Space Craft, the art of dealing with ‘stuff’.

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I have built sheds for people of all different walks of life, but the one thing that unites all the builds I do is the creation of extra space.  But the enjoyment we get from this extra space is dependent on how the space is designed, what matters to design is how we perceive this space and how we determine what is important to our lives. Probably the main reason I will be asked to build, is to either make a new space in which to put some ‘things’, or to make a new space which will be free from ‘things’, basically because there is no more room in the house. I hear a lot about minimalism lately, and the concept of reducing the amount of possessions we have in life in order to focus on what is important has to be a good one. But since my failings in this area are pretty monumental I thought I would try to give both sides of the story, and try to put into some perspective what space is and what our relationship to it should be for it to be of true value to our lives.

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WHAT IS SPACE FOR.

For the vast majority of us, space in our homes is at an absolute premium. Our lives are full of clutter, all of which serves to cramp us both physically and creatively. The sheds I build offer an opportunity to relieve that pressure; to provide a place separate from where we live, to be creative, to learn something new, to even start a new business. Apart from ideas, the next most important resource in being creative is the space required to do so. Many small businesses would simply never have the chance of getting off the ground without this space. The shed can bring a new freedom, a change in lifestyle perhaps even a change in job, perhaps a chance to become more self reliant.

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When I do site visits it is common for clients to just have storage in mind, people often think their garden just isn’t big enough to make a difference to their life, but for the most part this is a misconception. Building in small places paradoxically, brings better design, and a well designed small space can often out perform a larger area that hasn’t been thought about properly.

The first thing you should do to understand a build is to physically see the space you have. The advice I give to my clients is to map out the shed area in your garden and try to get a feel for it.  Your shed needs to be large enough for its purpose, while still remaining in keeping with your outside space. Building regulations come in at 15 sq. meters, but also you don’t want your shed to be overpowering and needlessly eat into your garden. A nice well proportioned garden shed can add value to your house, but one that overpowers your garden can devalue the space. The height you are allowed to build within permitted development is 2.5m and in my opinion it is usually a good idea to max the headroom out.  Of course, actual physical space is important. But just as critical is our sense of it, our connection to it.  For this you sometimes need to change the way the space is perceived otherwise known as cheating.

Take a look at this YOGA OFFICE SHED I built recently.

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A short walk down the garden path and up the steps takes you to this compact space where you can enjoy peace, quiet and privacy away from the main house. Built as a multi-purpose shed, it acts as a meditation consultation office and a place to practice yoga. It is close enough to feel accessible but separate enough to provide a new head-space.  In a small space such as this shed, design basics come into play, accessories at a minimum and well chosen practical pieces of furniture keep it clutter free. The discreet personal touches make the shed more welcoming, bespoke fitted shelving with familiar reference books, and a simple collapsible desk frees up the space for yoga. An old trunk doubles up as table and storage. Light colours feel clean and reflect the light, the simple natural texture of the wood help make it feel larger than it really is. Skylights the full length of the shed make the most of the natural light, day light and well being go hand in hand, encouraging the flow of natural light will not only make a space feel bigger, it will enhance enjoyment and aid the relaxation process.

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MINIMALISM & DESIGN

This shed is perhaps a good example of how a form of minimalism along with design can have a positive effect on your life.  Undoubtedly there is an advantage to a place being tidy, a tidy space is more likely to be functional and a functional space will be more productive. One questions I ask my clients straight away when designing a shed is, what will you be using your shed for, this might seem obvious, but people will often get distracted by their ideas and the multitude of designs possibilities and forget what the original purpose of the new space was. I try to challenge people to write down what is necessary to make their space function properly and then create a kind of hierarchy based on the time spent doing what. If the space is primarily for work, then the space should be allocated as such. For example, perhaps a large working surface, a good amount of shelving and clean floor space to move around is more important than any seating and home comforts, and vice versa if the space is designed for a place to relax.

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THE NEED FOR TOOLS

So far in this episode I have focused on how your shed space will be better if it is tidier, but at this point I feel the need to confess, because the way I use my shed space is far from minimalist. I know the rules about space and more often than not I agree with them, but my life has not really turned out like that and to be honest, I am OK with it.
When I moved out of my parents house I traveled to London with just a bag of clothes, I had the idea I would leave ‘stuff’ behind, but it wasn’t long before I realised that the ‘stuff’ was me (I am stuff!) It started with the need for tools, but even then I would still sneak into charity shops on the off chance of finding something ‘remarkable’. What was remarkable was that I would justify buying stuff without anywhere to put it.

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I’ve always been quite suspicious of the phrase a tidy place is a tidy mind, especially in a creative world, like a superior mind confirms to the rule of tidy law. I have chosen to have things around me, my stuff makes the space feel like mine, you could not mistake my shed for anyone else’s, it is filled with things from my past, things that inspire me.

Take a look at the way I use MY ALLOTMENT ROOF SHED

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In just fifteen square meters this multi-purpose shed uses every square inch to cram in an artist studio, music studio, bike repair station and rooftop allotment space. It is a creative workstation in which the design of the build has emerged from its functionality and the solving of practical challenges. Don’t worry about chips, cracks, spillages and blemishes, this is a place to be comfortable in work, the clutter and stuff is not a hindrance, it acts as inspiration. Fold away work benches can stay up and paintings can be left as work in progress and when the day is finished, you can simply wonder back up the garden path to civilisation. It’s a nice feeling knowing that with a wood burner and solar panel you are working in a sustainable space. Unlike houses a shed is a place to create a place from scratch so why not try something different. The footprint of the shed is literally lifted from the floor up onto the roof where a whole variety of fruit and vegetables are grown. The living roof  is not only ecologically sound, but it also reduces the visual impact of the build. Garden tools can be aesthetically pleasing, old tyres make raised beds, a drain pipe takes the rain into a butt, watering wall plants on its route, there is even a tin bath to have a Summer soak after work!

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IN DEFENSE OF THINGS

I know many a minimalist will say that this does not contradict minimalist philosophy, that I decide what possessions are important to me, and with my shed building tools I have put time into refining my kit (see the bevel’s in the detail), but I also do lots of other things and there are so many variables involved that I have great difficulty predicting what future jobs will be, so my default philosophy has favoured the ‘I should keep this just in case I need it’, because the time and energy it takes to replace a particular tool or moving part or object of reference would mean I would need more disposable income and therefore it would potentially change the lifestyle I have designed for myself.

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I should however also admit that I have a reoccurring day dream fantasy which in my mind is a picture of having ‘made it’. It consists of me sweeping up a wooden floor in a room I have built in the mountains somewhere and in that room there is nothing but a record player and my vinyl collection. So it appears I do rather have a longing for both sides of the minimalist equation and a foot in both sides of the space saving camp.

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KNOW YOURSELF

I think what I am trying to say in all of this is that to understand what space is and what it is for, you have to understand yourself. I know roughly what I am, I am creative, thrifty, practical and sentimental and this sometimes manifests itself in a form of hoarding. But this is ok, and it is ok to be whatever you are, as long as you are comfortable with it.
Because even with my strange and useless possessions, the feelings I get are associated with both good and bad times and of people that are alive and are not and I want to feel these things, because these are the things that give more meaning to my life.  The minimalist idea that life is about experiencing things is absolutely right, but it is sometimes possible to have an ‘experience’ through things, the memories an object can bring on, and being linked to these memories can make my work more emotional, more complex and have a deeper resonance.

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The challenge I have in my life is how to avoid my shed becoming a junk yard, but I can manage this and for me it is not worth losing the ‘gifts’ I have in life in order to achieve this. I have worked out that making my life simpler has made me happier, but simpler does not necessarily mean less stuff, simpler can mean spending more time doing the things you actually enjoy. More and more I find that when I am designing a new shed, it is not just about the aesthetics and making it fit a space, it is about the person and making it fit a personality. And more and more I find that my goal is to create a space that will enable a person to have more time to express themselves, and allow them to find a peace in who they really are.

Love what you do, do what you love, Joel

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Where there’s muck there’s brassicas

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One of my favourite times of the year is here. I wait for the first buds to appear on my Elder Flower tree, outside my kitchen window. I set the date, it’s going to be me, radio 3, a nice cup of coffee, a bag of compost and a large pile of seed packets I bought cheap at the end of last season, what more excitement could a man ask for. Big city living! I almost always choose a Sunday for alliterative reasons, (Seedling Sunday) it looks great in my diary, I lay out the packets so I can see all of them at once and I consider my tactics for the year.

In this episode I am not going to give you endless expert advice on seedlings, largely because I am no expert on seedlings, but I will explain what has worked well for an amateur gardener like me and pass on some of the most simple things that have brought me the most joy and hopefully it will do the same for you. You don’t have to be an expert to get growing, nature will help you out, or as my senior citizen Italian friend Raphael used to say, (Bad Italian accent) ‘You put it into the ground, it comes out of the ground.’

You may be thinking this has very little to do with sheds or craft, but I think it has everything to do with it. Firstly let us not forget the humble allotment shed, the spiritual home of the Seedling Sunday, and as you will see later, my own shed is very much a part of the garden or rather the garden is very much a part of my shed.

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Also, growing your own food very much fits into the philosophy of working with your hands in a meaningful way, it has all the same properties of craft. You are of course using your hands, there is an unlimited learning process which will last a life time, and there is a sort of humbling mind-set that arises from the act of creating and nurturing something with love which brings you closer to the end result, in this case food

ALLOTMENT ROOFED SHED Let me show you my own shed. For years I wanted to have an allotment. But when I moved to London I found that waiting lists for an allotment were unexpectedly long. I didn’t really have the room in my garden for crop growing since I needed to build a shed in it for a work space. So I though rather than putting a shed on an allotment, I would put an allotment on a shed.
I spend quite a bit of time up here and in a big city like London it really is like having a mini countryside in my garden, sometimes I wonder why I have a house at all. I have a little stove up there and it’s great to pick some tomatoes and make a nice hot tomato sandwich, I mean my kitchen is only about 10 meters away but it’s not quite the same, I even have a tin bath up there and on good weather days I will have a soak surrounded by my fruit and veg before doing the dash past my neighbours to dry off.
Over the years I have learned what works well on my shed roof. Actually I am continually surprised at how successful it has been, the raised beds hold more than enough moisture and I think the fact that it is on the roof means the plants actually get access to more sunlight than they often would on the ground.

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Let me take you through my favourites for my shed roof.

PERENNIALS: My perennials which aren’t part of the seedlings selection consist of Asparagus, Rhubarb, Strawberries and blueberries. These are a great start to any garden, I pick strawberries and blueberries for my porridge and have rhubarb crumble in the summer. Asparagus is my favourite to eat but it takes a few years to get going.
HERBS: I have a selection of herbs towards the highest part of the roof, this area tends to dry out first and the herbs seem to be able to cope, more than that, they seem to thrive. Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Tarragon, Oregano all seem pretty hardy to me and last through the winter. But then I will always add some more varieties, just for the summer.
POTATOES & TOMATOES: First on my growing list is always potatoes and tomatoes, in my mind it is sensible to choose a crop that you like to eat and it also helps if your produce tastes better than they do in the supermarket, this is definitely true of the tomato! I find potatoes to be sort of incredible. You can put a half eaten, mouldy runt of a potato into soil and sure enough it will try and more often than not succeed in throwing up some leaves and re-producing itself.
ROOTS & ONIONS: For root vegetables I just grow beetroot, when I started I liked that it was really easy to spot the purple leaves which you can pick for a salad and I like beetroot with my scouse stew. I always have onions & leeks, I find them really easy to grow and I eat a lot of them.
BRASSICAS: I don’t know if these are strictly brassicas, but last year I grew Kale and rainbow chard, the kale is a bit of a super food and I use it in smoothies sometimes and I was impressed by the rainbow chard, it just kept coming right through the summer and deep into autumn.
CUCURBITS: I don’t grow legumes (peas and beans), I seem to struggle with aphids, so instead I always grow courgettes and the odd squash. Courgettes can be expensive in the shops and I do really well with them. I pick them when they are quite small and they seem to keep producing.
ROTATION: It is worth at this point to briefly explain my layman’s rotation system. Rotation is a traditional way of reducing disease and increasing yield by way of moving crops around to help soil nutrition. My system consists of rotating these categories, the potatoes & tomatoes, the roots and onions, and the brassicas, then in any of the gaps, I plant the cucurbits, it’s pretty basic, but it works well for me.
WILD FLOWERS: Finally I always spread some wild seeds at the end of the roof garden which backs onto the surrounding allotments in an effort to drag in some of the bees and butterflies of the area. It is of course lovely to see both the wild flowers and the wildlife they bring in, but don’t forget they are also helping to pollinate your crops and reduce your workload. I still have a wild flower mix from my friends at kew gardens, you can get some native wild flower seeds for free here http://www.growwilduk.com

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SUCCESSES & FAILURES are a normal part of growing and each year I adjust my plan slightly. Last year, the rainbow chard was my great success; my failure I would say was the sweetcorn, the failure was not so much growing the sweetcorn as protecting it from my long term battle with the local squirrel gangsters. Another problem I should talk about is what I call my seedling loyalty, some of you will understand what I mean, some will not. I have a certain affection for the seedlings I grow and this is a good thing, some of the little fella’s need a little tlc, but this affection makes it hard to throw away the plants that just aren’t going to cut it, even though I know they will take valuable space away from the stronger seedlings and result in a smaller yield. There’s something of the left wing sociopolitical conscience about it, like I’m hoping the ones with less resources are going to come good eventually with a little help and they deserve the right to have a smash at life anyway! As far as I know seedlings aren’t aware of the injustices of class systems, although I’ve heard they have some comprehension of the glass ceiling.

At the start of the year I also try to add at least one ‘unknown’ crop.  To see how it fares, continuing my knowledge little by little. This year’s experiments will be the chilli & some khol rabi. I know nothing about the kohl rabbi except it sounds exotic and I’ve heard chillies can be a little sensitive in their younger days, but can’t we all.

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By putting a small amount of time and effort into your seedlings now, they will repay you right through the year. It is a great feeling popping up on to the roof to pick some vegetables or herbs to supplement the evening meal. I mean it is no weekly shop, but it does help a little financially, more importantly the produce is often nicer than that in the supermarkets and probably healthier.
There is also more to the act of growing than just the creation of food. I work as an artist as well as a shed builder, I believe that being around nature especially plants makes me a better artist, it subconsciously gives me better composition. I think it was Matisse who had an allotment, and every morning he would go and sit with the artichokes, he would use them as a kind of meditation to give him inspiration. I don’t care who you are or what you do, everyone benefits from sitting quietly in nature.

I am always aware when I am around these crops, of natures incredible work ethic, its relentless steady production is an inspiration and it reminds me I am a part of nature, and that the act of working makes us who we are. For me, there is still something incredible about the simplicity of putting a seed into the ground that holds all the information to create a plant, and watching this little miracle emerge before you. Humans work well in this environment, nurturing a seedling into a plant brings me joy, because you quite literally see the fruits of your labour. And the joy you feel from this process is important, because it feels as though it is nature’s way of letting us know that what we are doing is good and the right way to be. (Cosmic carpenter alert!) Ultimately the act of growing, like craft is about being connected to the world you experience around you and subsequently connects you to life and the universe.
So why not get out there and have a go, get some grow bags outside the back door and throw some potatoes in, what’s the worst that can happen.

Love what you do, do what you love, Joel

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The Bevel’s in the Detail

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My shed building season is soon to be upon me and it is time for me to get organised, my business has expanded, I have taken on more builds and I will be travelling between jobs this year. All of this means I will need to be mobile with portable equipment so I have designed a trustworthy and efficient tool kit that will fit into a backpack and this is what I will talking about today.
Most of the gear in this portable kit are hand tools, in fact I only have one power tool which is a drill driver. Don’t get me wrong, there will be power tools on site, but my own portable kit will allow me to do most jobs and will be smaller and lighter if I use a mixture of versatile and very specific hand tools. These days it is easy to become a little too reliant on power tools, (and I include myself in this) the modern tools are very impressive; we can all get seduced by new models with increased power and longer battery life. Power tools can certainly help to achieve a fast result, but it’s not always a new power tool you should be searching for, sometimes it is a new skill you need to be learning, power tools should be an addition to your hand tool kit, not a replacement for it.

Everyone has their own set of favourite tools for different reasons, and there are no rules, it is about becoming familiar with your equipment.* I love to see someone working well with a small sharp axe for example, and even getting used to something like stripping the bark of a branch with a knife, is going to make your hand and tools skills better, due in part to the increased concentration that follows painful cuts. OK. Let me give you a rundown of my portable kit. For those interested in the details, at the bottom of this blog are details as to why I carry around each of the tools featured.

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Top row: Screw gun accessories left to right.
 Countersinks, Armeg Beaver drill, spare bit holders, hss & masonry drills, Wera screw bits with magnetic holder.
2nd row: Tool belt tools left to right.
 Dewalt DCD790D2, Stanley FatMax 8m Tape, Rexel Blackedge carpenters pencils Hard, Stanley FatMax Folding chisel, Nail Punch, Site multi tool quick release knife, Estwing weight forward 17oz  framing hammer.
3rd row: Hand tools left to right. Tajima pull saw, Stanley FatMax 450 box level, flat head screwdriver, Stanley compact chalk line, Fisco plastic roofers square, sliding bevel, Roughneck ratchet clamp.
Bottom Row: Personal gear left to right.
 Howard Leight folding ear guards, kevlar gloves, Petzel headtorch, snood, travel first aid & pain killers, Dewalt USB charger.
There is a certain philosophy involved in all of this; it is the skill that is important, not just with regards to the completion of the job, but also your connection to the tools and materials and ultimately your state of mind. You should become familiar with your hand tools, use them over and over until they become an extension of your hands. You should master the movements involved so they become instinctive, you should understand how much pressure to use, how much strength is required, the position of your tool, the position of your hands.  In any walk of life, there is nothing quite like seeing a person who uses a given tool with a sensitivity and accuracy that it becomes an extension of the hand itself.  When you grow more confident with your hand tools, you will become calmer and you will work better.

shedblog-02-backpackHand tools are the staple diet of carpentry, and there are certain hand tools I use right through the day, so I like to know they are going to serve me well and this is something that translates to other parts of life. I am always confused to see for example a person pull out an old cheap tape measure with a kink in it, and struggle with it over and over, day after day, exuding a relentless crapness. This job your doing, the time that passes whilst you are doing it, this is your time, it is your life. So why not get yourself something nice, get the best tool instead of the worst and then enjoy using it. Respect it and it will be good to you. That is what all this is about, respecting the time we have here on earth and expressing that respect with a love for what you do.
I’d be really happy to hear of tools you have used, your own kits and opinions, because everyone is different and it is good to share what you have enjoyed with other people.

Love what you do, do what you love. Joel

Here’s the details of all the tools in my portable kit.
Stanley Fat Max Back Pack. This one has a solid bottom, good strong straps and lots of compartments.
Dewalt leather tool belt with braces. I’ve owned this tool belt for over twelve years, it’s a great example of how spending more money on something of quality can save you money. Brimarc braces I found had clips wide enough to grip my thick tool belt and I find they help to keep some pressure off my lower back.
Counter sinks. I use a lot, but mostly for window and door frames. They help to avoid splitting wood by drilling a pilot hole, and sink the screw beneath the surface so it can be covered up.
Drill bit roll. (Armeg beaver drill bit, spare bit holders, hss and masonry bits) These  bits will do most jobs in my shed build. The beaver bit is great for drilling holes for wiring, spare bit holders are important should you drop one into next doors garden nettles, which is more common than you might think, and masonry bits, choose sizes that will fit wall plugs.
Wera drill bits and magnetic holder. I find these hard wearing, but I keep them for myself, if the labourer has poor technique I give him my slightly cheaper dewalt bits, the magnetic holder with these wera bits is really very useful. Sometimes in shed builds you can find yourself in precarious positions and are able to only to screw one handed, this wear drill bit will save you a lot of time and dropped screws.
My tool belt tools are the tools I will be using most often throughout the day on a shed build.
Dewalt DCD790D2 screw gun. this is the only power tool in my portable kit, but a great piece of kit. Technology changes fast, so this model like all models will become dated, but the principles for choosing a model will be the same. For me this is the best on the market for what I need right now. It is great to use, don’t underestimate how a balanced tool can help you. Brushless means the battery will last me a long time, it has a lot of power and although it has no hammer, it is smaller than the DCD795, which is what I wanted for a portable kit. I did consider an impact driver, but I wanted a chuck so I could use masonry bits.
FatMax 8m tape
. Most of my builds are around 5m x 3m so an 8m tape is all I need really. I find this one to be strong and will extend a long way, so I can use it without help.
Black edge hard pencils. Don’t forget to buy pencils, when I think of the time I have lost looking for a pencil to use, there are of course lots of pencils on the market, I just got used to buying these, they seem to last longer, especially the hard ones, carpenters pencils do not roll away should you need to be on a roof, and supposedly don’t follow the grain of the wood when marking out lines, I think it’s just nice to use a carpenters pencil, they feel nice in the hand.
FatMax fold away chisel. I just recently bought this, it’s handy to transport and fits into my tool belt nicely, important for hanging doors etc, but useful to have on you at all times for awkward bits of wood that need to be removed, this one has a nice metal strike point.
Nail punch. sometimes a forgotten tool, if you need to sink a nail beneath the surface of the wood, this is the only tool that will do it, so get one.

Site multi tool knife, this knife doesn’t have any particular quality, but it is a good example of a tool that you ‘just like’. I have got used to this knife, it fits nicely into my tool belt, and it has a strange mini saw which is not useful in itself, but the saw has a flat end and the amount of times it comes in handy is ridiculous, bespoke building is by nature not always predictable so sometimes a tool you know and like can be really valuable.
Estwing weight forward framing hammer. Some might say a hammer is just a hammer, I happen to like this 17oz framing hammer, I am not a massive guy but I find this hammer gives me enough beef to get most jobs done. The square strike point is great for squaring framing work but it is unbelievably painful when you hit your fingers. So don’t!
Tajima pull saw, a really nice saw to use, it fits into my back pack, pull saws are nice to use once you get used to them, they make logical sense in that the act of pulling means they are cutting whilst in tension instead of compression thus avoiding those awkward bendy saw moments.
FatMax 450 box level. its a nice size for my backpack, I find it to be sensitive which is a good thing and I’ve heard they are quite robust so it should last a while.

Flat head screw driver, the flat head bits for your screwgun are just not meant to be in my opinion. So I always have a screwdriver, one example is removing the old hinges from a second hand door.
FatMax compact chalk line. since my back pack will not carry a 2.4meter aluminium straight edge, the old faithful chalk line is still the best way to get a straight line of any distance.

Fisco plastic roofers square, essential for a quick square pencil mark or cut. I bought the plastic because whenever possible it’s good to try to keep the weight of my back pack down, this might sound a bit mad when you look at my hammer, but like I said, whenever possible.
Sliding bevel. still a great tool for finding an angle and using this angle to make cuts.
Roughneck ratchet clamp. I’ve been using this to help me work alone by keeping the wood still, it’s really quick to fix in place, I am considering getting the larger one though as this irritatingly doesn’t reach across two four by twos.

Fold away ear muffs, it’s nice to be able to pack these away, small things like packing tools away nicely at the end of the day when you are tired can make a real difference to your day.
Kevlar gloves. great for cold days, most wooly gloves will last around 5-6 minutes on a job, but these genuinely and rather unbelievably  last me all year!,
Petzel head torch. Petzel make the best head torches, it keeps your hands free and allows you to see in dark places, need I say more.
Snood. I use this primarily as a mask but it also keeps my neck warm in winter. I find as long as I don’t have a draft down my neck or my waist then I can work in pretty cold conditions. A better mask is a nice idea and important but I had a problem with using them, they can be uncomfortable, so I didn’t bother, the snood may not be the best filter, but it’s better than using nothing!
Travel first aid kit & painkillers. the most used first aid device on my site is basically masking tape, used to try and stick together a nasty gash so you can keep working or drive to hospital. But it’s a good idea to have antiseptic wipes and sterile tape to give you the best chance of healing quick.
Dewalt USB charger. This basically converts my Dewalt batteries into a phone charger. Good when you’re waiting for a delivery and forgot to charge your phone, not so good when people are pestering you to work and you just want to enjoy the job you’re on.

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