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Tips For Designing And Setting Up A Small Woodshop

How to enjoy your craft in tight spaces.

I love to read the woodworking publications, and eyeball the exotic woodshops owned by some of the magazines' editors. You know the ones -- elaborate workspaces set up in sprawling buildings in the mountains somewhere. No doubt many of us would love to have a huge, 2000 square foot building devoted to woodcraft, on a wooded acreage somewhere. But there is a reality that goes with a hobby shared by numerous ordinary people: very few really have the means to set up such palatial workshops. We have our lives to lead, and engaging in such a venture is out of the reach for most, myself included. This article is dedicated to workshops for "the rest of us."

Consequently, we need to think in terms of a more modest approach. For most people, that means fitting the pastime of woodworking into some available space. You make the use of what you have, or what you can afford. I started my woodworking in a two-stall attached garage. This served me well for over a decade. But after years of juggling between workshop and the parking of two cars, coupled with the constant dust and noise that permeated the house, I decided to construct a small building in my back yard. Local zoning regulations limited the size of accessory buildings, so I had to plan carefully. I was inspired by an article in Fine Woodworking magazine, where one of the writers had managed to set up a nice shop in a single-stall garage, which was a bit smaller in size than what I proposed to build. Building a shed from the ground up has been quite a learning process, and at the time of this writing, I have just moved operations into this new shop. It's amazing at how much stuff you can get into a 10 by 20 foot building if you set your mind to it.

Visit the chronicle of my workshop construction. Lots of photos and narrative.

There are perhaps an infinite number of ways one can create his or her wood shop, and this article is not intended to be an all-out design guide. There are entire books devoted to the subject. Instead, this page is meant to offer some helpful tips to make your shop setup more efficient. With some wise choices and a bit of ingenuity, you can pull off a decent shop in a minimum of space. Enjoy.

Start with some careful planning.

First, you need to ask yourself what kinds of work you will be performing in this shop. Will you be building large cabinets or pieces of furniture? Or will you be doing smaller projects, like fretwork on a jigsaw, small crafts, or turning pens? The size of the things you will be creating, coupled with the tools necessary to make them, will have a direct impact on your available space.

How much room will you have available for your shop? Will it be in a basement, spare room, shed, or a garage? Or will you be using or constructing a dedicated building? You might also consider leasing a small space in a commercial or light industrial area. You just may find a small vacant building whose owner wants to keep occupied, for a reasonable rent. If you live in an apartment or condominium, you may be able to rent a nearby garage stall. Whatever your choice (or limitations, as the case may be), think hard about the available space in terms of the things you will be doing there. If, for example, you are limited to a 10' x 12' yard shed and you wish to build furniture, you will have to be quite creative in how you operate in such a cramped space. It might be achievable, but you will have to make some compromises.

What kinds of tools and accessories do you plan to have in this space? A few large stationary tools, such as table saws, jointers, band saws, etc., can fill up space fast. Ditto for workbenches. If you haven't purchased these tools yet, being able to visualize the space you'll have available should play a crucial role in deciding what power tools you will buy. If space is tight, you may want to consider a smaller number of more versatile tools, as opposed to a bunch of specialized ones.

Conversely, if you already have a lot of tools, you are faced with the task of being able to set them up in your allotted space.

What goes where?

Get a sheet of graph paper and sketch out to scale the boundaries of the space you will be using for your shop. Now take another sheet of graph paper and sketch (to the same scale) the footprint of each tool, bench, etc. Cut out the pieces with a scissors. You should now have a bunch of little paper shapes, representing all your stationary tools and fixtures. Lay them out on top of your room sketch and see how they fit. Don't forget to allow for infeed and outfeed spaces with your tools. You may find that these components don't fit well in your space - or perhaps not at all. Time to get creative. Of course, as an alternative you could use a CAD program to experiment with your layout designs. However, we are addressing the needs of a typical hobbyist, not that of a large commercial operation. As such, a piece of paper, ruler, pencil and 15 minutes of your time will do the trick just fine. [Occam's Razor: the simplest solution is often the most elegant.]

Think in terms of "workflow." You may be able to overlap some of the infeed/outfeed spaces. For example, you may find that the table on your band saw is a bit higher than that of your table saw. That's great! Now you can orient the bandsaw such that the infeed or outfeed passes over the table saw, thereby doubling up on some of your floor space. You can also make workbenches and storage cabinets to the same height as your stationary tools so that the surfaces can double as infeed or outfeed tables. Does your shop have a door leading outside? If so, you can open the door (weather permitting) and extend your outfeed through the door to handle longer workpieces.

You might have to cut some corners. While it would be ideal to have a dedicated stand for all of your power tools, it may not be realistic to have each and every tool perched atop a stand. Some of the smaller power tools, such as benchtop planers, belt/disc sanders, grinders, miter saws, etc., can be stored away in cabinets, and quickly set up on a bench when needed. You may not even have room for a traditional work bench. A commercially-made folding workbench might be a more viable solution. You can clamp a piece of plywood to the top for added workspace, and then stow the plywood and the folding bench along a wall when not in use. You could even hang them from hooks on the ceiling if wall space is at a premium.

Larger stationary tools, like table saws and jointers, can be placed on rolling bases. This allows them to be stored in a more out-of-the-way location when not in use. When it comes time to use them, they can be rolled out on the floor, and oriented accordingly based on the work piece at hand. You need only have one tool in position at a time, unless you plan to have more than one person working in your shop simultaneously. This means a bit more time is spent shuffling large tools around, and retrieving and putting away tools that would otherwise have a permanent spot in a larger shop. Unfortunately, this is the price we pay for having a compact work area. Get into that mind-set now, and before long, the extra chore will hardly be noticeable.

Think "double-duty." You can set up tools in a multi-use configuration to save space. A good example of this is to add a wing to a table saw to accommodate a router. Voila! - instant router table. You might even find a way to double up the table saw's fence as a router table fence. You can build jigs to take the place of stand-alone tools. For example, a simple router jig can be constructed for milling mortises, as a substitute for a dedicated bench-top mortising machine. A table-mounted router with a straight bit can take the place of a jointer for truing the edges of boards. There are certain "multi-purpose" woodworking tools available, perhaps the best example being the Shopsmith tool. Other tools combine functions, such as a planer/jointer.

Scale down. Unless you really have a need for a large tool, you may be better served by a smaller version. Selecting a bench-top drill press over a floor-standing model can save a lot of precious space. Similarly, a bench-top planer occupies much less real estate than its full-size brethren, and its portability enables easy storage when it is not being used. If a table saw is too bulky for your shop, you might find that a good 14-inch band saw will perform many of the same functions (plus a few unique ones), without the large footprint. Cutting sheet goods can be done quite accurately across sawhorses with nothing more than a circular saw and a straightedge.

Storage.

In a small shop, you will quickly become adept at utilizing every inch of space. Storage cabinets are no exception, and if you are willing to build them yourself, they can be very efficient places to keep your smaller tools and accessories. The key is to customize the size and shape to carefully fit into empty spaces in your work area. Your walls may appear "busy" and bristling with shelves, nooks and crannies. But you will be pleasantly surprised at how much stuff you can store along ten or fifteen feet of wall space.

Storage cabinets and shelves need not be fancy. Most of the ones I have built were constructed from plywood or even scraps of particle board. Carefully plan the best locations to place them. If space is getting tight around the floor area, consider mounting cabinets and shelving up high on the walls. They can even be out of reach -- all you need is a small step stool to get at them. Having storage units higher up on the wall frees up more space below, and you won't feel as "crowded" while working. Make the shelves adjustable, so you can raise and lower them to closely accommodate the dimensions of the items you are stowing away. Fasteners, drill bits and other small items can be stored in so-called parts cabinets having many small drawers. Lumber can be stored in an attic or rafters, or can be suspended from the ceiling.

Stationary tools with open stands present a storage opportunity. If your table saw has legs, that space below is wasted. Consider removing the open-frame stand and mounting the machine atop a rolling cabinet. You can construct one from 3/4" plywood. It needn't be elaborate - a wooden box to set the saw on will suffice. Now you have room to store stuff below, like blades, push blocks, jigs, etc.

Clamps pose unique storage problems, and these are best stored on some kind of rack. This can be as simple as cutting a series of notches in a narrow board, and attaching the board horizontally on the wall. You can then hang your bar and pipe clamps from these notches. C-clamps can be stored simply by clamping them onto various protruding surfaces. You will soon find clever ways to stash away your smaller items.

Utilities.

Electric power. Unless you are designing a dedicated building for your hobby, you will likely be stuck with the available electric service. In a typical basement or garage, there may only be a handful of outlets. In addition, the ampacity of the circuits may limit what you can do with those outlets. Look to see what else is supplied by each branch circuit, and check the corresponding circuit breaker or fuse, as that will dictate how many amps of power you have at your disposal. Look at the amperage ratings of your power tools to determine your electric power needs. You don't want to be tripping circuit breakers with your power tools. You may find it necessary to install additional branch circuits for your tools, if there is space in your service panel for additional breakers. If not, give some thought to adding a subpanel to supply additional circuits. However, don't get over your head in the area of DIY wiring. If, for any reason, you are even the slightest bit uncomfortable with the idea of doing electrical wiring yourself -- DON'T DO IT. Hire a licensed electrician to do the work. They don't work cheap, but having a pro doing the work is is certainly a value when you consider the alternatives. Like being electrocuted or burning the place down.

Lighting. Adequate lighting is absolutely essential in the shop. Operating power tools in a dimly-lit area is a really bad idea. Not to mention the eye strain and headaches you might get from having to squint at your work with insufficient light. Get some 4-foot fluorescent fixtures and connect them to a circuit that is not being used to power your tools, if possible. That way, if you trip a breaker with your table saw, you won't be standing there in the dark with a still-spinning blade somewhere that's slowly coasting to a stop. Set up your lights in locations so that they don't glare into your eyes. And again, with anything involving wiring -- hire out the work if you are not competent to do it yourself.

Heat. If you plan to work in an unheated garage or outbuilding, and you live in a cold climate, you might want to consider some means of heating your shop. There are myriad choices available, and each type of energy has its pros and cons for cost, efficiency, etc. You can choose electric heat, natural gas, propane, kerosene, wood-burning stoves, even units fueled by corn and pellets. Keep in mind that many of these heaters will need proper ventilation, and may require some extensive installation procedures. Setting up gas-fired heaters is not for the faint-at-heart. Consider having an installer do it. Be cautious in choosing a location for your heater -- especially in the close confines of a small shop. Keep it away from combustibles, and yourself.

Shop safety.

Protect your lungs by using a dust collector to remove most of the dust at the sources. There are small models designed with the small wood shop in mind. At the very least, use a shop vacuum to connect to your power tools.

Personal protective equipment (PPE). Be sure to wear an approved respirator when cutting, sanding, or milling wood, and when working with solvents and finishes. Eye protection is essential too. Choose a good pair of goggles or better yet, a face shield. And don't forget ear plugs or ear muffs to protect your hearing from the noise of machinery.

Don't let your shop get too crowded. Sure, easy for me to say. But this is important, as an overly cluttered shop can be fraught with dangers from tripping and running into things. Maintain a pathway so that you can get out quickly if an emergency arises. A shop that is not clean can present fire hazards from dust and debris. Keep combustibles such as finishes, solvents and adhesives stored in tight containers inside a cabinet located away from heat sources. Properly dispose of oily and solvent-soaked rags. The best way is to put them in an airtight metal safety can, or a clean 1-gallon paint can with some water inside and a tight lid. Empty these cans daily.

Keep a good first aid kit on hand and located in an accessible place. While this is not an exhaustive list, you should at least have adhesive bandages of different sizes, gauze, antibiotic ointment, wrapping tape, tourniquet, a fine-tipped tweezers (you'll use it a lot for extracting splinters), eye wash cup and a bottle of clean water. Keep your first aid items in a sealed container, to minimize contamination.

And don't forget to have a good, approved fire extinguisher. Make sure it is designed to work on all three of the common types of fires (A-B-C). Mount it on the wall where you can quickly get to it, and keep it maintained.

How NOT to do it.

Some people just don't have the skills to build their own shop structure. This example looks like a 3-D rendering of an Escher drawing done by someone with ADD. Don't do this. If you don't already have the space available for your shop in an existing room or building and you're short on construction abilities, there may be a pre-fab shed in your future


Sources of more information:

Small Woodworking Shops: The New Best Of Fine Woodworking, Taunton Press. An excellent book on shop design and layout.

Shop Notes magazine

Ask The Builder

DIY Network

Hometime

New Yankee Workshop

Electrical wiring FAQ. Probably far more information than you can need for wiring. Very thorough and informative.

Shop lighting. A brief primer on lighting for your shop.

Home Depot

Lowe's

Rockler Woodworking


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