Workshop lighting is the one thing that affects everything you do in your workshop, including accuracy of your builds, safety and your personal comfort which also contributes to how long you can work without suffering eye strain and reduced effectiveness.
There are many aspects to lighting and this article is directed at what things to look for in lighting in order to have a more comfortable and productive workshop.
Watch it on Youtube: https://youtu.be/tkZeCnIXlXs
I am only going to address three things that are important to look at in workshop lighting, but there are also other aspects I will touch upon like the longevity of LED lights and the cost of operating them but because electricity rates vary from region to region I will let individuals figure out their own savings.
The volume of Light - Working in a well-lit workshop
This is the easiest topic to cover and probably the easiest to understand. We all want to work in a nice bright workshop for a couple of main reasons, 1) it's safer because we can more easily see what we are doing and, 2) it's also more accurate because we can more easily see the markings on your measuring tapes, rulers and machine scales and all this means we can do a better job of woodworking.
More light also reduces eye strain which many professionals attribute to tiredness ... which we never want to have when working around any power tools.
Low levels of workshop lighting are also the easiest to fix, especially with the modern LED light bulbs that consume fractions of the power that old light bulbs once used and they last much, much longer. Yes, they cost more but the trade-off is well worth the money, productivity, and well-being.
Have a look at the spec sheet that comes with the 18W LED SANSI bulbs I am using, these are equivalent in light output to 150-watt tungsten lights, so they throw out lots of light.
Color of Light - Daylight color versus campfire color
The color of light is another important factor and I have been using Daylight Equivalent lighting in my home and my workshops for over 20 years. Not everyone is aware of lighting colors until it is pointed out to them, or until they look at pictures that do not have any color correction. Light has many different colors and if you have ever had the chance to look at a prism you will know how it breaks out all those colors so we can see them.
Wiki Commons Image by Spiggett
The color of light in light bulbs is measured in something called Kelvin (color temperature) with warm or yellow light measuring around 3000 Kelvin and the true daylight color that you would find on a sunny day is 5,500 Kelvin. Old tungsten light bulbs are around 3000 K while camera flashbulbs and electronic flashes are 5,500 K to give you some comparisons.
The reasons we like to have true daylight color lighting is to be able to make better decisions when it comes to wood selections, stain and dye selections and matching, and even the kinds of finishes we are putting on our projects. Until more recently it has been very hard to find daylight equivalent LED bulbs, but thankfully SANSI has solved this issue with their 5000 K, these are not quite a perfect "true daylight" which is 5,500 K but there is almost no visible difference to the human eye.
If you take note when you are in a paint store or auto body shop when they are color matching paints, they always use daylight equivalent and many auto body shops will ALSO take paint comparisons outside under real daylight conditions to check the tints. Once you have worked in daylight lit environments for any time you quickly realize just how nice it is to work in.
The color of light can disguise how we see things, especially artificial light. Have you ever looked at cars on a car lot at night? the next day some of those cars have a very different color to them. That's because the lighting changes how we see things and the same is true in the workshop. If we have a very yellow-tinted light such as 3000 K and compare a couple of species of wood, they can often look very similar, but when we view the same woods under 5,000 K the true colors come out and they can look very different.
Here are a couple of panels, cheery on the left, bamboo on the right. Under 3000 K the tones look quite similar, but under 5000 they are much more distinct.
3000 Kelvin lighting above ... 5000 Kelvin lighting below
This same color masking can happen with dyes and stains and anytime you might be trying to color match woods or colors, it's always important to do these color matching under lighting that is as close to daylight as possible.
Full Spectrum and Grow Lights - what about these??
These are natural questions that always come about when talking about lighting.
Grow Lights are the easiest to explain, grow lights are lights that are designed and manufactured with a special emission (radiation) that plants respond to and helps them to grow more readily. Grow lights are not full-spectrum lights. Grow lights have nothing to do with home or workshop lighting they are strictly for greenhouses and plant growing environments.
Full Spectrum Lighting
Here's where things get a bit tricky. Full-spectrum lighting means a light that gives off the same forms of radiation as the sun. Some studies indicate that these lights are healthier for us. Full Spectrum is NOT Grow Lights, true full-spectrum lights will "appear" to look much like 5,500 K lights, but will also give of invisible light (radiation) similar to what the sun gives off. In most cases, full-spectrum lights lose their ability to give off the invisible light aspects after a few months, but will "appear" normal to the human eye.
To help explain this a bit more, all Full Spectrum Lights will appear like 5,500 K lighting, but not all 5,500 K lighting is full spectrum. Unless the bulb actually says "full-spectrum" it is not. The only reason to select full-spectrum lighting would be that you believed they have health benefits to work under lighting like this. At the time of this writing, I am not aware of any full-spectrum LED lights ... this doesn't mean there are none, only that I am not aware of any.
Forms of Light - bright clear sunny day versus a cloudy overcast day
The forms of light can be quite varied but there are 2 basic kinds, 1) a bright cloudless sunny day will produce a more harsh light with distinct shadows and 2) a cloudy, overcast day will produce a much softer light and often with little or no shadows. In between these 2 extremes, there are infinite variables that we could describe as anywhere between a lightly cloudy day to a heavy cloudy day.
In my woodworkweb workshop, I installed a few years ago a series of fluorescent 4 foot light fixtures and 5,500 Kelvin fluorescent tubes ... and I bought a small box of spare tubes, most of which I still have. This lighting gives me very soft lighting because the light is quite dispersed through the fluorescent tubes and the deflectors in the fixtures. This means that the shadows in my workshop are not distinct.
Because I am also producing woodworking videos I like to have more light and I like to have control of that light so most of the time I have 3 light stands that also hold 5,500 K light bulbs, and up until recently were also fluorescent. The problem with using the bulbs in my light stands is that as of a few weeks ago, I have not been able to find replacement 5,500 K bulbs, not had I been able to find 5,500 K LED lights ... until I discovered SANSI LED. I found that SANSI had 5000 K LED bulbs and was sure that they would be close enough to the 5,500 that I preferred, but since I had no other bulbs to even try, that was the route I went.
Between the overhead lights and the LED video lights, I am using, I now have a bit better mix of lighting, which means that shadows stand out a bit more and all that means now I can identify some of the defects in my projects a bit more readily ... like jointer chatter and planer snipe and even hand planing tear-out that happens from time to time.
The 2 images below are taken with different lighting, the top is taken with diffused lighting, often called flat lighting because it tends to mask shadows and thus the jointer chatter is not visible.
The image below is of the same wood in the same spot and you can see that by using a direct light that mimics the sun, with one direct source, it makes the shadows stand out a bit more making the jointer chatter easier to see.
Both diffuse and direct of some call it specular lighting are fine in a workshop, what's important is that you know what you have and that you know it's pros and cons, diffuse light can tend to minimize shadows, thereby masking some defects we might want to see in the wood whereas specular or direct light with it's harsher shadows can help us to spot these defects a bit easier.
The same is true even when hand planing. You can see that the grain pattern on the front of this board is a bit scattered which can lead to tear-out which is often harder to spot under diffused light which means you need to work a bit harder in looking for defects because you don't want to be finding them AFTER your project has had it's finishes applied.
Lighting is an important factor and once you have a better idea how to work with it, your woodworking can only improve.
Copyright Colin Knecht
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