The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Do you have a real workshop?


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

9 Comments

  1. Sylvain says:

    “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…”

    I have made some inertia resistance when my wife wanted to clear a room under the attic. I knew she would otherwise fill it… Then I have made my workbench and cleared a workspace about 2 X 3 m in that 4 X 5 m room + some room for boards. I can move board that are a little big then what I call the working area. Some of the junk is mine. In such a space it is hand tools only of course.

    I am 70 years old.

    • billlattpa says:

      My wife has filled our attic with bins of old clothing. And I am not exaggerating when I say that it is filled. We have a fairly large attic. The usable area of it is approximately 10ft wide by 40ft long, and it is difficult to walk because of the bins of clothes, and half forgotten holiday decorations that haven’t been used in years. It is funny, because as we have gotten older, I tend to want to let things go, and she tends to want to keep them.
      Thanks!
      BIll

  2. My shop is half of my basement. Approximately 12 x 40. I can access all four sides of my bench and do so regularly. I would never stick my wworkbench against a wall again. My table saw os right next to the workbench and never moves. My planer is right next to my 220v outlet and stays put as well. Only a few sanders are on rollers as I roll them out when I need them.

    My wife and I are looking to move and one of my requirements is that my shop be in an unattached garage or pole building. I don’t care much about the house we’ll buy, just the garage.

    I’ve been woodworking since I was 11 and will do it until I die. I need a real workshop like my wife needs a kitchen.

    • billlattpa says:

      We considered moving a few years ago but we couldn’t find anything that we liked in the area where we wanted to live. My requirements were at the least a 2 car garage, though 3 cars would have been better, and a space on the lawn for as large a tool shed as we could get without it being obnoxious. If I could really dream I would choose a place with a barn, because there are plenty of houses in the area that have them, but most of the time, even before housing wasn’t crazy, they would sell very quickly, and often for more than we wanted to pay for a place that would still need work done.

      With the way things are now, for the foreseeable future we aren’t going anywhere. The costs of housing have skyrocketed where we live, and we would have to move pretty far out into the country to get what we want. I am perfectly fine with that, but my wife is not.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  3. Edward Suter says:

    2 car garage, I use half of it.

    Workbench is 72” x 20” and bolted to the south wall, directly under the only window. My t.s. Is my assembly table/ glue up table/ junque collector.

    Everything other than my bench and my lathe is on wheels. My cheapo 1 hp dust collector is mounted on the wall. No planer, lunchbox thicknesser lives under the bench.

    Tool storage…. Did you know freshly sharpened chisels are great for digging out dandelions? Neither did I, That my next door neighbor is a tool-destroyer and is still looking for the USB port on my #5 plane? Neither did I, but my wife lent him tools anyways. So now I have a 4’x4’ pegboard loaded with crap tools on the west wall and all my good tools are safely stowed in my “ anarchists too chest” . I am pretty happy with this situation and don’t think Ill change it. Materials is another story, I usually only buy enough material for the project at hand and don’t have much extra kicking around.

    Comfort… Garage only has two 15 amp circuits, so I have no heating or a/c, other than a cheapie ceramic heater, and I can only use one power tool combined with the dust collector at a time. First improvement Imade was to insulate the cheap, thin, steel garage door— noticeable difference and pretty cheap to do. Second improvement I made was to put down 2’x2’ osb flooring squares in my work area. These just float on the floor and have some insulating qualities, they cost around $5 a square at home despot. I love them because 1) your feet don’t freeze in the winter, 2) your back will really notice a difference, and 3) when tools take a nose-dive, they survive quite gracefully.

    • billlattpa says:

      My table saw is on wheels, but I rarely use it anymore…It is large and sits in the back corner “bump-in” area of the garage. I nearly sold it off last Spring but backed off at the last minute and decided to keep it. Initially the plan was to put it into our tool shed on the back lawn. But first we needed to get a new tool shed as ours at 10 x 10, wouldn’t be large enough to hold the lawn tools and my table saw. So we looked into a 15 x 18 shed but we would have needed a retaining wall put it to accommodate it and that became a problem, because we couldn’t locate a contractor who was able to fit it into their schedule. I’m a decently handy guy, but putting in a retaining wall is a bit beyond my skill set, especially doing it alone.

      I use an 8 x 8 padded mat under my workbench, and the little bump-in room that I described in my post has a mat as well. The mat at my bench certainly does help, but not enough to alleviate back pain (when I’m already in pain that is) I used to run space heaters during the winter but they only did a marginal job. Ideally I would install an overhead space heater, but the issue is that there really isn’t a place to put one without doing some fairly major rearranging. Being an unfinished space, there are of course pipes, both water and gas, that run under the floor joists, that just so happen to be in the worst possible places. And the garage door takes up the front half of the garage, so that entire ceiling area is unusable.

      One place my garage is decently equipped is in receptacles. I was a field electrician for years, and though I work in the office now I still know what I’m going a little bit, so my garage has plenty of outlets.

      Thanks!
      Bill

  4. Simon Jones says:

    I’ve got you beat. I’m six foot and the pipes in my basement hang down to five ten. I’m either ducking or knocking myself out.
    I’d love to have a proper workshop, but at 58, I’ve pretty much given up.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thankfully the garage ceiling height has never been a major concern. It is just over 7ft. I was able to put in a small ceiling mounted dust collector, but I could never find a ceiling mounted heater that would work, as the best places to mount it either have gas pipes in the way, or my wife’s SUV would hit it when she parks in the garage. The ceiling of the front half of the garage is unusable because of the door.

      I’m at the same point as you. A few years ago we were looking to move, but we couldn’t really find anything in our area, or the areas that we would also consider, that we really liked. My main requirement was a 2 car garage, or possibly larger. Now, I’ll soon be 50, and the prospect of beginning another mortgage when we are so close to paying off the original is not a pleasant one, so I’ve pretty much given up on the ideal workshop. Unless a rich relative leaves us a large chunk of cash, we very likely aren’t going anywhere.
      Thanks!
      Bill

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