Clutter As a Necessity

I like cleaning and sweeping up. Always have. I like to stop and put away. Organise my workflow, my tools, my wood and such. It’s nice. I do this according to the progress and stages of a project. The carcass gets made, I clean and clear. Then I start the next stage with a clean sheet (or, in my case, workbench). It’s a habit to do this and when I speak of therapy in a blog post as I did yesterday, cleaning is not just a  part of the recovery process, it’s essential to it. I cannot say it has always been that way. The more you accumulate ‘treasures’ at a good price, the more the accumulations can clog up the free flow of things work. Cluttered benches happen. In the right flow of creativity, breaking off for a clean can actually break into the flow of creativity unnecessarily. That’s not laziness or procrastination. You must be able to check yourself internally transparently though, to make sure that’s actually the case and be prepared to organise if your honest evaluation says that there is no reason not to clean up and clear away. I clean and clear more than anyone that works with me because, in the very nature of my working, I’m the one that make mess and I don’t need someone else to do it for me. Relocating tools and wood offcuts is a must and it must happen many times during my day. If a tool is missing I must find it. It’s a lost sheep and the assemblage of all things will be incomplete without it.

Habits good and bad are established in the repeated doing of things. My moving into my garage workshop has indeed meant getting used to new spaces and new places for my tools, wood and equipment.

On the bench above it may not look too bad as workbenches go, but serious analysis tells me differently. Here I am at a point where I stop. It’s not a choice but a must. Let’s take a look at why. My wood is awry. It could have been stacked more neatly at least and set aside to somewhere safe. Obviously I have used the winding sticks to work the wood. These too could be hung on the nail even if I am not quite altogether done with them yet. It looks like I am in the midst of sharpening my planes. Personally, when sharpening begins, it’s always time to clear the decks. Sharpening can mean the odd messy splash.The moisture meter too is done with if, as in this case, I am obviously at the stage of refining my wood for the project. That too could be stowed. Rasp and file? Done with them. Put them up!

Now I am not altogether a believer in what Einstein supposedly said at some time,“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” My workbench is always cluttered and decluttered and it is a routine for me to clutter and clear. It’s one of my favourite things and it is very much a part of my establishing beauty and loveliness in my work to periodically declutter. In my saying ‘it is not what you make but how that determines the outcome.’ It’s also true then when I say that ‘disease, and by that I mean ‘dis-ease’ and not the result of bacteria, results from things being in a state of disorder.’

A drawer takes care of clutter and even when the drawer itself looks cluttered it’s usually not.

The antidote to chaos is of course coordination in every sphere of our creativity. Especially is this so at the workbench, in the workshop and surrounding the workbench. The therapeutic work in creativity is as much about maintaining an orderly workshop as it is about making lovely and beautiful things. These two partners go hand in hand. Does that mean no clutter, dust and shavings? Not at all. We like those too. It means we work creatively on projects and stop periodically to regain lost territory.


  1. OK Paul, you are who you are and I love you for it, but when I see your bench top, and from our point of view ( as in camera view), it looks very cluttered. I sometimes worry you don’t have enough clear space to actually do the work. 90% of my tools are within arms reach and stay in the draw or the cabinet (behind me) until I need them and then quite often put them away or out of the way rather than clutter the top. I am not constrained by time so the loss of a few moments getting or putting a tool away is not a problem. My enjoyment is in the making not in the finishing. I always finish the day by cleaning up the shavings and putting things in order, even if the project is a week in the making. I’m already looking to the bathroom cabinet. I think that will be my next project.

    1. The very last thing I want is for anyone to worry about me because my system works admirably. If it didn’t, believe me, I’d change it. I keep out the tools I know I will be using minute by minute and stow those that are momentarily in use and then redundant. This makes me happy and does not mean that the systems of others are necessarily right or wrong. All the men I worked with were the same. Tools for use out in the well, tidy periodically throughout the day and a good clean at the end of the day. Real men, real work, real life systems not clinical kitchen-type workshops at all. My system works perfectly well, even sometimes to the annoyance of others. Mostly it’s all about balance.

      1. One of the things I do admire about you and your workspace is that you can see that it is a ‘REAL’ workshop. I do look at other YouTube videos, and many of the professional sites also affiliated with commercial ventures, have the look of squeaky clean never used (not even a scratch) on the bench, tools, or even a little clutter. So what kind of woodworking goes on in those shops???
        I / we know who the real woodworkers are

  2. I am slowed down constantly because I hate working in a mess… I can’t even put up with standing on shavings resulting from planing… consequently one of my tools always at hand is a broom and pan and brush!

    I also always put all of my tools away at the end of a session, Though there is a system to what I store where, there are some irregularities about it…. but I know where EVERYTHING is. I couldn’t cope if I didn’t.



    1. I think an important element in all of this is whether the tool user and bench owner is working full time as a maker and not for a few hours a week in what is often an environment they do not use to earn a full-time living from. There’s a difference. I like order and tidiness, but tidiness does not mean efficiency and efficient use of time, space, tools and materials will be different for the man who has to sell what he makes to pay the bills. The problem in some of the responses to this is they never state who they are, what they do and whether indeed woodworking is for a living or a hobby. That makes it hard for me to reply. Someone doing it for a hobby may seek to be economical with their time but have all the time in the world between bouts of work to stow things, sweep the floor and bench and so on. Had I an apprentice sweeping the floor all the time I would stop them and say you need to be more pragmatic. Even if they were making nothing for me and had free time in my workshop I would not allow sweeping to waste my time giving to them. Thos new to working with their hands may take time to work out a more pragmatic approach based on maximising their making time. I believe I am extremely efficient with my whole work ethic, wasting nothing most of the time.

  3. I am looking forward to a segment on making that drawer for the workbench. Will that be coming soon? Thanks.

  4. I don’t mind clutter at all,never did. The time to tidy up for me is when you have to put a tool away to get another one on the bench ! and you find that out when you knock something on the floor and can’t find it for shavings, leading to the broom thing…. When I was a little boy I remember going into my father’s workshop when he was preparing stock for a built in kitchen for us, his plane (no4 Stanley) must have been going just right for him because the shavings were above his knees. Good memories.

  5. I’ve started to get into the habit of clearing up my workbench once every evening, and then a more thorough job on Saturday evening so that I’m ready for Monday when it quickly rolls around again. Not always reliable about sticking to that yet, but it always feels better to start the day with a clean workbench.

  6. I fully agree with the spirit of this post. I work with wood as a hobby. Nevertheless, I strive to be efficient and tidy. The Einstein quote is very appropriate. As with all things, I think balance is important to process. When I’m working I like items I’m actively engaged with to be available, present and in sight. I allow these items to accumulate in my work area. Periodically, I’ll clear shavings off the bench, and move things around a bit, but it isn’t until the end of a session that I make a deeper effort to tidy up. When I do this, I think about where I am with my project. I put away items I don’t think I’ll need for my next session. If I know my next session will be soon, I leave out items that I know will carry over to the next round of work. So a go to hand plane like my No 4 will often stay out on the bench with the combination square and such. For me personally, this creates continuity of mental (even emotional) state for me. When I walk in the shop to resume work the next evening, my mind and body can immediately begin to reorient around where I left off and where I’m going with my next phase of work. Thus I have two types of tidy cycles- one that is intra-session and another that takes place at the end of work sessions. I suppose there is a third and much more spaced out process too where I do deeper cleaning and contemplate even better ways to store and organize on the whole. I use much the same approach to process and neatness at my full time job. The items in play in that context might be quite different, but my approach to balancing process and neatness are much the same. I do think that neatness and staying tidy are very important. At the same time, for me, a mild bit of clutter while in process is healthy and productive for me.

  7. As Einstein has been brought into the discussion may I mention one of the most fundamental laws of the universe.

    The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that the Entropy of the universe is always increasing.

    For Entropy read disorder and this is telling you that left to its own devices nature will always tend to a state of disorder. So your workbench will always tend to a state of disorder and by tidying it up you are expending energy to create a temporary more ordered state.

    I spend a disproportionate amount of time fighting thermodynamics 2nd Law in my workshop, but I am as Paul says very much a hobbyist woodworker with all the time in the world and nothing better to do.

  8. I’m not a professional, I find I should tidy more than I do, if I don’t there’s a risk of damaging tools or the work. I’m coming around to keeping it more organized.

  9. A place for everything and everything all over the place.

    I worked in a shop that made plastic parts for commercial aircraft. It was a mixture of woodworking (pattern work), machining, and plastic. We cleaned every day just before lunch and every day just before going home. On Friday, all work stopped for two hours at the end of the day for a thorough cleaning. One day, at home, I looked around and realized that, if I were back in my old shop job, I’d be fired for the mess. That’s when I realized I must be my own foreman.

    I think managing dust in a home shop is a real concern, even for a hand tools shop. Having things in tool chests/tubs and having things off the floor so that you can vacuum comprehensively is important. My tools cycle through chaos on the bench and adjacent surfaces and being put away, but I have more work to do in having less on the floor and having everything in chests.

  10. I aspire to one day maintain my bench in as tidy a fashion as Paul does. Doing a mix of rushed home DIY jobs and more lengthy woodworking projects, I often have to move stuff around just to find a square foot if bench space to stage an Instagram photo (I suppose this doesn’t reflect too well on my ethos). I honestly find it hilarious that there are people giving Paul grief about his bench being untidy.

    1. Mostly it is about balance. When I came into woodworking I was fortunate to have a father who insisted on order. Coming from a family if six children it was essential to the household. My morning chores were to clean my dad’s shoes, make toast, boil the kettle and keep the fire lit. My other siblings took care of other things. I learned about order early on and my parents had us trained for such tasks by the time we reached eight. In my work at 15 years the men too were disciplined with regards to tools, wood and the placement of things. They too trained me as to what was acceptable creativity wise but insisted on the periodic clear-and-cleanup during the day. I don’t take too much to heart what naysayers say even though I do listen to what they want to say. I am never merely dismissive of them but often they do not work within the same limits I have had to work with through fifty years of daily woodworking. So I work out what I need to make things work, pass it on and then my audience can work out what they do or don’t want.

  11. I find the older I get the better it is to take breaks, not just for a rest or a cuppa but also to take stock and clean up. I enjoy the sweeping, clearing, cleaning and even sharpening that comes from those times I need to take stock and get a fresh start even if just mid morning or part way through a project. I find that it clears my mind, my bench and indeed the work area also. Just a part of the ebb and flow of working at my own speed. Keep up the good work!!
    Mike Z.

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