How-To: Heat Your Workshop Effectively

As winter approaches, this is likely something a number of you are thinking about getting sorted before it’s too late, and with good reason - you want to be able to work in comfort through the colder months, and we don’t blame you after the workshop evacuating summer we’ve had.
It’s worth noting early on here that there are a number of factors that you need to bear in mind when selecting a heating system. The balance between these requirements will normally lead you to the conclusion on a suitable heating system.
In order to get to that conclusion however, you must consider:-

1) Safety: timber is combustible, which you know well. But think also about dust. At critical concentrations wood dust from sanding etc. can result in spontaneous explosion. You cannot afford to have any form of naked flame as your source of heat long-term.

2) Timber conditioning: when you buy timber it will normally if "dry" have a moisture content (MC) of around 12%. In your house which, presumably, is centrally heated and maybe air-conditioned the MC is more likely to be around 8% and could be even lower dependent where you are located. In an unheated workshop it is quite likely that partially (kiln) dried timber may actually acquire moisture during storage causing it to swell. If this timber is then used to make items which are used in the domestic environment, shrinkage will recur, but to an even greater extent than if the timber had never seen the workshop! If, during the course of a making, say, an item of furniture the MC is continually changing because of heating being turned on and off during working and non-working periods, for instance, you could well find that all of your time is spent re-fitting doors and drawers to compensate for the changing state of the timber - which will then move yet again when moved into the house!

3) Tools: The biggest enemy of tools is corrosion - rust! Electrical tools also get a little twitchy when asked to work whilst full of condensation. The rust on tools is normally the result of condensation: this forms when warm wet air meets cold surfaces such as tool steel. The best way to avoid this is to maintain the tools at a stable temperature somewhat above the dew point. Avoid anything which generates moisture in the air. Many folk forget - or never knew - that anything that employs external combustion (gas heater, paraffin/kerosene heater etc.) generates huge volumes of water as a by-product of the combustion process. Thus any such heat source is to be avoided if at all possible. You can also help reduce the chances of rust in your tools (both turning and otherwise) by treating them or your toolbox to some inhibitor, such as that made in various formats and media by ShieldTechnology.

4) Comfort: Although woodcraft is a fairly physical pastime - especially when at the preparation stage of hand-sawing and planing timber - there are also quiet times when sitting or standing and working on details is the order of the day. A degree of control to allow the heating to be regulated to match the bodily energy output is useful. Too cold and you won't be able to concentrate on the fine work. Too warm and the heavy work won't get done - and you'll add moisture to the timber as your sweat drips onto it!!! Also bear in mind that if the heating is switched on when you want to start work, the room will probably only have reached a decent temperature as you're about to leave it! Also bear in mind that any heater that is not built-in to the workshop will take up floor space - which always seems at a premium - and may lead to accidents as you stumble over it. Also remember that your feet are the contact point most likely to draw heat away from you and thus become cold, so it is worth thinking about something underfoot, either an anti-slip mat, or alternatively a cushioned and insulated version such as our anti-fatigue mat which will not only keep you warm, but it will also improve your overall comfort and posture in the long term.

Technology in terms of time switches and controllers can be a great help in getting the working environment you need, when you need it. The range of heating systems available is far more than our fathers (and especially their fathers) had to choose from, so we can be more critical: My father still recalls that his dad had a paraffin (kerosene) heater in his shop: apparently it stank (as you would guess), threatened to die every time the wind blew through the open door and put out enough water to have an indoor pool.

My ideal would be to have the workshop connected to the house central heating system so that a reasonable temperature can be maintained at all times. This is normally also the most cost-effective provided that sensible insulation is employed on the building and roof space - which helps keep temperatures down in sunny summer times too. After that, I'd go for any other form of "black heat" - usually electric convector or radiant panels. Oil-filled radiators meet all of our requirements and are easily portable: there are models made - often termed greenhouse heaters - that consist of a single tube in a low-profile surround and which can be very effective, in multiples if necessary, to provide long-term (permanent) background heating to preclude condensation and rapid temperature variations between working and non-working sessions.

I hope that this gives you some ideas. Obviously one cannot be prescriptive as individual circumstances vary so much. However, I hope there's enough here to allow you to draw satisfactory conclusions.

Here’s to many happy hours in a warm workshop - though we still prescribe regular mugs of tea to be sure...