Getting organised: small workshop solutions
Above: The tablesaw shares its working area with the lathe. Bandsaw on castors turns 90° to allow full stroke on the sliding table.
Words and photos: Troy McDonald
It’s possibly best I start with something of a confession. I’m not one to mess with my workshop. That is to say, in the 15 years or so that I’ve been working wood, I have actively tried to practise the art of contentment and avoid making continual modifications to my shop.
I have only had two workshops in that time. The first had my workbench in our garage parallel to the family car. It was a space so cramped that my backside was firmly planted on the car door when I positioned myself for sawing at the bench. That all ended when a house renovation presented an opportunity to commit the floor space that equated to a single car garage to a dedicated
workshop. Given how I’d managed previously, a workshop this large seemed almost indulgent.
Above: Zones 1 and 2: workbench, tool and clamp storage at one end and central combination machine. Power tools stored on shelf top left, with veneer on top of that. Overhead air scrubber is part of dust control plan.
Six years on, having thoroughly enjoyed working in this space, an innocent desire to improve the dust extraction resulted in an unavoidable complete workshop rebuild. With the genie out of the bottle, it seemed I had no choice but to make the most of a rare opportunity that forced me to dedicate some time to making improvements. What’s noted below are some of the guiding principles and lessons learnt that I employed in an effort to ensure the next rebuild will remain a long way down the road.
Power and lighting: safety first
In planning a workshop it’s best to think at the outset about safety. Some considerations are obvious. Electrical safety should be paramount. Power outlets should be protected by earth leakage circuit breakers and outlet sizes should be adequate for the job. Think about installing a sub panel within the workshop as this can make it easier down the track for a professional electrician to add additional circuits. Decisions at this stage will also be required as to whether power will be supplied via single or three phase outlets.
I made a decision to commit to three phase power when my workshop was first established and have never regretted it. Three phase power opens up a greater range of quality machinery and a significant secondhand market. All of
my machinery has been purchased secondhand with little competition from hobbyist woodworkers who are typically restricted to single phase equipment.
Above: Homemade on-board tool storage. Easy reach promotes safety.
Electrical planning should also extend to the thoughtful location of power outlets and adequate lighting. Outlets should be located to avoid a tangle of extension cables and, just as with clamps, you can never have too many power outlets in a workshop. Where possible mount wall outlets 1250mm or so above the floor so they clear the height of workbenches and mobile equipment.
My plan was for uniform lighting via a number of equally spaced overhead fluorescent lights. The spacing should be approximately 1.5 times the distance between the ceiling and work surfaces. In addition, most machines and the main workbench have adjustable lamps.
For the lathe, I found a simple design on the internet for a bracket that fits to a wall mounted cleat. The lamp can be positioned anywhere along the cleat that runs the full length of the wall between the sharpening bench and lathe. Shortcomings in electrical planning are difficult and expensive to correct later, and for this reason up front planning is very important to deliver both safe and efficient work outcomes.
Machinery selection and layout
1. Workbench 2. Sharpening station 3. Lathe 4. Timber storage 5. Bandsaw 6. Brill press 7. Drum sander 8. Combination machine 9. Mitre saw bench 10. Mitre Saw Bench 11. Linisher 12. Tool cabinet 13. Clamp rack
My redesigned shop can really be broken into three zones. Photo 6 shows a traditional workbench area that allows ready access to hand tools and a zone for machinery to prepare stock. These two zones are within the floor space of a single car garage while the third zone is located in an adjoining garage. Here sits a dedicated compound mitre saw bench that has been designed as a number of compact modules, including a router table, small linishing machine and utility bench with dry grinder and metal vice.
Mitre saw bench in adjacent garage has sub-benches, all on castors. Melamine edged with solid timber made them quick to construct, easy to keep clean and improves the level of brightness within the workshop. Cover sheets from your local hardware can often be sourced cheaply.
The rear of the bench has built-in timber storage and wall-mounted timber racks above. Sheetgoods can be stored standing against the wall at the far end. I have found this to be an incredibly efficient use of what equates to only 2.7m x 0.8m at the very end of what continues to function as an everyday car garage.
When considering machines for the main workshop, I researched the advantages of individual versus combination machines. In the end, an opportunity to purchase a near-new used machine made the decision an easy one and a combination machine became the heart of the shop. After six years I firmly believe combinations offer the most efficient solution where space is limited.
It is true that changing modes can be frustrating, however it does force you to become more disciplined about preparing material. Located centrally, this machine serves extra duty as an assembly, clamping and glue up bench. Although I do very little work with sheet goods, the outrigger stays on the sliding table as it is very difficult to give up once you have become used to it. Adding simple brackets for storing tools, pushsticks and featherboards on the machine saves space and increases the likelihood of using them.
Router table fence stores on router cabinet that slides under mitre saw bench. Timber lengths store behind, sheet goods against the wall.
Lesser used machines like the bobbin sander are tucked away in cabinets that also serve as work stands.
Adequate room for safe movement around the machine in addition to infeed and outfeed zones for material is needed. Raising the roller door at one end of the workshop increases the floor area by 50% when the need arises to work longer lengths of timber. The drill press is located so the lower cabinet and upper table height do not impede either the outrigger of the sawbench or feed zones of the planer/thicknesser of the combination machine.
Sharpening station is a must-have. Gear stowed below is convenient.
One of my new must-haves was to include a dedicated sharpening station. This is in the form of a cabinet of drawers with a wetstone sharpener on top. This is a great addition to the workshop and one that I would now find difficult to live without.
As mentioned, the catalyst for reconfiguring the workshop was the need for upgraded dust extraction. To gain access to the improved extraction, the lathe was relocated into the main area and positioned to share the working space around the sliding table of the combination machine.
The downside of this is that it limits the crosscutting capacity of the saw bench to 1450mm however I have not found this to be a significant limitation. Long stock is now cut to length on the mitre saw as opposed to the main saw bench. When the lathe is not in use a simple melamine worktop sits on the bed attached to the wall-mounted cleat and is very handy when machining.
A bandsaw capable of resawing solid timber veneers was the other must-have machine for my workshop. With wheels of 600mm, it may seem overly large for this space but opening the roller door provides enough outfeed space.
Keeping everything mobile
Mobility is the best way of increasing efficient use of space in a small workshop. Despite weighing over 500kg, the combination machine can be moved with relative ease with a mobility kit installed. All my other equipment and machinery, with the exception of the workbench and lathe, is mounted on castors. The router table, for example, can be moved into the main workshop when necessary for connection into ducted dust extraction.
A mini vacuum located in the cabinet beneath the mitre saw takes care of dust extraction for both the mitre saw and linisher with the vacuum hose simply being moved from one machine to the other. If need be the linisher can be moved to the main workshop for connection to ducted extraction for larger jobs.
Despite its mass, the bandsaw is also mounted on castors. This allows it to be positioned to utilise the outfeed area of the roller door or turned 90° to allow the full stroke of the sliding table and outrigger of the saw bench. Smaller less regularly used machines, such as the bobbin sander, are kept in specially designed cabinets that can be wheeled into place to serve as workstations
The continual accumulation of fine dust on all surfaces from a single bag extractor finally forced my hand as the main workshop is very close to the living areas of the house. Putting the extractor outside seemed the obvious answer. Apart from removing a source of fine dust this also freed up valuable floor space. I later moved to a permanent externally mounted cyclone system due to its smaller footprint.
Tool storage cabinets above workbench, timber storage below and above, clamp rack nearby.
Tool and timber storage
In my case, the only sensible location for a tool storage cabinet was directly behind the workbench. This consumes some vertical height above and over the top of the bench so sliding doors with deeper, single hinged door cupboards on each end were installed. The right-most cupboard keeps hand planes close to where they’re needed whilst the central sliding door cupboards store all the necessary hand tools. Hardware and fasteners are at the left end.
These cabinets were really only rebuilt to improve the shoddy job I initially did. This time round I included some small drawers above the bench for frequently used tools such as those used for marking and layout. Power tools are generally stored within cupboards or drawers but bulkier or frequently used power tools are kept on a wall- mounted shelf. The clamp rack was designed to take up minimal floor space.
Turning tools are traditionally wall-mounted behind the lathe. As most of my turning is between centres for furniture components this doesn’t restrict tool movement, however an increasing interest in decorative turning caused me to consider how I could make better use of space behind the lathe. To maximise clearance from the wall for hollowing work, I decided to mount the tools on removable panels hung off wall-mounted cleats.
Recently I have been questioning the economics of storing quantities of timber. As a timber hoarder I have learnt from experience that cheap purchases rarely make economic sense unless there is a certain need for use within the following year. I am now trying to limit myself to the storage of species that are either difficult to find or highly figured.
Above left: Lathe tool storage panels are mounted on cleats for easy removal.
Above right: Handy lamp bracket slides along an angled wall cleat.
Was it worth it?
So there you have it. I find discussions on workshop layout share a lot in common with parental advice in that everyone seems to have an opinion. In the end, as I have also found with parenting, I have learnt that it’s wise to listen to and consider sage advice, but then blaze your own path to determine what works best for you. I hope my experience may kindle a few thoughts for any of you that have been putting off the inevitable workshop overhaul.
Troy McDonald is an engineer and woodworker based in Brisbane.