Teaching Employees to Respect Trade Tools

Did you ever walk over to the tool cabinet and pull out the main plunge router for the shop, only to discover the cord hanging by a thread, the switch not working, or the baseplate cracked?

Okay, okay, #*%^ happens. Tools and equipment get used, and therefore, get broken. And, usage may only be one issue that you need to deal with; putting the broken router away without telling anyone about it may actually be the bigger problem.

So, what can you, as a shop manager, do to recognize, and minimize, the problem? What can you do to prevent or correct it?

As soon as your operation moves from a one-person company to having employees, taking care of equipment must move to center stage. After all, your tools are a huge part of how you produce what you produce. Let's face it, modern woodworking can't function without some kind of table saw, and even that authentic colonial reproduction work needs its chisels and adzes (who knows what that tool is any more bet you don't have any of those in your shop).

The point here is that, when a tool moves from being a personal possession to community property, it usually gets treated differently. From private to public, not only does the wear and tear increase, but a dose of carelessness usually comes into play. And, it's so hard to engender that feeling of team: that all of this equipment is our asset, it doesn't just belong to the shop.

Stressing Tool Care

First off, everyone in your shop needs to make equipment and tool care "top of mind." It's not just a matter of your livelihood your production output depends on things working right all the time it's a safety issue, too. How can you keep this at the front of an employee's mind? Well, by focusing on it regularly in safety meetings, around clean-up, through regular maintenance programs, by making it a central part of how you operate.

A key here is ownership. If an employee owns a tool, he or she is much more likely to take care of it than if the shop owns it. Many shops encourage personal ownership of standard hand tools; if it's not a requirement of on-going employment, it's expected. Obviously this may not work with a new, minimum-wage hire. But a more experienced cabinetmaker or assembly person is often expected to own some basic, good quality hand tools: a tape measure, hammer, square, chisels, drill bits, etc.

We've found at our own shop that, as our people get more skilled, the more they like to own the portable power tools we use all the time a router, a sander, perhaps even a chop saw. We encourage that, sometimes helping out with the purchase. Other shops we know put an annual tool allowance in place for their employees so they can constantly improve their tools and what they have.

Ownership of these types of tools, maybe even some air tools, too, in some shops, is considered a rite of passage to becoming a full journeyman. You may even want to make it part of your job descriptions, if you use them.

Prevent or Minimize

The loose cord on the router that you just pulled out of the tool cabinet could easily arc and spark and electrocute the user. And, we all know all about how exposed to fire risk most of our shops are. Any electrical problems need to be talked about, jumped on and taken care of.

One way to deal with this is to have a designated area assigned in your shop where broken or suspect tools can be placed. A shelf near the foreman's bench will do, or perhaps the receiving area so you notice it more frequently. You may want to hang up a whiteboard in a prominent place so that anyone can note down tools or equipment that need attention. Also note the date that the problem occurs; that way, you may get on it sooner.

A smart and experienced person put in charge of this can work wonders. All of a sudden, responsibility and accountability rest with an actual human being, not with a group of people. And, you may want to make this person be the one in charge of a regular maintenance program, too. Use a written list of tasks to be checked off and focus on the major stationary power equipment once a week for lubrication, thorough clean-out, adjustment, etc. An hour on Fridays may translate into saved days down the road.

Your safety meetings, too, whether you conduct them on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis, can really help with your equipment issues. Set aside a few minutes to ask your team if all of the machines are functioning properly. Get ready to take notes or put it down on the whiteboard. These are pricey pieces of equipment; the longer you put off taking care of problems, the more expensive the fixes can get, as well as down time.

Perhaps you can have a tight policy |of fixing damaged tools as soon as you know about the problem. Here again, you may want to delegate that particular responsibility to your foreman or main shop person.

Keeping things sharp plays a big part here, too. Most shops have an on-going program of blade sharpening and bit replacement in place, especially if the shop is running a big saw, a point-to-point machine, edgebander, etc. Often, your local sharpening representative can put you on a regular pick-up schedule for the sharpening of bits and blades. They're the experts, so have them help you!

Another important part of correcting equipment problems is to encourage your staff to always let you know if tools are going wrong. "Fessing up" in some shops can be tough, and you want to make it easy to take care of problems. Therefore, let your people know that the consequence of breakage is fixage, not dismissal.

Repairing employees' own tools can be a good idea, too. Not only does it encourage good maintenance, it makes your team understand just how important good and tuned up equipment is to your process. It's kind of a small job perk, too. After all, these folks are using their tools in your business.

And, don't forget the computers and hardware. If your office person is having monthly crashes, it may be time to bite the bullet and get a new system. Generally, hardware doesn't particularly like our dusty shops, and computers, plotters and printers are often as important as the shapers these days.

Next Issue: Is There All-in-One Software for Our Shop?