Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 13, 2009

Shop Security III – Closing Those Gaping Holes

This is the third in a series of articles on shop security and the steps that I have taken to secure my workshop after the second break-in cost me roughly $5000.00 in tools and equipment. Before I continue, I should probably provide some background.  My current shop is a frame house next door to my father’s house.  It was originally a single family dwelling.  It has a brick curtain foundation and framework out of old growth hard pine and is probably about 90 years old.  It was a bargain, having been severely neglected for a number of years.  The building has functional plumbing and limited electrical service.  But all of the windows on the uphill side of the house had been broken out, and most of the interior had been vandalized.  Hiring local indigents, Dad had it gutted down to the wall studs.  He removed the interior non-load bearing wall that had separated the parlor from the kitchen.  Then, rather than replace the windows, he just had me board them up. 


Here was the first mistake I made that led me to get robbed most recently, other than letting the local indigents know that there was something in there worth stealing.  (See Shop Security – The Basics for further information on Security by Obscurity.) Thinking only of keeping the rain, snow, and cold winds out, I covered the windows with quarter-inch thick plywood attached by quarter inch drywall screws.  When the bad guys failed to get in the back door (more on that later), they pried one of my flimsy plywood off of one of my windows.  The small screw heads popped through the thin plywood so easily that the plywood was sufficiently intact for me to replace it after the Crime Scene Investigator left. (Note: The CSI and I learned something new that day:  you can’t fingerprint a woodshop.  Everything is either a) made of wood, which doesn’t take prints well or b) covered in sawdust.)  Putting the plywood back up continued to keep the kids and weather out, but clearly wasn’t going to keep the place secure.  If you’re boarding up windows, use at least ½” thick plywood, and screws, not nails.  They make one-way screws, if you’re interested.  The problem with those is that, when you’re ready to take them out, you can’t get them out either.  Make sure that the screw heads are plenty large enough so that the plywood doesn’t give way and pop off of the screws.  You might want to consider adding washers.  But you know, any screw that goes in can go out.  No matter how much time you spend screwing that plywood in place, some thief can unscrew it.


What’s the solution? Don’t have any windows in your shop. I’ve ready many an article on-line and in print rhapsodizing about the quality of natural light.  They talk about how contemplative it is and how much it contributes to the spiritual aspects of woodworking, and how practical it is.   Natural light is superior for color matching in the finishing process, casts softer shadows and makes reading both blueprints and layout lines easier.  Further – it’s green.  It uses no energy and does not contribute to your carbon footprint.


I say to hell with all of them:  windows that can let in natural light can also let in thieving bums.  And when you’ve got thieving bums, you’ve got no shop at all.  If you’re building a shop from scratch, don’t put in any windows at all, unless you can put them up 15 feet in the air and make them less than four inches tall.  Otherwise, all the locks, bolts, and video cameras you can install won’t do a damn bit of good.  They’ll smash a window, climb in, clean out anything portable, and be gone in less than 10 minutes.  If you’re already stuck with windows, like I am, install burglar bars. 


Burglar bars don’t have to be complicated, but there are a couple of things you have to consider.  First, there’s safety:  this equipment can trap you inside a burning building or otherwise prevent your escape from a hazardous situation.  If you’re being chased by something, fire or thug, you want a choice of at least two ways out.  Make sure that you have easy, unblocked access from both the front and back doors, or are able to open the burglar bars on at least one window from the inside in addition to your front door.  


Also note that in some jurisdictions burglar bars that cannot be opened are illegal. Check with your local police department before purchasing or installing burglar bars. If you are making or buying an actual bar grid, make sure that your bars are at least ½” in diameter and spaced no further than four inches apart.  They should have a cross brace welded at least every 12 inches apart, making a grid. Think I’m being excessive?  The average small car jack can exert a force of more than two tons. Placed sideways between thin steel bars, it can bend them out far enough to permit the passage of a teenage thug in less than two minutes.  The same tool can be used to tear apart the burglar bars I’ve described, but it will take them at least ten minutes, by which time your motion sensitive lights, alarm system, and nosey neighbors will have alerted you to the problem. There will be more on those items later.


In my own case, I went in another direction.  I chose to use expanded metal mesh.  This material is typically used for catwalk floors and is also often found used as a truck grille.  It also often seen as a cook surface on large charcoal grills.  Each window in my shop now has a 3/8” thick angle iron frame with 18 gauge metal mesh welded to the frame at every single point blocking entry.   Then I attached the frame over the interior of the window using three inch decking screws into the old-growth pine studs surrounding the window frame.  Note that the mesh is mounted on the inside of the shop window.  I’ve read a disturbing number of articles about people who secured bars to the outside of their building with screws only to have them unscrewed by bad guys. I used roughly 15 screws on each set of bars.  That effectively pinned the mesh between the wood frame and the angle iron.  There’s no place to insert a pry-bar or jack between the bars, because there aren’t any bars.


In addition to the burglar bars, I have also replaced the front door to the shop.  The original door that came with the house was a panel door.  The bottom half of the door was made up of three wooden panels set in a frame, and the top half was a large glass panel measuring roughly three feet on the diagonal.  During the building’s derilect period, this glass panel had been broken away.  In weatherizing the shell, Dad had had someone, probably one of the thieves, nail a piece of chipboard over the hole with, God help us, roofing nails from the outside.  Then they painted the whole door.  Ok – this is better than nothing, but it would take less than ten seconds for an energetic thief to pry off that chipboard, reach in side and unlock the door, and get inside.  As it happened, I had a foam core steel exterior door in the shop.  It had been left over from my Dad’s renovation efforts. Shortly after my last break-in, after the burglar bars were in place, I spent a day re-framing the door and replacing the original door with the steel one.  Although the front door had never been a point of ingress in any of the robberies, I had a pretty good idea how I would have felt if someone had broken in that way and I had had a superior security door sitting in my shop.  To finish up, the new door, with no glass panel, has a deadbolt that throws directly into the door frame.  There will be more on locks and doorframes in a later post, but for now it’s enough to state that if you don’t have deadbolt locks, you might as well put up a sign saying “please come rob me; thieves welcome.”


As a final note, my short term fix for the back door is old school.  Very old school.  The back door had already been replaced, earlier in the history of the building, and his now a steel door with a foam core prehung in a pine frame.  As you may recall, the bad guys initially tried to get in the back door by using a flat prybar to shatter the pine doorframe, thereby defeating my deadbolt lock.  They were defeated at the back door by either the hasp-and-padlock that I had on the inside of the door, or by the three hundred or so pounds of junk that were piled up against it.  This sent them around to the side of the building where they pried off the plywood I had closing off one of the windows.  Having closed off the windows with burglar bars, I have simply taken a two-by-six and bolted it across the back door using six-inch-long, three-eighth-inch-thick lag bolts.  Currently the backdoor is useless to me, but is, I hope, even more useless to the local amateur socialists’ guild.  And it’s worth noting that this has made the shop a firetrap. With burglar bars on the windws and the back door barred, there’s currently only one exit.  The next project will be fixing the back door right, so that it’s secure, and will function as an emergency exit. There will be more on doors and door frames in a future post.

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