Inside The Secret Underground Laboratory

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Bruce Johnson, Sep 26, 2017.

  1. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Many of you have asked for a look inside my shop, known as the Secret Underground Laboratory. Here's a video interview/shop tour that was taken a few months ago. It's 5:40 of me walking through my shop, talking about my business and my machines. The video was shot by Scott Duckett, with me talking to Ernie Villegas. Ernie has been hired by the city of Fillmore (where we are) to promote business development in the city.

    Ernie and Scott shot similar videos of most of the other tenant shops here in the building. Eventually, the plan is to put them all into an official city web site. But Scott went ahead and posted this one of me on YouTube.

    This video doesn't cover all of my shop, but we briefly go through most of the areas specifically used in building my Scroll Basses. We didn't really go through my heavy woodworking machines, or the routing bench, or the other bay with my oldest antique metalworking machines. But it's a good overview. It was all shot in one continuous take.

    If you didn't know it, I'm in the basement of a giant old Sunkist orange packing house in the little historic town of Fillmore California. The old wing of the building was built in 1914, and the "new" wing was added in 1934. Back in those days, this packing plant was a bustling operation, the heart of the town.

    It's about 50,000 sf on the main floor, with a tall timber-trussed roof. Down below is a long narrow basement of about 40,000 sf. It's all concrete walls, 7 feet below ground level, divided into about 50 rooms and compartments. It was designed specifically for storing oranges. The whole basement naturally stays between 65 and 75 for almost the entire year. Perfect shop working conditions.

    Sunkist closed the packing house down in 1970. The building went through several owners, including being a furniture factory and a warehouse for aircraft parts. It was then semi-abandoned for about ten years. The current owner, David Storrs, bought it on Foreclosure about 5 years ago. The city was very concerned about the building, because it's right in the middle of the city, and it's such a part of the history of the city. And it's a very unusual building in structure and layout; not suitable for most normal development things.

    David's plan is to restore the building in fairly historic form, and lease it out to small private craftsman shops. That's what we're doing. I was one of the early tenants, moving my shop into the basement in late 2013. The building is now about 2/3 full of tenants, all kinds of interesting creative people. There are currently six of us Luthiers: Myself, Keith Horne, Mike Lipe, Jon Wilson, Rob Allen, and Raul Reulas. A few others are thinking about joining us. I help to manage the building, particularly us basement dwellers.

    It's a wonderful environment for small craftsman shops. Cool and comfortable and secure and inexpensive. And Fillmore itself is a neat little town. Peaceful, no real crime, hot rods, old trains, surrounded by farms and orchards, California weather, 25 miles from the beach. Americana, stuck in 1963.

    If any of you are looking for shop space around the Los Angeles area, contact me. We still have some space.

    We just started an overall web site for the building at: Home
  2. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Man! That is tool heaven! Nice setup there, amazing tool collection. That's great being immersed with a group of Craftsman, you get all kinds of cross-pollination going. My wife has no interest in woodworking or tools in general, so it's a solitary pursuit for me. Do you have any problem with humidity and rust? Here in New England, anything not coated with WD40 , greased, or fully dehumidified begins to rust immediately. I share shop space with my brother, it's heated but not dehumidified, Rust Never Sleeps.
    John_Nicholas, Bobo and DrMole like this.
  3. You really have a labyrinth of tools, machines, and parts. It looks a lot like I was expecting since you call it the secret underground lab, lol!

    Bobo likes this.
  4. tbrannon


    Jun 11, 2006
    That's awesome. Next time I'm up that direction, I'm going to check out the building.
    Bobo likes this.
  5. Cool, thanks for sharing!
    great looking shop!
    you need to add more building pictures to the site!
    Bobo likes this.
  6. dloase


    Jun 20, 2016
    Very nice. Reminds me of an old gun smithing shop. Neat old tools, lots of wood
    Bobo likes this.
  7. Jon Clegg

    Jon Clegg Supporting Member

    Feb 9, 2015
    Northern Virginia
    Very cool sir. I love seeing all those cool old machines. Also love whenever I see a wonderful old building like that being put to good use.

    Great video of Juan Perez tearing it up on an AMB-2!
    Bobo likes this.
  8. DiabolusInMusic

    DiabolusInMusic Functionless Art is Merely Tolerated Vandalism

    Thanks for sharing. That is one heck of a nice little space you got there. You mentioned that this is your retirement project. Mind if I ask what used to pay the bills? You seem to be a jack of all trades so I am kind of curious on your background.
  9. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    Beautiful! Looks like a steampunk makerspace,,with all the resources in place to turn out some lovely works.

    The mention of waterbase stains and finishes was very interesting. Especially to someone like me with allergies and respiratory issues. Finishing woodwork and doing finish repairs has always been a challenge for me because of the gyrations I need to go through to avoid breathing in anything, as well as minimizing my coming into contact with the usual things that get used in finish work.

    Bravo! Very well done.

    Thx for sharing.
    Bobo likes this.
  10. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    I'm actually a professional inventor. My background is mechanical engineering, and I spent my career in the corporate R & D world. Right out of high school, I went through a really good auto mechanics school. I was a car freak in those days. Then, I worked in pro auto racing for 5 years, to pay my way through college. BSME, Penn State. From there, I went into the defense world, working for a company in Pennsylvania that builds howitzers and tracked vehicles for the Army. I did well, and moved up into the R & D department there.

    I got an offer from Lockheed, and moved out here to Burbank, CA. I started in ground support equipment, and then got pulled into the depths of the Skunk Works. After a few years there, I got a better offer from Walt Disney Imagineering's R & D department. I worked at Disney through most of the 1990's, designing robots and ride systems. I started the musical instrument business as a sideline thing during those years, building up a nice shop while I had the steady paychecks coming in.

    Meanwhile, I was getting going building basses and doing the Scroll Bass thing with Ampeg. I made the decision to get out of the corporate world, and become a Luthier as my semi-retirement business. I left Disney as a full time employee in 1997, but kept doing consulting and part time work for them until 2007. During those years, 1997-2007, I was also doing other custom fabrication work out of my own shop. A lot of custom recording studio equipment and specialty sets and props jobs. I kept building up my skills and tools, building my Scroll Basses, and making necks and parts for many other Luthiers around this area.

    For the last ten years, I've been a Luthier full time. I keep a fairly low profile, because about half of my work is in support of other Luthiers. I help them out with the engineering, the technical side of making their instruments better. And, I enjoy writing, so I've been spending some time here on TalkBass and a few other forums.

    I'm 61 now, and I hope to keep doing this for another 20-25 years.
  11. DiabolusInMusic

    DiabolusInMusic Functionless Art is Merely Tolerated Vandalism

    Thank you so much for sharing, those sound like some exciting jobs. I love your threads but something tells me a thread on your other jobs might even be more interesting than your lutheir work. I know I would be really curious in hearing about the process of making some robots for Disney.
    Bobo likes this.
  12. I finally got the time to watch it. It looks like a good place to spend time, and you seem to be enjoying life!
    Bobo likes this.
  13. StuStu


    Apr 1, 2016
    Wow. I want to play in your sandbox. Thanks so much for sharing, Bruce.
    Bobo likes this.
  14. mnats

    mnats Supporting Member

    Feb 2, 2013
    Your clarity and depth of knowledge in your writing are very much appreciated. I would pay for any book you write or even a compilation of your posts separated by topic.
    Bobo, dukeorock and reverendrally like this.
  15. Scoops

    Scoops Why do we use base 10 when we only have 8 fingers Supporting Member

    Oct 22, 2013
    Sugar Creek, Wisc
    My comment would be directed to the individual filming the event

    I felt like I was on a ship at sea
    Bobo likes this.
  16. it really seemed like he was going for a rhythm.
    Bobo likes this.
  17. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Hah! That was Scott doing the filming. If I remember right, he kept leaning and maneuvering to get good angles as I was talking, and he kept bumping into the machines.

    I'm going to take some current static shots, up on a ladder. I know you guys are interested in looking closer at all my workbenches and machines.
    John_Nicholas, Bobo, Stumbo and 4 others like this.
  18. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Here's some current pictures of my main woodworking bench. This is where I do most of the detailed instrument work on the wooden parts; layouts, truss rod installation, carving and sanding necks, fitting hardware to the bodies, etc.

    The bench itself is a good simple design, made from 3/4" MDF. The box structure underneath, the top surface with overhanging edges all around, a pair of 2x4 uprights on the rear corners, and the MDF shelving unit forming the back. The whole bench is mounted on casters, although I normally have them wedged. I built three of this style benches back in the mid 1990's, and they've worked very well. The other two are the electronics lab bench and the finish sanding/buffing bench.


    I mounted a Wilton woodworking vise on the left corner, on an extension so it sticks out several inches. That way, I can work on both sides of it. On the left side is a rolling tool rack, more on that below. The rack on the right end stores plastic bins with pre-cut rectangles of sandpaper and Scotchbrite. Under the bench are some neck holding fixtures and scale rules for the slotting machine. Above the bench are special tools and all kinds of stuff. An efficient workbench is all about having little compartments within easy reach, to store all the thousands of things you need to work. Lots and lots of compartments.


    More tools, fixtures, and storage compartments. The wooden cabinets in the corner hold most of the necks and bodies under construction. The red drawers are measuring tools and safety equipment. The drawers above them are hundreds of headstock templates and about a thousand index cards with notes about how to build things. I am slowly getting more computerized though. I now have a separate laptop just for AutoCad drawings and Excel work lists.


    Here's the tool rack, also made from MDF. These are the hand woodworking tools that I use daily; files, chisels, gouges, electric die grinders, etc.


    Right behind me are my two main woodworking drill presses, and a rack of the most commonly used woodworking drill bits. The drill press on the left is a 1950's Buffalo 15, a fine old machine. The one on the right is a "vintage" Taiwan Test Rite machine that I bought new in 1983. My first real drill press, and my only one for a long time. It's served me well and still runs great. Both have import keyless chucks. I use the Buffalo for most of the regular small size wood drilling. I use the Test Rite for larger medium size jobs, because its table raises and lowers easily. Big wood drilling jobs go down the aisle to the Royersford 21. More on it later.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2017
  19. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Do you use a dust collection system? That’s getting to be a major problem in the shop I share with my brother. We have a Jet dust collector that takes the heavy sawdust from tablesaw, planer, or jointer, but does nothing for fine particulates, which coat every surface. I’ve been thinking about one of the ceiling mount filters
    John_Nicholas and Bobo like this.
  20. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Oh yeah, of course. I'll show that in some of the upcoming posts. Basically, I have two Grizzly bag-type dust collectors. The larger one is connected through a large valve and hoses to my main cluster of woodworking machines. Primarily the edge sander, spindle sander, and bandsaws. Those are the machines that create most of the fine dust. The tablesaw, planer and jointer mostly create larger chips, which aren't as much of a problem. They fall to the floor, or into bins, and are swept up.

    My smaller Grizzly dust collector is dedicated to my routing bench. You've seen that on the other thread about the router fixtures. Routers create a lot of fine dust. It's best to collect it right from the router when possible, or immediately clean up.

    No, I don't have any of the overhead dust filter machines. Some people love them; I'm skeptical. In my shop, I think I would have to be constantly servicing them. There's a lot of dust that comes into my shop from around the building and from outside.
    John_Nicholas, Bobo and Gilmourisgod like this.
  21. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

    Sep 25, 2021

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