Canadian Woodworking

How to work wood even if you have no shop

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Lead Photo: Greg Forrest
Published: June July 2023
Small shop
Small shop

Just because you don’t have a detached garage or part of a basement to set up a workshop doesn’t mean you’re out of options. Get creative when looking for shop space.

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Tools give us the potential to turn rough lumber into flat, true material. Tools give us the opportunity to create strong, last­ing joinery. Tools give us a way to create smooth surfaces on which to apply a beautiful, protective finish. Amassing a decent collection of tools may not be cheap or easy, but we can make it happen one tool at a time.

There’s something else we need in order to build furniture and other woodwork: a place to use the tools and store them safely and efficiently. Creating a workshop presents another set of challenges. If you own a home there’s likely a corner of the basement or a spot in a garage you could turn into a small workshop. If you don’t own a home, or if you live in a condominium or small home without any extra space, you have to look elsewhere for that all-important shop space.

Walk-In Closet Workshop
Roger Adams, whose workshop was profiled in our June/July 2015 issue, set up a space to work in his walk-in closet. This 75-square-foot space isn’t huge, and he can’t work late into the night while others are sleeping, but it works well for him. (Photo by Roger Adams)

Walk-In Closet Workshop

Just Enough Headroom
Scott Harnett, shown here in his basement crawlspace shop, spends time making wood and metal projects in this super-low space. I bet you never thought a person who’s over 6' tall could be productive in a space with 4' ceilings. (Photo by Scott Harnett)

Small shop

Co-op Studio
Kate Duncan and Djuna Day operate Six-Points Woodworking Studios in Toronto, Ontario. This co-op space is available for rent and has all the woodworking tools and machines you’d need.

Co-op Studio

Woodworking Clubs
The Southern Alberta Woodworkers Society meets regularly and offers skill-building seminars to their members. Here, the members are at Cambium Woodwork in Calgary at a recent meeting. (Photo by S.A.W.S.)

Woodworking Clubs

Sunny Shop
Egon Reske, whose shop we featured in our April/May 2011 issue, brings his woodworking equipment outside when the weather co-operates. (Photo by Egon Reske)

Sunny Shop

My first workshop

I was lucky enough to be able to set up my first workshop in my parents’ basement. They encouraged me and added extra light­ing and moved some of the things in the basement to give me a bit more room. My second shop was also in a basement, but that one was at the end of a very narrow staircase with 6′ ceilings. Thankfully, there was a small garage outside where I could com­plete the final assembly on the larger furniture parts I brought upstairs in pieces. I’m also thankful that I’m short.

After two basement workshops, I was lucky enough to buy a house with a detached two-car garage that I worked comfortably in for many years. Ten-foot ceilings, ample lighting and an overhead door felt luxurious to me.

Over the years I’ve talked with many people who say they don’t have a space to set up a workshop, and I’ve encouraged them to take a closer look at the options to see if they could come up with something that allows them to develop their skills and satisfy their urge to create. Here are a few of the suggestions I’ve made.

1. Look More Closely at Your Living Area – When people look around their house and see no garage or extra base­ment space they throw their hands up in the air. Just because you don’t have the obvious spots for a workshop doesn’t mean you have nowhere to work wood. I’ve seen workshops in 4′ tall crawlspaces, walk-in closets and apartment bedrooms.

I think the most determined person I’ve come across is Greg Forrest, who turned their 5’×8′ condo bathroom into a surprisingly functional workshop in a matter of minutes (photo on facing page). Once the door was closed behind them, they were able to use a dedicated workbench / router table. A dolly loaded with Festool Systainers stored their power tools and accessories, while always being easily moved around to make room as needed.

2. Continuing Education Class – Sure, it won’t be your shop with your tools, but it will allow you to get into a shop, learn from a knowledgeable instructor and build a project or two, all for a reasonable price. And you may very well meet other like-minded folks looking for a long-term workshop solution and make some woodworking friends to share tools and bounce ideas off of. A rela­tionship like that might even lead to a shared workshop one day.

3. Friend / Relative – My second basement workshop was in my grandmother’s house. She was happy to have another relative drop in daily and I was very pleased to have a space to set up my tools. Aside from that tight staircase (and the fact that the 400 sq. ft. of space I had was divided among three separate rooms), this was the perfect solution.

You might have a relative or friend who’d be happy to make a bit of space in their garage or basement available to you. You may have to do a free odd job or two for them, and maybe even let them use your tools, but it might be a match made in heaven. Don’t overstretch your stay, or at the very least keep communi­cation open so everyone is on the same page. Also, make sure your tools don’t migrate out of the decided-upon area that was given to you.

4. Rent Space – There might be a small area in an industrial park you could rent, or even a portion of someone else’s space some­where. It certainly gets more expensive when renting, but if you know a few other hobby woodworkers also looking for a space you could always pool your tools, share the space and all benefit from it.

Co-op workshop spaces were started this way, but if the thought of starting up a communal workshop is more work than you’re willing to take on, there might be an opening in a local co-op shop for you to rent. Shared use of machinery and power tools is a great way to save on tool purchases and you’ll find a lot of like-minded individuals willing to share ideas and tips to help make you a better woodworker.

Renting a space might only be an option for the more serious hobby woodworker, but if the fit is good it could provide a lot of benefits.

5. Woodworking Club – Woodworking clubs are located in many Canadian cities. They generally share a shop, have regular meetings and provide a lot of great comradery. Fees are usually low and the payoff can be quite high. The challenge will be finding a club close enough to make it worth your while. Wood turning clubs are also popular.

The other option is to start your own. It would take some plan­ning, but if you’re someone who likes organizing and working with other people you might find other rewards in starting up a local club.

6. Outdoors – Working outdoors can be a fantastic experi­ence, but only if a number of things are working in your favour. The pros are you’ll have lots of space and airborne dust will take care of itself. On the downside, rain, cold and wind can wreak havoc on wood, tools and hands.
A simple 10’×10′ pop-up shelter will give you some shade and protect you from light rain, though only the toughest Canadian woodworkers would attempt to work wood through the colder months. The cold won’t affect wood much, though it causes prob­lems with adhesives, finishes and dexterity. A carport or other sheltered area could offer sturdier protection from the wind and rain if you happen to have access to one.

Putting some tools on rolling carts and having a portable workbench that can easily be set up will make working outdoors more productive.

7. Vehicle – I know it sounds weird, but I’ve seen a few shops on wheels. Whether it’s an older bus or cargo van, there’s enough room to set up a workshop space and have enough room to build something. And there’s an added benefit of never having to leave your shop behind. I’ve even come across a small bus being used as a mobile woodworking teaching area as a way to introduce kids to the trade.

8. Social Media – The internet might be able to put you in contact with someone who would love to share your collective tools and lives relatively close to you. If you don’t find a group you’re looking for, consider starting one. Social media makes this very easy, and there’s really no downside.

Even if there are no groups or individuals in your area that you can meet up with in real life, you might be able to learn about how other groups work and chat with some of those members to get ideas and inspiration on how you can use social media to further your workshop search.

Eke out a tiny space to work. Get creative. Once you make the first step, the next step is often more obvious. You don’t need a whole lot of space to work wood, but you do deserve somewhere to store tools, make sawdust and complete projects.


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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