Canadian Woodworking

7 steps to organizing your small shop

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: June July 2019
small shop organization
small shop organization

Just because your shop space is limited doesn’t mean you can’t build great things in it. Clean it up, organize it and get serious about what work you want to do it in, and you will be shocked at how productive and fun it will be to spend time in.

I have a shop about 425 sq. ft. This is huge according to many hobby woodworkers, but for a professional shop this is a shockingly small amount of real estate to work with. Most other professional woodworkers need at the very least double the space, though I get by just fine. When I’m not editing CW&HI I work in a small, detached garage shop on my property, where I make studio furniture, do the odd home improvement and, more and more lately, teach my kids about the tools and techniques involved in this great hobby and trade.

I love spending time in my shop, but it only works well for me because I have set it up specifically for the type of work I do. Let me give you a few tips on how you can set up your shop space to work wonders for you, no matter how much square footage you have to work with. To be honest, I won’t have you building massive kitchens in your crawlspace shop, but I think I can help you make it seem like you have a lot more space than you actually do. While I make money building furniture, for this article I’m going to gear the discussion around the hobby woodworker and the challenges they typically face when setting up a shop to work in.

Determine Your Goals
If building wall units, kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities is your thing you will have to make room in your shop for sheet goods. Not only bringing them into the shop and cutting them to size, but also storing them. This sheet goods storage area was one of the first things Brown built when he moved into his new shop.

To-Scale Drawing
Rather than move heavy machinery around your shop to see where it fits best, create a to-scale drawing of your shop's perimeter and any obstacles, then cut out to-scale machines and fixtures that you can easily position on the page.

Different Stages, Same Corner
Brown emptied his shop while finishing its interior (top). Once it was complete, he moved in all of his machines, tools and fixtures (middle). Over the years he's added more tools and accessories, and small adjustments have been needed to fit everything in nicely (bottom).

Start Big
 Larger machines, like Brown's table saw, were positioned first. Once they were in place it was a lot easier to get a sense of how the layout was going to work. What everyone starts with is going to be different.

Measure It Up
Brown wanted to ensure the distance behind the blade of his table saw was at least 8' so he could properly cut a full sheet of material.

A Place for Everything
 Everything should have a place, especially often used items. A nail, screw or hook is often all that's needed. Here, Brown drove a few screws into the side of a storage cabinet to store some power tool accessories.

Simple Storage
Brown made this simple storage cabinet for the power tools he uses regularly. With them out from behind closed doors, they're easier to see and access. You can get fancy with shop storage, but it's certainly not necessary.

1. Make Some Tough Decisions

Now’s the time for being honest with yourself. The first order of business is to determine what type of work you want to do in your shop. If built-ins, vanities and a new set of kitchen cabinets is on your to-do list you will need to be able to deal with 4×8 sheet goods and have enough space to temporarily assemble cabinets before they get installed in your home. Unless you have a very large space you will have to focus on having only the necessary tools and machines on hand so you can have some open space.

On the other end of the space spectrum, if you plan on turning you’ll be able to get by with much less space. Only a few medium-sized machines are truly necessary for turning, and the work you produce doesn’t need a large open area to handle. The same can be said for doing lots of marquetry work, scroll saw work and many other pastimes that don’t require much in terms of larger machinery or large work-in-progress.

Most people will probably fall somewhere in the middle. Most people will likely also want to do many different things in their shop, so this will be a judgement call for each person. If space really is an issue, you will have to get creative with being able to have a flexible shop layout, doing your best to be very organized or whatever other way you can think of to make your dream work.

2. Clear the Shop of Unnecessary Stuff

I know what you’re saying…”But I also have to squeeze the riding lawnmower, speed boat and family car into my detached garage shop.” If that’s truly the case you must work around that, but if you can park and tarp your lawnmower at a friend’s house for the winter, store your boat at a marina and purchase or build a shelter for the family vehicle, you will have a lot more flexibility when it comes to your shop space.

And don’t forget about the small stuff. Everything from chain saws and wheelbarrows to hockey sticks and winter tires should at least be seriously looked at. To get serious about the small amount of shop space that you do have, you must remove all of the items that don’t really need to be there. Maybe your first project should be to build a shed in the backyard for many of these items. If you really can’t move non-woodworking related items out of the shop, do your very best to store them properly and out of the way as much as possible. Overhead storage and well-thought-out, dedicated shelving are good places to start.

3. Dream It, Then Plan It

This step is more about careful consideration than anything else. Now that you have the shop space as clear as possible, it’s time to consider all of your machines, hand tools, workbench, storage and any other shop items you will need to fit into the space. If your space really is tiny there might be only one or two options for layout, but if you have even a medium amount of space there will be many options.

A great place to start is with a to-scale drawing of your shop perimeter, as well as to-scale cutouts of the different items that need to be considered. Cut out the items that need to be stored, place them on top of the drawing of the space and move them around until you think you have a good fit. It’s probably best to start with the largest items and/or the items that will be the most critical in your shop. If working with sheet goods is your number one priority, you should start with your table saw or track saw station, as well as make room for sheet good storage. If turning is your thing, positioning your lathe right in front of a window, with ample room surrounding it, is your first move. Everyone is different, and everyone has different priorities, so focus on your own workflow needs at this stage.

Don’t forget to consider obstructions like supporting posts, door swing, low ceiling areas and any other challenges that could pose problems. Also, if this is a basement workshop make sure you can move raw materials and finished projects in and out of the shop. Using windows, removing walls and planning an outdoor assembly area might be solutions to these problems. They were all part of the solution when I worked in my first basement shop. Also part of my solution was to create a covered area outside where I could break down larger raw materials, as well as do finished assembly of any larger pieces of furniture.

As if you didn’t have enough to think about, if you can see yourself making any medium- to large-size purchase in the near future, you might want to consider where those items would go. It’s always easy to find a spot to house a new drill, but moving up from a tabletop jointer to a floor-standing 8″ jointer is different.

4. Prepare the Space

Once you have a floor plan you feel will work, you should prepare the space to accept all the items. Maybe the walls could use a coat of paint. A few new windows might be helpful to bring some natural light into the space. Electrical outlets or extra lighting could be added. It’s a lot easier to do this work before bringing all of the machines and tools into place.

Other things you can make are additional storage cabinets or shelving, though these items might be easier to build once your new shop is up and running. I find it’s best to have a storage space for everything, and keep everything in that space. Consider all of your power tools as well. A wall-hung shelving unit for your routers, sanders, drills and other accessories are all good options. If you have to consider heating, now is the time. Adding insulation, whether for heating purposes or for soundproofing your shop, should be considered now too.

Preparing for dust is something that might have to be considered. A dust collection system might have to be added to your current selection of equipment, and running any ductwork now may be the easiest option.

5. Bring in the Big Ones

The largest machines, as well as fixtures like your workbench, large storage cabinets and any other items that you need to seriously consider when it comes to workflow and space. If you have large tool cabinets or storage cabinets, it’s probably easier to empty them before putting them in place, but that may not be true. Once you’ve put them in place according to your paper cutout diagram, get to work. Well…pretend to get to work. Just picture yourself in your fully organized shop, working on a project. Cutting sheet goods, dressing solid lumber, sanding, assembling, finishing, and turning all can be considered, depending on your needs.

Get your measuring tape out and check some critical distances. If you’re going to be working with sheet goods, check that you have at least 8′ from the blade on your table saw to the nearest object directly behind it. If you don’t have that, with a bit of extra room for comfort, you will have a hard time ripping those sheets that come into your shop, unless you have a different method for cutting sheets to size, obviously.

Make sure the lighting is going to be adequate. Ensure you can get raw materials into your space and finished work out of your space. Make any adjustments to these larger items so workflow and logistics are as dialled in as possible.

6. Add the Smaller Items

Bring in all the hand tools, power tools, accessories, finishing supplies, etc., that you have, and do your best to keep it organized. Again, everything has a place, and everything in its place. Making any wall boards to help organize any items is a great idea. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting a small cleat on the wall, driving a few screws into it, and hanging a few items on it so they’re out of the way.

It’s at this point you should do your very best to get seriously organized. If you start off with loads of loose stuff just sitting on the floor, it will likely stay that way for a long time, and only hinder you along the way.

Again, keep in mind any new tool purchases you might have in the future. It’s sometimes hard to predict exactly what you will buy down the road, but if you’ve always wanted a new item, and now have the money and space for it, it might be good to at least consider how that would change your shop layout.

7. Test and Adjust

At some point you have you stop working on your shop and start working on your next project. Once you do this you will likely realize a few changes have to be made, and that’s fine. All the planning in the world, in addition to a lot of critical thinking with just the larger items in place, won’t tell you all the little details that you need to know. Working in the space is the only way to do that.

Don’t make too many big changes right away, unless it’s exceptionally obvious they’re needed. As you learn how your new workflow goes, and where you have troubles, you can start to fine tune. It might be that moving your table saw 8″ to one side, or turning it on an angle, is all that’s needed. It might be a lot bigger than that though. Be open to any adjustments as you work. Even if you just pick off a small improvement now and then, and over the next year work your way to a perfect shop in between furniture projects, you’re going to be in a much better position to know what changes to make.

Sometimes the simplest changes make a huge impact. A few years ago I built a very simple wall shelf to store my routers, a few sanders, and a bunch of accessories. I was shocked how it made working in my shop a lot simpler and smoother. If you look hard enough you will realize what your shop needs, and then you can put the final pieces of the puzzle into place.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

1 comment

  1. Rob,
    Great small shop article. Other concepts to embrace are portability and dual purpose. The largest items obviously need to remain fixed. However my two band saws, mitre saw and planer are on wheeled carts. The planer can accept 8′ planks by wheeling it in between the two benches (carefully levelled) which act as infeed and outfeeds, with dust collection ducting added when in use. Table saw outfeed is hinged and infeed is latched to the rail when required for up to 8′ lengths. The router table lives under the bench when not in use. I see you have drawers fitted under your bench – I will look into making those. Please keep up the good work.

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