The Blank Slate Shop

Hobbyist woodworkers obsess over their shops. I think the pros do something similar but on the whole when the finished product pays the mortgage the focus is not really on the shop. The hobby guys however would probably be better to call the shop the clubhouse instead. We love to agonize over work flow and bells and whistles that amount to nothing more than creature comforts. We create ingenious solutions to limited space and sometimes just hangout in the shop doing nothing but moving tools around from one spot to the other. The topic of shop set up and design is an exhaustive one that is mostly personal. Our shops evolve over the years as we slap band-aids onto one area or the other. Rarely do we get to start over with a blank slate.

The Maine ShopThis past week I was in Maine helping my in-laws move in to their new vacation home. There is talk of it becoming a year around retirement home soon so there is much to do to get it up to snuff. There is a detached 2 car garage that I am told can be used as a shop when I come to visit and for use in helping with some of the around the house DIY stuff. While I won’t be turning this garage into a full blown wood shop like if the house were mine, I will be stocking it with some tools and a bench in the coming years. For now, it is essentially a blank slate. It begs the question what would you do with a shop knowing what you know now? I have been working in my current shop for more than 10 years and have made quite a few changes. If I were to strip it bare and start over I think there would be some major changes.

For one, there would be no fixed cabinets on the floor. Anything taking up floor space must be moveable. It doesn’t have to be easy to move (like my 400 lb bench) but it must be able to be re-arranged when the need arises. The shop layout will never be perfect and if you can’t change it, you are severely limiting your future self.

Maine Shop Interior

The interior of the Maine garage. Those two window look right out onto the ocean!

Second, walls should have the ability to take a screw anywhere. That means sheathing the stud walls (or whatever) with 3/4″ solid wood or plywood. There are too many times when something needs to be hung and the perfect space is just a flimsy sheet of drywall. I overcome this with french cleats spanning the studs, but think how much easier things would be with solid wall material.

Third, floors must be comfortable. While the shop is bare it is much easier to install a comfortable floor. A forgiving floor is worth 3 or 4 shiny, life changing tools and I would much rather get that right before sinking money into tooling.

Four, windows, windows, windows. Good lighting is nice for casting your projects in the proper light, but I believe it is good for the soul as well. There are many times when I shut off my over head lights and throw open the garage door so I can just work in natural light. In this Maine shop it helps that the two windows look right out onto the ocean!

Frankly everything else is just details. Number of power outlets can be a big deal for you power tools guys so that may make it onto your list of essentials, but I think everything else gets into personal situations about how you work and what tools you use.

One personal thing for me is that I think I could plan a new shop using half of what I currently own in tools and work surfaces. The more I work, the more I get by with fewer tools. Some things just aren’t worth walking across the shop to get a different tool and you get around it by extending the tool in your hand. Whether through skill or altering the tool, you get it done with less. I also would not store any lumber inside my shop other than what I’m currently using for a build. Lumber has a tendency to overtake your shop, it collects dust and cobwebs, and I think it just clutters up the space making it less enjoyable to work in the space. I think my new “fantasy” shop would have an awful lot of empty space.

How About You?

If you had a blank slate, what would be most important to you now that you have been woodworking for a while? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

23 Responses to “The Blank Slate Shop”

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  1. Tom Buhl says:

    Flexibility.
    Good lighting, natural and installed.
    Nice flooring is a luxury but oh, so appreciated.
    Sufficient electrical.
    In a situation such as yours I might get by assuming there is already some electrical.
    But if I had to add a subpanel, I’d go double what I thought I needed…minimum.
    Would not worry about running lines, other than to meet today’s requirements,
    but would like the options. Who can say what tomorrow’s dream may require.
    Before I moved into this house (circa 1950) eight years ago, we completely re-wired the house and added a 50 amp subpanel in the garage. How was I to know that two years later, I’d become addicted to woodworking. I get by, but sure wish I’d gone 100 amp.
    I love the look of your new club house, inside and out. Enjoy and keep us posted as it evolves.

  2. If I was starting over, my top three things I would redo would be:
    1. Outdoor lumber storage. You’re right. It just gets in the way.
    2. Raised wooden floor. I don’t mind the concrete so much from a comfort level, but I would have loved to be able to run duct work under the floor.
    3. Stairs to the attic. I have a permanent ladder (think treehouse) to access my storage space. If I had a set of stairs, I would store more stuff there and get it out of my way.

    oh, and #4 would be an anti-gravity unit, powered by a flux capacitor.

    Jonathan
    =========================

    • Shannon says:

      That’s just inefficient Johnathan. Build a Tardis instead.

      • Kurt says:

        Seems like an oscillation overthruster would be better since it would let you move solid material through mountains. Just saying…

        For me, the eventual two-car garage (that will double as a shop) needs as much natural lighting as possible. I have pretty good lighting in the basement, but I can see everything better when I take the work outside. Pencil lines all but hide in the basement.

        The garage attic won’t be large enough or structured to be shop space, but I will build it well enough to use the space for wood storage.

        There won’t be room for real stairs to the garage attic, but I am going to take a lesson from barn design and install an exterior door in the attic gable wall, so that I can lift materials directly from the driveway to the attic.

  3. Jeffrey says:

    Starting over…. Cement floor, better lighting, more space, bigger better bench in middle. I agree with your idea of the walls. Design it with the idea that I might be able to actually get all the major tools I want someday.

  4. Hi Shannon

    Thanks for the article. It’a a nice read.
    I would consider a dust collection system as an important part of well designed woekshop.

    All the best from Poland

    Andrzej

  5. Joshua Klein says:

    Great topic. I am currently in the beginning stages of building a shop on my property in Sedgwick, Maine. (Where in Maine is your place? I’m mid-coast.) The building will be a timber frame 24 x 24 with two floors (3 foot knee wall and 12/12 pitch roof). I have gone around and around thinking about layout and have some things solidified. Yes on the plethora of windows. Also an important feature to me is that all my shelving and bench surfaces are wooden. I don’t know why but I could not bring myself to buy commercial metal or plastic shelving. Also, due to a back issue I have I will only ever work on wooden floors. A friend of mine just build a shop with a concrete slab floor. His back is killing him and he’s already shattered two vintage planes from a fall to the floor.
    I guess for me the overall aesthetic I’m after is an 18th century cabinetmaker’s shop. (think Dominy, etc…)

  6. Jeremy says:

    Bench and floor chest in the living room, so I could spend more time with the family. Unfortunately I haven’t sold the missus on that yet.. Lumber, machines (little as needed) and finishing stuff in garage. Great post, and timely as I’m redoing my garage shop now and thinking about this very topic, albeit without a truly blank slate.. Love the “clubhouse” tag.

  7. James says:

    Huge banks of flourescent lighting, and 3 Phase power. And from time to time a forklift wouldn’t be a luxury.

  8. Brian Benham says:

    I would start out with dust collection ports in the floor. All the duct work hanging from the ceiling makes the shop feel clutered, and I would love to swing around a long board and not get tangled up in anything.

  9. Brian Eve says:

    I’d start with the biggest, baddest bench possible. The rest will fill itself in.

  10. badflys says:

    In no particular order these are the lessons I’ve learned laying out in my shop over the past 30 years.
    Dust collection overhead, hard piping with connections that can be changed if need be.
    Plenty of electrical, 110 and 220V dedicated, I run it around the surface of the walls in conduit so I can modify if/when needed.
    Lighting, never too much.
    Heat/cool
    All storage is moveable, much of it on wheels
    Wall hanging cabinets on french cleats
    Tool cabinets are all flexible, tool holders can easily be removed and modified as tool collections evolve
    A dedicated sharpening station, just big enough to leave it out and quickly accessible.
    Wheels, most of my cabinets and misc benches (not the work bench) are on wheels

    For what it’s worth

  11. Sam Cappo says:

    My dream shop would be – not in my kitchen!

    My bench is where a table should be. I am planning on a 12 x 8 dream shop. I can’t wait!

    The only point that I see missing is water and a messy spot for sharpening. My wife gets aggravated when the counters have water stone residue on them!!!

  12. Jack McClintic says:

    I would rethink the idea of windows. If you don’t live there permanently why let thieves look at your stuff. I would add a lumber shed/lean to but would also put my dust collection and air compressor out there so I don’t have to listen to it. I had virtually the same shop as pictured and took out both garage doors and centered a 12 foot door to get more side space and when I work on cars there is room to open both doors and still walk all way around it.

    thanks for the article and the opportunity to comment!

    • Shannon says:

      But Jack I have a viscious golden retriever guard dog :)

    • Darrell says:

      With a detached garage like that, I would make up for a lack of windows with skylights or solatubes.
      The solatubes, if planned right would still allow for loft lumber storage if desired.

      • Shannon says:

        Sorry Darrell, when you say Solatube all I can think of is Solarlumnite from the cult classic movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. If you don’t know it check it out, its a lot of laughs.

  13. Eric Rusch says:

    #1 Outside lumber storage for sure.
    #2 Less tools that I don’t use.
    #3 And definitely a chronosynclastic infundibulum to get my work completed more efficiently.

    Good post Shannon.

  14. Mike says:

    A toilet, a beer fridge (but only when power tools are off of course) and loft-style lumber storage. Since this is my fantasy shop I also want the entire floor to be one big down draft table and a David Marks clone for building MDF templates and applying chemical stains.

  15. Jake Enns says:

    In a word AIR.
    This means 3 major systems.
    1. Heat/Cool I live in Canada so I need heat in my shop 9 month of the year. If I am not comfortable I won’t work safely, I may rush to get jobs done.
    2. Dust control. Keep the air clean. I only have one set of lungs, etc.
    3. Compressed air. We all need compressed air for many reasons.
    Best scenario is if #2 and #3 can be either in a sound proofed space or in a shed space right outside to an external wall in a space that can be kept dry and safe.

    These 3 systems are more critical that all my tools, equipment, and wood. These take first priority. Now to find enough money to get all those in place, because I too just got a new place with a detached 2 door garage that I am setting up my shop in. I just wish I could allocate more $ for those first 3 items.

  16. Stan P. says:

    Hi Shannon;

    Good dreaming article, good topic for discussion. but come on now, if your golden is like ours the only thing he’ll do is to lick the thieve to death or beat him to a pulp with his wagging tail. First, my dream shop would not be in my basement. It would have a soft floor, maybe cork. It would have really good dust collection and lots of electric outlets, 110 and 220. Since I am gravitating to what you might call a hybrid woodworker (you know, someone ought to write a book about hybrid woodworking) a table saw with more than a 3/4 hp motor would be on list as would 2 or 3 feet of flat surface around 3 sides of the table saw. I would build a cabinet to store the hand tools I am collecting. Some variation of the Roubo work bench. Since that is never happening I’ll work with what I got. The one thing I will say about what I’ve got is that it always presents some interesting challenges when working on a project.

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