The Sound (of Mallet Blows) and the Fury (of the Neighbors)

A close second on the overall list of questions people ask me about small-space, apartment-based woodworking is, “Don’t the neighbors complain about the noise?”. I get the question frequently enough to warrant a full post response.

Woodworking, even the hand-tool-only variety, is noisy. The thud of the chisel mallet echoes down a long hallway just as the whirr of the plunge router does. The wheeze of hand-sawing is unmistakeable to even the most casual aural observer.  And other more muted work, such as hand-planing, can nonetheless audibly rattle bench-top accoutrements.

So what can you do, if you want to make furniture in an apartment or a side room and not also accumulate noise violations or the scorn of your family members?  Each situation is unique, but there are some tricks that I employ. And since chopping mortises is the loudest thing I do other than a quick orbital sanding (rarely, if necessary), I will use that as my basic example:

  1. Don’t chop mortises during quiet hours. Apartment buildings usually have a range of hours during the business day where loud noise is tolerated.  So keep your loud tasks to the daytime hours and generally be cognizant of what you’re doing.
  2. Space out louder tasks. You’ve got 8 or more mortises to chop, I get it. Chop two at 10am and then two more at each of noon, 2pm and 4pm. Short bursts of loud banging are less likely to attract attention than sustained pounding.  Use the time in between for quieter tasks, like sawing, planing or sharpening.
  3. Sharpen early and often. Sharp tools mean better results for less effort, so trim down your total mallet blows by keeping your chisels sharp.
  4. Fully support the work.  Wood vibrates and resonates when struck.  Trying to chop a mortise in a piece of wood that’s partially overhanging the bench top is not very different from banging on an impromptu xylophone.  Fully supporting the piece over it’s entire length will reduce vibration and help deaden any resonance.
  5. Dampen outbound noise.  My walls are solid concrete, but my front door certainly isn’t.  It’s a hollow metal box that works pretty much like an amplifier into the hallway.  In a pinch, I will drape a heavy cloth blanket over my front door (not unlike the soundproofing they put in music studios).  There are commercial sound-dampening tapestries that work even better, if you care to spend the money.

Some combination of these tricks will go a long way toward keeping your neighbors and loved ones tolerant of your furniture-making.  And time spent disputing noise complaints or apologizing to your family is time not spent in the workshop.

JPG

8 comments

  1. This is the biggest issue I’m facing right now. I’m on the top floor of a wooden apartment, and chopping mortises (I’ve got a ton in my current project) just can’t be done in the apartment without risking a visit from the landlord. It’s such a simple thing to ask for in a city, I just need a wharehouse with a sturdy table where I can hammer away in delight. But alas, all I see are the maker shops which are overkill for my simple needs.

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      1. It’s the dinner table 😉 I’m not so much worried about the impact transferring through the floors (although that will happen), since I can just work in the ground in the living room which has carpets. It’s the noise, the walls in these old San Francisco houses are no concrete, so the sounds are free to roam. Sigh. Bottom line is I can’t finish the chair I’m working on without these mortises, and I’d like to avoid using the auger bits for all of it since I find I don’t have that much control, and the clean up work will still need a lot of loud chopping. I need to find a friend with a garage and a bench top.

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  2. I had a project recently that I was working on at night after work, that required a lot of mortises. I only have my wife to worry about waking, as we live in a house, but it was still a good experiment on quiet wood working. I used an old method of mortise making, using my brace and bit to bore a series of holes inside the marked out mortise lines. I then just had to pare out the waste, a much quieter proposition, and the technique does not take that much more time than using a mortise chisel (yep, I timed it…7 minutes chopping, 10 drilling and paring).

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