Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Woodworking in a small space

I often think about woodworking in a small space, in part because I am older and think that at some point I may be forced to downsize from my three car garage.  I also think about it because my sons, like many other younger people, live in major metropolitan areas in unbelievably expensive houses with one car garages.  One of the great strengths of hand tool woodworking is that it works so well in these circumstances.

Woodworking in a small space certainly works best if it is centered on hand tools.   I definitely think that a Moravian portable workbench is the way to go.  It is the consummate design if portability and compact storability are priorities (and right up there even if they aren't).  I am also a big fan of tool chests, particularly in shops that aren't climate controlled. I like to reserve wall space for shelves and windows.  The bench and chest would store away easily and quickly in an extremely small area.

The problem with a hand tool only workshop as far as I am concerned is that it requires laborious and tedious manual stock preparation that I don't want to do, mainly because I am lazy and impatient.  Specifically, I avoid long rip cuts, resawing and planing to thickness by hand.  I reject the assertion by some prominent woodworkers that relying on machines for these operations numbs the mind and destroys the soul.  I want machines to do this work for me and think of them as mechanical apprentices.  If you like to do these things by hand, my hat is off to you.  I don't.

What big power tools would I not live without if at all possible, even in a very limited space?  Three, in order of importance:
  1. A very high quality bandsaw.  I had a mediocre one from a major manufacturer that I rarely used, then I sold it and my tablesaw and got a good one that I use a whole lot.  It is just so incredibly versatile, it's quite safe, and it takes up only about 4 square feet of floor space.  If I had just one big power tool, this would definitely be it.  I think it's worth it to spend the money to get a really good one if you can.  3 hp., excellent guides, close tolerances, rigid...  Yes, one like this is expensive, but it is a lifetime tool.
  2. A good lunchbox planer.  Yes you can plane everything by hand but I don't want to and buying lumber planed to the right thickness is far too limiting.  It isn't absolutely essential because you could resaw with the bandsaw and then finish plane without too much trouble but I'd still like to have one.  Mount it on a cabinet and you have room for storage below.  A lunchbox planer is good enough.
  3. A basic drill press.  I could definitely do without a drill press but I really like it and find it handy for a lot of things.  They take up very little floor space.  Doesn't have to be real big or real good.  A benchtop one mounted on a cabinet that housed the planer below would be fine. 
These three tools on mobile bases would store in a dozen square feet of floor space.  Just think about how extremely compact this entire, highly capable workshop would be when not in use.  Two feet in front of the back wall of a one car garage would do it for the bench, the chest and the power tools.  I could be quite content in a workshop like this.  I wouldn't even need the planer and the drill press but I would be very reluctant to give up the bandsaw.

It's true that the hand tools and these three power tools add up to a fair amount of money and the hand tools should come first.  All of them together cost a lot less than many people spend on other hobbies.  I could still have fun with only the hand tools.

I find this very encouraging.  Hobby woodworking is in decline, in part because people have limited space and the skills aren't taught in schools anymore.  Make it as easy as possible.


  1. Andy,

    Great post, maybe because I've been thinking along the same lines. Great post even if I were not.

    I expect a move to be close to the kids is in our future as well and there is the cost of moving heavy pig iron to consider as well as space. While I use the big planer and will even use the jointer some they could go but as long as I'm working wood the bandsaw stays. Of course the TS is already mostly history I just can't find anyone to take it. BTW, I'm thinking of replacing my bandsaw with (I hope) a better one. My first pick was the 18" Powermatic but that is one big hunk of iron. Currently I'm leaning towards a 18" Laguna. If you do not mind, what did you end up with?

    BTW, this week it is close to the kids, next week it will be back to Oregon :-). I expect the kids and grandkids will win.


    P.S. The full sized Moravian is great. After working on it a couple of weeks I enlisted MsBubba's help with shoving it and the Roubo around the shop this AM. The Moravian is in the place of honor and I expect it will stay there.

    1. Ken,

      I got this one: https://lagunatools.com/classic-machinery/bandsaws/lt14-14-suv/ The SUV just means it has a number of upgrades. Even though it is only 14" it has always had adequate capacity for what I do. At 220v, 3 hp. it has more than enough power. The chief limitation is the 13.25" throat depth. The 18" saw would obviously be better in that regard but I wanted to be able to move it around easily. The table is a little low for me so I built a riser on the mobile base. Works great. I think the smaller saw goes with the idea of woodworking in a small space.

      Laguna has had some ups and downs but after 6 years of ownership I am satisfied.

  2. I like how you called them mechanical apprentices and I agree on the three to have.

  3. This makes perfect sense.
    I don't even have a one car garage. My car is in the small garden in front of the house. So I managed to have a few square meter in the attic.
    I have used the drill press for metal work most of the time (e.g. to tweak some crappola woodworking hand tools).
    You will note that after so many years, the first machine introduced by Paul Sellers is the band saw.
    Of course one also need some tool for house repair like a hand held electric drill. (Houses are made in bricks and concrete in my country).


  4. When I moved from a house with 2-car garage (where I used half the garage as my shop, working with powered equipment) to one with a small 1-car garage already half full of laundry machines, bikes and stuff storage, all my ww machinery went into storage and has remained there for the last 5.5 years. This was my impetus for getting into hand tools and I'm so happy about it. In storage are a drill press, table saw, lunchbox planer, router and poorly working jointer. Never had a band saw, but if I ever get a larger space to work in, a band saw is high on the list.

    Taking stock from rough sawn to final dimensions can take 40 to 70% of my total time on a project, depending on the project. It's no wonder I'm so slow. As I get older I'll need to depend on machines more. But I like the challenge of getting my wood to dimension by hand and I love that it's so much quieter and safer.

    There's a lot to think about when deciding between hand and power.