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Organize Your Shop in a weekend

(and keep it that way for a lifetime)

Imagine a workshop where you can find every tool, jig, and board almost without looking. Whether you’re machining lumber, assembling parts, sanding, or finishing, everything you need is situated within easy reach.

Who owns this awesome shop? You do, if you drop the indecision, bad habits, and sloppy housekeeping that lead to clutter and frustration. We’ll show how to do that and reorganize your shop to focus on woodworking.

Start with a thorough thinning

First round up some 30-gallon heavy-duty garbage bags, several plastic tubs with lids, and a permanent marker. Inside your shop, empty waste cans and throw away chunks of wood less than 1' long and anything that’s obviously trash or broken beyond repair.

Toss or recycle empty tool cases you’ll never use again. Strip reusable hardware from jigs customized for tools you no longer own, and toss what’s left.

Tools: Don’t use ’em? Then lose ’em 

Keep the cleanup momentum going by focusing on tools that see little use. Then divide them into three categories:
■ Tools not worth selling can be donated to charity.
■ Items too valuable to give away, but not worth the hassle of a classified ad, can be sold in the next garage sale.
■ Tools worth $50 or more can be sold through a newspaper ad, an online market such as craigslist.org (no-fee, local buyers pick up the tool), or eBay.com (small seller fee, you’ll likely have to ship the tool).

Now find a new place for home-repair items that interfere with your woodworking. For example, label one of your plastic tubs “electrical” and fill it with switches, outlets, and electrical tools. Do the same for your plumbing supplies and tools. Fill the third tub with painting supplies, such as rollers, brushes, and paint pans. Then put in tubs any other DIY stuff, such as drywalling tools. If you work in a garage shop, move lawn and garden tools outside the shop area. Toss into a another tub that hodgepodge of project parts, including T-track for jigs you never built, miscellaneous hardware, and parts for unbuilt projects.

Turning your focus to finishes, cull the water-based finishes discolored by can rust, and oil-based poly with a thick layer of dried finish on top. Then set aside any stains you won’t use again. Ask your waste-disposal service about the nearest hazardous-waste disposal site.

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This garage shop’s storage system organizes lumber over a cutting center with space below to park the jointer when it’s off-duty.

Finally, gather up all those cutoffs, scraps, and leftover sheet goods that survived your earlier cleanup. Sort them by type and place everything on overhead racks, as shown above left, in some corner away from tools and workspaces, under stairs (in a basement shop), in the rafters of a garage shop, or under counters, as shown below.

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Space beneath this mitersaw bench houses short to medium-length lumber, keeping it flat and off of the floor.

Organize your work areas 

Now use existing storage and divide the stuff that’s left over into work areas, even if your tools ride on mobile bases.

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Apply the 80/20 rule to your shop and keep the 20 percent of tools and fasteners you use 80 percent of the time within arm’s reach.

1. The workbench/assembly area. If you build mostly small to medium-size projects or furniture smaller than your bench, position the workbench against a wall to open up floor space for stationary tools. Use nearby walls to hang the tools you use most, as shown above, and bins to hold screws or other fasteners, below. (See More Resources, bottom of page, for online bin plans.)

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Put this on your to-do list: Removable shop-made bins keep your most popular fasteners organized, dust-free, and accessible.

Single out your favorite clamps and hang them near your workbench. Then add a shelf for glue, clamping cauls, and squaring braces.

If you build large projects, you’ll need access to all four sides of the bench, so move the bench closer to the center of your shop. If that places it near the tablesaw, make the bench do double duty as an outfeed table by raising or lowering the bench height.

2. Machining area. Set up your next work area for sizing, jointing, and planing stock. Create a work triangle, below, that lets you move stock quickly between the jointer, planer, and tablesaw. In a garage shop that needs to convert back into parking space, store machines on mobile bases close to the triangle.

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Size and square project parts quickly by placing the tablesaw, jointer, and planer within steps of each other.

Now find places for tool accessories. If you have a cabinet saw equipped with an extension table, add shop-made or store-bought shelves underneath it to keep jigs, hold-downs, miter gauges, and blades. Store accessories and jigs for a benchtop or contractor-style saw on shelves or unused lumber racks.

SHOP TIPS
Build three versions of one cabinet

Building three storage cabinets doesn’t take much longer than building a single one. So while you’re building the sanding supplies cabinet (below), make duplicate case and door parts to create cabinets for hand and power tools or finishing supplies. (Go to woodmagazine.com/sandpapercabinet to obtain plans.) Each uses hanging cleats for quick shop reorganization. A cleat with a beveled bottom edge mounted to the cabinet back grips a mating wall-mounted cleat with an identical bevel. Gravity holds the two cleats together until you lift off the cabinet.

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3. Sanding and finishing center. Even if you sand parts and apply finish at your workbench, storing sanding and finishing supplies outside the immediate shop area opens up tool-storage space where you need it most. For now, store abrasive sheets in their sleeves and hang the packages from a hook or nail. For boxed sanding discs, punch a hole in a bottom of the box at one corner, secure the top with a rubber band, and hang it on a peg hook. Later, add a cabinet to hold sanding supplies. (See the Shop Tip above.) Leave room near the cabinet to park a shop vacuum.

For finishing supplies, consider a ready-to-assemble cabinet from a home center or discount store. If you’re concerned about child safety, attach a hasp and lock to the cabinet doors. We’ve even seen a non-functional freezer turned into finish storage, below.

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A discarded freezer, minus its refrigeration unit, provides lockable, insulated, and air-tight storage for finishes.

Position the finishes cabinet as far away as possible from your water heater, furnace, or other open-flame appliances. Date each can of finish (with estimates, if you have to) and sort them by film finishes, stains, and solvents. If there’s room left, add brushes and accessories.

4. Peripheral storage. Now that you’ve blocked out spaces for woodworking’s three key areas, divide up the remaining space for everything else. Begin with storage for benchtop and portable power tools. Rank each tool from 1 to 3 according to how often you use it. For example, a frequently used cordless drill may rank a 1 while a pneumatic stapler you’ve only used twice merits a 3. Store the 1s near or beneath your workbench. 

Devote the corners of the shop to storing tools on mobile bases, such as a bandsaw, or tools that don’t need large infeed/outfeed areas, for example a scrollsaw or sharpening station. (After you’re organized, consider giving frequently used portable benchtop tools their own mobile stands or carts to reduce setup time.)

Store the 2s just outside your three main work areas, and tuck away the 3s on shelves or just outside the shop.

Whatever its rank, each tool came with a manual that you’ll need someday to fine-tune its setup, order replacement parts, or find the nearest service center. Store these manuals in a heavy-duty three-ring binder filled with plastic page protectors, as shown below.

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In addition to tool owner’s manuals and service information, this binder stores setup wrenches for each tool.

No heavy lifting required

When organizing your shop equipment, it’s easier to push a button or piece of paper than hundreds of pounds of tools. To test and visualize different workspaces, use an online shop layout tool, such as the one at grizzly.com/workshopplanner, shown below.  For a low-tech alternative, photocopy the paper tool symbols, found here, and cut them out. Then move them around on a piece of graph paper marked to represent your shop space.

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This online shop planner lets you experiment with positioning tools close in size to the ones in your shop.

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Now keep things in order

As you upgrade your storage arrangements using containers or open bins, invest in an inexpensive label maker to identify their contents, below. Remember: Hardware or tools you can’t find are the same as ones you don’t own.

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Adhesive labels on these open bins make the contents easy to spot and encourage you to keep hardware sorted by size and type.

Next prioritize the shop organizers you’d like to build. Start with the easy ones that give you the most efficiency for your time and money. For examples of storage cabinets and carts, go to woodmagazine.com/shopstorage. 

Many WOOD® magazine shop-storage projects rely on mating cleats screwed to cabinet backs and walls, below, that you can apply to your own wall-hung projects. This makes it easy to rearrange organizers as the shop layout changes.

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Cleats with mating bevels let you add or move cabinets, perforated-hardboard panels, and racks to reorganize your shop.

Then develop rules for maintaining your shop, such as the ones below. If you slip up, don’t give up. Simply make time to put things back in order before your next project. Treat clutter like you’d treat rust: Don’t wait for it to cover everything before you eliminate it.

Workshop Rules of Order

✔ If you can’t decide where to store something, ask yourself if it had a purpose in the first place.
✔ If you don’t want a mess waiting for you when you enter your shop, don’t leave one when you go.
✔ There’s no sin in leaving empty spaces inside your shop. You’re not loading the dishwasher.
✔ Maintain your shop by work zones. Tidying the sanding area sounds a lot more doable than straightening the shop when you only have a few minutes to spare.
✔ Respect the work zones you’ve created and store everything in its place.
✔ Forget multitasking. When two projects occupy your workbench at the same time, one of them isn’t getting done.
✔ You can’t build a project unless you can find its plan. So file patterns and plans by broad categories, such as “furniture,” “boxes,” or “toys.” 
✔ Store only the lumber you need for an upcoming project, or find lumber storage outside the shop. Let the lumberyard store the rest.
✔ If clutter begins to spread, reverse it by making a habit of putting away three things for every object you pull out of storage.

STORAGE PROJECT PLANS

■     “Take-Anywhere Hardware Bins” issue 165 (October 2005)
■     “Shop Cart/Workbench” issue 185 (September 2008)
■     “Bench Tool System” issue 179 (December/January 2005/2006)

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