Whether you’re tackling a home improvement project, or just cultivating a hobby, having a workshop to work in is a real pleasure. A shed, a basement, a garage—any of these will make a dandy location for your workshop. You can configure it any way you please, but here’s a practical guide to get you started.
Define the Space
First, select your space. Ensure that the space you choose is safely away from traffic patterns, and where your workshop activities won’t intrude on other household members.
Here are the most common locations for a workshop, each with their own pros and cons.
- Garages: They’re great for easy access, but compete for space with vehicles, which can make them cramped.
- Basements: These generally have more room to work in than garages, but are often damp and dark. Plus, they allow more noise to intrude other areas of the home through the floor.
- Sheds or Outbuildings: Sheds offer more privacy, but must have their own heating, cooling, and electrical systems to be comfortable to work in, and often require upgrades to be used as workshops.
Once you’ve selected a space, consider the nature of the work you do frequently in your workshop. Your design for the space should accommodate any related demands.
Draw a map of the room you’ll be adapting, and be sure to include locations of all power outlets, lights, vents, windows, and doors. Get it on paper, when it’s easiest, before you start dragging heavy objects around the room.
Put some thought into setting up your shop for workflow. Analyze any tasks you do on a frequent basis, and configure the room to accommodate them. If you find that you constantly pull supplies from one end of the room to work with them in another, consider arranging those areas near each other to maximize efficiency.
Make sure your chosen work space has plenty of electrical outlets. If you’re constantly swapping out cords it can make your hobby a hassle. Worse yet, overloading a single outlet with multiple extension cords can be a dangerous fire hazard. If you’re low on outlets, an electrician can always add additional ones.
WARNING: Water and electricity don’t mix. Make sure your space is dry, and install GFCI outlets to reduce the risk of shocks, just to be on the safe side.
Paints, paint-strippers, solvents, and other chemicals can fill the air with fumes and contaminants that are highly combustible, deadly to breathe, or both. It is essential, in whatever space you choose, that there is sufficient ventilation to remove harmful gases, fumes, and dust. It’s a good idea to install a fan to vent the air to the outside and replace it with fresh air.
CAUTION: Even in well-ventilated areas, it is essential to wear protective respirators or air-filters when working with substance that generates harmful fumes or dust.
Even an ordinary cloud of sawdust can explode if exposed to open flames. Though some newer tools feature bags that capture excess sawdust, you should consider adding a sawdust collection system if you frequently work with wood.
You’re going to need a long, wide counter to work on, with plenty of room for a variety of projects. The ideal workbench should be about waist-high, as you need to stand comfortably for extended periods without having to bend over to work. This will make it more pleasant, and also help ensure against fatigue-related accidents. You can either purchase an adjustable workbench from a hardware store, or even make the construction of your custom workbench as an inaugural project for your new work shop!
If you have table top tools, you might consider assigning them their own table. If they have their own space, it will save you from having to shift them around as you work, and plus you can bolt them in place for added stability.
Easy Access Design
A good, cheap, and time-honored solution to workshop organization is to mount pegboard on your wall, and hang up your tools where you can see them. When all your tools are displayed on the back wall of your workbench, you never have to paw through a toolbox in search of what you want. Instead, just reach out and grab it, and when you’re done, hang it right back where you found it, all without having to take a single step.
Available at any hardware store, pegboard is thin particleboard covered with a grid of small holes. There are hooks of varying sizes designed for use with pegboard, which hook into the holes to provide a convenient place to hang your hand-tools and accessories. It’s easy to cut pegboard to size, configure it any way you like—and add additional sheets as your tool collection grows.
For those times when you are doing careful or detailed work, and you’d be more comfortable seated, invest in a strong, stable stool with a wide base. Be sure it is at a complimentary height to your workbench. Don’t get a swivel stool. It might seem like a nice feature, but it might wiggle when you waggle—and if you have a sharp tool in your hand, that could cost you a finger.
Let There Be Light
You can’t have too much light. Don’t try to make do with that lonely bare bulb in the center of your ceiling. Working in poor lighting can be ruinous to your project, and dangerous to you. Consider hanging one or more fluorescent lights. Fluorescent lights are inexpensive, easy to install, and produce a lot of light.
Having multiple sources of lighting reduces the presence of shadows in your workshop, and gives you a better look at what you’re doing. At the least, you should have a strong, overhead light to illuminate your entire workshop, and a powerful adjustable workbench light to illuminate whatever you’re working on at the moment.
“Keep it Down in There!”
If your on-going project is to drive your spouse batty with incessant hammering, then by all means, don’t bother insulating your shop. On the other hand, if you want to spare other family members your version of the Anvil Chorus, consider putting up some insulation to baffle all that noise. A few well-placed pieces of insulation can work wonders, and has probably saved a marriage or two.
Notes on Safety
If you’re setting up shop in an unheated area, be cautious when adding a heat source, and make sure that it is suited for working in an environment that contains flammable or combustible substances. Certain fumes sink down to the floor, and are a serious hazard if they encounter red-hot space heaters or open flames. This is also why you should make sure your work area is far away from furnaces, hot water heaters, or anything else with a pilot light.
If you have young children, you should restrict access to your workshop. At the very least, place all tools and hazardous chemicals in locked cabinets when not in use. Children should never have unsupervised access to workshops, any tools, or equipment at any time.
Workshops are where your works-in-progress reside, so it makes sense that your workshop itself should continue to grow and mature. A good workshop evolves as your needs change. Periodically re-evaluate your workspace to ensure it still meets your needs, and revise it if it’s not. Whatever you do, don’t forget to enjoy yourself. That’s the most important work-in-progress of all.
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