Canadian Woodworking

8 real life shops

Author: Rob Brown
Published: April May 2011
Real Life Shops
Real Life Shops

From basements and crawlspaces to outbuildings and apartments, there’s a shop here for everyone. This collection is about as diverse as can be.


Crawlspace Shop

By Rachel Harnett
Owner: Scott Harnett, Hobby Woodworker
Projects: Small family projects
Shop Size & Layout: 10′ x 7′, 70 sq ft. in a crawlspace

For small business owner Scott Harnett, his interest in wood­working began while he was in Newfoundland admiring whittled ob­jects carved by local artisans. “I wanted to try to make the same projects [wood­en links and a ball in a box all carved from the same piece of wood] and the interest in wood grew from there.” Years later, when Harnett became a home­owner, the previous owners had left an old workbench that was too bulky and heavy to move out of the basement. Harnett decided to keep the workbench in the crawlspace and build a workshop around it to pursue his hobby. It’s set in the midst of an area that also stores many boxes of his wife’s school sup­plies, Christmas supplies, old toys and baby clothes. The workspace is incred­ibly small – 70 square feet in total – but what makes this space stand out is the headroom. The ceiling is only 4 ½’ high and Harnett is over 6′ tall.

For Harnett, however, the space works. He moves around his workshop while sitting on a wheelie chair, making small projects for himself and his family. Harnett has made train set pieces for his son and prepared crown moulding using his variety of basic woodworking tools, amongst other small projects.

In terms of organizing, Harnett says, “I use whatever nooks and crannies are available to me.” This includes shelving made from the joist bracing and HVAC strapping. Steel I-beams are used to clamp items, such as the draped heavy nylon sheeting that surrounds his space to minimize wood dust from escaping to other areas of the house and crawlspace. Noise isn’t much of an issue in the shop because the walls of boxes muffle sound quite well.

“It’s not a professional shop by any means, but it’s fun to tin­ker in,” says Harnett. “It’s very solitary. It’s not like you get a lot of traffic in the crawl space. It’s the dog who visits me most and I’ve got a radio down there so I can listen to music.”

Sitting down on the Job
Scott Harnett set up his hobby shop in his crawlspace because there was no other option. He sits in an office chair while he works and stores frequently used tools below his seat. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Sharing with the Car
Bruce McMahon enclosed a space for a car in his large two-car garage, then carefully set up shop in the remainder of the space. (Photos by Matt Dunkin)

Wood Burning Fireplace
Though it doesn’t work for everyone, McMahon used a fireplace to heat his shop in colder months. This method has its pros and cons but can be used safely in the right situation.

The Workbench is Central
 In the foreground is Fidgen’s dedicated sharpening bench, on the left his tool cabinet. His workbench is in the middle of the workspace and against the back wall is a treadle lathe. (Photos by Tom Fidgen)

At Arm’s Length
Handsaws hang behind the workbench on the wall – proper tool storage is a must in a small workshop. 

Dedicated Shop
Jeff Cadence built this shop on his country property. Because he started from scratch he had more options to choose from in terms of layout, size and extras. (Photos by Matt Dunkin)

Dust-free Storage
By recycling this map storage cabinet Cadence has lots of area for storing smaller items.

The Great Outdoors
Egon Reske keeps most of his equipment and material inside his basement shop … until it’s warm enough to expand. In warmer weather he moves some of his machinery outside (below) and enjoys the fresh air while working on projects. (Photos by Egon Reske)

Shop on Wheels
Matt Dunkin had a trailer custom built so he could comfortably bring all his tools with him to different jobsites. He secured everything with bungee cords, braces or straps so nothing would be damaged during transport. (Photos by Matt Dunkin)

Open Air
When Dunkin arrives at the jobsite he often ends up working outside on a lawn or patio. He keeps an eye on the weather as to avoid getting caught out in a thunderstorm.

An Apartment Bedroom
Phil McCurdy set up shop in a spare 8' x 8' apartment bedroom. Although unorthodox, he’s organized so the space works well for him. It’s a rare project that has McCurdy storing or using items in other areas of the apartment. The coffee table makes a nice sharpening bench and he even had his lathe set up in the kitchen for a short period of time. (Photos by Phil McCurdy)

Double Duty Room
 About the only non-woodworking item in McCurdy’s shop is his clothes dryer. But you must admit … it makes a nice drill press stand! 

“Live And Work” Shop
Rob Rivison owns a two-storey building on a busy city street. He works on the main level and will eventually live on the upper level, completing the commute to work in less than a minute. After he purchased the building part of the renovations included going to great extents to separate the living and working spaces for a host of practical reasons. (Photos by Matt Dunkin)

 Village Shop in Part of a Double-Car Garage

By Matt Dunkin
Owner: Bruce McMahon, Teacher, Woodworker
Projects: Furniture
Shop Size & Layout: approx. 300 sq ft. in an L-Shape

Bruce McMahon of Lakefield, Ontario has carved an eco­nomical shop out of a double-car garage on his property on the edge of the village where the lots are large. A full-time teacher and volunteer firefighter, McMahon spends time in his shop whenever he can, creating furniture for friends, pieces to donate to local fundraisers or props for historical re-enact­ments with his high school classes.

Because space is at a premium and most of the shop is just about 10 ft. wide, McMahon has developed efficient storage strategies for tools and materials, lining series of tools together so that feeding overlaps individual tools, and using others on wheels to provide the flexibility he needs. The shop is heated with a woodstove, which allows him to burn scraps and not heat continuously during the winter months. The downside is that periodically he needs to sand surface rust off and wax the steel surfaces of tools like his jointer. He also notices the effect of heating and cooling on the furniture and wood with which he works. He had a eureka moment when he saw the anti-fatigue mats in a relative’s milking barn and has outfitted his shop with the thick rubber mats sourced from a local agri­cultural supply store. Careful window placement allows McMahon to infeed and outfeed 16 ft. long material if he needs to. His next project hangs near his table saw – an ancient cedar-strip canoe needing restoration that will make for lovely paddles on the nearby Kawartha Lakes.

Urban ‘Unplugged’ Basement Shop

By Tom Fidgen
Owner: Tom Fidgen, Furniture Maker, Writer
Projects: Furniture
Shop Size: 144 sq ft.

One hundred and forty-four square feet; that’s 12′ x 12′.

Not exactly what you’d call a ‘dream shop’ but three years ago I decided to make a go at building custom furniture in a small basement workspace. How was this possible? Two words: hand tools.

As it turns out, 144 sq ft. is all the room I needed to build small to mid-size pieces of furniture using only hand tools. In the middle of my work area is my workbench – that’s a given. Alongside the workbench is my dedicated sharpening bench, my treadle lathe and my tool cabinet. I have two workhorses that I refer to as ‘shop bents’ and I also have a saw bench where I dimension all of my stock.

That’s pretty much it. This is all I need to do the work I do. The key to a successful work environment is getting set up as best as you can to suit the work that you do. That involves tak­ing the time to set up your own shop space so that things will flow whatever size and scale you’re working in and keeping things tidy along the way.

Let the space define the scope of your work. If you’re into building huge period armoires then maybe you should rethink a small basement shop. If you have a look at my book, Made by Hand, then you’ll see some examples of the projects I’ve made in this basement wood shop. I don’t think that I would have been able to pull it off with power tools. The dust and the noise would have been too much for an area this size.

Ceiling heights, lighting and assembly areas are the three things that I constantly struggled with over the past three years. I built a large traditional frame and panel door out of solid oak for a Heritage Property in Toronto last year but the door couldn’t be assembled in my shop. I needed to do all of the prep work down stairs and then the final assembly happened on my dining room floor! Another source of frustration was a pair of walnut bookshelves I recently made. They had through dovetails for the carcase joinery but I wasn’t able to stand the planks upright in my shop because of the low ceiling height. I resorted to sawing the dovetails with the planks lying flat on the workbench instead of in a face vise held in an upright position. It was less than ideal but it worked.

That’s the reality of working in a small space, sometimes you need to adapt or ‘bend’ a little bit. That said, it’s these chal­lenges that keep it interesting and having my quiet workshop a few steps away from my living space has worked out great for me. Maybe it’ll work for you.

Country Detached Home Shop

By Matt Dunkin
Owner: Jeff Cadence, Carpenter
Projects: Furniture & Custom Cabinetry
Shop Size: 1000 sq ft.

Twelve years ago, woodworker Jeff Cadence built a de­tached shop on his rural property near Keene, Ontario to allow him the space to operate his custom carpentry busi­ness. Since taking a job at Trent University, he doesn’t use it as much as he would like, but it continues to be an inspiring place to build furniture in his spare time. He found that build­ing in a rural setting allowed him more relaxed possibilities, including a larger shop, greater set-backs and the ability to incorporate features like a dedicated spray booth. The shop is built on a concrete slab-on-grade foundation that Cadence would insulate if he were to do it again. The space is heated by a repurposed forced-air oil furnace and he keeps the heat low during the winter months to keep things from freezing up when not in use.

A large, bright open area of the main shop has a cathe­dral ceiling with skylights, and clerestory windows admit indirect light. Beside the main shop area he framed in a dedicated spray room and a room that was intended to be an office for his business, although he found he preferred chatting with clients over drawings at his kitchen table, sit­ting on chairs that he designed and built himself. In the space above the spray room and office is a loft for drying lumber and storing materials. Cadence came across a deep map cabinet with shallow drawers being discarded from a government office and gave it a new life as a convenient dust-free storage area for hand tools and other supplies. A filter-less agricultural exhaust fan distributes ambient wood dust harmlessly out into the adjacent field, a simple tech­nique that you can only employ in the country. A pleasant environment, Cadence’s shop has been used variously over the years to produce whole kitchens, create sculptures, and as a learning environment for individuals and groups to take a foray into woodworking by tackling such projects as mak­ing paddles.

Indoor/Outdoor Shop

By Rob Brown
Owner: Egon Reske, Retired Hobby Woodworker
Projects: Furniture and Built-Ins
Shop Size & Layout: 200 sq ft. Indoors and a Yard Outdoors

Egon Reske’s Bridgewater, Nova Scotia home – a three-sto­rey house of 2015 sq ft. with a walk out basement on one side – is where he’s set up a hobby shop. There’s a 10′ x 20′ ga­rage on the ground floor of his house and Reske has managed to shoehorn an incredible amount of machinery and materi­als into his space. It eventually reached a tipping point, and on warmer days he allows his projects and machinery to spill out onto the side yard patio, giving him a whole lot of breathing room – and fresh air. He machines furniture parts, sands sur­faces, and even applies a finish under the sun. It’s also a great place to mill lumber to size.

“We have a woodlot out in the country from which I cut trees and make attempts to convert them into lumber using a home built chainsaw mill,” says Reske of one of his favou­rite tasks. “The wood is not cut to any specific dimension but rather to what I feel is the closest to Quartersawn possible. I really enjoy this aspect and could spend all my time doing it.”

Indoors, his worktable is made from solid spruce lumber­yard stock covered with plywood. A rack overhead holds various items of lumber large and small. As Reske says, “It’s not pretty but it’s strong.” The King bandsaw has folding tables on both sides so longer and heavier pieces of wood can be handled. These tables are also used as work surfaces. The jointer has wheels and is easily moved outside. The radial arm saw can also be moved outside if needed, but it usually remains inside. The tablesaw’s surface and his workbench are the same height for material handling purposes. He tells me it’s just possible to rip a 4×8 sheet of plywood down the middle of the space or to handle a 9′ long board on the bandsaw. The mitre saw is set up on another wall and can handle 12′ long planks. The planer has a dedicated table with long infeed and outfeed support that it’s placed on when outside. Reske adds “works well for what I use it for.” It also serves him well as a workbench.

Shop on Wheels

By Matt Dunkin
Owner: Matt Dunkin, Carpenter
Projects: Renovations
Shop Size & Layout: 45 sq ft. trailer

My renovation and custom carpentry work is largely based in the homes of my clients, so my tools must be as mo­bile as I am. While it is not an actual “shop,” the utility trailer I had custom built a few years ago allows me the freedom to arrive at a job site with a full arsenal of tools and set up a site-based temporary shop. I can transport tools, materials and cabinetry safely and securely in any weather and leave the trailer at a job site for the duration of the project, setting tools up in whatever shelter is available to me: a spare room, a ga­rage, veranda or driveway.

Ordering a custom trailer was a bit more expensive than purchasing a stock model, but well worth it. To save my beleaguered back, I stipulated that it be tall enough that I could stand fully upright inside (I’m 6′ 1″). My driveway at home is tight, so I narrowed the base a bit from the standard 6′ to 5′ wide. And I wanted to be able to easily carry sheet goods so I made sure that the main body of the trailer was 8′ long with a V-front to make it more aerodynamic and provide extra room for long material. I chose a swinging door at the back instead of the fold-down ramp option, and chose a side door for addi­tional access. I placed my order and had to wait about six weeks for it to arrive before I could begin outfitting it. Early on I decided that I would carry fasteners and supplies in the back of my truck and leave the trailer for dedicated tool storage. A beefy hitch lock keeps me from worrying about theft.

The organization of the trailer was a fun challenge, and one I must revisit periodically as my tool needs evolve. I chose my largest tools and built around them: my folding tablesaw and shop vac are near the back of the trailer on the same side. Heavy tools are located on the floor to provide ballast and are balanced over the wheels to reduce weight on the tongue; the shelves above them house bins, toolboxes and loose tools. I left a central corridor about 2′ 6″ wide so that I can walk in and out and so that heavy items like several sheets of ply­wood can be centrally located in the trailer. I built a narrow rack for power tools on the opposite wall, and store cords and tool belts on solid hooks below. Bungee cords across the tools prone to tipping mean that they can’t shift around during trans­port. Investing in the trailer and customizing it has paid huge dividends over the last few years in terms of my efficiency and sanity as I work – wasting time finding lost tools, and travelling home to get tools I need is thankfully rare now.

Apartment Bedroom Shop

By Rob Brown
Owner: Phil McCurdy, Hobby Woodworker & Web Designer
Projects: Small Items
Shop Size: 64 sq ft.

The 8′ x 8′ shop area that Phil McCurdy spends time in is different than most. It’s on the top floor of an apartment building, in a spare bedroom. He’s been accumulating tools and working on improving his finishing over the last year while he fine-tunes his layout. “Time’s finally come that I can start making things with more than one piece of wood. First up will be some better storage and a bench for the shop. Limited space means I’m limited to making table-top items, not tables,” says McCurdy, who is located just outside of Toronto.

Work often overflows into other areas of the apartment. The kitchen can provide more space when needed, and the cof­fee table in the living room makes for a comfortable place to set up for sharpening sessions. He laughs about his situation a bit. “Good thing I’m single: there’s not a woman in a million that’d put up with it.”

Surprisingly, noise isn’t an issue. He’s in the top floor end unit with the shop in the room farthest from the neighbours. He’s talked to them and the only thing they’ve noticed is the shop vac running; though they were puzzled when they met him in the stairwell carrying in tools, machinery and lumber. The landlord’s green with envy and loves to check out what’s new in tools and projects every time he picks up the rent.

Machinery and tools are kept to a scale commensurate with the size of the shop. An Atlas 8″ table saw (18×20″ top), Delta Midi Lathe (10″ diameter), Ryobi 10″ drill press, 4″ table­top jointer and a host of hand tools and small power tools. Arriving any day now is a Ryobi 9″ bandsaw, though McCurdy admits he has no idea where it’s going to go. Even the hand tools need to be carefully thought through. “I just picked up a Veritas skew block plane instead of the plough plane because of the size issues I have.”

Although nearly everything is thought out before McCurdy jumps to action, he did forget to leave room for material storage while design­ing his space. Stock is purchased as needed and typically limited to 2×4′ unless he specifically needs some­thing bigger. In such a case, he has it cut to size at the lumber yard before bringing it home. “Getting material in and out is no problem, as long as you don’t count carrying it up a few long flights of stairs,” he jokes.

Any advice for others in this situa­tion, Phil? “Plan ahead,” he quickly replies. “I did re-arrange the room once and it was a nightmare that disrupted the entire apartment. Sketch-up has been invaluable for figuring out how to make everything fit – even the little jointer had a spot planned and was measured to the half-inch before I agreed to buy it.”

Urban Shop in a Renovated Historic Mattress Factory

By Matt Dunkin
Owner: Robin Rivison, Carpenter & General Contractor
Projects: Custom Cabinetry, Built-ins
Shop Size & Layout: 1100 sq ft. plus storage space in full basement below

Robin Rivison of Peterborough, Ontario has been renovat­ing a historic mattress factory, the upper floors of which were destroyed by fire in the ’80s. Hoping to eventually live above the shop in the upper two floors of the building, Rivison has gone to great lengths to separate the shop from future liv­ing space by giving it a separate entrance, and soundproofing the ceiling with insulation and 5/8″ gypsum wall board attached to resilient channel. He chose a boiler, housed in the full base­ment beneath the shop that will feed radiant floor heating loops for the entire building so that dust is not making its way into the living space above.

Rivison faced challenges in getting a minor variance to establish a larger-than normal home-based wood shop in a residential urban neighbourhood because of the opposition of some neighbours concerned about noise, dust and traf­fic. Despite some opposition, and restrictions like not being able to include a spray booth in the shop, he has been able to create a shop that is beautiful, bright and clean and houses impressive dust collection systems, as well as finely finished details, even on shop-made brackets and benches. A large Italian combination machine takes up a central place in the shop and Rivison has constructed an impressive assembly and sanding bench with plenty of storage beneath it for sup­plies and clamps. He has finished and painted the walls a vibrant red, installed a variety of different lighting types, and will continue to restore the windows to the building as time and budget permit. Over the years he has developed a sense of what he wants in a shop and is intentionally building this one to be the culmination of his dreams and experience in both building and shop design.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

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

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