Canadian Woodworking
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Small workshop solutions

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Carl Duguay
Published: June 2024
small workshop solutions
small workshop solutions

Think you need a large workshop to work wood? Think again. Here are several ideas on how to get the most out of small work spaces.

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In a reader survey we carried out a few years ago, 60% of respondents who considered themselves woodworking enthu­siasts worked in shops that were less than 300 square feet. While a shop of this size might seem spacious to the person who does intarsia or wood carving, someone who builds furniture or cabinetry would likely crave a larger work space. Regardless, most woodworkers are constrained to some degree by the space they have.

I had the good fortune of working for decades in a shop that was about 800 square feet. Even then, I sometimes complained that it was too small. But for the past 10 years I’ve been working in what I consider to be a fairly small shop, 220-square feet for the noisy, dusty work (lumber preparation, joinery, finishing and the like) sup­plemented with a 70-square foot sunroom for the quiet hand work. Over time, I’ve learned ways to cope with the small space, and still build somewhat large pieces of furniture.

This article will focus on some of the strategies I found helpful when downsizing to a smaller work space. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s what worked for me. These strategies will also be rele­vant to anyone new to woodworking or just thinking about entering the craft.


Work space

There is no best-size space for woodworking – there is only a space that works best for you at a given time. This can be a base­ment or spare room in your home, all or part of a garage, a garden shed, shared space in someone else’s shop, or common space in a woodworking co-op or maker space.

Whatever size space you have, you’ll likely end up making com­promises in the type and scale of projects you undertake and the size, type and variety of machines and power tools you use. Over time your interests and skills will likely evolve, necessitating further changes in the way you use your space. Adaptation and flexibil­ity are bywords when it comes to getting the most from your small shop.

Small, Yet Efficient
Small, Yet Efficient – This is half of Duguay’s small sunroom workshop. He uses it for the finer, quieter parts of woodworking, like fine tuning joints with hand tools, applying low-VOC finishes and assembly. Notice a wide range of tools are neatly organized to keep his work area as efficient as possible.

In any small shop usable floor space is the most important com­modity. One of the easiest ways to conserve this resource is by going vertical with storage. Get as much as you can off the floor and onto walls. A second way to conserve space is to opt for bench­top and jobsite machinery. These include jointers, planers, mitre saws, table saws, drill press and bandsaws. In lieu of a large router table, consider a small model like the Veritas Table for Compact Routers (LeeValley.com) that uses a cordless compact router with a 1/4″ collet. I replaced my vacuum pump and veneer table with a Roarockit Thin Air Press (Roarockit.ca) It’s an inexpensive manual vacuum sys­tem that consists of a vinyl vacuum bag (available in various sizes from 10.5″ × 40″ to 40″ × 80″) equipped with a one-way valve and seal, and a low-volume high-pressure hand pump. I veneer right on top my workbench. Using the press is super easy and it can be reused numerous times. In lieu of a drill press, I use a Woodpeckers AutoAngle drill guide (Woodpeck.com) and a cordless drill/driver to bore precise straight or angled holes. I can use bits with 1/2″ shanks and up to about 3″ diameter.

Take the High Road
Take the High Road – Duguay has storage right up to the ceiling in his slightly larger machine shop. This not only allows for more storage space, it also keeps tools off the ground, where they could be a tripping hazard.
Move It Into Place
Move It Into Place – Rather than use a larger, floor-standing router table, Duguay uses a small, portable router table for many of his routing needs. It can easily be moved off the workbench and into its dedicated storage area when not in use. This is the Veritas Table for Compact Routers, but it’s not overly difficult to make your own portable router table.

Noise management

Noise can be a real problem if you work out of a living space that shares walls with neighbours or if your garage is close to some­one’s home. Start off by talking to your neighbours with a view to identifying the best times of the day for you to use your machinery. When purchasing new machines or power tools, opt for those with the lowest decibel rating.

There are also a variety of things you can do to control sound at the source. Replace any V-belts on your drill press, jointer, or lathe or table saw with segmented link belts. They eliminate vibra­tion and transmit more power. Place machines and work benches on sound-absorbing tiles. You can also attach these tiles to walls or ceilings that are shared with other living spaces. Retrofit rolling tool stands and cabinets with rubber-wheeled casters. These do a better job of deadening sound than plastic casters. When bolting machines to stands use rubber grommets on the plate holes and use rubber vibration isolation blocks between the tool and mobile base or tool cart.

A Different Approach
A Different Approach – Hand tools are quieter and make less dust than machinery and power tools. In fact, many woodworkers enjoy using hand tools more than machinery.

It may seem obvious, but close doors and windows when you’re using machines or power tools that make a lot of noise. Also, if your neighbours are out relaxing in their yard on a pleasant sum­mer day, or possibly having a family reunion, that might be a good time for you to be extra careful with noise.

Go Small
Go Small – While a drill press is nice to have, it takes up a lot of space. Duguay uses a drill guide from Woodpeckers to bore clean, perpendicular holes in stock and it takes up a fraction of the space a drill press does.

Dust control

Ventilation and dust control can be quite a challenge in a small space. It’s the fine dust particles that linger in the air for a while before settling that pose the greatest health hazard. A dust mask or respirator will protect you while you’re working. An air filter is also worth considering.
You can significantly reduce fine dust in the shop by using hand planes and card scrapers rather than sanding. The extra thick Blue Spruce (BlueSpruceToolWorks.com) card scrapers are easier to use and maintain than typical thin scrapers. While it takes some prac­tice to get the knack of using a scraper it’s well worth the effort.

Dust Extractor
Dust Extractor – To keep dust down and to save floor space, a quality dust extractor is critical.
(Photo by Rob Brown)

When you do sand, it’s best to trap dust at the source. One way to do this is to connect all power tools to a dust extractor. Look for one that has a low decibel level, like the 67dB Fein Turbo I (Fein.ca) or the 72dB Festool CT 15 (FestoolCanada.com). If most of the work you do is at the workbench, then a small por­table benchtop dust extractor like the Oneida BenchTop DC Personal Dust Collector (oneida-air.com) might be the answer.

A stationary cyclonic dust collector is the usual choice for collect­ing dust from shop machinery. But a dust collector generally takes up a fair amount of floor space and can be quite noisy. You’ll also need to accommodate at least one 4″ or 6″ diameter dust hose.

A viable alternative, especially if you’re using a small bench­top jointer, planer or compact jobsite table saw, is to use a dust extractor. You can virtually eliminate clogging (and replacing) the extractor filter and significantly reduce suction loss by connect­ing the extractor to a small portable cyclone like the Oneida Dust Deputy. (oneida-air.com)

Bear in mind that small dust collectors and dust extractors can consume 10 or more amps of power to operate. Considering that a benchtop planer or jointer can use 10 to 15 amps of power you may need two separate electrical outlets to safely run the collector and planer or jointer simultaneously.

Workbench

I used to have a large traditional workbench, along with an assembly table and fairly large router table. I now work on a Festool MFT/3 that serves as both a workbench and an assem­bly table. It’s easy to move around the shop, and in a pinch I can fold it up when I need more floor space. You can make your own bench or purchase a commercial unit. For more information, read “Workholding Devices for Multi-Functional Tables” in this issue.

Multi-Functional Tables
Multi-Functional Tables – As their name implies, MFTs can assist with many woodworking functions. They can also be easily folded up and moved when more floor space is needed.

Lumber

Storing and milling lumber can be problematic. I typically pur­chase only the lumber I need for the project I’m currently working on. My local lumberyard will cut sheet goods down to rough sizes for a small fee. Many hardware stores will do the same, though I’ve found their selection of sheet goods is hit and miss. For small projects I purchase rough lumber and mill it in the underground parking area of our condo building. For large projects I have the lumber thickness planed and jointed at my lumberyard.

It can be a real bummer when you find some gorgeous lum­ber that would make the perfect project down the road but have nowhere to store it. A solution that has worked well for me is to reach out to family and friends who have unused storage space in garages, basements or garden sheds. Another option is to rent a self-storage locker to store your lumber. Maker groups, woodwork­ing co-ops and woodworking clubs are also good options to pursue for processing your stock. Occasionally, I need large panels thick­ness sanded. A local cabinet shop does this for a reasonable fee.

Construction and assembly

To make assembly easier, consider breaking large projects into small units when feasible. For tall cabinets, dressers, cupboards or book­shelves construct them in two sections (one atop the other). This makes it easier to finish, store and transport the finished project, which can then be assembled on site. For cabinets, vanities and the like, Ready-to-Assemble (also called Knock-Down) hardware – connecting bolts and nuts or Confirmit screws – are quick and easy to use.

Sub-Assemblies
Sub-Assemblies – Building a large piece of furniture in multiple sub-assemblies that can be moved out of the workshop and into place in your home makes life in and out of the shop easier.

Clamps are essential for woodworking. The type and number you need will depend on the kind of work you do, but you don’t have to subscribe to the adage that you can never have enough clamps. Some traditional joinery techniques, including draw-board mor­tise and tenon joints, spring joints, and wedge joints, don’t require the use of clamps. You can also use pocket-hole joinery when the joints are going to be hidden. On small projects wedges can be used to clamp stock together. Cauls are also indispensable as they spread clamping pressure out so you can use fewer clamps on a glue-up.

Another approach to dealing with lack of clamps is to make your own. They’re fun and easy to make. Depending on the style you build, they aren’t necessarily as strong as a well-made metal clamp, but you often don’t need a lot of strength to bring a joint together or hold down a workpiece.

Tools

I’ve never met a woodworker who didn’t love tools. Deciding on which tools I “needed” to keep versus those I “wanted” to keep (though rarely or never used) was difficult when I downsized to a smaller workshop and remains an on-going matter. I have found once a tool is out of the shop it soon becomes “out of mind.” Cutting back on powered hand tools wasn’t really an option. While I do admire woodworkers who have gone completely over to hand tools, I’ve retained a bevy of benchtop machines: jointer, planer, table saw and lathe, along with a small bandsaw. All are on casters, which makes it easier to move them around when I need assembly or finishing space. If you have the floor space, a combo machine (table saw, jointer, planer) is worth considering.

“Needs” vs “Wants”
“Needs” vs “Wants” – A block plane is a “need” for most woodworkers, though a jointer plane is often more of a “want”. If you use hand tools to process rough lumber, make room for a jointer plane in your small shop, but if space is tight, and you rarely process lumber with hand tools, it might be wise to save the shelf space and the money for another tool. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Cordless tools now offer comparable power to corded tools and you don’t have to be concerned about tripping over power and extension cords. Due to the interchangeable batteries and chargers, it’s usually better to pick one tool brand and stick with it.

Finishing

Hardwax oil is probably the best friend for hobbyist woodwork­ers. You don’t need any special equipment to apply it, and most have very low VOC (volatile organic compound) levels or are VOC-free. It’s a simple wipe-on finish that dries in less than a day and provides a durable, moisture-resistant, easy-to-maintain finish. The two most prominent brands are OSMO (Osmo.ca) and Rubio Monocoat. (RubioMonocoatcanada.com).

Quality Finishes
Quality Finishes – A hardwax oil finish is one of Duguay’s small shop secret weapons. With its low-VOCs, easy application and high performance, it’s easy to see why. (Photo by Rob Brown)


Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

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