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I don’t have a corporate-sponsored woodworking budget and – while this may come as a surprise to many – bloggers today are not paid a whole lot more than journalists yesterday. That means I probably follow the same budgeting methods in my woodworking as you do. I delay as many expenses as possible and read every e-mail newsletter from a woodworking source with the word “sale” in the subject line, always looking for a discount on the things I need. It’s ironic that many woodworkers get started because they are into the idea of living cheaply and making things themselves, but soon discover that this is not necessarily an inexpensive hobby.

This is part one of a 3-part series on how to cut woodworking expenses by at least 50%, as compared to the “dream shop” scenario that many woodworkers promote. I believe that it’s possible to have a lot of fun and make great progress in the craft without breaking the bank. Part one covers shop space and machinery. Part two will cover tools and materials, and part three will cover information and “other.” The common denominator in every section of these posts is to use creative problem solving at all times, which is a skill you want to hone anyway!

Shop space

Living cheaply, woodworking cheaply. It starts with shop space.

Living cheaply, woodworking cheaply. It starts with shop space.

There’s a saying about land – “They aren’t making any more of it.” Workshop space could fall in that same, hard-to-find and hard-to-afford category. If you focus on just one area of woodworking in which to save money, focus on your shop.

One idea is to find shared shop space and split costs with other woodworkers. The drawback to this method is that unless you know your co-op partners well and are good at communication, you may find that you are always bumping into each other or getting into minor conflicts. Still, it’s worth checking with your local woodworking club or guild to see if co-ops are an option in your area.

I advocate for having your own shop, but being very smart about what you are paying for it. Utilize your personal network and community (in a nice way) as much as possible. Also, don’t just sit there and wait for someone to come to you. Put out an ad on Craigslist and via social media. Present the idea that you are a woodworker looking for unused shop space. You might be surprised at what is available, and how little you need to pay for it. I found a space this fall through my former college, and the cost is zero.

The most obvious answer is of course utilizing your existing space – whether it’s a garage or even an apartment. In my opinion (and I have tried) this answer is not ideal, because space is space and you are likely using it for something else already. Also, it can be quite isolating to work entirely on your own in what is basically a living space. But with enough flexibility and interest from neighbors and family, this can still be a great solution.


If you followed the shop space advice, you may find that some machinery is included in the bargain. Then it’s just a matter of getting familiar with what’s in place and making sure it’s safe to use.

But if you don’t have any machinery, the question is how much do you really need to buy? The easiest way to cut 50% in expenses here is to cut 50% of the items. You don’t necessarily need a table saw, for example. Handsaws will work. (Click here for “Handsaw Essentials” – the new book in our store.)

What about jointers and planers? These are very good to have, but realize that the hobby-sized models don’t get you all the way on every job. You will probably end up needing to find help in the broader community once again, so you may as well start that process now. If all you are doing is dimensioning lumber, you should be able to find some big machines to share through your local woodworking club or, again, via online channels.

Are you a woodworker who is already living cheaply?

Please leave your tips in the comments section below. And stay tuned for the next two posts in this series!

Dan Farnbach

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Showing 5 comments
  • Will from Lafayette

    Dan, your post really takes me back. My first serious woodworking tool was a Stanley rabbiting plane which I bought to make a case for my record albums. I used it to create latticework for the door and sides. My first workbench was a board placed over the bed. I was blessed to have a wife who enjoyed the smell of wood shavings, as long as I cleaned them up. We didn’t have much money (carpentry is not a lucrative profession) so I was always very careful about the cost of the tools I purchased. As the years went by, and we moved from place to place, part of our consideration was always a place I could work wood.

    You are right in saying that a person doesn’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to get the tools they need. For instance, several of my recent projects involved putting a radius on some of the wood. The current wisdom in woodworking magazines is to make a jig out of plywood and then use a router to cut a perfect radius. Instead I bought a stanley circular plane on ebay (it wasn’t that expensive). It is a hand plane with an adjustable curved bottom used to smooth a radius. It is a lot less effort to cut the curve with a power jig saw and then smooth it with the hand plane, and then sand it. It’s more satisfying too. It allows a project to look hand-made, which is a quality missing from wood work these days.

    Although I’ve made a dozen work benches over the years, for different purposes, I wanted to have at least one “great” work bench that I could grow old with. You guys at Popular Woodworking were a great help here. I designed and built one based on that German/English workbench Chris Schwartz popularized a few years back, but with vises more suited to my way of working. It cost less than the benches you can buy online.

    For a woodworker the use of the space changes as the jobs change. Tools come and go. Your blog reminded me that it started with a board over my bed.

  • drragsdale

    My first wood working tools were a hand saw, combination square, tape measure, and a claw hammer. I kept them in the trunk of my car. And I lived in the barracks.

    Eventually I got a used No. 4 plane, a Dremel jigsaw and a re-manufactured Craftsman router. (Actually the router was bought in high school. I didn’t have access to it till I got home from the Marine Corps.) I then bought a drill press for making toys (I was using my dad’s table saw). When I started collage I had to leave the table saw behind. I used these tools for many years to build toys, nic-nacs, and with the help of friends band saws and table saws on occasion, a lot of toys.

    What’s the point of this? One can do a lot with very little if one only wants to. Yeah, it’s more work than if you had Norm Abram’s shop, but you can do it! Desire is the most important tool one can have. Problem solving is the next most important.

    David R. Ragsdale

  • Bill Lattanzio

    There is a workshop not far from where I live that is member based and fully equipped. You pay a monthly membership and have access to all of the tools and machinery in the shop. You can also purchase wood for projects there. As far as machinery is concerned, the one machine I would actually buy is a table saw, nearly everything else you can do by hand, maybe not much more cheaply, but in a lot less space (at least in theory). For my part, if possible I try to get pre surfaced lumber if I can; It maybe more expensive, but saves a lot of time, and you need a lot less machinery.

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