Canadian Woodworking

Shop lighting

Author: Michael Kampen
Published: October November 2004
Shop Lighting
Shop Lighting

While it is possible to work safely in a cold shop, it is impossible to do so in a dark shop.


In order to make the best lighting choice for your situation, you need to take several factors into consideration: the size of the space you need to light, the height of your ceiling, your budget, personal preferences, and safety.

There are two main types of lighting: incandescent and discharge. Incandescent lighting is the type fond in most homes. As electricity passes through a filament it creates some light and a lot of heat. In discharge lighting electricity passes through a ballast, which alters its voltage, and then passes through a gas filled tube. Fluorescent tubes, road lighting, and other high wattage applications use this technology.

Some fluorescent bulbs require fixtures with ballasts; others fit standard fixtures

Self-contained emergency lighting unit

Fluorescent Tubes

Fluorescent tubes come in several non-interchangeable types and sizes. High output tubes operate at low temperatures and are used extensively for sign lighting and outdoor fluorescent fixtures. Homeowners will be more familiar with rapid start tubes with two pins on each end. These are available in three sizes: T12 (1 1/2″ diameter), T8 (1″ diameter), and T5 (5/8″ diameter). While the T12 is still most common, the T8 and T5 formats are suitable for fixtures requiring a slimmer profile. In addition to the reduced size, these smaller formats are more electrically efficient. They’re preferred for under cabinet and valence lighting in areas where the fixture is not meant to be seen.

If your shop is cold, say below 50º F or 10º C, chose a low temperature ballast; otherwise you can use rapid start fluorescent fixtures.

Look at the end of a fluorescent tube. You will see two pins, and perpendicular to them on the metal shell will be two small bumps or divots. When the tube is properly seated in the holder, the divots should face directly forward. To maintain efficient light output, clean the tubes on a regular basis. When the tubes start to show dark spots or rings at the ends, discard them as they will shorten the life of the ballast.

In my shop, I use T8 34-watt fluorescents in a 96″ fixture that uses four 48″ tubes. The four-tube fixture has two ballasts with 14/3 wire running to each fixture. This allows me to switch on each ballast separately, and gives me two light levels to choose from.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs are becoming more popular. There are two types: self-contained, which replaces a regular incandescent bulb in a standard fixture; and a two or four pin type, which requires a fixture with a ballast.

It is important to give thought to the location and method of mounting lighting fixtures, especially if you do not have high ceilings. If you have the headroom, mount your fixtures on chains rather than directly onto the ceiling. This will allow the fixture to move if you bump it while moving long stock in the shop.

If your shop is in a basement, mount the fixtures between the joists. Then cut an egg crate diffuser and mount it level with the bottom of the joist. Although this will cut down on some of the available light, it will provide additional protection from wayward lumber.

Emergency Lighting Unit

I put emergency lighting in my shop as a precaution if the power goes out. I selected a self-contained unit and mounted it to the same angle iron that my electric door opener hangs from. As soon as power to the outlet is interrupted, the emergency lights come on.

A two-head 36 watt unit can be purchased at an electrical supply dealer for about $85.

For more task lighting in a specific area, pendants are the perfect solution. Although you can buy these at a lighting store, I made mine, using lamp-making parts and large stainless steel mixing bowls. I hang them on fixture chains so they move when hit. Also, by locating hooks in various places I can easily move the light to where I need it. Use newer self-contained compact fluorescents in this type of fixture to help to reduce your electric bill.

Next issue, Michael looks at heating your woodworking shop.

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