I wanted to start off by saying that I hope everyone is having a fun and happy holiday season. With that out of the way, it is time to complain.
A few weeks ago I strained my back at work; it has been quite painful. I didn’t strain it because I’m old…well that is part of it…but because I was carrying thousands of pounds of electrical conduit on my shoulder. The relevance of my back injury is in that I have a few days off from work for the Christmas break, and I had hoped to perhaps woodwork a little in my “shop”. But my little “shop” is not a workshop at all, it is a one-car garage, unheated with concrete floors. And with the weather cool and damp, just standing in there for 15 minutes yesterday left my barely improving back stiffer than the boards that I was hoping to turn into…something.
I’m not sure exactly how long I’ve been writing this blog, but if there has been one consistency, it has been my constant complaints regarding the workspace I have, or don’t have, depending on your point of view. Some may say that I am more fortunate than most, because as far as one car garages go mine isn’t bad. It is approximately 12 feet wide by 25 feet long, with a 6ft x 6ft bump-in at the back right side which is a decent storage area. On paper this looks like an ideal place for a part-time amateur to woodwork. But reality is a lot different than on paper, and reality is never more real than when experiencing back pain.
The first issue with the garage is simple: we use it as a garage and my wife’s car is parked in there. So if I want to woodwork on the weekends, far more often than not it means that my wife’s car has to go elsewhere. The second issue is that we also use the garage for a spare refrigerator and freezer. While these don’t take up an enormous amount of space, they do take up space that could be used for workshop related things. The third issue, and the one that bothers me most, is that my garage is filled with things that do not belong in a garage.
For many years I had a habit of doing a twice a year cleanout of the garage. Anything that hadn’t been used in a while, or had expired, or didn’t seem to belong to something else, was disposed of without regret. During the Covid lockdown summer of 2020 I really went to town, and the garage had never been cleaner or better organized. When I took a step back to admire a clean, uncluttered, and well-organized space, my wife, bless her, took a step back and saw a lot more space to fill with stuff that has no business being in a garage…like Halloween decorations, and Christmas decorations, and bird feeders that will never be hung, and 20 pairs of shoes that will never be worn again, and tables and chairs that at one time were kept in the attic because they are only used twice a year. So here we are.
I have a fairly simple criteria for what constitutes a real workshop.
- If you have a workbench, and most woodworkers do, can you access all four sides of it? In my case, I cannot. I can only really access two sides, and that is being generous.
- If you use power tools such as a tablesaw or a planer, do they have a dedicated usage space or do they need to be wheeled into place and then returned after being used because they will otherwise be in the way? In my case power tools must be wheeled into place. However, I do not often use power tools anymore, and for the sake of full disclosure, the two power tools that I use consistently, a drill press and a powered grinder, do have a dedicated space.
- Is tool and material storage an issue? In my case, tool storage is not, but material storage is a big one. A few years back I solved the workshop layout problem, and I can say with honesty that my tools are generally visible and easy to access. Material storage, however, is not solvable. I just do not and will never have the space to meaningfully store wood in the garage.
- Is your workshop comfortable for working? Mine is not, and this is perhaps the biggest concern. My garage, with concrete floors and no heat, is miserable to work in during the winter months, and during the heat of the summer it is not much better. As I am getting older, and less strong, and less tolerant to pain, I find that I cannot work in the garage for more than an hour or so without taking a break….that when my back isn’t hurting. And this perhaps has been the most disheartening aspect of all.
I’ve left off the list things such as lighting, and dust collection, and power supply etc, because if the other criteria are not met then anything that comes after doesn’t really matter much. I thought that switching to an all hand tool approach would solve the other issues, but it has done so only to a certain extent. With my current situation, I will never have full workbench access, which is vital to hand tool use; I will never have material storage, which affects productivity no matter which style of woodworking you prefer, and most importantly, I will never have a comfortable workspace that doesn’t leave my body in some form of pain after I am done using the space.
So, here I am, nearly 50 years old, and the outlook is not good. There needs to be a solution, and quickly, because I can no longer comfortably use my garage as a workspace. I’ve found that in the 20 years I’ve been here, the garage and myself have had a pretty dysfunctional relationship. There’s been some really good times, but also a lot of pain and misery. In a dysfunctional relationship we often justify pain and misery as part of the experience, like a boxer knowing that he is going to have to take punches if he wants to call himself a fighter. But I don’t want to take any more punches, because punches hurt, and as much as I hate to admit it, I can no longer take the pain.