Bare Necessities Workshop Space

I got a question recently that was suggested as a blog post. I have to agree with Andy that the topic would make a great post. So here’s Andy’s question:

Bob,
I have a unique question, and maybe this could make a good blog post. I know that we talk about what kind of tools we need. But I want to discuss the space, or work shop, and really just the amount of room, square footage wise, that would be a minimum that would be needed to have an obviously small but still functional woodworking area. I would use mostly hand tools but I know there are some folks who do wonderful work in super tiny shops. So I just thought I would get your input on this.
Thanks,
Andy

This is a great question. With so much talk about the workbench, the tool storage, the tools themselves, we often times forget that we need to have some kind of space to keep all of this stuff and do the work. So I thought about this for a little while, did some sketching, and came up with what I think would be bare minimum requirements for a shop space.

Now before I reveal my grand (or not so grand) design and layout, let’s be clear on the assumptions that are going into this design.

  • Limited Space I realize that it’s possible to simply store things, for example, in a tiny corner of a garage or shed, on wheels, and roll them out into a driveway, onto a patio or deck, etc. and have almost unlimited space to work. We’re not talking about that here. What we’re getting at is a minimum dedicated footprint for a space where one could reasonably work on things like planing stock.
  • Small to Moderate Sized Work Sure, one could work in a 2′ square space doing work like small boxes and small wooden toys. The space I’m showing might be huge for that kind of stuff. But I do furniture work, and that’s what I think most woodworkers are interested in. So I’m basing my minimum space on doing small to moderate scale furniture work on things like small tables, small chests, and chairs.
  • Hand Tools Only It’s impossible to think up every scenario of mixing power and hand work. Space requirements are different for different sized machinery. So I’m basing this on doing hand work only because that’s what I do. Hand held power tools would work fine in this space too. Stationary machines, probably not.
  • With those assumptions out of the way, here was my thought process for designing a bare minimum space for hand tool woodworking.

    Start with the workbench. In a shop that does a lot of hand work, the workbench is the center of attention, and the most important appliance in the room. We create our drawings on it, do rough work on it, cut joinery on it, assemble on it, and apply finish on it. So it makes sense to start with a good, solid bench, and fill in around it.

    smallshop1

    For small to moderate scale furniture work, I think a 5′ long bench is about as small as I would go. You can of course make your bench as large or small as you can accommodate, but based on my experience and work habits, I think anything smaller than 5′ would be too small. A 5′ long bench will allow you to build things as large as chest of drawers (which can have case sides approaching 5′ high). For workbench depth, about 18″ deep would be about bare minimum. Roy Underhill built a neat, small Roubo bench on his show several seasons ago that would make a great bench for this space. It’s in his book “The Woodwright’s Guide”. Another option if you prefer the English style workbench would be the 5′ long version in Charles Hayward’s book “How To Make Woodwork Tools” (available for free download through Toolemera Press).

    The bench should go along the longest wall to allow the most space to either side of it. At minimum, I think you need at least a foot to the right side of it (enough room to start a jointer plane on the longest board that can be planed on the bench top). I also like at least two feet to the left side of it to provide sufficient space for planing off the end of the board, and for shavings to pile up. A trash can would fit well in that space (it’s where I keep mine).

    A home for tools. In a small shop, wall space is a great place to store tools. But a medium sized tool chest is a great option too. It can serve double duty as tool storage and a saw bench. Not to mention a decent place to sit down to take a coffee break. If you’re just doing simple furniture work, a medium sized tool chest like the one Roy Underhill made on his show a couple of seasons ago, and published in Popular Woodworking in June 2009 will be capable of holding the majority of the tools needed. Put the tool chest against the short wall, just a step away from the workbench, leaving enough room to be able to get between the workbench and the tool chest.

    smallshop2

    A separate sawbench is invaluable in the shop as well. I use mine for way more than just sawing. So I’ve included that in here too since it really doesn’t take up much room and has so many uses in the shop.

    Storage, storage, storage. Even in large shops, there never seems to be enough storage space. So let’s add some to our bare minimum space. Sure, you could store things like solvents, finishes, glues and hardware somewhere else, but it’s really inconvenient to have to go out to the garage or down to the basement a hundred times during a project when you need that stuff. You don’t need it all close at hand, but it’s nice to have a few frequently used items readily available. A shallow wall hanging cupboard is a great addition to the space. They don’t take up a lot of room, and can be hung in an out of the way spot, like above the tool chest. You can store things in them, as well as on top of them. Add a Shaker peg board or two for additional space on the walls to hang stuff.

    While we’re hanging stuff on the walls, how about a tool rack and shelf over the bench. If you’ve seen my podcasts and pictures of my shop here on the blog, you know that I store a lot of my most frequently used tools on the wall over my bench and on shelves above the bench. This kind of tool storage is so convenient, I consider it borderline must have, especially for a small shop. It doesn’t require any additional space because the workbench is already there, and it keeps frequently used tools and appliances right at your fingertips, but up off the bench and out of the way when they are not being used. You can even keep some books and magazines handy for reference on the shelf.

    smallshop3

    Lumber storage is a luxury. In a space this small, there really isn’t much room available for lumber storage. For the most part, that’s not a big deal. I buy my lumber as I need it for a particular project anyway so I can hand select the boards I want for a particular piece. So I rarely have more than a couple of boards on hand, unless I’m starting a new project. Even then, it’s not that big of a deal to cut the longer boards to shorter, rough lengths out in the driveway, and then bring the shorter boards into the shop for storage during the project. So adding a small lumber rack up high on an unused wall space will allow for some lumber storage of a good deal of short boards.

    smallshop4

    So that’s my bare minimum design. Sure, you could certainly cram things into a smaller space. I’m not sure you could actually work in the space if it was much smaller though, unless all you made were small boxes and the like. My design works out to a space approximately 8′ long by 6′ wide. For reference, that’s about half the size of my current shop. While it may be a tight space, I think I could still work comfortably in a space like this.

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10 thoughts on “Bare Necessities Workshop Space

  1. Another advantage of a tool chest is something Christopher Schwarz mentioned in his blog a while back, and that’s how he’ll use his tool chest as an assembly table on some projects. He also has it on casters so it will work as a stool when he wants to sit at the workbench.

    For a small shop, it’s a good idea to have as many multi-use items as you can. For example, a sawbench can also be a stool. Things like that. Just my 2 cents worth anyways πŸ™‚

  2. That was a timely article Bob! Thanks!

    I’m in the planning stages of setting up a hand tool woodworking area at the foot of my bed so to speak. I live in an apartment and my wife has the second bedroom as her space. If I use the space between the end of our bed and the wall I have 5’ 9” of space. Length wise, I can use about 9’ of the wall if I move out a couple of book cases. There’s a window on the adjacent wall (left) with about 29” of wall space available (corner to window frame). No other wall space is available. I think I could get by with a workbench that is 6’ long by maybe 25”-30” wide and still have room to move around. I would need to build some drawers under the workbench for storage. A medium sized tool chest is a possibility as well as what is shown on wall in your fourth drawing, but probably not the lumber storage.

    One issue is the rug in our master bedroom would have to be covered while I work. My thinking so far, is to get a good quality canvas tarp about 8’ wide. I was going to fold over one end and fasten its edge about 4’ up on the wall, to the wall studs with lag bolts and washers (or maybe toggle bolts between the studs) through a 1”x4” board. Then I would run the tarp down the wall, under the workbench and across the rug, then up the end of the bed and lay they excess across part of the bed. When not in use, I would roll the tarp up on a long wooden dowel and hang it on the front of the workbench. Clean up of shavings and sawdust would consist of using a shop vac.

    Does this sound reasonable? Any suggestions?

    Thanks again Bob.

    • Sounds reasonable to me. I wouldn’t bother making the bench any more than 24″ deep though. Any deeper than that and it starts to become too far to reach the other side of it. If my bench was any wider than it is (about 22″) I wouldn’t be able to get to the stuff high up on my tool wall and on the shelf.

      • Thanks Bob for the suggestion, and encouragement. I currently have a makeshift table (for my computer) against the wall that I would be hanging tools on. The table is almost 30” across (deep). I’m 6’1”, and have no problem reaching across the table to the wall while I’m standing up, or even up higher on the wall. However, I will probably restrict the workbench width to no more than 26”. That will also give me 4 more inches of work space, than I currently have (with the table in place), between the front of the workbench and the end of the bed, so that’s a plus.

  3. One thing you can think about in a smaller shop, which I struggle with in my shop is using things in multiple ways.

    Right now I am building a Saw Bench that is also my saw storage, as well as a variety of other tools. Some things can and should be single use, but somethings might be able to be used in a variety of operations. It will be based on a basic 6 board chest, with internal parts based on the “Anarchist Tool Chest” ideas from Schwarz.

    I’ll be posting my build and pictures on my completed Saw Bench Tool Chest in about a week on my blog.

    Badger

  4. Nice graphics. On lumber storage, do you buy all the wood for a project at once, or just enough for current operations? (not sure on your completion rate of a project – I tend to, uh, savor my projects these days). If you buy it all early, I assume you do a rough breakdown initially to make storage manageable?

    Matt

    • Matt,
      It depends on the size of the project really. For my current entertainment center build, there’s no way I could store all the lumber I need for the piece, so I’m buying it in stages. For the dressing table I’ll be moving on to next, I’ll buy it all at once since it is a significantly lesser quantity of lumber that will be needed. In my shop, I can store boards up to about 10′ long, so I don’t need to break things down too much before bringing the lumber in. In cases where I have very large & wide boards though, I’ll do a rough break down, maybe to approximate half board length (depending upon what pieces are coming out of that board), either at the lumber yard before loading the lumber (benefits of using hand saws ;)) or out in the driveway or garage before I bring the boards in.

  5. Talk about 8′ by 6′ ?
    Well my shop is actually 8 and 1/2′ by a little under 6′ (it’s actually 1.80×2.60m)
    Ho and i’m also storing two bikes in there witch is generally no a problem since the benchtop is taller so a workpiece can eventually pass over them.

    The bench i’m using is a mechanical bench (boohbooh) approximately 30″ by 21 and 1/2″. My two main concern about it is that it’s mounted on casters so even when looked it still wobble a little but don’t move so i still can do decent planing job on it. The second is that due to the all metal construction of the base it makes horrible and long resonating noise when i’m chiseling on it.
    Replacing it with a all wood shop made bench is on my long term todo list…

    I’m using mostly handtools but also handheld powertools and also got a little drillpress that lies on the floor by a side when not in use (lifting this things to the benchtop is a great way to practice squats). Ho and got a shopvac, just wish someone invent a hand so with built-in dust collecting system ;c) I must confess i actually ended up using mostly handtools because of the little space, but now i’m glad it went so.

    While my main use is to build guitars, i have yet been able to build decents home furnitures like a 4’wx2’dx3’h kitchen buffet. I admit using pre-milled stock for it, anyway i dont yet own a jointer plane (it’s on my to buy list).

    From this experience i can give an advice : when dealing with such a small place, i think it’s better to start from the place you need to comfortably work around the bench and then decide the size of it then the opposite. If the bench is smaller you can always find another way to do the things maybe sometimes using different tools. I know face jointing on a power router is not as cool as using a jointer plane but hey we’re talking about compromises here. You may also want to change you design according to what you know you can handle in your shop. Powertool guys went to use smaller size lumber and found ways to assemble them when needing large boards to accommodate with the limited size of a typical power jointer, that might be an inspiration here. You could find a way to create the 5′ long board mentioned out of two 2’1/2 board that you could easily joint even on a bench as small as mine. The bench is just like any other tools, you have to learn to work with yours.
    But if you can’t get in a correct position to work around, there is no point in getting the bigger bench as you’re not be able to use it for anything.

    So IMHO the first thing to layout is, when you are sawing for joinery, how far do you reach your back leg to be in stable position. You need a clear space that is at least a square from this size in front of the place where you would have your joinery vise (probably your only vise). I would probably put this on the center and then design the bench and everything else around this.

  6. I definitely agree with the bench, sawbench and tool storage. How you store your wood, whether you have a sharpening station and assembly table are choices completely subject to your imagination.

    I converted an two old generic shop tables into a rolling assembly cart with clamp and wood storage, plus some tool storage. The castors lock to keep it from rolling around. I’m sure I’ll refine it, but it’s a great caddie for me. Plus it consolidated some items and tidied the place up a bit. In a pinch I can stack stuff on top of it and roll it out to the pickup to load things up as well!

    http://lumberjocks.com/DallasBentley/workshop

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