Building big things in a small space
As a boy growing up in a small prairie town, I had the privilege of working with an elderly craftsman from the “old country”. Mr. Germscheid was a jack-of-all-trades who amazed me with his ability to create large pieces of furniture and cabinetry in a relatively small shop. Over the years, most of my shops have also been, well, size-challenged. However, like Mr. Germscheid, by using imagination and some common sense I’ve successfully made several large pieces of furniture. Let me share some of what I’ve learned about having big things come out of a small shop, from my mentors and through the school of hard knocks.
Break large pieces down to separate components.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Full-scale drawings help resolve production problems as well as show you how large parts will be and if you are going to have trouble getting parts upstairs.
Alternate Work Areas
Garages or outbuildings can double as extra space for tasks like finishing, assembly or temporary storage.
Extend your bench top with a piece of MDF.
You can also use sawhorses as a temporary base to support sheet stock.
Casters can be used in many different ways. The two castors at the end of this router table remain about ⅛" off the floor until the opposite end is lifted, tilting the wheels downward and bringing the casters into contact with the ground. This keeps the router table sturdy during operation, but easily movable. (Photo by Rob Brown)
Once you have the subcomponents in their final home you can assemble them for good using any metal fasteners and adhesives required.
The first thing needed to succeed is the proper mindset. Don’t let yourself be intimidated into passing up the opportunity to tackle something huge in your home workshop. Most large pieces of furniture and cabinetry can be broken down into sub-components, each small enough to be worked on individually and assembled outside the shop. As long as you are realistic and plan carefully before starting out, even the smallest of shops should be able to handle large projects.
Okay, so you’ve drawn up a full-scale plan, from which you have determined the size of each sub-assembly. The next thing you need to do is confirm whether those sub-assemblies can possibly get out of your shop. After you’ve referred to the scaled plans you made (you did make accurate scaled plans, right?), check to see if there may be any difficulties in getting all of them out of your shop. Don’t assume that just because the largest one will make it that they all will, as oddly-shaped pieces have a way of making life difficult for you when it comes time to extract them. If this check indicates there may be challenges, go ahead and make yourself a full scale mock-up using cardboard and 1×3 strapping, fastened together with hot melt glue, staples and duct tape. Because it’s light, and therefore maneuverable, you should be able to readily confirm not only if the piece can make it successfully out of the shop, but the best orientation of the piece as you wind your way out. Knowing you won’t have to fret about getting all of the soon-to-be completed sub-assemblies out of your shop, you need to look at any challenges associated with bringing the raw materials in. In most cases, with your circular or jig saw you can reduce the size of even the largest oversized plywood panels and other sheet goods and long pieces of lumber to manageable sizes before bringing them into your shop, either through its front entry door or a window. Don’t be worried about your hand-held saw’s inherent inaccuracy on any sheet goods you needed to reduce in size. If you retain at least one factory outside edge on each, it doesn’t usually matter if that saw cut edge is no longer perfectly straight. Why, even if you have to lose that factory edge, by allowing yourself a bit more material on the cut side you should be able to recut it on your shop’s more accurate tools or by using a known straight edge to guide your saw. I’m also here to tell you that your dream project’s not down the tubes just because your plan shows that some sub-assemblies are too large to be worked on in your shop. Think outside the box, or in this case, outside the shop. Is there some other area of the house, say, the garage, or an out-building, which can be pressed into service as a workspace? What about renting space at an associate’s place or commercial space if need be? Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, so don’t immediately throw your hands in the air and call it quits. Hang in there.
Space, the final frontier
Try to plan a workflow that allows only those sub-assemblies into the shop, which absolutely need to be worked on at that time. If you need to have a particular sub-assembly readily available as you work on an adjacent one and don’t have enough space to have it concurrently in the shop, place it in an adjoining room, a nearby garage or perhaps a close-at-hand outbuilding. Further, if you followed my advice and have a full-scale plan at hand, you could refer to it rather than having to measure directly from that other piece. Nonetheless, it’s always a good idea to confirm with the actual piece before committing to a final cut. Another great use for a garage or outbuilding is to house a temporary spray booth. There are some obstacles you may need to overcome, but depending on the time of year these areas may offer that much needed extra room.
The order of construction may also need to be considered. If space is that close, then consider making a scaled, 3-D model of the piece and using it to walk yourself through the construction process. The point to emphasize here, is the need to plan and to plan carefully. Sometimes by altering the sequence of machining, you can overcome an otherwise seemingly impossible assembly challenge.
Safely storing sub-assemblies until the project is complete needs to be considered, so make sure to check this out before moving ahead.
Large pieces require large work surfaces, and because this isn’t something you’ll be doing often, you may need to extend the size of your bench or assembly tables. Not to worry; get yourself some full-sized ¾” plywood or MDF sheets and lay them onto the work surface. You could also use a pair of sawhorses and some sheetstock to fashion a temporary worksurface. Don’t hesitate to move everything out of the way temporarily if that’s what’s needed to get the job done.
You may have to use some imagination when it comes to working with large components; extending side and outfeed tables on tablesaws or bandsaws are just a couple of things you may have to tackle. Having many of your machines on casters so they can be moved is another way to reconfigure the space to suit the project.
As was the case with construction and finishing, there are times when you’ll need to come up with imaginative solutions. Commercial shops usually assemble pieces on-site, so there’s no reason why you can’t also follow suit. By planning your assembly carefully before you even begin construction, things should move along easily.
By now you’ve hopefully realized that planning and imagination are the keys to success when working on large pieces. But beware: Once you’ve sunk your teeth into a large, complicated project and succeeded, you’ll be encouraged to tackle even more challenging pieces. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Oops - What to do when the piece is too big...and it’s in the basement
Stuck in the stairway leading out of your basement shop, trying to wedge that big dresser around those two tight bends? Here’s the order in which you could proceed:
➤ Remove anything from the piece that sticks out and can be unscrewed: the top; knobs or other protruding hardware. Ensure you’ve removed drawers, doors, etc. Tape drawer slides closed so they will not slide open.
➤ Tape a thin blanket to the piece so it’ll slide instead of having its finish (or worse) rubbed off as it gets squeezed and shoved along.
➤ Remove the door at the top (and bottom) of the stairway and hinges from the door frame.
➤ Remove the stair rails and supporting hardware.
➤ Look carefully at your intended route, trying to envision which position the piece should be in as it winds its way upwards. Feel free to turn the piece onto its end, top, back, whatever! You can use an old blanket as a pad underneath to spin the piece on.
➤ If you’re stuck partway up the staircase at a corner, you may have to consider cutting into the drywall to widen things enough. Before you do so, check the area with a stud-finder capable of detecting electrical wiring. If you sense any wiring, remove the power to that area before proceeding, then remove the gyproc as necessary.
➤ Assuming it’s possible to get the piece around the bend, but not through the doorway, remove the striker plate and door stop (the flat, vertical trim running up the center of the jamb that your door closes against). Still need more room? Carefully remove the door casing (the trim that sits flat against the wall at the top and sides of the door) then the door jamb and any shims you may encounter. That should give you about a full inch on each side as well as one at the top. Still not enough? Those 2x4s you’re looking at are wall studs, so before you consider removing them, have it checked by a professional to see if they’re load-bearing members. If they are, they’ll have to be shored up before removal. Start first on only one side, using a stud sensor capable of sensing electrical wiring, as explained previously, then remove any studs and drywall as may be necessary. Be careful as you cut the drywall, because you’ll have to replace it afterwards.
Such situations can be very frustrating. However, if you follow the recommendations outlined in the main article, you should seldom find yourself in such a predicament. Remember, however, that with imagination and a bit of ingenuity, you can usually get yourself out of a tight spot. Literally.