A short time ago our family "graduated" from a rather small living space into one that had an actual yard and, to my biggest excitement, a real garage. By "real", I mean a garage big enough to fit two cars, a workbench and several large free-standing tools while still having room to walk around. That means I'm now able to fulfill a personal need that I've been working around for about 25 years: my own shop space! Being a highly creative individual (at least as I’ve been called by many folks out there ), I've had to fill my innate needs to build things by borrowing space in other people's shops, garages, warehouses, and sheds ever since I was a teenager. As I can personally attest, this practice can get rather cumbersome, especially when you need access to the workspace at odd hours, or when your project requires borrowing others' tools, or when a project takes a long time to complete. All of these situations can occasionally strain the good will of those you're borrowing space from, regardless of how gracious or grateful you are about their generosity. Finally having the freedom (and responsibility) of your own creative domain can be quite liberating. At the very least, it feels like I've opened up an entirely new realm of design possibilities--albeit with the budget and time constraints that accompany it.
In designing the layout and use of my new space, I quickly noticed that I was relying on some "shop norms" that I'd consistently encountered over the years. These consisted of several aspects that I've found in successful shop environments that I've grown accustomed to in the past. Figuring that my "design rationale" for my new shop may be useful to others out there less experienced in shop environments, I decided to write about this particular topic in today's blog entry.
There are a wide range of considerations in developing your shop space, especially if you have particularly specific requirements for how you intend to use it. I'm going to focus on some of the more general shop needs, based on my own particular experience in fabricating projects made from woods, plastics, metals, composites, and a variety of other materials. Different materials require different tools (with some tools overlapping between some types of materials) and space needs, so a certain degree of customization may be required for your shop depending on what you're doing. Regardless of how you use your space, though, the following five essentials are bound to play a deciding role in how you'll need to develop the space. These essentials include making sure you have the following: adequate space, sufficient work surfaces, appropriate utilities, the right tools, and controllability of the work environment/atmosphere.
Essential #1: Space
First, let's talk about the need for adequate space. This may seem like a relatively foregone conclusion, but I've seen a lot of people try to make do with some incredibly constraining work spaces—often with very negative results. If you do have the ability to design the space you’ll be using, try to consider how much space you will reasonably need to match the size of both the projects and the tools you anticipate fitting into that space. This should include appropriate storage for materials and tools, and some good consideration for how to keep these organized and clean. Having adequate space means you have enough height, width and depth to easily move about and work safely. It's true that I've seen some very interesting projects come out of less-than elegant spaces, but in every one of those instances, there was always enough actual space to get the job done.
Entry/exit should allow for large projects so you can avoid the ship-in-a-bottle problem of finishing a project (where you can’t fit it through the door once it’s finished). At the very least, get some graph paper, make a plan view (top view) drawing of the space, and block out the area you’ll need for cabinets, shelves, workbenches, tables, tools, storage (for both projects and materials) or anything else that will go in the space. Be as thorough as you can with this step and measure out an existing room for a visual reference if you need to. If you find that you don’t have enough space to move around in your graphed-out space, then you may need to pare back the amount of “stuff” you plan to put in the shop—or you may, at least, need to find a way to creatively organize or securely stack everything so you can still work effectively and safely.
Essential #2: Work Surfaces
Another shop essential is an adequate amount of work surfaces. By “work surfaces”, I’m referring to horizontal surfaces and flat areas that can be used to place your projects and tools within arm’s reach as you work on them. While it is, indeed, possible to create things while sitting on the floor, our physiology lends itself to more effective project construction and tool control when we are either standing up or sitting at a table. Therefore, these usable work surfaces could include workbenches and tables, but may even consist of wide shelves, the top surfaces of cabinets (whether fixed or roll-about styles), or even an old door placed atop sawhorses. Optimally, it is best to use work surfaces that are adjustable or fixed at a comfortable working height. I personally prefer work surfaces that are set at a height of between 36 and 40 inches because they allow me to either stand or sit on a stool while working. I've found that standing works best when I’m putting a lot of physical force into a project while sitting works best for finer tool control.
Essential #3: Utilities
Next, don’t forget about the utilities you’ll need to make the workshop more useful. Some will argue that it’s possible to get some good projects done in an old, dusty, drafty, or leaky barn or tool shed. But, honestly, the quality of your work (and work experience) can be greatly enhanced when modern conveniences are included in the work space. At the top of that “modern conveniences” list is electricity. A simple electrical connection can make a huge difference in the capabilities of a work space. Even more can be done when surplus electrical capacity (beyond the bare minimum required to juice-up one tool or light at a time) is available in the shop space. I’ve been able to do a lot with a simple outdoor extension cord run all the way from the side of a house into a shed, but it’s always a hassle plugging and unplugging tools as needed from one socket. If you add (or hire a licensed electrician to add) a dedicated electrical line (and possibly a sub-panel) into a shop space, you’ve got a great recipe for increased shop success. Proper electrical capacity will allow for adequate lighting of the shop space, regardless of the weather or time of day. It will also help handle the electrical needs of power equipment you'll be using. Having a compressed air supply can be especially helpful, but it won’t happen without electricity (unless you’ve got one of those handy, though somewhat-rare, gas-powered compressors). Remember that if you intend to expand your repertoire of power tools over time, it may be useful to increase your electrical capacity with a dedicated electrical panel, as well. Repeatedly blowing fuses in the middle of a tricky operation with a power tool can be both annoying and dangerous.
Depending on your shop needs, a utility supply of water and sewer drainage (for shop or project cleanup) or other amenities may also be important. In the case of my shop, where I’ll inevitably be doing some composites work, dedicated vacuum lines are also a must, and can be piped through sealed PVC or steel pipes connected to a vacuum pump that is electrically driven from elsewhere in the shop.
Essential #4: Tools
Additionally, no shop would really even be useful as a shop without tools. Tools are one of those things that set us apart from our four legged friends, so it would be difficult to overrate their usefulness in a workshop. With the right tools (or compensatory skill and ingenuity) just about any operation can be done in a workshop. One very formidable problem that many builders run into, though, is the cost of those tools. Before starting out on any project, always take inventory of what tools will be needed, and what tools you’ve actually got or what tools you can creatively use or modify to get the job done. In building a collection of tools for proper shop work, I’ve seen many a craftsman fret more than their share about having practically every tool possible. However, a bit of ingenuity can compensate for a lack of expensive or "amazing" tools—in spite of what the tool marketers will tell you. For example, I can do some things with a cheap bandsaw that many of my students think can only be done with an expensive CNC router—it just took a bit of practice to get to that point. In building up an appropriate collection of tools, remember to also include clean-up tools, like brooms, whisks, dustpans, trash cans, buckets, scrub brushes, towels, etc.
Essential #5: Environmental Control
Lastly, consider what amount of environmental control is needed for your work space. This particular aspect of a shop refers to how comfortable the space is to work in, since the comfort level of the environment can actually affect a craftsman's effectiveness. For example, it may be important to include climate control for the purpose of personal comfort (too cold or too hot are both dangerous), safety (sound noise levels, poor ventilation, and slippery floors can be hazardous in their own rights), but also for reasons that may affect the quality of the projects being produced in the shop environment (such as when heat-sensitive chemical processes are being employed, as with resins used in composites or paint applied to a project).
For some people, an important environmental concern is the music that is floating through the air of the shop. For me, music is an extremely important environmental element that can directly affect how well I can focus my work efforts in the shop. I've gotta have shop tunes. I was raised on "shop rock", listening to 80's hair bands and 70's classic arena rock, admittedly, mostly for its ability to channel my youthful fits of testosterone-borne funk into more useful energy within the shop. But these days I'm just as amenable to other less raucous music, as long as it fits my mood and helps direct my concentration to the task at hand rather than distract from it. I even have a special set of playlists on the handy MP3 player set up for my shop mood-of-the-day (which beats digging out all the ol’ cassette tapes to get my fix of Asia or Boston tunes).
So, there you have it: five (lengthy) essentials for a workshop environment. Many craftsman out there may view this entry as a very boring recap or what they already know about shop spaces. But hopefully it is still useful for anyone who is looking to design (or redesign) a work space for best work efficiency and project quality.
Keep rockin’ and building, my friends!