After the kids left the nest, our thoughts soon turned to retirement and the need to downsize our home. Unfortunately for me, that meant giving up my large, purpose-built workshop and replacing it with a much smaller 12.5' × 20' single-car garage. I knew that if I was to maintain all the functionality I’d enjoyed in my old workshop, I would need to come up with some creative ways to be more efficient and organized. Regardless of the size of your shop, you may find some of these small-workshop solutions useful to enhance the functionality of your own workspace.
Preparing the Space
The garage in our new house was an unfinished wood-frame structure with only a single 15-amp circuit for overhead lighting and no insulation in the walls or ceiling. The first step in the renovation was to have an electrician install a dedicated electrical panel in the garage with enough juice to power all of my current equipment and a skoosh of extra capacity for possible expansion. After this, I was able to run a couple of 20-amp circuits to power my tools and a 15-amp circuit for overhead lighting. I recommend at least two separate circuits for the power tools to avoid load issues when running two pieces of equipment at the same time, such as a planer and dust collector. The outlets were installed approximately every 5' to ensure that power was always close at hand, and I mounted the outlets at bench level to ensure they would not be obstructed by equipment or floor cabinets. Separate 240-volt circuits run to power my table saw and a small electric heater.
Outlets at bench level
For lighting, I decided to go with five economical and energy-efficient LED fixtures that I boxed in and recessed flush between the rafters to maximize ceiling clearance. I mounted an additional LED fixture on a movable base so it can be relocated over my workbench, regardless of how I arrange my shop.
While the walls were open, I took the opportunity to install some Cat5 cabling to deliver reliable internet access. Now I can watch DYI YouTube videos in my shop, listen to music, or even enjoy the occasional hockey game when I’m supposed to be working.
Movable LED lighting
Next on the task list was to insulate the walls and ceiling to make the shop more comfortable during our long, cold winters. For the ceiling, I had a company apply spray foam to the underside of the roof sheeting, but I took care of the walls myself with mold-resistant mineral-based batt insulation. I would have preferred to spray-foam the entire shop, but the batt insulation in the walls was an economical compromise that preserved part of my budget for other priorities later in the project.
Easy-to-install insulation kits are readily available for garage doors, but I decided to save a few dollars by making my own. I simply cut rigid foil-backed insulation panels to size with a utility knife and inserted the pieces into the frames of the metal garage-door panels. I clad the insulation with 1/8" thick hardboard panels that I bonded to the surface with spray adhesive. I use the hardboard face panels to display past project photos and to hang plans for projects that are underway.
To finish off the space, I installed lightweight and budget-friendly vinyl soffit material to clad the ceiling and 5/8" drywall to cover the walls. Plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) are also great options for shop walls if the cost premium fits within your budget. After I applied a couple of coats of paint to the walls, my dingy garage was starting to feel more like home.
Insulated garage door with plans and photos attached
Pegboard is always a great option for tool storage on the walls, but I decided to go in a different direction by installing a French cleat system. French cleats are simply evenly spaced wood strips that are fastened securely to the wall studs with long screws. The top edge of each strip is bevelled at a 45° angle to engage with an opposing bevel on a cleat attached to the back of an individual tool rack or fixture. The French cleat system is just as flexible as pegboard with the added benefit of enough strength to support much heavier objects, such as wall cabinets or hefty tools. I made my cleats from 3" wide strips of 3/4" plywood and mounted them on the top half of all available wall surfaces with 3" screws driven into every stud. For heavier objects, such as my movable wall cabinets, I used a pair of cleats on the back of the cabinet to help support the extra weight and share the load. It was actually a lot of fun building all the customized racks and fixtures to store my diverse collection of tools.
With a small shop like mine, floor space is at a premium, so flexibility is essential to maximize the utility of every square foot. My strategy was to mount all stationary tools on sturdy mobile tool bases and all floor cabinets and benches on heavy-duty locking casters. The HTC2000 mobile machine base sold by Lee Valley is a great choice for larger tools such as the bandsaw or jointer because it has the capacity to carry a hefty 500 lb, and the unique cam system allows the tool to be lowered directly to the floor for maximum stability. Don’t cheap out on the rolling casters, because you need something that will stand up to the rigors of shop life, and at least two of the casters for each base cabinet will require brakes to prevent movement while you work.
Image 1 & 2: Mobile machine base in-use. Image 3: Caster with brake.
When I built my primary workbench, I designed the unit to be slightly lower than the top of my table saw so I can roll it into place behind the saw to serve double duty as an outfeed table. Other rolling cabinets were constructed to accommodate my planer, drill press, grinder and stationary sanders. The equipment on the top of my grinder and sanding station is strategically positioned so there is no cross interference as I switch between tools.
Of course, every tool cabinet in my shop is designed with plenty of storage underneath to keep accessories and hardware organized and readily available. The top of my workbench is designed to receive disposable 1/8" thick inserts that can be changed out whenever they get too covered with paint and glue.
Now that all my stationary tools, floor cabinets and benches have wheels, I can rearrange my shop in a matter of minutes to accommodate any task. When the weather cooperates, I can even roll my equipment onto the driveway to take advantage of the large open space for more ambitious projects.
Image 1: Grinder and sanding station. Image 2: Workbench with storage drawers beside table saw.
I won’t pretend that moving into a smaller space didn’t involve a few compromises along the way. Larger tools that I seldom used just didn’t make the cut when it was time to relocate. However, in a few cases, I was able to come up with a creative solution that allowed me to keep these seldom-used tools in service without taking up valuable floor space.
One of the more out-of-the-box solutions was a unique design to accommodate my lathe. I don’t do a lot of woodturning, but when it’s required for a project, the lathe is the only tool for the job. My solution here was to create a hinged bench that allows me to store the tool vertically when it’s not in use. The lathe bench is supported on the hinged end by a base cabinet that is bolted permanently to the wall studs. The other end features a system of folding legs that swing down when the bench is horizontal. When it’s time to do some turning, I simply lower the hinged bench and I’m ready to make shavings in a matter of seconds. All my turning tools are conveniently suspended on the French cleat system, adjacent to the lathe.
Hinged bench in upright position (left) and horizontal position (right)
Another space-saving solution was to get rid of my dedicated router table and mount the router in the wing of my table saw using the JessEm Rout-R-Lift II. The JessEm router lift has a convenient crank system that allows me to quickly drop the bit below the surface of the wing whenever I need the full width of my table saw. As an added benefit, my saw fence serves double duty as a fence for both the router and the saw. An outlet switch mounted to the underside of the saw wing facilitates easy control of the router without fumbling to find the toggle switch on the router itself. Quick access to the cutoff switch is an important safety feature to consider.
Saw fence serves double duty for both router and table saw
The miter saw is another tool that takes up a lot of room when it’s mounted on a dedicated stand. To conserve space here, I moved my miter saw to the top of the bench that is also home to my drill press. To safely support longer stock, I added a hinged extension arm to one end of the bench that can be flipped up whenever it’s required. A shop vacuum is located in the cabinet underneath to collect sawdust from the saw. The hose snakes out the back of the cabinet and connects directly to the saw’s dust port. Both the saw and the vacuum are connected to an iVAC automatic vacuum switch that turns the vacuum on every time the saw is powered up and keeps the vacuum running for a few seconds to clear debris after the saw is turned off.
Image 1: Miter saw on bench with hinged extension arm. Image 2: Shop vacuum in cabinet under bench.
Small Shop Advantages
You may be surprised to learn that there are a few hidden advantages to having a smaller workspace. For example, smaller shops are easier to heat and cool. For my workshop, I simply suspended a 240-volt electric heater from a cleat-mounted hook. These compact but powerful small-shop heaters take up very little room, are easy to install and are friendly to the budget. Although electric heat tends to be more expensive than gas or propane alternatives, smaller spaces can be brought up to a comfortable temperature quickly – so the heater runs only when I’m actually working in the shop. This helps keep the utility bills to a minimum.
Dust collection is also simplified for smaller workshop environments. My dust collector mounts on the wall, freeing up valuable floor space to park tools underneath. A 20' flexible hose allows me to quickly and easily connect the nozzle to any tool in the shop. If I decide to reorganize my shop layout at some point, all I need to do to relocate the dust collector is move the unit to another cleat location. Wall-mounted dust collectors have another advantage. When it comes time to empty the bag, I just roll my trash can underneath, unzip the bag and let gravity do the work. No more struggling with awkward strap clamps to detach the collection bag.
Image 1: Shop heater on cleat-mounted hook. Image 2: Wall-mounted dust collector. Image 3: Dust collector with trash can beneath.
The Job is Never Done
I’ve been working in my completed shop for about 6 months, and overall I’m quite pleased with the decisions I made along the way. Until I embarked on this project, I never realized how much space was wasted in my previous shop. I’m sure that over time I will find a few more tweaks that will make my workspace even more efficient and enjoyable. One of the pleasures of having your own workshop is the ability to tailor the space to meet your personal requirements. I hope some of these ideas will inspire you to take another look at the possibilities for your own workshop space.
Images of the author's shop
Rick Campbell has been making sawdust in his workshop for over 40 years and has published more than 100 woodworking articles in major woodworking magazines. Rick is mostly self-taught, but has received some formal training at The Woodwright’s School in North Carolina under the direction of PBS Television host Roy Underhill.