Please Pass the Peas (And the Smoothing Plane) - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Please Pass the Peas (And the Smoothing Plane)

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

In the pre-industrial age, it was fairly common to have your workshop inside your home. In fact, in many early American houses, rooms served several purposes and could be converted to another function by rearranging the furniture.

These days, most of us have dedicated shops. We surveyed our readers in 2005 on this question and found that 96 percent had a dedicated workshop space. Of those of us with shops:

– 42 percent have a garage shop
– 32 percent have a separate outbuilding (that’s not a garage)
– 28 percent have a basement shop
– 5 percent have one in an “other location”
– 2 percent use a spare room in the house.

Note that the numbers add up to more than 100 percent because there is some overlap here (a basement garage shop, for example).

Recently, however, I’ve been getting a fair number of e-mail from readers who are woodworking without a dedicated shop space. Their solutions to the problem are novel and would seem familiar to an 18th-century woodworker. Let’s take a look.

The Kitchen Shop
Jameel Alsalam lives in a one-room basement apartment with his girlfriend in Washington, D.C., and figured out how to make a functional workbench that also doubled as a dining table.

The dining bench is made from three 4″ x 10″ x 8′ slabs of poplar he got free from his uncle. And while the top was fairly straightforward, the base was tricky. It had to support his workpieces and still be able to allow chairs to scoot in all around.

His solution was to use two stretchers down the middle of the top instead of stretchers along the long edges of the benchtop. The stretchers are joined with mortise-and-tenon joints and bench bolts.

“The end result is a dining table burly enough for Vikings to eat at, and it’s rock solid for planing,” Alsalam writes. “I think keeping the top flush with the side is gonna be tricky, but the main goal is accomplished: I can do woodworking, and my girlfriend hasn’t left me.”

The other key to Alsalam’s success with this set-up is that he uses only hand tools at home. When he needs power equipment, he heads to the local adult education center.

“One time I made the mistake of trying a power sander, and suddenly I was wiping the sawdust off everything in my house,” he writes. With hand tools, all I have to sweep up the shavings (I’m lucky to have a tile floor).”

A Blog for the Shopless
Kenneth Woodruff lives in a condo in the San Francisco area that has no space for storage or a shop. So for a year, Woodruff researched the craft to figure out a way to make things work in his condo.

And as he’s gotten cranked up, he’s found there are a lot of people out there just like him. So he started a blog that documents his efforts called Rough Wood. Visit the blog at

“Many people around the web are clamoring for ways around some basic issues: a reasonable bench, boring accurate holes without a drill press, hand planing on a tiny surface, not using a router in a tiny apartment,” he writes. “Being shopless instills a need to innovate and overcome challenges that are often not present when you have a garage full of tools , and a father who introduced you to woodworking at a young age.”

Some of the projects are definitely worth investigating, including a knockdown workbench that lives underneath his bed. Now he’s working on a tool cabinet that will look as good as a piece of furniture.

We’re planning another survey of our readers real soon, but until that comes around, take this quick poll about your shop.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 19 comments
  • Rob Vigfusson

    If you need to convince someone that a workbench would be a stylish addition to your living room, perhaps Pottery Barn might help.
    See the link here.

    Note this is not advertising. I am just amused.

  • Steve Branam

    Speaking of not having a dedicated workspace, here’s a sign of the times.

    I’m talking to the Parks and Rec dept. in a neighboring town about doing a basic hand tool skills class for their adult ed program. These are conducted in various town facilities, town hall, schools, etc. Their new high school, just opened 3 years ago, has no industrial arts areas. So we would probably use the art room or cafeteria.

    Thirty years ago, every school I attended from 7th grade on had wood and metal shops. What happened?!?

  • Serge

    I have a multiple function room in the basement, about 10 ft. x 20 ft. It has 2 computer desks, washer and dryer, workbench, furnace, water heater, utility sink, CNC table, portable table saw, closets where clothes are hanging, a couple of dressers for tools and more. Everything is kept around the edges. But my saving grace is 2 metal folding sawhorses!! Once folded they are exactly 2 in. x 4 in. x 3 ft. Once opened they are very sturdy and serve as a router table, a surface for my planer, drill press, painting and assembly table.
    And the great part is I got 2 of them on sale for a grand total of 20$.
    I strongly recommend them to anyone!!!


    I have a book which was published just after the Second World War, when materials were in very short supply right into the 1950’s in Australia. Everybody had to make do. This book: "New Australian Home Carpentry Illustrated" on page 54 shows a great idea for a simple narrow bench top you clamp onto one edge of your kitchen table. However I reckon if you were planing a bit of hardwood you’d have to put one end of the table up against the door jamb or wall – or else you’d be chasing the table around the kitchen floor!I have scanned the picture and page from the book as a jpeg file. I’m new to this technology…How do I make it accessible to you mob out there?

  • I have a room in the house now, but plan to build a 16′ x 20′ shed soon, as I have no way to use my tablesaw in the house right now. (And I’d rather keep the sawdust out of the four computers in that room!)

  • My answer to your survey is "None of the above."
    While I have a dedicated studio building (not a "shop"), I do almost all of my work outside. I’m not a woodworker; more like a bodger-meets-artisan. When it rains or is too cold outside, I don’t work. When I’m driven indoors, I read, explore the internet and design my next projects.

    Trees grow outside.
    Wood comes from trees.
    I like to do it where the trees are.

  • Before I started my business fulltime I had a hard time finding room for my shop. Some of my solution were to beg freinds for a corner of their garage and rent storage units. I did build my first set of end table in my livingroom though.

  • Eric

    My wife has graciously granted me shop space in the kitchen, which is actually [slightly] better than it sounds. Hand tools only, so the kids won’t have to wonder if Mom’s secret ingredient is teak sawdust.

  • I have a dedicated (90%) garage, and also share my basement using 1/8 of it’s space. I wouls love a dedicated seperate outbuilding, but don’t want to do away with our garden space.

  • LizPf

    In our remodel, my husband got the new shop. After he loads it up with his metalworking tools and electronics bench, and assorted storage, there’s no way I could get a hand tool bench in there.

    Maybe I’ll take over a corner of the rest of the basement (and risk teens playing with my tools!), or use the spare bedroom and risk getting shavings mixed in with the knitting yarn and sewing machine, or use the kitchen (I know not to use the food spoons for stain!) … that dining table/bench is looking mighty good!

  • Mark Jacobs

    I’m one of the 42% who uses his garage for a workshop. I love using my garage, but I have plans of creating a separate building in my backyard someday.

  • Luke Townsley

    I’m working in an attached carport (shared with a minivan), but I’m looking at moving. I’m hoping I will get more space and fearing I will get less. Either way, it should work out somehow. I wouldn’t have that confidence at all with a power tool shop.

  • Tim Williams

    Just a thought to those looking for a smaller style bench that can handle tasks of a regular size bench. I have begun a full tutorial with pics on building the Joinery Bench on the Bench Vice blog.

    Tim Williams

  • David B.

    I would be divorced if I had a workbench in the kitchen. My wife still hasn’t forgiven me for using her measuring spoons to measure some stain.


  • Bill T.

    I am fortunate enough to (finally) have a separate, dedicated building for my workshop. We had it built in 2007. But that is after many years of being, first, in a teeny-tiny basement with less than 7-foot ceiling height and asbestos-covered pipes, then half a basement with less-than 7-foot ceiling height, then a one-car garage that I shared with the lawn mower, rakes, shovels, bicycles, etc.

    Now at least I have my very own, dedicated building, with nothing but my stuff in it, with plenty of electricity, and it’s well-insulated, air-conditioned and heated. I also ran cable and telephone wire out there, but have not yet gotten around to hooking that up.

    The problem I have now is that the shop still isn’t big enough for all of my tools, benches, machinery, wood, supplies, and just general STUFF. I really need about three times the square footage of the current shop. Either that, or I have to get rid of a bunch of stuff.


  • I use my living room with two jaw horses and big slab of wood to make furniture. I also have 150 board feet of Douglas fir stacked up in there also to build a Roubo bench for the kitchen table. However, I’m thinking to move to a 2-bedroom soon.

  • Andy

    I use a 10′ x 12′ breakfast area off of the kitchen for my workbench and hand tools. I had to place square furniture caster cups under the workbench legs to keep them from sliding on the tile floor, but any glue that drips on the tile is easily scraped off after it dries.

  • Paul Stine

    I would need to make the vise handle removable or at least securable in a horizontal position. Otherwise I would whack my knee on it EVERY time.

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