Cruel to be Kind (Means that Your Shop’s Clean)

The Greenville Woodworkers Guild. An amazing place.

If you have ever visited the Greenville Woodworkers Guild in Upstate South Carolina, you probably marveled at… everything. The machines. The space. The lumber storage. The multimedia room and furniture display areas.

Me? I loved the sign over the slop sink.

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Above that sink was a sign that explicitly stated what was and what was not allowed in the sink. After you read that sign, you would be a fool to pour acetone down its drain.

The slop sink is by the guild’s welcome desk. I excitedly told the woodworkers sitting there: “Wow! That is a perfect sign. Plus all the instructions on the machines are explicit and clear. It must make this place easier to run.”

“No one obeys the signs,” one of them replied. “The only way to get them to listen is to be ruthless.”

The shop floor at the Greenville guild.

Ruthless? I thought it was an odd word. But within a few months, I realized the guy was right.

When I returned to my shop, I decided to put a sign above our bathroom sink: “This sink is for soap and water only. Please use the slop sink for solvents.”

About a week later, someone poured some really caustic agents down the bathroom sink. The chemicals dissolved the plumbing seals and suddenly the bathroom floor was covered in acid and water.

That day, I became ruthless.

I have worked in group shops (or shops with fellow employees) for most of my adult life. Every one of them was a disorganized mess. Sometimes the boss was the worst offender. No matter what the shop rules were, every few months all of the router wrenches would disappear. Many of the machines would be clogged with dust or seriously out of alignment. And so we’d all take a grumpy couple days to get things back to where we could work. 

And then the entropy would begin again.

I was part of the problem. When I became “the boss,” I decided to live by example. Keep my area clean. Clear off the machines after I used them. Empty the trash at the end of the day.

I figured that everyone would become embarrassed that they weren’t doing their part. And then they would pick up after themselves. Rainbows and kittens.

They didn’t notice or care. So the shop became messier and less functional than ever. And that was absolutely my failure as a leader.

After the solvent incident, however, I became ruthless. If someone left a mess, I confronted them. If people didn’t follow the cleaning protocols for the end of the week, they got a nasty text the next morning. I decided that I didn’t care if my shopmates thought I was a jerk. 

After about six months of being a raging (but consistent) wanker, something happened. 

The shop stayed clean. Really clean. And I never had to say another word about it. When students would visit, my shopmates would warn them to sweep up their messes. Otherwise, “You’ll trigger HIM.” (Which was me.)

Weirdly, I haven’t had to raise my voice or send a nasty text for years now. I’ve returned to being an easygoing person who keeps his personal area clean, does his share of maintenance and empties the trash whenever it’s full.

It’s all sparkly waterfalls and break-dancing Care Bears.

But so help me if you dump lacquer thinner down my bathroom sink, I will have you hogtied before breakfast. OK, sweetie?

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— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. I know that most readers work in their shops alone. So this post might seem… odd. If I have to be explicit, the message is: Be honest with others and yourself. Even when it’s against your nature.


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