Tips for Setting Up a Woodworking Shop
The greatest luxury for a woodworker is setting up a new shop in a completely empty space. Whether it's a garage, basement, utility building or something diﬀerent, the fact that it's empty means you can arrange everything from scratch. No need to work around existing cabinets, furniture, or someone else’s idea of what a shop should be – you’re starting with a blank page.
The possibilities are endless, and when you’re standing in the middle of a great big nothing, maybe a little daunting. But by keeping ﬁve main considerations in mind, your new shop will ﬁt your needs perfectly.
How much space do I need?
That's like asking how many clamps you need – the answer is that there's never enough. An abundance of space is great, but the real key is eﬃciently utilizing the space you have. For practicality, think more about straight lines than area, and where things will go in the space rather than how much there is. A lot of shop process-es involve working lengths of wood, such as planing or joint-ing. For that reason, a longer space (or even an L-shaped one) may be better than a square one.
Square footage is important, but utilizing it takes thought. You'll ﬁnd lots of shop planners online with adjustable lay-outs and common shop tools. Download one of those, cut out the tools and try some lay-outs that maximize the space you have, keeping in mind the direction wood moves when worked.
Planers and jointers are linear tools –the width of their location isn’t as important as overall length of the workpiece.
For example, a benchtop planer may be less than 24" wide, but if you’re planing an 8' board you need 16' of linear space for the job. A miter saw is also linear, but in width, not front to back. A table saw works wood in both directions.
Also, consider workflow. Generally, you’ll proceed from wood storage, to milling and prep, to cutting, to assembly and, finally, finishing. Arrange your layout so what you do flows directly from one process to the other.
One final thought on space: Adding wheels to your tools can effectively multiply the working space you have. That planer example above? Put that planer on a wheeled stand wherever you get the length you need while using it, than roll it into a corner when done. In fact, your whole shop can be on wheels.
Mechanical considerations – power, heat, cooling, etc.
Unless you'll work 100% with hand tools, your woodworking machines need electricity. Meanwhile, your body (and wood ﬁnishing) has temperature requirements. You can't get around either.
Home spaces like basements and garages usually have out-lets; older construction tends to have fewer, while newer homes have more. After considering your layout from the previous section, think about getting electricity to those tools.
For a small shop, a few outlets and judicious use of extension cords – properly rated for your tools – may suﬃce. For a larger shop, consider hiring an electrician to run some additional lines. If you do, know in advance where your tools are going to go, and direct new lines and outlets where needed. Don’t forget a few on the ceiling for lighting.
Also, be aware of how much voltage/amperage your tools draw. Many homes these days have breaker boxes with 110-volt, 20-amp lines going to outlets. Amperage in older homes may be less, and the total amperage may be insufﬁcient to run household needs as well as workshop tools. Your electrician can guide you here, but have a list of what your tools need in advance.
Your heating and cooling needs depend on the structure housing your shop, and your geographical location. Basements may get chilly in winter, but they’re generally comfortable year-round. Garage shops, on the other hand, get cold in the winter (although usually not freezing) and uncomfortably hot in the summer. A freestanding structure, meanwhile, has the same heating and cooling needs a small house would.
To adapt your space, consider space heaters and dressing in layers for cold months, and store temperature-sensitive glues and ﬁnishes in a warmer location. For basement shops, consult an HVAC professional to ﬁnd out if your household heating/cooling system can handle more square footage with some additional vents in the shop. For garages, consider adding a win-dow for a fresh breeze or even an air conditioner. Floor fans are excellent additions to any shop, both summer and winter.
Those fans are important for more than just temperature control. Shop air can get stale quickly, and you certainly don’t want to breathe fumes from ﬁnishing products. Typical garages usually have at least one window to use for ventilation, plus you can always raise the door a few inches. A well-placed ﬂoor fan or window unit can quickly exhaust fumes and dust from a small shop.
For a basement shop, consider converting a window – the common fold-down type located at the top of a wall – into an eﬀective ventilation unit by replacing a glass pane with an exhaust fan. These fans usually have closeable doors to keep out insects in the summer and cold weather in the winter when not in use, and many have select-able airﬂ ow directions so you can choose to exhaust shop air or draw fresh air in from outside.
What type of floor?
Usually, the ﬂoor your space comes with is ﬁne. Basements and garages will probably have concrete ﬂoors; a separate structure could have concrete or plywood ﬂooring. All of these are good, but can be made better with a coat of ﬂoor paint. Painted surfaces are easier to sweep, and help prevent the occasional spill from soaking in.
If you spend a lot of time working on a concrete ﬂoor, you'll ﬁnd your feet, legs and back tiring after a long day. Place cushioned work mats where you stand and work most – in front of major tools, work-benches, cabinets, etc. Other options include interlocking cushioned vinyl tiles.
For whole-shop foot comfort, it’s hard to beat a wooden ﬂoor. If your ceiling height (and budget) allow, a new plywood ﬂoor laid over the concrete is a blessing. It’s not nearly as punishing as concrete, and if raised sufﬁciently you can install wiring, dust collection and HVAC ducts underneath.
Can I share a garage shop with cars?
Absolutely, but it takes planning. To be able to park cars in a garage, nothing can be permanently located in the middle of the garage. That's where mobile bases – a good idea anyway – really earn their keep.
Arrange mobile tools around the back and sides of the garage, allowing for walking paths and car doors. Use the upper part of the garage for wood and long-term shop storage, and consider wall cabinets for everything else. Meanwhile, use whatever wall space is available for hanging tools, extension cords, folding sawhorses and the like.
A narrow workbench aligned with a wall makes for eﬃcient woodworking without taking up too much space. Or, consider a hinged worksurface that ﬂips down whenever you work and back up against the wall when the cars are there. Similar ideas include fold-down router tables, miter saw stations and bench-top tool platforms.
The key to making this work is to start with the cars in the garage, and use masking tape on the ﬂoor to outline their position. Open the car doors and mark those on the ﬂoor, too. Be aware of where the top edges of the doors extend, so as not to interfere with cabinet mounting. Then, outline the walking path for each car.
With these taped guidelines in place, you can now accurately determine how the remaining space can be arranged and eﬃciently utilized.
Like clamps and working space, you can't have too much light. Fortunately, hanging shop lights are inexpensive and avail-able at any big box store. Shop lights are easy to hang on basement or garage joists; for ﬁnished ceilings, mount them with screw-in hooks.
Consider LED ﬁxtures over ﬂuorescent. They don’t ﬂicker like ﬂuorescents, are unaffected by cold weather, and last seemingly forever. Initially, LEDs are a bit pricier but represent a better value in the long run.
LEDs also use less power than other lights, and most are linkable. That is, once the ﬁrst is hung, additional ﬁxtures can be connected in a continuous line of bright, full-coverage lighting, all using a single outlet. Models vary as to how many can be linked, so check package specs.
An important aspect of light is often overlooked, and that’s the shop itself. Garages and basements can be drab, with bare drywall, wood studs, plywood sheeting, or concrete walls that swallow light like a sponge. You'd be amazed at how much brighter a space is simply by applying a coat of white paint to the walls and, if there is one, the ceiling.