OFF GRID / SURVIVAL WORKSHOP: If You Can Make Tools, You Can Survive

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Off Grid Workshop
OFF GRID / SURVIVAL WORKSHOP – Image © off-grid.info

The best self-reliant “survival workshop” I ever saw belonged to an old-timer I knew from my California days. He owned a small 5-acre horse ranch and was around 80 when I knew him; sadly he’s gone now. He was really a legend. Everybody seemed to know him and the stories of his adventures and deeds appeared to be endless – as was his razor-sharp sense of humor: He’d look you up and down and size up whether you were made of the right stuff before you had even opened your mouth, and he would make endless playful jokes at everyone around. You had to be able to let it roll right off you, and to think fast to come up with a good answer.

His whole demeanour was that of a pioneer; a true “last survivor of the good old days”. He seemed to do everything himself. He’d been self-reliant his entire life and it didn’t seem like there was anything practical he wasn’t capable of. He could hunt, shoot, fish, ride, farm, fabricate… if he needed something, or needed to repair something, his first approach was always to see if he could make it or fix it himself in his old workshop. Going to buy something was a last resort.

The amount of tools and bits and pieces he had piled up in that workshop was spectacular. Nobody knew where anything was, except him – and he could find anything of course. The photo of the rusty antique tool collection hanging from the wooden wall of his old workshop was taken by me at his place, around 10 years ago. How many of these old tools do you recognize and would you know what to do with?

While so many people are trying to “shop their way to survival”, you need to think deeper than this. Long term survival is not just about piling up the biggest mountain of stuff you could possibly accumulate. This is the big mistake so many wannabe survivalists make. It’s a “habitual consumer” trait that has been trained into us by the modern world: “I like survivalism, so I will buy it off the shelf”.

Survival supplies are valuable, for sure, and can get you through a temporary crisis – but total reliance on them is a mistake. First of all, no matter how big a supply of something you pile up, it will run out at some point.

Supplies are temporary. Your abilities, your health (God willing) and your well-made tools are the only things that will last a lifetime.

Bear in mind also that the more supplies you have, the more effort and expense is required to maintain your store. If you were to stack up the amount of food a family eats in a year, you would be staggered by just how much space is needed to store that.

And then what happens at the end of that year, or two years, or five years? Sooner or later, only those who know how to provide for themselves will survive.

You’ll need to grow food – but if there are no shops… where will you get the tools to dig the garden? Could you make a bow and arrows entirely from natural materials you harvested yourself?


You can easily see that having the ability to make tools (and repair things) is going to be key to survival in the end. Anything that you don’t know how to make or repair, you are going to have to do without soon enough. So for true self-reliance, you might as well start by acquiring the incredibly valuable skills needed to make your own tools and put your own survival workshop together.

The Farm Workshop: When most people think of a farm, they think of fields, animal shelters, barns and the various types of farming equipment – tractors, grain harvesters and so on. It’s not immediately obvious that almost all farms have their own workshop – but they do. Typically a farm workshop will contain the equipment needed to maintain and repair tractors and other agricultural machinery, as well as estate maintenance tools and the tools for working with whatever animals the farm has. So you will see welding equipment, mechanic’s toolkit, workbench, fencing tools and supplies, angle grinder, lifting tackle, blacksmithing equipment, chainsaws / axes / bow saws, brush cutters and so on.

Off Grid Workshop Power: A farm / ranch workshop is an ideal starting point to give you inspiration and practical ideas for your survival workshop; however if you are thinking off-grid then you have the added consideration of generating and storing your own electricity for power tools, so as to be able to continue to operate independently of the grid.

Most power tools that run from the typical 110v (USA) or 220v (Europe) mains power supply, will run from a 3000W inverter. Pure sine wave is recommended as modified sine can cause degradation to some equipment. Higher powered tools can have quite a power kick on startup – especially compressors. Although an inverter may be rated at 3000W, you won’t get anywhere near that unless your cabling is heavy duty and your batteries are up to the job. A band saw is a key component of a wood workshop – but bigger electrical machinery such as band saws and lathes that require a dedicated high power circuit are going to be a more significant challenge for off grid power. You’re into complex electrical installations that would certainly require qualified installation.

There are always alternatives, however. I’ve seen various trailer mounted portable sawmills that operate with gasoline engines. Then there is of course generator power and PTO (power take off) from tractors.

Going even further, an interesting line of research would be how sawmills used to operate prior to electricity: Steam power! Here’s a simply fantastic video I found of a working steam-powered sawmill (I got lost in this):

Tools That Make Tools: Having the equipment required to work with the most common materials is going to be essential. So this is a good starting point of consideration: Your primary tools are going to be the “tools that make tools”. You will also need to be able to sharpen, maintain and repair existing tools. Do you know what types of wood are best suited for tool handles? For spindles? Do you know how to temper steel to make steel that cuts steel?

Low Tech: If you are really thinking “low tech / old school” and envisaging a survival workshop without electricity or any liquid / gas fuels, then your survival workshop becomes simpler in some ways. It will typically require blacksmithing, hand metalwork and hand woodwork tools, plus some tools enabling you to work with the most common additional materials – including stone, fabrics, leather, clay / tile / brick and perhaps glass. Drawing and design tools will be valuable too – as anything complex you fabricate you will most likely want to design first. Without computer aided design, you’re back to pencils, compasses, protractor and ruler. How’s your memory of geometry these days?

Hand Tools
Hand Tools. Image © off-grid.info

Animal Power: Before the advent of the tractor and modern farm machinery, animals were used for their power and endurance – with heavy horses and oxen of course being used for ploughing, tilling and the various other tasks now done by tractors. Working with horses will mean saddlery, wheelmaking, blacksmithing and more.

High Tech? If you are thinking in more modern terms (and have the inclination) then you might include the facilities to work on electronics. Even if all the world’s centralized systems ground to a halt tomorrow, it’s highly improbable that electronic items are going to disappear – especially now that solar panels are widespread.

If the centralized supply chain, which has certainly been showing some cracks of late, were to fall apart entirely and be disrupted long term, then those with the ability to repair electronics are logically going to be the last who are able to use them. In the absence of the ability to “just buy a new one on Amazon”, the role of the repairer is going to be in significantly higher demand than it is currently. I think electronics repair should certainly be included in any list of post-apocalypse trades.

What about computer aided design and 3D printing? I’ve never come across an off-grid workshop that can manufacture 3D-printed or sintered parts – and some survivalists will sneer at such “modernism”; however the potential value of such facilities to a larger community ought to be obvious.

All interesting food for thought. I’d suggest however to start simple and get the basics down: Learn metalwork, woodwork, leatherwork and stonework – acquiring learning to fabricate, maintain and sharpen the hand tools that make these possible.

Starting From Nothing (The Ultimate In Self Reliance): I think the creation of a survival workshop starting absolutely from nothing would be a wonderful, challenging and highly educational exercise. You would have to learn to smelt your own metals; harvest, season and work wood, create greater precision from lesser precision… The skills and ingenuity you would develop would in my view be some of the best survival assets you could have. Imagine making your first chisel, your first drill, your first wheel and axle, your first workbench, wood-turning lathe…

You will quickly learn that even simple objects we take for granted in the modern world – such as a wheel nut for a bicycle or a cast-iron drain cover – require serious skills and knowledge to replicate successfully. But the rewards are immense.

Check out this man’s work – he built his own bandsaw, lathe and much else using recycled components he picked up for free:

Final note of course, take safety precautions. No matter how low-tech your workshop, I wouldn’t skimp on eye protection, ear protection, a sturdy pair of work gloves and everything else that you need to stay safe. Also, if you are dismantling old electronics, use ventilation systems when desoldering (lead fumes) and take care with old capacitors (toxic “forever chemicals” in the fluids) to dispose of them correctly and wear protective gloves. Don’t get that stuff on your hands.

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