and it’s actually warmer in the colder months too.

  4. I live in the state of Alabama (US) were humidity is a problem year round. We either do as you recommend and battle the damp. I myself just drag everything to the front porch. With your years in Texas; you know us southerners love our front porches.

  5. Paul
    Since installing a heater in my garage in Michigan, I’m able to work out there all through the winter. I keep the temp set at 60 degrees F, and have greatly reduced the rust blooms on my tools and equipment. For woodworkers here in Michigan we have basically two seasons: wet and dry. I don’t use a de-humidifier in the summer, nor a humidifier in winter. As such wood movement is a fact of life. I don’t make jigs requiring any degree of precision out of wood anymore since I would have to make two pair of each jig – one for summer and one for winter.

  6. This is unrelated to this blog post, and I am not connected with Axminster in any way, it’s just I saw you blogging about the Axminster castors before, so I thought I would let you or anyone who needs some that there’s a great deal on at the moment.

    Castors are Normally £52.96, this week they are £29.96, limited stock.

    http://www.axminster.co.uk/axminster-workbench-castors-507151/

    I ordered some, am really happy with the deal.

  7. I live in Colorado, which is very dry, like most of the US Mountain West. So generally humidity is not too much of a problem for my tools rusting, but the temperature and humidity swing between summer and winter is quite large and can pose a problem for wood stored in the garage.

    I’ve had the most problems with humidity differentials between buying lumber at the yard, which is usually kept indoors for hardwoods and good quality pines, and the garage. Often wood will move or check by the time I get it home just from going from indoor humidity at the store to 30% humidity outdoors. I’m just more thoughtful about factoring in wastage when I buy lumber to take an inch or two off the end of a board, and having to plane it down to take out twist or cup. I sticker the lumber in the garage for awhile, cut it to rough size, and then will take the project pieces indoors to acclimate to an indoor humidity and temperature level before working it to final dimension and assembly back in the garage.

    For larger pieces of lumber, I paint the ends with oil-based sealing primer to help the board dry out more evenly in the garage. I have some 4×6’s in the garage right now that checked a bit getting them home, but haven’t moved or checked any more after putting on the primer in months.

  8. Paul,

    My shop is in Maine (USA), where it can get well below zero degrees F for weeks at a time in the winter. I have a wood stove in the shop which not only heats, but dries the air to a fault. It’s also a good way to get rid of scraps/ shavings/sweepings. I also use animal hide glue for everything, as it is virtually trouble free. Clamp time is nil, but on very cold days I have to work very fast. Humidity is usually only a problem for short stretches of time. I have a large stash of lumber ( Brit. timber) stored in the attic, and never have any appreciable problems with wood creep, or movement.

  9. Here in Vermont USA it’s the extremes of cold and heat that cause the most issues. Approximately six months of each in a given year. Tool rust is mostly a cooler weather problem with cold metal meeting warmer humid air as the heat is turned on in my garage workshop. It’s a non-insulated building with a wood stove so heat is only on when required.
    I season lumber/timber in a separate unheated shed by air drying but it needs to be brought into the house to stabilize before use.

    I lived some years in the UK also where a friend operates a cabinet/furniture making business in Leominster. He works in a barn building heated with a sawdust stove. Stores and drys his timber there in the shop. No insulation to speak of. Never heard him mention any problems with shrinkage or glue ups. Many UK structures are for the most part cooler and damper year round so shrinkage is less of an issue than here in the States where we have humid summers and then very dry heated houses during the winter months. Chair legs loosen, table tops and wood wall paneling develop splits and then close so tight in the summer humidity you can hardly relocate the cracks.

    One solution is highly controlled environments which are obviously expensive to install and maintain. Most museums, for obvious reasons, computer control their environments to minimize any and all of these issues. In the real world we all live in we have to accept that environmental variations exist everywhere and we have to tailor our work methods and keep our expectations within those constraints. There is no one size fits all answer.

  10. Hi Paul. In my part of Lancashire we have had record rainfall this November, and it looks like it will continue in December. We have flood warnings for tomorrow and again for Saturday. To add to that, I live on what is locally termed a ‘moss’. Effectively this is reclaimed estuarine wetland first drained by the Romans and then further pumped by the Victorians. The ground is mainly boulder clay. I think they call it a moss because that is the only thing that grows prolifically here.
    My workspace is in an over-crowded garage constructed on a broken and subsided concrete base and built of thin concrete panels that no longer interlock, leaving gaps all over it. The roof is corrugated asbestos cement with gaps along the top of the walls and also at the ridge. When it rains (most of the time) it rains in.
    I don’t do much woodwork at all in the winter.

    Tools need to be kept locked away, and they rust every year anyway. I do wipe them with oil after use, but it doesn’t protect them all winter. Heat just leaks out everywhere. I wear thermals and use radiant heat, as that makes you feel warm even if I can’t keep the heat in. I plan a new building on the site, but have issues with other priorities, and where would I put everything meanwhile?

    Thanks for the advice on the insulated timber structure, that has always been my long term plan. I was also thinking of a suspended timber floor, uneven concrete is horrible to stand on all day.

  11. Acorn Carpentry

    I have my workshop in a basement. Two feet of which is above ground. It is always 60 in there in the winter so far. The dehumidifier is not pulling anything out of the air right now. In the summer it was a gallon a day. I have not built enough in there yet to know if it is an OK place go build yey.

  12. Solving my moisture problems began with correcting the soil grading around the house which, over the years, had pitched back towards the structure. This has actually been challenging because of limitations of the site including having to relay a 50 foot granite walkway that was made from 3″ granite stone. My knees are still sore from that job.

    Paul, what is your goal or ideal for relative humidity in the shop? Is it the same year round?

  13. Hi Paul and others,

    Here’s my 3-part solution from wet, not-too-cold Denmark.

    1: For tools: Our biggest problem is a lot of humidity in wintertime, coupled with temperatures fluctuating just above/below the dewpoint – which causes a lot of moisture to condense on cold surfaces. Problematic for rust. I coat big metal surfaces with my homemade wax (linseed oil, pine turpentine and beeswax), rub it in and polish off. tools are wiped with an oily cloth (I use camellia oil, but you could use linseed oil if you remember to keep the cloth in a glass jar with close-fitting lid. It only selfcombusts when the oil hardens in a flammable material – not when applied to wood or metal), wipe it off and store in a trunk/toolbox. For winter use I put two carpets over the trunk to push the dew point out and away. Never had any issues with rust.

    2: For yourself: Remember to ventilate. The winter air will usually be damp, but because it is colder you can push it out of the garage. The problem is that concrete blocks will hold moisture, but they will also soak up radiant heat. (Try going to a brick-walled country church that only gets heated Sunday. Though the air feels warm initially, you will have the warmth soaked from you.) I think the best, and nicest, solution is a wood-fired stove. It gives a pleasant radiant warmth, and it will push some of the moisture out of the structure, especially if you keep an open door. Price and permits might be prohibitive, though, so I have found that a radiant (infra-red) heater works great. If gives a safe and simple source of warmth that doesn’t use too much energy on trying to warm up all the air in the room. You can heat up glue and the timbers to glue up by placing them in front of the heat source for half an hour or so.

    3: For wood: Think in terms of seasoning instead of dryness. As we can see in timber frames and log structures, wood tends to loose a lot of moisture during the initial drying, but it will also regain a lot in the beginning. But through subsequent cycles these fluctuations get smaller and smaller. In a few years, air-dried wood will be very hard to get really wet again. This makes the wood much more stable and it resaws much better, because tensions have been evened out during this seasoning. Even when I grew up in the early 80’s they kept wood for finish carpentry in open sheds, but for several years before reselling. It could be brought in, acclimatized for a week and used without further shrinkage. Good luck trying that with most timbers today.
    Do read George Sturt’s “The Wheelwright’s Shop” for a description of how important it was to have properly SEASONED timbers (10-20 years for the elm wheel hubs).
    I am sure Paul would recognize this practice?

    I have begun felling and sawing my own timber. It is stickered and stacked outside for as long time as possible (several years at least, except for greenwood oak for chairs). In a ventilated but not too drafty location. I have it under cover to keep rain and snow off. For oak, I keep it in the rain for at least a year initially, to wash out tannins. Then it is brought under the tarp. Furniture timbers are only brought inside no more than a year before use.
    I have also experimented washing out summer-felled oak by keeping it in a pool of water, and changing the water every 4-5 days for a couple of weeks. Then air-dried per above. This I have used for plane bodies. Incredibly stable. Frost is no problems, it actually seems to speed up drying considerably.

    This timber is the best I have ever worked, though the initial quality of the trees were not better than any other: Very easy to work with hand tools, easy on the edges, stable when sawn into thinner planks and easy to get smooth with the plane. This has been both pine, spruce, oak, maple, fruit trees (cherry, apple, pear and buckthorn). Note, these are all domestic trees, I DON’T know how exotics would behave in this due to their high oil content and compact fibers
    I do have the experience, that even tricky woods like cocobolo and teak, however, are perfectly easy to use when you have some very seasoned wood. I bought some cabinet-makers leftovers, stored for more than 40 years. Lovely to work and easy to glue.

    Consider: I have experimented with using some old glued-up panels from old furniture. Pine back panels were removed from the frame and ripped or kept whole, some I removed the lacquer finish by planing on both sides, some only on one. The were left in damp rooms, or in direct sunlight. Though this wasn’t any great quality pine – it remained completely flat and stable. I believe this is due to the seasoning removing the tension and setting the pitch in the timber.

    IF you work only in kiln-dried woods that have been stored indoors at the store, as a rule of thumb you cannot keep them outside: It is very dry, at least on the outside, but it has only had a short drying cycle, so it will soak up moisture like a sponge through the end-grain, causing warping. If it has also been kiln-dried poorly, then the surface is “baked” and hardened, so that the intake of moisture into the center causes the swelled center fibres to press against the dry outer. This causes both splitting and shakes. I have seen this a lot, especially in modern floor boards kept outside: They don’t split in summer dryness, but with the autumn damp.

    So keep this wood inside – but do try to give it some time to become as stable as possible.

    Hope this helps,
    Henrik

  14. handmadeuniqueclocks

    Since I live in a tropical environment humidity is my biggest issue and there’s nothing I can do about it except install an airconditioning system but that isn’t a financially viable option, I have just learned to live with it and when working on a project I stack all my project lumber under heavier blocks of timber on a flat surface limiting any movement. I usually leave them there until I work with it and when finished place it back under. This unconventional method has raised many brows but my timber has remained flat and I know this method works. As for tackling rust because of the higher salt content in the air, renaissance paste wax on all my tools. it works like a dream.

  15. Offshore Organbuilder

    For those in a cold, damp environment, a poorly constructed building, and limited cash to fix it, here are some ideas:

    Hang the walls with builder’s plastic (or line with polystyrene between timber uprights) to keep the damp out.
    Make a timber-framed false floor, packed underneath with polystyrene or similar. In a small building, lay the plastic and cover it with a carpet from the tip or the local carpet fitters, who will always have old carpet which they have to pay to get rid of.
    Make a false ceiling and cover with builders’ plastic.
    If the room is small, use a de-humidifier or electric heater.
    Beware the danger of fire (which you should be doing, of course, anyway.)

  16. Southern California is largely a desert climate and dry most of the year, the marine layer creeps inland enough to make coastal humidity fluctuate. Although I live only 8 miles from the coast, my shop is just far enough away, and at sufficient elevation to stay dry during most if not all the year. Over the course of one year, bare steel can show a faint tinge of oxidation, so I try to keep my tools coated with a corrosion inhibitor. Most of my tools are stored in a wooden tool chest. I feel as if that helps to keep them stabilized from the effects of temporary moisture.

    My shop is also embedded in a sloping site, by as much as 4′ on three sides. I feel as if that helps keep it a bit cooler during summer days. Fortunately, I have never experienced any significant moisture penetrating the lower (poured concrete) walls. I sometimes wish I had a insulated and heated garage, if only for those colder months where night time temps can drop below 50 degrees F.

    Alas, for a garage shop without any heat, I often consider myself lucky.

  17. This article is very timely. As I sit here reading this my basement/shop floor is completely covered with water that seeped in from the heavy rains we have had. I was very glad to read other comments and realize I am not the only dealing with a less than ideal shop situation. ( misery loves company)
    I live in the mountains of western North Carolina and like a previous commenter stated, the weather is mild here but pretty humid. I have always had a problem with rust on my tools. I think I could submerge them in i bucket of oil and they would still rust. I have tried 3in1 oil, camellia oil, wax… nothing seems to stop it. I will probably build the tool cupboard you are making in the hope that proper storage may help.
    As far as a shop solution, I may convert a spare bedroom for a small bench and hand tool work and just have the table saw and band saw in the basement, or move.

    1. Hey Jeb. Sorry to hear about your flood. Hope you get things sorted out quickly.

      After reading a FWW article that tested corrosion inhibitors, I ordered a spray bottle of the CRC 3-36 product that seemed to be the winner for their test on both A2 steel and Cast Iron. WD-40 performed just as well in their tests, but CRC has less of a petroleum odor. Only cost $6 from Amazon, so it was a no-brainer for me.

      I used 100% Jojoba oil for a while, but cannot recommend. Despite an even coating, Jojoba tends to bead up after a short while of disuse, and becomes sticky/tacky. Not what I call good protection.

    1. Christopher Mitchell

      I live in North Florida, I to read that article in FWW about the CRC 3-36 I buy mine locally here at Grainger, and believe me it works better than anything I have ever used and I have used it all.

      Once a year I spray all eleven of my Machines and then buff it in with a cotton cloth. That article was spot on just look at the cast iron table saw too they used it on. I can assure you that was no propaganda
      . That article was as real as day ans night. And to top it off it does NOT effect any finish that you might use on the wood. I use it on all metal chisels, planes,everything.
      . The only problem is when I first started buying it I would only get to use about half of the can and then it would stop spraying so I called the company and after about six months they changed the cans and Ive never had a problem since
      .
      We have all the said problems here in Pensacola, Fl but I dont have the first rust spot on anything and like I said only once a year do I spray all my machines.

      But to be honest I haven been using my machines much since I met Paul’s Masterclass web site.
      But I do use my Bandsaw, joiner and planers. and Lathe.
      oh yeah I use it on my handsaws all 150 + I know, I know, I have a handsaw problem, lol. In fact I just bought two more from the UK sorry guys and girls over there but I like the english Tenon and dovetail saws.
      You can blame Paul for that one……. LOL For it was his fault.

      The CRC-36 works as a lubricant so the saws slide like butter through the wood and it last a long time. better than wax, better than 3-1 and much better than the Jojoba and the Camellia oil.
      Cheers
      Chris

      1. Christopher,

        I am in Jacksonville Beach. Where are you?

        Per the post, Really damp in Florida and I oil every tool when I put it away. No problems with rust after that. Especially after sharpening a plane blade as my hand oils/salt sweat will cause rust in a matter of weeks.

        1. Christopher Mitchell

          Im in Pensacola , My brother lives in Kingsland, Ga, He has an apartment in Jacks. He works from there.I like living here alright but I cant stand being so far away from the wood supply. I want to move up north somewhere maybe around Va. West Va, or even Pennsylvania , I think. lol. I really would like to hand pick my own lumber though. Cheers

  18. Bill Sutherland

    I live in northern Minnesota where we have to deal with humidity and polar temperatures. To protect my hand tools, I keep them in cabinets that are warmed year round with light bulbs. The expensive gun ages use this trick. My large power tools suffered until I heated my garage, but our humid summers are always laying surface rust on all exposed surfaces. I’ve tried waxes and oils with no success, but the suggestions in this blog have given me hope. Thanks to Paul and the rest of y’all! Merry Christmas.

  19. analogueadventures

    I am in the UK with the standard single housebrick walls and concrete floor. The concrete slab is cracked and also the mortar under the first brick was completely porus.
    I was finding puddles on the floor after rain.

    A big improvement was scraping out an inch or so of mortar both in and out and repointing with fresh mortar with some water-proofer added (I am not a bricklayer, so it was crude but effective). I also filled the crack in the slab. I then painted an area about 2 foot up the walls and a foot into the slab with bitumastic paint (sometimes called liqued dampcourse or liqued membrane). It was much easier to use and less messy than I expected. I then painted the whole slab with diluted PVAto get good adhesion and covered it with an inch of self levelling concrete. This last step gave me a nice finish, but was far too expensive. A screed (sand and cement) might have been a much cheaper option, but harder for an incompetent DIY’er like me.

    The result is the floor / wall join is sealed and the garage is now completely dry 🙂

  20. My solution to rusty machinery is NEVER to heat the workshop, to cover saw tables etc. with oily blankets/bubblewrap when not in use and to keep edge tools in a gently heated cabinet.

    Since I live in damp (but not too cold) Cornwall, where the lack of heating is not a huge handicap I feel more fortunate than many.

    However, I’m about to start using wooden planes and worry that keeping them in the ‘shop and/or in the heated cabinet may not agree with them.
    Any solutions?
    P.S. I’ve just ordered some CRC 3-36. Nothing like belt and braces!

    1. You may not have any problem. You will have to see. I for sure would not leave planes out in the open if the shop is not in some measure climate controlled or the tools kept in a cabinet with a source of heat to keep humidity down without cooking them.

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