Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Garage workshops

There isn't much question in my mind that the ideal situation for a workshop is a separate building built to purpose.  Well-insulated, lots of natural light, high-ceilings, wood floors ... the list goes on and on.  If there was a suitable place on my suburban lot, exactly that would happen in short order.

Reality for many of us is different; woodworking happens either in the basement or in the garage.  I am luckier than many in that I have a three-car garage, but it has to accommodate four hobbies-- gardening, tent camping, biking and woodworking--as well as the usual paraphernalia for home maintenance.  (The cars stay in the driveway.)  Woodworking gets the lion's share, but the space is just plain awkward.  It's not big enough, there's not a lot of available wall space, it can be too cold and there is almost no natural light when the garage doors are closed.  These are issues faced by many woodworkers and I hope this discussion will be useful.

Here's the garage from the street:

The two bays on the left are 20' deep and the one on the right is 24' deep.  The overall width is 31'.  The ceilings are 9 1/2' high.

My bench has been on the right side behind the single door since we moved here almost 4 years ago and I  am keeping it there.  One goal I have is to store everything I use regularly at the bench no more than a step or two from it.  I've been short on accessible storage next to my bench, so the first thing I did this spring was build floor to ceiling shelves along the right side of it:

60 lineal feet of shelves was a big improvement, although I do have to use a ladder to reach the top shelf.    An alternative favored by many is to install wall cabinets for tools, which would look nicer but not be more functional.  My personal preference is shelves.  They cost very little, are quick to build and have a lot more capacity.  Extending them to the ceiling allowed me to secure them to the top plate.

  On the left side of the bench, I have my tool chest and an antique butcher block that I will be using as a joinery bench.  I raised it up to be 38" off the ground.

This let me put my main bench back down to palm height, 35" in my case.

The flooring is utility mats made from recycled tires that I got at a ranch store.  As far as I am concerned, they are ideal because they create a vapor barrier, are easy on the feet and protect dropped tools.

Working at the bench in good weather is great because I can put the garage door up and have lots of natural light.  Because the garage doors lack windows, the shop feels like a dungeon when they are closed, even though I have half a dozen LED fixtures.  I had hoped to replace one section of the door with one that has windows, but neither the manufacturer nor the local distributor would consider it.  The best they can offer is a brand new door with the top two of four sections containing windows, at a cost of $1,200.  I am considering it but it aggravates me to replace a perfectly good door.  Right now I am thinking about building my own replacement section using polycarbonate for windows.  It looks like I could just unbolt the existing one and bolt on a replacement, using the existing steel supports around the perimeter and the same hinges.  I think I could keep it light enough to operate properly.

I'd really like to have no power tools in this space, but the deeper bay, electrical connections and other issues don't allow it, so I put the three power tools that I would replace if they failed in the back:  my bandsaw, drill press and power planer:

On the right, I have more shelves that are used primarily for hand power tools, paint and home maintenance supplies.

I am pretty satisfied with this section of the garage.  Once I solve the natural light issue, the remaining challenge will be heat for the winter months.  I'll post about that later.


  1. Shelves are a good choice but I prefer cabinets. They keep the tools dust and dirt free. And with tool holders for each tool it is easy for me to see if I have a MIA tool.

    1. Ralph,

      My tools are in the tool chest which is dust and dirt free. I used to have wall cabinets but I prefer the chest. It allows me to store a lot of tools in a small space a step or two away from where I am working. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cabinets, particularly if you have lots of wall space, which I don't.

  2. Hi Andy
    This looks pretty familiar to me, I use the single stall in my 3 stall garage for woodworking. No matter how I organize it, there is just never enough room. Along with the issues you have I find wood storage, humidity levels(either super dry or damp),and tracking dust into the house since it's attached, to be problems.
    As for your garage door window problem, you can google "garage door window replacement" and get several types of windows. Cutting them in with a cutting wheel or jigsaw is simple enough...that's how the door companies do it to. Clamp a block inside the lower section tracks to keep the door from moving and remove the top section so you can set up on some saw horses. I'm a retired contractor in Montana, I've changed out many damaged sections for people over the years.

  3. Andy,

    1+ on the failure of overhead doors for shop space. If I were damn sure I would never sell this house the overhead doors would be replaced with carriage doors. May happen anyway. I had a standalone shop before which can be ideal but....a garage shop is better than no shop and there is no room to build a stand alone.

    I like your wall of shelves.


  4. What about a roof window above the bench if there is no attic. (e.g. Velux)
    Or "sun tunnel" if there is an attic.

    But you might need an autorisation for this.
    The benefit of the roof window is that people can not easily spy on your shop.

  5. Good post, Andy. I envy that three-car garage. While we were out and about last weekend, I saw some one-level houses with three car garages and thought "ah, my dream house". Unfortunately here in the SF Bay area those houses go for $2MM.

    I have wall shelves in my garage shop and my tools (and everything else on those shelves) get very dusty. I never thought a tool chest would be a good idea because you have to move so many things to get at the tool you need, which just happens to be at the bottom. Can you comment on your experiences with this?

    1. Matt,

      This is a good question. I will write a post about it next.


  6. Love these old butcher blocks, should make a very sturdy joinery bench surface, but the top look wonky, as they are often found, you will have to flatten it to use. Yah you will loose some of its characters but...

    For the windows in the doors, I would recommend what Steve said, done it before, no biggie. either buy a commercial window unit for garage doors or make your own out of PVC "lumber". You can get double glazed units from a glass repair shop.

    Looking good, always like to see other WW shop I always pick up valuable ideas from it, in this case the butcher block idea..

    Bob, late to the party