During the last 20 years I’ve visited and written about some of the most impressive and modest shops all over the world. From a home shop with a remote-control crane (that shop was nicer than my house) to an unheated, leaky basement with an old desk for a bench.
Here’s what’s important in a shop (to me) regardless of the budget.
- Flexibility. There’s a good chance your shop will change next month for some reason, and you’ll have to rearrange your bench and machines. Every shop I’ve had has changed multiple times during its lifetime. I’m not advocating putting all your machines on mobile bases (though that’s helpful with some machines). Instead, don’t do anything that limits your flexibility. Don’t bolt things down. Don’t build permanent walls (unless you have to). Keep your space flexible.
- Comfort. Your shop should be climate controlled. Not just for you, but for your projects. Moving finished work from an uncontrolled area to a place with forced heat is asking for trouble. Also, you will be happier if you shop is climate controlled. Second: Do something for your feet. If you can’t afford a wooden floor, buy some mats for animal stalls or weightlifting. (Don’t bother with the cheesy thin foam crap they sell at woodworking stores. It isn’t durable and it doesn’t help much.)
- Light. Do everything you can to get a window in your shop that faces north (or south) and put your workbench near it. Good natural light makes handwork a pleasure. Machines don’t need natural light. Lots of overhead light is what I prefer. And with modern LED lighting you can really control the color temperature of the light. This has been a huge boon for me – getting the right finish color is much easier under 4,000 (K) lights instead of rando work lights.
- Dust collection. I know I’ll catch flak for this, but I have never liked centralized dust collection (or air pressure) for a small shop. It reduces the flexibility of your shop. It clogs. It’s another system to maintain. I have two roll-around single-bag units that handle all the machines. These have zero maintenance headaches. No ductwork. No gates. No additional wiring.
- Water. A slop sink is a huge luxury. You’ve earned it.
- Infeed/outfeed. Because my shop is flexible, I don’t get my panties in a twist about this.
- Wood storage. I think of wood like it’s meat or fresh vegetables. I don’t keep much wood on hand, never have. This is a huge advantage. I don’t have to build a storage area. And I don’t buy wood on a whim, saving money. (Whenever I have, I have regretted it. I either got too much or too little for that “future project.”) Wood hoarding and woodworking are not the same thing. For the wood I do have on hand, I store it in a climate-controlled area.
There are lots of details I could go into about tool storage (build a tool chest) and workbenches (hey, I did write a book about that). But the above principles pretty much sum up what’s important to me.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Hey, if you do want a book on setting up shop, “The Practical Workshop” covers a lot of these issues and is reasonably priced.