Tools & Workshop

Free-Standing Workshop

If you're serious about working, you may want to consider building a special structure, or converting an existing one, to serve as a workshop. It's expensive, of course, and may require building permits and electrical inspections and added property taxes to pay, but there's no better way to get exactly what you want than to design a workshop to your needs and tastes. And it'll keep the sawdust out of the kitchen and the rest of the living space in your house.

If your shop will be equipped with a range of stationary power tools, you'll probably require a minimum of six or seven hundred square feet of space (roughly twenty by thirty, perhaps twenty-five by thirty). That's enough for equipment, some storage, and working areas.

In researching and writing this material, we decided to design a workshop that fulfilled some of these basic criteria. The result wasn't really a dream workshop; that, I'm afraid, would have to be the size of a gymnasium and have a million dollars' worth of equipment. But it's sizable, with an unobstructed rectangular working area seventeen by twenty-nine feet.

It's an all-purpose shop, though the emphasis is clearly on woodworking. It faces south, with bright light coming from the east and west, too. The windowless north side has a large closet and utility space.

The ceilings are tall, nine feet, to be exact. Working with an eight-foot piece of stock is no problem at that height, requiring much less of that tedious bending and twisting to maneuver pieces of wood or plywood. The lighting is recessed: We lost a little brightness in the process (largely compensated for by the use of floodlight bulbs) but eliminated the need for guards.

Much was learned in constructing and using our workshop. We made some mistakes. The cedar ceiling, for example, looks great, but it has become apparent that light hard surfaces are better than dark wooden ones. The ceiling seems to absorb rather than reflect light, which is a disadvantage. There simply is no such thing as too much light in a workshop, because the better the illumination the more accurate the work can be.

But we made some good decisions. The woodstove serves a double duty, burning up unnecessary scrap and keeping us warm. The wood floor is warm, and easy on the back and legs. The walls are white, unpainted plaster (a skim coat on top of plasterboard). They have proved durable and easy to patch after butts and bangs delivered by workpieces being maneuvered into position. The windows on the east and west walls are aligned; this makes the shop seem much larger when we're planing or ripping sixteen-foot lengths of stock, as we can simply extend them in and out the windows.

One thing to keep in mind about building a new workshop (as opposed to, say, moving a bench into your garage and putting it to work) is that, with new buildings, in most communities, there are building code requirements. Even for workmanlike structures the strictures may be many and stringent. Find out local requirements ahead of time and amend your plans, if necessary, to conform with them.