Our Humble Workshops

July 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

If there is one thing you quickly notice when you peruse woodworking blogs, it’s this: hobbyist (and some professional) woodworkers everywhere have poor excuses for workshops. You see basements, garages, outbuildings, closets, and porches – each and every one sporting less than optimal working conditions.  Derek Olson (Oldwolf) works out of a barely heated tin shed that looks to have one extension cord for power – in Wisconsin. Bob Rozaieski’s shop, while he keeps it looking quite nice and clean, would barely qualify as a walk-in closet in today’s over sized house. Rob Hanson (Evenfall Woodworks) makes all his woodworking jigs in his two-car garage. And the list goes on.

When we were shopping for a house a little over a year ago, like everyone we had a wish list of items we wanted in a house. Included, though admittedly far down on the list, was a house that had some semblance of workshop space (or at least enough space for a future shop). Our first criterion was to be in the city, which is often in direct conflict with having a shop. But it isn’t a deal killer. I began to take some mental notes on the houses we looked at, and quickly some pros and cons began to emerge with each and every option. I kept an open mind, and knew that I could make something out of any of the workshop spaces we saw (well, maybe not a porch). One place we toured even had a large 750 square foot garage that was bigger than the house. Unfortunately the house itself wasn’t what we were looking for, and it was easy to check it off the list (here’s how not to sell a house: take a small 1920’s bungalow, install cheesy laminate flooring, remove the kitchen appliances, and cut up the 700 square foot basement into five rooms. Brilliant.) We settled on a late nineteenth century Victorian cottage. It has a full basement that I’m slowly upgrading to a more comfortable shop space. I’m just now putting down on paper the options I was mulling over in my head as we went from house to house. This is what I came up with.

Stand-alone shop – I think most people would consider this to be the optimal solution. It separates the noise and dust from the more civilized life in the house. A stand-alone shop is at-grade, so moving materials and tools in and out is straightforward (provided there is something larger than a closet door for access). It can have its own dedicated heating/cooling system, enabling you to dial in the exact temperature you want (which is often cooler than house). If you build a shop from the ground up, you can fully customize it to your needs. You can place windows exactly where you want them, design the floors, walls, and ceiling heights to your specs, etc. The disadvantages of a stand-alone shop are obvious – cost and space. If you buy a house that already has one, great. If not, it can cost a small fortune (and take half a lifetime) to build the workshop you really want. And you need space. This is not a solution for city dwellers, who often have no backyard or, at most, a very small one. We looked at a few houses that had limited garage or basement space, but had (somewhat) spacious yards. My thinking was that I could build a shop back there. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t go this route. Any house you buy will have enough projects already. It would have taken me forever to build that shop, and in the meantime I’d be doing my woodworking in the back yard.

A garage is one of the most common places for the workshop. Garages aren’t loved by many, but they do have a few advantages. They do a fair job of separating noise and dust from the rest of the house, though this can vary depending on where your garage is situated in your house. If you have one of those garages that sits underneath bedrooms in the house (which is a design I’ve always questioned because of the whole carbon monoxide thing), then you probably have to schedule your table saw use. Probably the biggest advantage to a garage shop is access. There is a big at-grade door that can be opened; moving even the largest tools and pieces of furniture in and out is a breeze. Also, when the weather is nice, you can open the door and have the largest shop window imaginable. They also provide a good amount of space, uninterrupted by walls or support posts (usually), providing you with plenty of room to make a mess. Disadvantages? A bunch, starting with the drab surroundings garages usually sport. Garages are not meant for people. They are built to store cars, garbage cans, and expensive, week-old toys your kids no longer want to play with because they’re not cool anymore. Their walls are usually unfinished (or poorly finished by the worst member of the construction crew who had never hung sheet rock before) and un-insulated. The floor is hard concrete and windows are scant (if any at all), resulting in terrible natural light. I suppose one advantage to all the dreariness is that nobody else in the family will care if you make it appreciably worse. One big challenge with a garage shop is constantly sharing space with other things, namely the car(s). Of all the shop setups, I would think a garage shop could most benefit by having mobile bases attached to everything. Of the folks I’ve known with garage shops, they are constantly moving tools and benches around to accommodate yet another object that has invaded their space. We saw lots of single-car garages when looking at houses. I was convinced this was probably going to be my shop. With a long driveway the cars could have lived outside, and with some creativity I could have made it work.

Spare room – If you are a hand tool woodworker, or at least work mostly with hand tools, a spare room in the house can be a good option. A spare room will be a comfortable place – climate controlled, good lighting, probably a window or two, walls that actually look like normal walls. There is a lot to be said for having a comfortable place to work. It will probably be quite small, however; you’re not getting the master bedroom for the shop. You’re going to get that weird extra room in the house that you could never figure out what to do with, and instead it just became a junk pile of random household items. The room will probably be so small that lumber storage won’t really be an option. Access might be a little tricky, too. You’re not going to move a bandsaw in there, but even a simple concept like moving an 8′ long board might become an exercise in spatial dynamics. Dust and noise won’t be separated from the rest of the house, either. Dust isn’t as big a problem with a hand tool shop (until that one time when you say, “Ok, I’m just going to run this small router for one small cut.”), but noise can trickle into the other rooms of the house. All the houses we looked at had other options, and I never looked at a room in any house and said, “Yeah that would be a great shop.” Maybe that was because almost all the houses we could afford had only two bedrooms.

Basement – Ah, yes, the basement. This is the lovely place so many of us have as our workshop. A basement has a few advantages, and a whole mess of disadvantages. It does an adequate job of separating noise and dust from the rest of the house, until your dust gets into the heater and clogs the filters. If you’re going to make a lot of noise, though, you’ll need to insulate the floor joists. It’s also a space that the rest of the family might not care much about. Like a garage, you have a little free reign to make a mess. Climate control is another advantage to a basement – Mother Nature keeps a basement cool in the summer and warm (ish) in the winter. It shouldn’t take much in artificial heating and cooling to keep a basement at a comfortable temperature (provided you don’t live in a very cold climate). Probably the worst part of a basement shop (at least for me) is that it’s below grade. Moving items in and out of a basement is a constant challenge, with anything larger than a small box requiring a 10-point action plan. The floor is usually unforgiving concrete (or dirt) that sometimes slopes towards a floor drain. This is convenient when the hot water tank blows up, but it also means you need plenty of shims for shop furniture. Unfinished walls can make a basement look like a medieval torture room. The windows, if there are any, are usually tiny. And man-made lighting may only consist of a few light bulbs hanging precariously from the ceiling waiting to be broken. Ceiling height can be an issue – you can deal with low ceilings, but it will require a few changes in the way you work. Like garages, basements can also serve double-duty as junk rooms, laundry rooms, and I-don’t-ever-want-to-see-this-thing-again storage spaces. All the systems of the house are typically put in the basement, because like a garage, this space really wasn’t meant for people. You have to work around the hot-water heater, furnaces the size of Volkswagens, wiring, plumbing, etc. My basement shop has all the advantages and disadvantages listed above. What it lacks in ceiling height it makes up for in square feet, however. It will never look like a finished room in a house, but with some gradual cosmetic upgrades, it can more resemble a real shop, and less, well, a basement.

And if none of these options are available, you probably live in a downtown condo or an apartment. You choices are now down to the living room or kitchen (a good workbench can double for an eating table), or perhaps a porch or balcony. You likely won’t be building armoires with this setup, but with some creativity you can still build a great variety of items.

As much as I’ve harped on all the bad aspects associated with different shops, it’s important to keep in mind that a woodworking shop can be just about anywhere. There are many hobbies that place far more restrictions on your work area. And when you visit woodworking blogs or follow some of the forums, you realize that nobody really complains about their shops. They certainly realize their shops aren’t ideal, but they’re just happy to be creating things with their tools. I’ve heard people say on more than one occasion, “If I had Norm’s shop, I’d really be able to make something”. Well, you don’t have that shop, and you probably never will. If that is truly your excuse, then perhaps another hobby is in order. Find a space in your home, get a few tools and a workbench, and build something. You can work on the aesthetics and comforts of the shop as you go along – patching holes, adding insulation, maybe even installing a window or skylight. No matter what your shop looks like, I guarantee there is someone out there who has it worse. And while it may slow them down at times, it never stops them from working.

The workshop after a lighting upgrade.

More:

The Workshop Book: A Craftsman’s Guide to Making the Most of Any Work Space by Scott Landis. Taunton Press, 1998
– One of Landis’ modern classics.

The ‘Ultimate’ Hand Tool Shop by Adam Cherubini – Popular Woodworking, February 2006. Also reprinted in Hand Tool Essentials. Popular Woodworking Books, 2007
– This article changed the way I looked at woodworking. I’ve probably read it 10 times.

The Small Wood Shop – The Best of Fine Woodworking Taunton Press, 1993
– Some terrific solutions for folks with limited space.

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