Canadian Woodworking

Small shop storage solutions

Author: Chris Wong
Photos: Chris Wong Lead Photo by Ted Robinson
Published: April May 2011
small shop storage
small shop storage

One of the most important aspects of organizing a shop involves storing all the machinery, tools and supplies you will be working with. Learn a number of fundamental guidelines and tame that beast of a shop you’ve been working in!


Last year during a seminar lunch break, I returned to the shop and heard one student say to another, “Yeah, it’s really nice – you have to go see it one day.”

I cut in, “What are we talking about?”

He surprised me, “Your shop, Chris.”

I have a nice shop and I like it, but never thought too much about it. Later, I asked a co-worker about what might make my shop so special and he said, “It’s clear that you’ve taken the time to organize it and think about what will work well.”

My shop is about 425 square feet, roughly the size of a two-car garage. However, there is a wall running down the middle with a sliding glass door at one end that reduces the openness. It also increases my wall space. Plus, I have all my machinery on one side of the wall, so all the dust and noise stays out of the bench room. In this article, I want to share with you some of the things that make my shop such a nice place to practice my craft and give you ideas of how to make the most of the space you have.

 If you also house garden and household items in your shop, a physical barrier is a great way to contain them, and not encroach on shared space.

Close to Home
 Keep tools as close as possible to where they will usually be used. Wong stores his chisels, carving tools and mallet directly below his workbench surface. His planes, saws and other miscellaneous items are directly behind him when he stands at his bench (below).

Just High Enough
 This storage unit will allow wide sheet stock to pass underneath, while storing blades, wrenches, shims, etc. nearby. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Router Storage
By having a place for all necessary routing items Wong keeps the area tidy. It’s also easy for him to find anything he needs.

Full Height Storage
 Make use of the space above your head. Shelving units can be purchased or made.

small shop storage

Use Every Inch
 Wong stores light items on the back of these hinged doors.

On the Ceiling
Seldom used items like template are screwed directly to the ceiling where they can easily be seen but don’t take up any space.

Take Them With You
Small cases with lids provide portable storage that, when dropped, likely won’t open.

Special Cut-Outs
 An exact spot for each tool, no matter how small, reduces searching. This can be accomplished many ways. Cork can be removed to leave a shallow, or a drawer can be fitted with wooden stops (below). (Bottom photo by Rob Brown)

Making Room

Though our shops never seem to be spacious enough, how you store what’s inside can make the difference between a neat, organized work space and a disaster zone. The first priority is to have a good look at what’s in your shop and decide how often you use it. Things that you never use have no place in a tight shop. Items that you use only rarely or are overstock should be stored on a top shelf or in another room – not on the prime, easy-access shelves. I have laid claim to a few bays of shelving in our storage room. I store all my overstock hardware in full-extension pull-outs so I can find it easily when needed. In the storage room, I also store my benchtop tools that I use less frequently. All are fairly heavy, so I make sure to store them at about waist height to make it easy on my back.

And while it would be ideal to limit our workshop to work­shop stuff only, we often find things like gardening tools and general household stuff encroaching on our shop space. If it can’t be helped, it’s best to dedicate a corner for non-shop stuff and limit it to that area. In my shop, I have an area cor­doned off with a salvaged bi-fold door which quarantines the garden tools.

Relative Location

When deciding where to locate something, I think about where all the related tools and accessories are. Keeping them close not only makes accessibility easier but it also gives me no excuse to not put them back.

One of the most-used areas of my shop is in front of the bench. I’ve tried to arrange all the tools I’d likely use there so they are within one step from my vise. When standing at the front vise, on my left, under the benchtop, is a pull-out tray with all my chisels, carving tools and mallet.

Behind me, I have the rest of my hand tools. The saws are cantilevered from the wall by screws against their handles while a chest of drawers contains marking and measuring tools and a plane rack holds my bench planes and scrapers.

To my right, I have my sharpening bench, drill press and charging station. The sharpening bench is equipped with a 6″ metal vise and houses all my sharpening accessories. On the back of the bench is a fluorescent lamp with a magnify­ing lens that is shared with the drill press. All my drill bits are stored either in the drawer beneath the drill press table or in boxes hung on French cleats. To the right of the drill press, I have a shelf with a power bar that supplies power to my bat­tery chargers. I leave them all plugged in and instead use the power bar’s on/off rocker switch.

In my machine shop, I store my thickness planer under the infeed table of my jointer. The feed direction of the planer is one direction and the jointer the other. This works especially well because I can joint all my boards and stack them on a cart or sawhorses; then, without reorienting them, I can feed them through the planer (after I pull it out, of course).

I have a lot of routers with different wrenches, collets and template guides. I also have a good collection of bits so I built a wheeled cabinet in which to organize them all. The wrenches, collets and template guides are housed in the top drawer; router bits and trim routers in the lower drawer; and routers sit on the bottom shelf.

Likewise, I keep all the tools nearby that are required to make adjustments to my machinery. In the center of my machine shop, I keep metric and imperial wrenches and hex keys, a machinist’s square, a stepped height gauge and a multi-bit screwdriver. I try to store machine-specific accessories such as blades and wrenches within a step of the machine. My table-saw blades are stored on the wall to the left of my table-saw, but I prefer how editor Rob Brown stores his blades.

Storage Floor to Ceiling and Everywhere Between

One thing I preach is to make use of the area above your head. In my shop, I’ve installed cabinets on the walls that start a few inches over my head and run up to the ceiling. That way they don’t restrict my movements but still provide a lot of extra storage. I’ve also mounted a power bar to the bottom of the cabinets, which makes it really accessible and it can never be blocked. If your cabinets don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, on top is a great place to store long material. For ease of acces­sibility, smaller items go on the lower shelves while taller items go on the higher shelves.

Larger items such as levels, framing squares, panel saws and straight edges can be a challenge to store in an organized manner. I’ve hung them from screws on the back of the pair of hinged doors that lead out into the yard from my machine shop. I didn’t want to hang anything heavy on the doors, so this was the perfect use of the space.

Plywood and long stock can also be a challenge to store in a shop. When I had an 8′ bank of cabinets in my shop, I used to slide my sheet goods in behind it. Now that they are gone, I just stand them up against the wall and use a wedge system to keep them neat and upright. Long, narrow material goes on my lumber rack beside my table saw. I also store dry lumber standing on end in one corner of my bench room.

I don’t use templates very much in my work, but when I make one, I usually save it. How I store them is probably my most unusual example of storage – I screw them to the ceiling. Hey, why not? There they don’t gather dust, are out of the way, and are easy to find. As long as I can get a step stool below, they are accessible.

I store most of my fasteners in plastic divider boxes. I like being able to bring a selection of them to wherever I am work­ing and I especially like having a locking lid – something those plastic parts cabinets don’t offer.

Drawers. Everywhere.

Drawers are really useful in a wood shop – you can’t have enough. They keep out the dust and with dividers or compart­ments they can help organize as well. A drawer that is too deep ends up getting filled with anything that fits and becomes a junk drawer, so multiple shallow drawers are better than one deep drawer. However, drawer slides can be expensive so I make my own drawers with built-in drawer slides. In addition to saving costs, if I make multiple cabinets the same width, I can move drawers from one cabinet to another quickly and easily.

Start with 3/4″ plywood that is twice as wide as the depth of the cabinet and as long as one side and top/bottom. I crosscut the top and bottom off of one end and set it aside. Then, using a 1/2″ dado stack in my table saw, I cut a series of 1/4″ deep dadoes across the sides. Make the spacing between them uniform so that the drawers are interchange­able. Finally, rip the sides and top/bottom in half to separate them and assemble the cabinet however you please. If you want to hang it on a wall, attach a French cleat to the back at the top and a batten of equal thickness at the bottom.

The drawers are very simple to make. First, cut the drawer bottoms from 1/2″ plywood. Make them about 1/16″ narrower than the distance between the dadoes and full length. Cut strips of solid wood or plywood equal to the inside depth of the drawers you want and cross-cut them to length. I assem­ble the drawers with glue and nails. Note that to store a 5″ tall object, you don’t need a 5″-deep drawer – you just need 5″ of headroom.

When I built the cabinet that houses my marking and mea­suring tools, I wanted to make sure each tool had its own spot and would stay fixed. I cut the drawer bottoms and used contact cement to adhere 1/4″ cork sheet to one side. Using an X-acto knife, I cut around each tool, then peeled the cork off the plywood with a chisel. I made the handles with hand planes, cut them to length and glued them to the fronts using a rubbed hot hide glue joint.

Another option is to cut out pieces of wood that will secure your tools at certain points and glue them to the plywood bot­tom, as Rob Brown has done.

Or if you want to go all the way, you can create custom-cut-out compartments for your tools and line them with a soft material such as felt. This is known as French-fitting.

Once you get your shop organized, you’ll fully realize just how nice it is to be able to find and access things easily as well as have room to work! You’ll soon find yourself actually putting tools back where they belong when you are done with them. Whether the shop is where you spend weekdays or weekends, you’ll really appreciate an organized shop.

French Cleats

French cleats are a simple way to hang things on walls while allowing easy repositioning. One bevelled cleat is fastened to the wall and the other is fastened to whatever you want to hang. One catches the other and gravity does the rest. French cleats are commonly cut at 45 degrees but I prefer to cut mine at around 30 degrees. This makes them easier to lift off the wall (especially way up high) without sacrificing security.

When you make French cleats, it’s a good idea to ease the point. Not only does this make the edge more resilient to accidental damage, it also allows it to seat fully if there is sawdust or other debris on the wall-mounted cleat. Not that there’s any of that in your shop!

Chris Wong - [email protected]

Chris is a sculptural woodworker and instructor.

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