Canadian Woodworking

The 5′ Workshop

Author: Chris Wong
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: June July 2017

Shop Layout: Small shop? A mobility kit under every machine isn’t the only answer.


When laying out a small shop, a common strategy is to put each machine on wheels so it can be moved around as required for working materials of different sizes. Depending on how the shop is organized, this approach may require machines to be stored against a wall, pulled out for use, then returned it to their parking spots when work with them is complete, to make room for the next process. This maximizes the capabilities of each machine, but requires extra effort to get each machine ready for use.

When I laid out my machinery in the space of a one-car garage, I took another approach. Instead of mobilizing everything, I strategically placed them in such a way that I could process material up to 5′ long without moving anything. This allowed me to work very efficiently most of the time. In my shop, there aren’t many projects made with components over 5′; the only things I can think of are dining tables and beds, and I rarely work with sheet goods.

Big Machinery
The largest machine in Wong’s shop, his table saw with 60" sliding table, has ample room to operate. Most ripping and cross-cutting is done here.

Convenient Storage
 Cabinets above and below the workbench provide lots of easily accessible, and well-organized storage for commonly used items.

Simple Support
To cut long stock on the band saw, the drill press table is lowered to provide outfeed support. Note the dry wood storage behind the doors at the right side of the photo and shelves for finishes above. During winter, finishes are stored in a closet inside the house where it’s warmer.

Functional Worksurfaces
Consisting simply of sheet stock on top of saw horses, additional work surfaces are easy to set up when required. One top is a Festool MFT top, which allows Wong to use it as a crosscutting station with a track saw.

Machine layout optimized for efficiency

Like most woodworkers, I use a combination of hand-held and stationary machines. Material-processing machines in my workshop include an 8″ jointer, 18″ band saw, 10″ sliding table saw and 17″ drill press. I use a benchtop 13″ planer which lives on a wheeled base and stores under the infeed table of the jointer, and a Veritas steel router table top, which I set up in the outrigger of my table saw when required. I also use a 2 HP canister dust collector on wheels, which lives behind the table saw, unless I use the saw to cut long and wide material.

It’s possible to have an efficient and practical workshop set up in a small space without having wheels under most machines. Rather than present my shop as an ideal layout (which it’s not), I merely wish to use it as an example of a practical design for my work and a possible starting point for your shop layout.

Working in the 5' shop

While putting all my machines on mobile bases would have allowed me to use them on much larger material than the current layout, it would have also required time to set up for an operation. Since I knew what scale of work I would be producing, and what sizes of materials I commonly use, I felt I could be more productive with machines positioned for working material up to 5′ long, and handling larger material with hand-held tools. Anything 5′ or shorter could be processed on any machine efficiently without having to rearrange anything.

When processing lumber, my first step is usually to cut it to rough length using a jigsaw or circular saw. Once cut to rough length, the material is not only within the limits of the infeed/outfeed space of my machines, but lighter and easier to handle. Also, with shorter lengths, a greater yield can be had from bowed or twisted lumber. The odd time I need parts longer than 5′ I use hand-held tools, which don’t require the infeed/outfeed space of stationary machines.

When I need to work with larger material, I have to decide if it is worth the effort to reposition machinery for sufficient infeed and outfeed space, or use a hand-held tool. I usually find it more efficient to reduce material size with hand-held tools than move stationary machinery. Often, I use hand-held tools to break down parts to rough size and stationary machines to precisely and uniformly dimension stock. While this sometimes adds an extra step to processing, I feel that I am, overall, more efficient working this way.

To illustrate the workflow in my small workshop, I have picked a few projects of different scales and described how the build of each was handled.

Case study #1: 21st century writing desk

This desk featured a 25″ × 12″ mahogany top supported by an ash base at a height of 29″. I started with an 8′-long board of 6″-wide mahogany for the tabletop, and several 5′ boards of ash for the legs and stretchers.

Using my jigsaw, I cut two 28″ lengths from the mahogany board before jointing and planing them. I joined the two boards to produce the required width, and then crosscut the top to final length at the table saw. Since the ash was quite straight, I jointed and planed it at full length, then cut out the components using the table saw.

Case study #2: Relationship study

A table I made featured a pair of 8′ maple slabs joined together to make a lazy S-shaped top nearly 4′ wide in the middle. It was supported by a maple base, held together with robust, oversized mortise and tenon joints.

The top slabs were too large to process with my machinery, in addition to being too large and heavy to manipulate through machinery without a helper. I elected to flatten the slabs with a hand-held power planer, hand planes and sanders, then cut them to shape with a jigsaw. With the slabs clamped on edge, I cut large mortises to join them together using a plunge router and glued them together with floating tenons.

The largest component of the legs was about 2″ × 5″ × 30″ long, so after cutting material to rough length, components were easily jointed, planed and shaped with my machinery setup.

The 6′-long stretcher was irregularly shaped, and the only work it needed, aside from sanding, was to cut the ends straight and form tenons. I used a circular saw to cut the ends straight and a hand-held router with a special jig to cut the tenons.

Case study #3: Bed frame

This captain’s bed frame measured 62″ wide and 82″ long, sized for a queen size mattress. It was essentially two 82″ × 31″ plywood boxes, 20″ high with a solid wood face frame.

I started with 8′-long boards of 4/4 maple about 8″ wide for the face frames. The internal framework and webbing for drawers was made of 3/4″ plywood.

After carefully laying out my frame components on the maple boards, I saw that I was very tight lengthwise for materials. Although the boards were bowed, I was confident that solid joinery in the rest of the frame would be enough to make them comply.

To minimize the waste in length, I wanted to cut the maple components to length right away, as opposed to cutting them oversized first, then down to final length afterwards. Since the position of the required crosscuts was beyond the crosscutting capacities of my sliding table saw, I set up my track saw and made the crosscuts – I trust it to produce accurate, clean cuts.

At this point, the maple boards were in various lengths ranging from 13″ to 82″. To rip them to width, I pivoted my band saw 90° to allow me to feed material through the main door. I then jointed one edge of each piece and used my thickness planer to achieve the final width and thickness.

Full sheets of plywood have always been a challenge to handle in my small shop, and the bed design required plywood for the internal framework. To process the sheet goods, I laid plywood sheets down on sawhorses in the middle of my shop and ripped them to the required widths with my track saw. I also used the track saw to crosscut parts longer than 6′ to length. For the shorter parts I used my sliding table saw equipped with crosscut fence and flip stops.

Sub-assemblies were put together in the workshop, and final assembly with knock-down hardware was done in the bedroom. Even if I had enough room in the shop to assemble the bed without using knock down hardware, it would not have been able to be moved into place in one piece.

Changes to the 5' shop

I’ve been pretty happy with the layout of the shop over the last year, and haven’t felt the need to make many changes. One thing I do intend to change however, is to convert the long workbench that spans two rolling cabinets for two shorter workbenches – one on each rolling cabinet. This will provide greater flexibility for working large or small workpieces. Additionally, I would like to modify my sawhorses to be able to match the height of my new workbenches.

Chris Wong - [email protected]

Chris is a sculptural woodworker and instructor.

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