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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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The Sign Of A Good Host

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

And the sign said, "Long-haired freaky people need not apply"
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said, "You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you'll do"
So I took off my hat, I said, "Imagine that, huh, me workin' for you"
Whoa, oh, oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

     "Signs" Five Man Electrical Band, 1971, written by Les Emmerson

Figure 2 - The only sign outside my shop...and I really mean it!

As the song says, there are signs everywhere. We are assaulted daily with road signs, billboards, even signs on the sides of trucks. Go into any retail store and try to count the signs. There are hundreds. Being thus exposed constantly to signage in the "outside world," I try to keep the clutter to a bare minimum in my shop. Still, there is one sign I proudly display, continually and with sincerity: "Heartfelt Welcome For Family, Friends & Neighbors." Guests are always welcome in my shop. And this time of year, I get a lot of visitors.

Of course there are two different kinds of guests. Most are invited, a date and time is discussed and agreed upon, and they show up. Some guests, however, show up "uninvited." But since the term "uninvited guest" conjures images of a mouse or an insect, I prefer to refer to these guests as "unexpected."

Whether your guests are expected or unexpected, and whether you ascribe to Erasmus, Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners), the essential tenets of being a good host (or hostess) are the same… and pretty simple. Make your guests feel welcome, comfortable, and included.

The first cornerstone of good hosting, making a guest feel welcome, is an area where I can't help you much. The ability to make guests feel welcome is mostly personal, driven from deep inside you. You either like having people around or you don't, and it shows in your demeanor and body language. If you are annoyed by the presence of other people it will likely show, even with your best "poker face." It's okay to be a loner, but you will probably never be a great host and nothing I can suggest will change that. You might be better off putting out a sign that says "Guests Not Welcome." Assuming, though, that you are a reasonably congenial sort, there are a few things that will definitely make a visitor feel more welcome:

  1. Stop whatever you are doing. Nothing says "go away" quite like continuing what you were doing as if your guest is an unwanted distraction.
  2. When a guest arrives, turn down the music. Rockin' out with the stereo cranked up to "10" is fine when you are alone, but let guests know their conversation is welcome by turning down the volume.
  3. Invite people to sit. Sitting implies staying, as in "you are welcome in my shop," as opposed to unconsciously pushing the stool under the workbench that instead shouts, "You are not sitting because you are not staying long."

Assuming you are not a complete sociopath and generally like most people, let's move on to the second cornerstone of good hosting… making your guests feel comfortable. This is an area where I can offer some useful tips.

A farmer once told me that only a pig loves a pigsty. A good practice, particularly at this time of the year, is to look at your shop first thing every morning, and maybe a couple of times throughout the day, and ask, "What would an unexpected guest think?" If your honest evaluation is that they would think, "This guy is a slob," or "This place looks dangerous," there is probably some opportunity for improvement.

Granted, when I am knee-deep in a project and "in the zone," the last thing on my mind is sweeping up wood chips or tossing out yesterday's doughnut box. Still, I really want visitors to feel comfortable, I want them to feel safe, and I want them to see my shop as a fun place where some serious work/creativity occurs. So I try to keep it neat and tidy for unexpected guests and give it a thorough once-over when expected visitors are on their way.

The third (and potentially the most important) part of being a good host is to make your guests feel included. Woodworking shop guests, particularly non-woodworkers, get really excited by seeing a rough piece of lumber go in one side of the planer and come out smooth and pretty on the other side. Visitors are mesmerized by translucent ribbons of wood curling out of a hand plane. Guests swoon when they see a smoothly executed glue-up, and become positively giddy if you let them saw a board (hand saws might be preferable) or drill a hole. They feel included.

Figure 3 - Inexpensive safety
glasses that can be worn over
prescription eyeglasses - perfect
for occasional visitors

In moderation, guests feel included when they watch you work, too. If you are routing an edge or cutting a dovetail, they will feel like they are part of something wonderful. Describe what you are doing and let them see the "before" and "after."

Welcome, comfortable, and included. If you assure these things, you will be a gracious and successful host and it will be obvious that you really care about your guests. For the pièce de résistance, to demonstrate that you truly care, make sure your visitors are kept safe. Nothing will ruin a guest's visit faster than a rash, a cut, or a wood chip in the eye. To make sure my guests feel welcome, that they are comfortable (aka safe), and that they feel included, I always provide basic safety equipment from a small cache of inexpensive guest safety supplies.

Many of my guests wear glasses. It is an age thing, I suppose. A few pairs of Fog-Free Safety Overglasses are perfect for guest use, and particularly those guests that wear prescription glasses. These clear safety glasses can be worn over glasses or alone, are scratch and fog resistant, and provide excellent protection from flying debris.

Figure 4 - Affordable hearing
protection for your guests will be

Even though I turn the music down and stop what I am doing when a guest arrives, they do enjoy seeing my machinery in action. Lest they leave with a headache and ringing ears, I keep a few pair of Peltor H9A Ear Muff Hearing Protectors on hand. At less than $20 each, these headphone-style earmuffs are perfect for guests. They cut noise by up to 30dB and look pretty cool, too. Just to add to the professional mystique, and perhaps be a bit more gracious, I clean the hearing protectors with an alcohol wipe after each use and seal them in a zipper-style plastic bag, ready for my next guest.

Figure 5 - These dust masks are
not the cheapest, but are by far the
most cost-effective and most
comfortable - show your visitors
that you really care!

Last, and by no means least, I keep a couple of boxes of disposable dust masks on hand. My favorite is the MXV Pocket Dust Mask because the exhalation valve allows guests to breathe easily and cuts down on eyeglass fogging. The adjustable nose strip improves comfort, and the material is soft and comfortable to wear. At less than $1.80 apiece in a package of ten, these are cheap insurance for your guests' comfort. These are disposable masks, so toss them when your guest departs. As a side benefit, if your guests are sporting a cold or flu, the masks might help protect you, too!

Most of us love showing off our shop, our projects, and our skills. This winter, make sure you are being a good host or hostess and provide basic safety equipment to your guests. They will respect your professionalism and know how much you care.

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