Shop Aprons
Popular Woodworking, June 2003

We tested 7 popular designs that cost less than $50 in search of the best. Unfortunately, we're still searching.

It's a rare day when your neighbor dashes over after hearing about your new, 600-denier Cordura nylon shop apron with fully adjustable straps, bar tacked at all junctions. It's an even rarer day when they ask to try it out and give a low whistle of awe. In the realm of woodworking, shop aprons just aren't exciting.

But a shop apron is a compulsory item for those who like to have certain tools within reach and are tired of dusty clothes.

Some woodworkers choose to sport homemade shop aprons, usually ripped and sewn from a pair of Big Smith's. But for those or you who are wondering what Big Smith's are (bib overalls) and/or really don't have an inclination to sew, there are lots of shop aprons on the market to consider when buying.

Pockets, Pleats and Threads

Comparing shop aprons involves debates about pleated pockets and differentiating stitch types rather than listing horsepower and testing torque. In fact, testing shop aprons is uncomplicated work: Whenever we entered the shop, we simply put on a different shop apron.

Despite requiring a simple test, there's lots to consider when reviewing shop aprons. Comfort, ease of use, pocket placement, the number of pockets, pocket size, apron dimension, cost, fabric type, thread type, stitching and seams all play important roles when determining what makes a good and hardy apron.

Because it's a tool you wear, comfort is important. A shop apron should be heavy-duty but it shouldn't deter body movement or retain body heat. A shop apron also should have crisscross straps or a yoke-style harness, forcing the weight of the apron on the back rather than the neck.

Ease of use also is key. An apron with poor pocket placement can cause frustration when balancing a board, holding a tape measure in place and digging for a pencil. Bib pockets are wonderful for items like pencils that could break if stored closer to the waist where movement occurs. Pockets on the side of the apron or those with flaps will resist filling up with dust.

The number and size of the pockets is important, too. You'll quickly run out of room with an apron with three pockets or less, and you'll never be able to find anything wearing an apron with 10 pockets or more. There should be two pockets perfectly sized for a lead and grease pencil or chalk, and a pocket for a calculator or notebook is nice, too. Pockets with deeper wells for tools such as your tape measure and dial calipers should be located near the waist where you can easily thrust your hand for quick extraction. Hammer loops, for woodworkers, are mostly unnecessary.

A shop apron's dimensions also are an important factor. Longer aprons offer better protection while shorter aprons allow you to move more freely. (The $3 cotton bib aprons that you commonly find at home center stores, which we refer to as the "teddy of shop aprons," are too short for any woodworker older than five.) The perfect length of an apron is dependent on personal preference.

Cost is important, too. When purchasing a shop apron, you can spend anywhere from $3 to $50 (or more, but we didn't test those). As you'll soon see, we haven't found an apron worth $50 yet.

Last, and most importantly, you must consider durability. Fabric, thread, stitch and seam type all play important roles in determining how long an apron will last. We contacted Ann Braaten, a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Design, Housing and Apparel, to help us out. She evaluated an apron that had failed in use, gave us advice on what to look for and told us what you can do at home to improve any shop apron. Check out her analysis, "Preventing Apron Failure" below.

Preventing Apron Failure

Senior Editor Christopher Schwarz work the Bucket Boss shop apron (right) for six months before it fell apart. After a little stitch work, the apron lasted three months before it was finally retired.

So we mailed the failed apron to seam guru Ann Braaten, a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Design, Housing and Apparel. Following are her comments along with some recommendations for improving similar shop aprons at home.

"What failed on the Bucket Boss apron was not the seam, stitches or thread, but the fabric," Braaten wrote in an e-mail. The strength of an apron's fabric is the most important feature. According to Braaten, a seam should be slightly weaker than the fabric. Mending a few broken stitches is easier than mending torn fabric.

The pockets on this apron are stitched using a "straight lock stitch," with "back stitching" at the ends of the seams. According to Braaten, lock stitches (the most common stitches in today's sewn products) are the type of stitches made by a traditional home sewing machine. A top thread and a bottom thread are twined together, which "locks" the stitch in place. A back stitch is created by stitching forward three to four stitches and then reversing the direction and stitching backwards three to four stitches, Braaten wrote. The seam is sewn and then the back stitching procedure is repeated at the other end of the seam. The extra stitches strengthen the beginning and the end of the seam.

The apron at right was made using cotton canvas fabric. According to Braaten, cotton canvas is a relatively strong fabric because it packs a large number of threads per square inch. The fabric is woven, meaning it has interlacing horizontal and vertical threads. This woven design creates strength, but isolating stress to a few single threads can cause failure. Why? Each individual thread that makes up the fabric is relatively weak, compared to nylon or polyester.

Below you can see where the pockets have become disconnected with the fabric. According to Braaten, this is because the stitching was supported by only one or two threads that make up the fabric. The fabric's threads weren't strong enough to support the pockets' load.

Braaten wrote that cotton canvas works well as shop apron fabric because it's comfortable, relatively lightweight yet protective. The fabric would be strong enough if the seams used covered more area of the fabric and a layer of fabric reinforcement was added. Braaten also wrote that a cotton twill weave, such as denim or drill (a strong, twill cotton fabric), would also be appropriate if it had a high number of threads per inch. And while polyester and nylon offer more strength, they're usually heavier and not as absorbent, so less comfortable to wear.

Although the apron shown here has been officially retired from the shop, there are several steps you can take to ensure that your apron doesn't fail. All it takes is a sewing machine (or finding a friend who knows how to use one).

According to Braaten, the apron's pockets can last much longer if first the fabric is strengthened wherever it sees the most stress, which is often at the ends of the stitching located at the pockets' tops. Here's what to do:

First, head out to your local fabric store and buy nylon webbing similar to the material shown in the picture. Now cut the nylon webbing into small rectangles or squares. Make sure they're not too big – you don't want to sew the pockets on the front of your apron shut. Using a match, carefully melt the ends of the webbing so the ends won't fray. Attach the webbing to the fabric using a washable glue stick first – it will help hold the webbing down.

Select a stitch pattern that spreads the stitch over more of the fabric's threads than a straight row of stitching would, such as bar tacks (a short row of zigzag stitches that are closely spaced) or a triangle stitch pattern. Using your selected stitch pattern, stitch the nylon webbing on the back side of the apron at the end of the pockets' stitches at the pockets' tops. You can see our modified Duluth's Super Bib apron above.

—Story by Kara Gebhart
—Photos by Al Parrish