Designing My Workshop, Part 1

So, your new home is near-perfect, but devoid of a workshop. What’s a woodworker to do? If you’re like me, you are probably already skilled at gravely underestimating the time and scope required of even the most mundane projects. Naturally, you’ll convince yourself that building your own workshop will take less than a year of your free time, most of which has been long-affianced to raising three children, a dog, and ten chickens, maintaining a home, a large garden, and a small forest, and the occasional leisurely outing to appease your patient wife. Naturally.

All kidding aside, I have a number of good reasons for choosing to build my own workshop. 1) It’s cheaper.

Okay, one. I have one good reason to build my own workshop. But I have budgetary constraints and a high tolerance for self-inflicted stress. My dad lives ten miles away. He has a fully hydraulic Wood-Mizer sawmill and a surplus of logs. So lumber is pretty close to free. My labor is free as well (Note: If my boss is reading, don’t get any ideas). Aside from the lumber and labor, the major expenses in a workshop are sheathing, roofing, nails, screws, wiring, and insulation. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that I can build my shop for at least 80% less than than I could pay someone to build it.

So I’m building my own workshop. Now the hard part is settling on a design. Blank slate. Endless possibilities. Where to begin? In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I have worked from multitudinous shops in the past. They all have something to teach:

2005-2007: 30′ x 30′ insulated metal building. Shared with my dad and younger brother, along with their mechanic tools, welding equipment, etc. Ample room in theory, but in practice, the shop was a cluttered mess due to and abundance of users and equipment and a lack of storage. Honestly, a great deal of the cluttered mess was attributable to yours truly – but over the years, I’ve found that a shop space that is too large is simply an invitation for clutter, because it always seems as though yesterday’s mess can be moved aside…until it can’t. And then you’ve got your work cut out for you just to get organized again.

2008-2010: 10′ x 20′ plywood shed. It was rotting from the ground up when I bought it, so I jacked it up, layed an extra layer of cement block, and re-built the floor. I wired it, insulated it, and paneled it with 1×12 pine. I spent far more time working on the shop than working in the shop. Even so, I quickly learned that 10′ is too dang narrow for a workshop. This was not the smallest shop that I’ve worked in, but due to the awkward dimensions, it was the least user-friendly (even after all of the cosmetic and structural improvements).

2010-2011: 20′ x 20′ cinderblock garage with dirt floor. No windows, bare lightbulbs, and sparse outlets. In spite of the austere surroundings, I build some rather nice stuff in this shop, including my first ladderback chairs. However, nothing short of starvation could convince me to work in a windowless, dirt-floor shop again. Aesthetics aren’t everything, but they are something.

2011-2014: 24′ x 40′ garage. 9′ ceilings, ample windows. The back of the shop was partitioned into two smaller rooms, one of which I kept for storage, the other I maintained as my hand tool shop. This could have been an ideal workspace, except for the inconvenient fact there was no door on the front of the shop. And money was too tight to actually add a garage door. I made peace with the constant maintenance required to keep the rust gremlins at bay, and I did some of my proudest work in that shop.

2014-2015: No workshop for nine months. I sold my tablesaw, planer, and drill press put the bandsaw and lathe in storage.

2015-2016: 12′ x 16′ plywood shack, slowly being devoured by an adjacent sand dune. Only enough room for a workbench and a lathe. Despite the crowded quarters and minimal equipment, I re-discovered the joy of woodworking in this shop. With no fancy equipment that I could rely on as a substitute for actual ability, I focused on projects that were suited to hand tool woodworking, and my skills improved markedly. I found it necessary to maintain an exceptionally neat workspace, and to work on only one project at a time, because there was simply no room for clutter.

2017: No workshop again. My tools are stored in the basement, waiting to be awakened in their new home. The drafting table awaits.

WorkshopByYear

Because I am also a nerd in addition to being a woodworker, I decided to plot out my shop size over the past dozen years. Of note is the fact that the quality of my work has steadily increased even as the size of my shop has varied wildly during that time. The lesson here is that the size of my shop might have an effect on the efficiency and enjoyability of my woodworking experience, but not the quality. Honestly, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has actually put steel to wood.

In the next few posts, I’ll highlight a few workshops that I haven’t worked in, but that served as inspirational/aspirational starting points for my design; cover the basic principles that guided my design; and finally, I’ll finish up with the blueprints that evolved from those principles.

6 thoughts on “Designing My Workshop, Part 1

  1. most of us use a two car garage as a workshop, do you have any layout suggestions? table saw, bandsaw, workbench, build table, drill press, mitresaw with long table attahced

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    1. Hi Mark. I’ve used a 2-car garage once (as noted in the post), but to offer a layout suggestion would be a fool’s errand, since everyone uses different equipment, and not all 2-car garages have the same dimensions and window arrangement. I have never owned a miter saw or a “build table”, for example. I can offer some general thoughts, however, upon which I will expound somewhat in the upcoming posts. Generally, equipment arrangement begins with setting your biggest pieces in place first. A table saw is often the heart of a power-tool workshop, and it typically occupies a spot in the middle of the room. For hand tool enthusiasts, the workbeck is the heart of the shop. I prefer to use a workbench against a wall, and under a window (or at the least under very good lighting). The bandsaw, jointer, lathe, and drill press also work best against a wall (I have found that “wall space” is at more of a premium than “floor space” in a larger shop). Once you have the big pieces placed in the most obvious locations, the smaller stuff tends to fit in wherever you can find the space.

      My new shop will house a workbench, a bandsaw, a lathe, a planer, a shavehorse, a sharpening station, and some tool storage. It’s conceivable that I could add a few other pieces in the future. An assembly table would be nice, as would a jointer. Personally, my workshop revolves around the workbench, so getting its location right (against a wall, under a north-facing window) is the prime concern, and everything else in the shop will evolve from there.

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  2. I should not complain because the house that I bought a few years ago included a 1500 sq ft shop on the property, but sometimes I would give my left arm to be able to start from scratch and build exactly what I want/need. Anything you put your own spin on is so much sweeter in the end in my opinion. Good luck, I am jealous.

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    1. Wow, 1500 sq.ft. is huge! That’s literally bigger than half of the houses I’ve lived in. I have found that I do my most efficient work in a smaller shop, but one that is truly focused towards the type of work that I want to do. My shop will be less than a third of the size of yours, but it will have a loft and a lean-to that will rid the main workspace of the clutter dedicated to other tasks (gardening, plumbing, electrical, painting, etc.)

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