The dream of a dedicated home shop is a common one among woodworkers. Whether you currently borrow shop space, work in your driveway or side yard, or compete for a corner of your basement with Christmas decorations or your furnace, you may be ready to build your own space that will allow you the freedom of more room and time, and will also keep dust, fumes, and noise under control. Every design/build situation will be unique but there are a series of considerations that you will face in the design and construction phases of your project. Let’s walk through the process and discuss the questions that you will need to ask yourself and others as you approach this project.
Once you’ve planned the basic layout of your workshop and have added all the tools and speciality appliances you need, take a last look at the overall design to make it aesthetically pleasing. Add overhead lighting for general illumination and task lighting over your work stations so you can see your project clearly. For maximum flexibility, you can mount clip-on work lights to nearby shelves and point them where you need them, knowing you’ll be able to move them about as required for different projects.
In general, a table saw requires at least eight feet in front and behind to accommodate standard sheet goods and four feet side to side. A work table should provide four feet clearance on all sides, and pathways between tables, benches and storage units should be three feet wide. Proper clearance will allow you to move about with ease while you work.
Usually ducting is well covered and one of the first things considered, however, most people initially neglect clean up when designing shops. With growth, I have a very cluttered shop that makes pulling shop vacs around frustrating especially if you’re at the wrong end of a 5m flexible hose without having to struggle with the vac (the practice of in no doubt exacerbated by those ridiculous vacuuming ads on TV). As my setup is retro fitted, it may not be pretty as it is ducted overhead, but it is productive. I have a centralised heavy duty ‘shop vac’ (rigged with a Dust Deputy) and 50mm stormwater piping radiating to selective parts (corners) of the workshop. I use 50mm water diverters to act as blast-gates to control the flow of air (I have a bank of them running down one full side of the workshop spaced about 5m apart). When I need to clean a part of the shop I plug the vac into the appropriate overhead vent, organise the diverters and attach a 5m flexible hose to the working end. I have the vac on a remote (one of those that control power points – all my dust extraction is controlled by these – after modifying any proprietary mag switches) and I can vacuum any part of my workshop without having to go and manually switch the vac on. I have bought some cheap off market flexible hoses and spread them at the extremities of the workshop. Each outlet will accept the hose. Hint – I bought a fairly low end 3D printer ($800 (Aust)) and I can print any sized coupling to accommodate all those non-standard ‘shop vac’ hoses/fittings to accept my proprietary shop vac accessories. Duct tape is now reserved for the few threaded non-standard couplings.
I set an initial budget of $10,000 to build the shop – everything from studs and drywall to hand tools and machinery. The final number was over by $1,000, but I’m still very happy with the result. The shop is now my haven, with a good sound system and good lighting. Every time I go back into the shop, it is exactly the way I left it, because it is my shop!
The #1 shop tip is that the space dictates the layout. Every structure and shop location has subtleties to it, only after you dial those in can you end up at the optimum layout, and in addition to that the kind of work you do is going to dictate how you configure your shop. Casework requires more assembly area and space around your tablesaw for sheet goods, while smaller pieces benefit from having more organization around your bench.
I have never worked with my bench up against the wall, because I like to work from all 4 sides of my bench. I do like my machines pushed up against the wall and a large open space in the middle of the shop to facilitate easier movement. I have a Minimax combination machine so by necessity my tablesaw and jointer/planer are bundled together but I would actually prefer they not be (like a Felder machine that breaks apart). I would never put my tablesaw central in my shop, always at one end with a clear entry and egress for the sliding table, space permitting. Putting a tablesaw in the middle always struck me as one thing I’d always have to walk around and/or fight the temptation to stack stuff on it.
After years of digging down under router tables, lifting the entire unit up to change bits, and then fighting to get the plate flush again in the table, I chose to spend the money to purchase a router table, fence, and lift system. I did a thorough review of these systems, and chose the Canadian made Jessem Rout-R-Lift II kit. The system comes with a solid steel stand, a phenolic table, an adjustable extruded aluminum fence, and their base model lift system. For budget reasons, I did not choose the hefty Mast-R-Lift, but I am quite happy with the lighter Rout-R-Lift II. It will last me a couple of lifetimes, so it is the right system at the right price for me in my one-man shop. Hats off to Jessem for making a great lift at a very reasonable price in the middle of a tough economy. The table is durable, and flat. The direct drive lift is smooth and precise. I mated the lift system to a mid-sized model 690 Porter Cable router, which has a fixed speed, and enough power to do anything I need. The Jessem system uses a bayonet type mount for the table inserts, a nice touch that makes swapping the table insert quick and simple. As with all my machines, the router table is connected with the supplied dust port to my shop dust collection system with automated switching.
Minor variances are applications to your municipality to suspend a particular by-law to allow your project to proceed, based on common sense or precedents set by other buildings in your area. If your municipal committee of adjustment denies permission because a neighbour voices concern over the development, you would have to appeal the decision to the municipal board of your particular province. In that case, you may be better off looking for another piece of property with an existing structure that you could renovate, more relaxed zoning regulations, a larger lot, or more congenial neighbours.
If you work with rough lumber, a planer will be absolutely necessary, except for the most rustic of projects. Every piece of rough cut lumber ends up somewhat not straight, not flat and not consistent in thickness, either from variations during the sawing or from stresses which occur while the wood dries. The planer, combined with the jointer, is a one-two punch to remove these variations and produce straight, flat and consistently thick lumber. The reason the planer is ahead of the jointer on this list is that some lumber is straight enough and flat enough to plane without jointing if the job is a little less finicky, thereby skipping the jointer.
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Finally, properly preparing your wood surface is super important. It will make a huge difference when it comes times to stain, paint, or finish your wood. There are a lot of tips for wood surface preparation, but sanding the wood is one of the most important steps. And I find it really helpful to do the bulk of my sanding before I start ripping (cutting) and building with my wood since it’s still in whole pieces. You can check out my simple tips for how to sand wood in my how to stain wood tutorial, which is also good to reference if you need to learn how to stain too!
Enter the garage heater. These space heaters are specifically designed to warm up wide open areas and to function under much tougher circumstances than you’re likely to find in the average house. A well designed garage heater will offer at least 5,000 watts of heating power — enough to warm 750 square feet of space. A smaller heater might take off a bit of the chill, but to really warm your workshop — and keep it that way — you’ll need a heater of this size.
The thickness planer can joint a board's face. On this simple jig, the stock is supported by twin rows of wood screws driven into a platform and adjusted to meet the varying clearances on the underside of the board. The stock rides the sled cup side up. Slide the board slightly sideways to adjust the screws, then seat it firmly on the screw heads for planing.
Next come two options for the table saw’s trusty sidekick, the jointer, as well as for the thickness planer. Because it’s usual to work between all three tools when dressing lumber, the first option, shown in the illustration, locates the jointer nearest the saw to the right of its extension table with the planer nearby. As with the table saw, it always makes sense to align these tools with the shop’s long axis.