All for Want of a Proper Shop

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 9.06.36 PMMy second-floor shop is freakishly neat. The bench is mostly bare and the majority of my hand tools are stashed in my chest. The “overflow” hand tools (yes, I have maybe one or two) are in various boxes or hanging neatly on the wall.

On the other side of the room, my computer desk has been cleared of all but the essentials. As I write this, all the peripherals (except my mouse) are stashed in the built-in cabinets that I designed and had built a few years after buying my house. And the books on the shelves above are…actually on the shelves above instead of strewn across my work surface.

Two flights down in the basement, my chop saw and table saw have been dusted clean and pushed back against the wall. I’ve thrown away probably 60′ of moulding…all of it in 6″ or smaller lengths (some people hoard tools; I apparently hoard moulding offcuts). Two old sinks and 16 pairs of shutters have been donated to a local re-use outfit. The many half-empty, rusty cans of paint have been disposed of properly. Everything has a place – and is actually in it.

My hand-tool shop (I can't imagine why my realtor didn't show the workbench and tools...)

My hand-tool shop/study (I can’t imagine why my realtor didn’t show the workbench and tools on the other side of the room…)

It wasn’t too long after my study built-in project that I started as managing editor of Popular Woodworking. Had I waited another couple years, I’d have been able to make those cabinets and shelves myself. And indeed, as soon as I started learning in the shop, I started tackling project after project in my house.

I made and installed 8″ baseboards that matched the original – thank you David Thiel for getting me started down that path. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d used a router table. (And, having been bit by the hand tool bug thanks in large part to Christopher Schwarz, it remains one of the few times I’ve used the router table.)

When I bought my house, the living room, hallways and staircase were covered in matted, Kelly green carpet, and the dining room had cheap parquet flooring atop two layers of vinyl. And under everything was a layer of 1/8″ Masonite with nails every 4″ or so (what is wrong with people?!). Nasty. All of it. I lived with it for about six years, but I finally snapped late one night and just started ripping it out. So I then had to teach myself to tooth in flooring to replace the many (and large) plywood patches a previous owner had installed.

The next year, I decided to install hardwood floors in the second floor hallway. I didn’t really know how, but hey – the boards stayed where I nailed them. And they still look OK five years later.

I tried to strip the stairs. That did not go well. Three weeks of buckets full of baby-poop brown, goopy sludge later, I opted for paint (after another week of neutralizing all the various strippers I’d tried). That went a lot better.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 9.07.37 PM

I hired pros for the shower install. The rest is my work (with a few hours’ help from a now-ex whom I cajoled into helping me grout…might be why he’s an ex.)

The 1970s brown tiled and plastic-tubbed bathroom had to go. I took it down to the studs, taught myself to hang and mud drywall (sanding sucks), then had a glass shower installed. I laid and grouted tiny hexagonal tiles on the floor and subway tile on the shower walls, then framed out the walls with flat panels for an Arts & Crafts look, and built and installed a deep medicine cabinet.

Then, with the help and tutelage of Glen Huey, I built for that bathroom my first piece of casework and cut my first dovetails that I was willing to show to the world – the chimney cupboard that appeared on the cover our February 2008 issue (#167). It holds my towels.

I’ve painted every room in the house (as well as the kitchen cabinets) – most of them at least twice. Oh – and every ceiling (my neck hurts from just thinking about it).

You can see my progress as a woodworker throughout the house, and not only in the now many pieces of furniture I’ve built for it. The moulding I installed early on does not look as good at the scarf joints and corners as that from a few years later. And I got faster at it. Last weekend, I installed shoe moulding in two hallways (with many angles and door openings) in just a couple hours (yes, I used a nail gun; sue me). Six years ago, it took me an entire day to do one room. A miter box with a sharp saw on the floor next to you beats running up and down flights of stairs to the chop saw for every cut – trust me on this.

But it’s that very need to run up and down two flights of stairs to access all my tools and machines that made me break down and install the last of the moulding. I’m itching for a “proper” shop – and that was the last bit of work that needed doing before I could put my house up for sale. So now it is. (You can see more of it here if you like.)

It’s a bittersweet feeling; I’ve done so much work on it and learned a great deal while doing it. But it’s done. It’s time to move on and start again – this time in a house with a dry basement (preferably at grade) or a garage. For the last couple years, I’ve been hopping back and forth between my ersatz shop (and up and down my stairs), the shop at work and Christopher Schwarz’s shop. It’s time for a shop of my own. (I think Virginia Woolf would concur).

— Megan Fitzpatrick

p.s. When I do find a new home, it will be one that needs a lot of work, because a) that’s what I can afford b) I like having projects c) I find it satisfying to “rescue” an old building rather than buy a new one. I’ll be documenting the work (and the no doubt many frustrations) on my personal blog…which has been sitting dormant since I bought the domain. You’ll find it at rudemechanicalspress.com (where I’ve posted this same entry). Right now, the site is pretty bare. I hope that changes soon; if it doesn’t, it might mean I’m living under an overpass.

9 thoughts on “All for Want of a Proper Shop

  1. mtnjak

    Looks great. It’s a good feeling to do it yourself. While I live in a newer home my garage shop, more specifically a 225 sq ft “nook” in my garage, is unfinished. In between adding more tools and playing with wood I’m gradually adding more wiring and finishing it out. It’s pretty rewarding to be able to say you did it yourself especially when you are building furniture pieces that will last a lifetime.

  2. whintor

    Hope you soon find yourself a good home with a shop downstairs.
    Love your house, and what you have done with it.
    Very envious too. Here, on the English side of the Pond, a similar property in the leafy suburbs of a fine city similar to yours would be on the market for a sum around $1,000,000!!
    Good hunting!

  3. Jim McCoy

    I can identify with you on many points. I have been spending 2/3 to 3/4 of my time working on our house fixing it up. We couldn’t find a contractor who was willing to spend the time and effort to cut and fit matching baseboards in our stairway so I ended up doing it myself. We just had our house appraised and it came in at $60,000 higher than what I was expecting. The appraiser even went out of her way to comment on the stairway and many of the other things I’ve done. So I can attest to the fact that it is worth the effort.

    I too really want a proper shop. I have severely outgrown my shop “space” in the garage, and I really need a dedicated area to store wood inside under cover. I’m hoping that all my effort will pay off in the long run. Good luck with selling your house and finding the perfect new place to start over.

    Jim

  4. richardrank4

    What a wonderful job. Fixing up an old house forces one to learn a lot of different skills. Go for it. Get another one and do it again . It will be a lot easier. Dick

    1. tsstahl

      More tolerable, sure, but never easier. ;)

      Even worse, as your skill grows you are more able to recognize the hot mess your predecessors created.

      Still, I agree that it is very rewarding work.

  5. vtxmanmike

    Wow, you have a beautiful place for sale! If it wasn’t for your job,and the fact that I’m in NC, I’d offer my shop during the daytime while I’m off doing my engineering job. I look forward to seeing what you do with the new house and what the shop looks like. Thanks for sharing.

  6. dyfhid

    Thanks for showing us your beautiful home. You have really nice taste, I love what you’ve done with the place.And best of luck to you in the sale. Not to bring this down, but I just today renewed my listing, starting its third year. (If anyone is interested in living in a nice bungalow (with attached shop!) in Eufaula, AL, call Baker Realty there, talk to Pat, tell her I sent you :D)

    Thanks also for revving up your personal blog, I’d love to see what you do with the new place! I moved back to NH from my temporary stint in AL and started the same thing, got a nice old house to fix up. I haven’t been able to do as much as you yet, but I’m getting there, little by little. Next on the agenda is a shop building in the backyard, fit for New England climes. I have all the wood for the workbench :)

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