Canadian Woodworking

Making the most of a basement workspace

Author: David Cumming
Photos: Keith Barker
Published: June July 2012
basement shop
basement shop

Although low ceilings, difficult access and limited space may pose problems, the basement is the only option for many woodworkers. Learn how one woodworker has managed to make the most of a tight situation.

We bought our house in June of 1985. We’d had a long succession of rented houses where I had always set up shop in the basement, but all of them had concrete floors and large old-style gas furnaces taking up prime real estate.

In May of that year, I was in the hospital recovering from my one and only operation. It was there that my wife, Sally, laid out the sale documents on a magazine and told me where to sign. I had only seen the house once, but the price was right, and of course a master craftsman like myself only had to glance at a house in order to properly read it. I wasn’t unduly worried. A few weeks later we moved in.

Turns out that as a reader of houses, I was functionally illiterate. The basement – where we initially crammed most of our possessions – was made up of three dark rooms, the rearmost of which was the only bathroom in the house. The bathroom – cold and damp even in the summer – was built over ½” sheets of rotting plywood, underneath which was dirt. The house is on the downside of a hill and the drain leading to the street was nearly flush with the underside of the plywood.

Deep Cabinets
Saw blades and various hand saws are stored in the top section of this wall storage cabinet, while smaller items are housed in drawers below.

Shallow Cabinets
 Even though there’s an air vent on the wall, Cumming built a very shallow cabinet around it and cut a hole in the door so airflow wouldn’t be interfered with. He now has storage behind the door as well as on both faces of the door.

Don’t Miss a Spot
 Otherwise wasted space under a stairway was transformed into a shallow cabinet to store small items

Highly Organized
In order to keep track of small router items like bits, wrenches and template guides, there’s a spot for everything, and everything is kept in its spot.

Drawers Down Low
Dozens of drawers under a counter-height work surface store so many items Cumming has to label the fronts of the drawers to keep track. This is a simple solution to storing many small items in otherwise wasted space (above). He often tears labels off hardware items and keeps them in the drawer so he knows exactly what the part is (below).

Large Items
A 15" planer is stored behind a simple door, awaiting use, while some large wooden boxes help organize miscellaneous items. Small wood storage is across the top of this cabinet.

Lungs vs. Warmth
An industrial exhaust fan can be turned on to quickly remove ambient dust from the air. The downside is that doing so brings cold air into the house during the colder months.

Tough Stuff
The bandsaw was over 6' so a couple of ceiling tiles had to be removed for it to fit. Cumming uses his bandsaw to cut rock, a material he often incorporates in his work.

Starting from nothing

Initially, of course, I had no basement shop. I would dis­mantle and move machinery from room to room, working on each in turn. After a few years I was able to get my equip­ment into the basement and after nine years of daily work, the inside of the house was mostly done.

I eventually found out that our 1920 house had been built entirely from recycled materials, c1880. The joists and the framing in the original house were of varying thicknesses and widths, no two the same. The short second-storey frame walls were out by 6″. The basement and ground-floor walls were rubble-built and the mortar was mostly green. I had quickly realized that the only way the house would continue to stand and support insulation and services was for me to build a new house inside the old one, and on new footings. This I did.

Back to the shop. Finally, going on ten years after our origi­nal closing date, I would set up my basement shop. And the only “foreign” object that couldn’t be moved was the hot water heater, which I covered with a moveable screen. Since we are on the downside of a hill, my choice was to relocate the floor drain outside somehow, or learn to live with it. I stand 5’6″, so I learned to live with it, but I would say now that I made a serious mistake. Granted, that’s hindsight.

I insulated the floor with Styrofoam, laid down a flake­board floor (cheap at the time), and later a layer of the cheapest and thinnest jack pine paneling, which I also used on the small bits of bare wall.

Storage is the key

All tools and hardware in my shop are in dedicated draw­ers or wall cabinets. I made my workbench from Manitoulin Island Yellow Birch and I have built-in MDF benches along three walls, housing my chop saw, a shop-built mortiser, a grinder, a 1×42 belt sander (much recommended), a chucked motor, and a 12″ disc sander with auxiliary shaft. My table saw is positioned for eight foot ripping, although I cannot crosscut an eight foot panel without making the first cut with my Milwaukee worm-drive.

My long-bed 8″ jointer is on a moveable base, as is my 15″ planer. My 14″ bandsaw was also on wheels until I bought the extension a couple of years ago. The new height of the saw meant I had to remove one of the ceiling tiles I installed a few years ago, and bolt down the saw. (The tiles are between the joists, not under them – the usual rack system would have low­ered them too much.) I have a floor-mounted drill press against one wall, and a wood rack at the front of the basement.

My lighting is either double 8′ fluorescent or double 4′, behind plastic. In the colder months I leave these lights on. There were two windows in the original basement. They would have had to be replaced anyway, so I removed them altogether, meaning more insulation and more wall space. I have a large industrial fan mounted in a small extension to the basement, where I also have a “cocktail bar” sink (reduced in size from the original double-stone sink I used to fantasize about). When turned on, the fan keeps the shop clear of visible dust (while at the same time of course spread­ing dust everywhere outside and lowering the temperature in the house). I have the usual two-bag portable pick-up, the usual box-type air cleaner and an old-but-still-good Milwaukee shop-vac. Dust is a serious problem in my shop (and in the house).

Fresh air is brought in through a standard heater vent, wall-mounted and connected to an exterior chimney that was probably built for the original gas furnace, but is otherwise unused. I have these vents on all three floors and periodic use of the shop fans means there is always fresh air in the house.

The maximum interior shop dimen­sions are 10½’ by 29′. The ceiling height varies between 5’10” and 6’2″. The low ceiling is the main problem I have with my shop, more serious to me than a lack of square footage. My studied and well-informed advice to any reader with a basement shop is to lower the floor to give at least a clear 8′ span. Never mind the labour, it will later prove to have been worth it.

I volunteer for the Toronto Wildlife Centre and recently made them three coyote boxes, mostly out of plywood. As well as having to make that first cut “by hand” on the plywood, I also had to assemble the boxes in my front yard (and my neighbour’s front yard, but they’re good people). Fortunately, it was a mild November. I’m used to working this way because these are the types of things one needs to do when working in a small basement shop.

David Cumming - [email protected]

For many years David was a cabinetmaker in Toronto not making any money. He is now an artist in Toronto and still not making any money.

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