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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.