KHIEM NGUYEN (Age 28, Austin, TX): Inspired by midcentury modern and Japanese design, Nguyen is a true craftsman. His passion for crafting began with photography and led to him becoming an open major in art school so he could "get (his) hands into everything." After college, Nguyen and his fiancée moved to Austin, where they began A & K Woodworking & Design, specializing in furniture and wood crafts.
I consider it part of my job to answer emails from my fellow woodworkers. Guild members or not, everyone receives a response. Occasionally, I get a question that requires a very detailed answer and that answer in and of itself would make for a decent blog post. That happened this morning when a Guild member asked me for advice on shop layout. I brainstormed some basic tips that I think apply to nearly all wood shops (at least the ones that incorporate some power tools). Of course, shop layout is something that evolves over time and really comes down to one’s personal preferences and tool choice. But here are some simple rules of thumb that came to mind; some more obvious than others. If you have some tips to add, please do so in the comments!
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.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
These are all good tips, and apply to pretty much every shop. Like all things woodworking they need to be tweaked so that it’s right for the individual. For instance, I have a basement shop that’s not tiny but it is still space constrained, so worrying about the optimal layout for my ts/jointer/planer is a little off the mark since I don’t have to walk very far; instead, I want to be sure that related tools can be used *at the same time*. Having to move the planer out of the away so that I can use my TS is crazy if it can be avoided. However, interference between my drill press and my planer is less of an issue because they usually don’t get used at the same phase of a project.

Instead of using a container to mix a small amount of epoxy, just make a mixing surface on your workbench using painters tape. Simply lay down strips, overlapping the edges so the epoxy doesn’t get on your bench. When you’re done, peel off the tape and throw it away. This mixing surface will work for more than just epoxy, you can use it for wood glue or any other material you need easy access to while working on a project.

One of the challenges in building a cabinet for hand tools, is that as soon as you define a place for each tool in your custom cabinet, you find that you need more room to store the must have tools you just bought. I decided to make a couple of open cabinets, and employ the use of inserts that can be replaced or modified as my tool collection grows. Part of the goal was to make a clean, efficient shop, while keeping to a budget. I bought paint grade maple plywood and made the cabinets. Applying a solid maple face frame to the cabinet makes a clean looking cabinet from sheet goods purchased at $50/sheet.

I place the band saw first in my order of purchases, because I consider it the heart of the shop. Band saws are very safe tools for ripping, re-sawing, cutting curves and more because all of the force is downward, virtually eliminating any chance of unexpected kickbacks. I wanted a saw that had a strong back, dynamically balanced cast iron wheels for smooth operation and flywheel effect, 12" depth of cut, good dust extraction design, a large table and a solid fence. After shopping around, I settled on the General International Model 90-170 14" saw. It is very smooth, comes with an Excalibur fence, and it is light enough (133kg) to move into your basement without crushing someone.
Finally, think about the overall color and feel of your workshop. A fresh coat of bright white paint will help your lighting go farther, but you might also consider adding a splash of color for fun. An accent wall or an epoxy floor coating are good ways to upgrade your workshop from drab to fab without adding fussy decorations that will get in the way of business.
Second is the operating space around the machine. When the table saw is used to cut a piece of four-by-eight-foot plywood, the tool space increases geometrically, as the thirty-two-square-foot sheet of stock is pushed and pulled through the blade. Even if you’re not planning on using your table saw to cut plywood, you need to allow ripping and crosscutting space. This means that in front of and beyond the blade, you need distances at least as great as the length of the longest board you’ll need to rip; and that you’ll require space for cutoff work on either side of the saw.
Before you buy a single tool, you need to take a hard look at your workshop space. If your workshop is a freestanding building or empty barn, you can simply measure the perimeter and know that you have the entire square footage at your disposal including the wall space. If your workshop is tucked into the back of a garage or a corner of partially finished basement, you’ll need to plan your furnishings with cars and water heaters in mind.
Since most of your assembly will be done on the assembly table, it just makes sense to have your clamps nearby. If you’re short on wall space, try a rolling clamp cart! If you use your workbench for assembly, keep your clamps near the workbench. Check out these two helpful articles for clamp racks: A Simple Utilitarian Clamp Rack and A Parallel Clamp Rack.
Because workshops are rough and tumble places, the right fan for the job will have an industrial-strength motor and adjustable fan speeds. Easy-to-clean metal blades and a fully encased motor housing are also important features, especially if your shop tends to fill up with sawdust, wood chips and other fine debris. That extra layer of protection will help the fan motor last for years instead of being damaged by particulates.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
Marc, would not assumptions for a Festool shop differ considerably? Far fewer big machines, and more carrying lightweight precision machines to the wood, for example. I only have a few Festool machines so far (took quite a while to get past the sticker shock), but I am beginning to see how it could change the way we work. My 400 sq ft shop is getting awfully crowded with floor-standing machines and implementing your guidelines, sound as they are, is difficult.
I really appreciate the article. I am always looking for a way to improve my shop and its layout. I currently have a 34′ x 28′ garage which I park two vehicles and still have some room for a table saw, large bench and various smaller benches and cabinets. All of my large power tools are on casters so I can roll them out when I move the cars outside. Right now I am considering keeping my little truck outside permanently and set the shop up more in a fixed layout. This would make working in the shop more enjoyable and much easier to do more complex projects that I currently take on. Maybe this spring. Thanks for the advice.
Cutting sandpaper is a quick way to dull your scissors or utility knife blade. Instead, I fastened a hacksaw blade to the edge of my workbench. I slipped a washer behind the blade at each of the mounting holes so a sheet of sandpaper to easily slides in behind the blade. I fold the paper where I want to cut, just as a reference. — Kim Boley. Try some of these storage solutions!
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.

One of the challenges we all face is how to move machines into a home without damaging the home, the machinery, or yourself. I actually had to bring things through the front door, and across hardwood floors, and turn 90° to descend the stairs into the shop. To protect the floors, I laid down sheets of 1/2" MDF that I could use later. On the wooden stairs, I used three strips of softwood strap­ping, held with wood screws to the stairs. I mounted a 2x4 baton to the wall studs at the top of the stairs, with a 5/16-inch eye-bolt through it.
Unless you’re a big fan of frequent shop remodeling, planning the layout of your workshop early in its development will save you a lot of time and trouble and also can keep you from spending years in an uncomfortable, poorly organized space. And if you already work in a shop that’s as organized as a trailer park after a tornado, careful planning and a little remodeling is likely to help you make a quantum leap.