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Set Up Your Best Shop Ever

View a potential shop layout from many angles, and even walk through the space, using a 3D modeling program, such as SketchUp. Download and place ready-made models of most machines from online sources.

Determined woodworkers have created shop space in spare bedrooms, closets, and bathrooms. Regardless of how much square footage you have, every shop layout involves compromises on space, tool choices and locations, climate control, and more. Here’s how to lay out a new shop­—or improve your current one.

Location, location, location

If you’re setting up a shop, you probably already have an idea of where it will be. In an existing space, you know exactly how much room you have, and maximizing that footprint becomes a priority. If you plan to build, you may have a little more freedom to adjust the size of the shop and outfit and arrange it to match your dreams. 

Define the work you do…

…and the work you’d like to do. If you build mainly gift boxes now, but want to get into furniture construction, allot more square footage to accommodate larger parts and assemblies and more raw materials. 

Consider other potential shop activities. Will it double as car storage or an entertainment spot? Does lawn equipment need to fit in? And how often will it be used? Daily use benefits from a permanent setup where tools have fixed locations; occasional evening or weekend use may dictate a convertible space where mobile tools get stored out of the way until needed.

Now, consider in order the items that follow, knowing that decisions made for one category can affect decisions in other areas. So stay flexible. Adjust plans as new options and considerations present themselves.

Determine tool floor spaces

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In the overhead view of this SketchUp model, colored rectangles show how much working space each tool requires. Overlapping the spaces fits in tools efficiently.

Calculate the footprints of the largest items in the shop, likely your bench, stationary tools, and cabinets. Include sufficient infeed and outfeed room for materials and 24" on any side that you need to walk past. For example, your jointer may measure 16×48", but jointing a 5' board requires an additional 36" at each end of the infeed and outfeed tables. And allowing 24" in front of it for standing room makes the total footprint 40×120" [Photo above]. 

Estimate how much enclosed storage you’ll need for hand tools, accessories, and supplies. This will determine cabinet needs. Base cabinets often double as stands for benchtop tools, such as a drill press or mitersaw, and provide worksurfaces [Photo below]. Don’t worry about being exact; just get a general idea of what will accommodate the current and future inventory of these items, then add a couple of more cabinets.

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Spanning two or more cabinets with a countertop creates a well-supported worksurface with lots of easy-to-reach storage below.

Lumber takes up significant space. Storing it on wall racks preserves floor space for tools. If possible, store wood elsewhere, such as in an outbuilding, basement, or covered porch. Then, you can move only what you need to the shop to give it time to acclimate prior to working with it.

Place the big stuff

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Moving paper cutouts on a scaled floor plan goes easy and fast, but provides only a flat, top-down view.

Now that you know how much space the biggest items need, start working out how they fit into the space. Whether you choose an analog approach [Photo above] or digital [Opening photo], keep these concepts in mind:

■  Move materials in a logical workflow. Place raw materials near the door where they come in. Then arrange tools for material breakdown (mitersaw), sizing/shaping (tablesaw, bandsaw, jointer, planer), joinery (drill press, mortiser, router table), assembly (workbench and open area for the largest projects), and finishing. In a long shop, the flow may be a straight line from front to back. In a squarish shop, work may move around the perimeter. A narrow space may dictate moving back and forth from one side to the other. 

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A workbench placed behind the tablesaw doubles as outfeed support.


■  Group tools efficiently. Infeed and outfeed spaces can overlap on adjacent surfaces of the same height [Photo above]. For example, the infeed zone for your jointer may extend into the work zone for your router table, as you won’t use both tools at the same time. Flip-top stands put two tools into the space of one [Photo below].

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Pair tools not used at the same time, such as a planer and drill press, on a flip-top stand.

■  Allow assembly space. It can be tempting to cram in as many tools, worksurfaces, and storage spaces as possible. Don’t. Instead, provide open space for subassemblies, such as drawers, to sit while you work on the carcase. And allow room to extend clamps and walk around a project during assembly.

■  Consider dust collection. We’ll cover dust collection in more detail later, but for top performance, place the dust collector or shop vacuum(s) as close as possible to the largest chip producers. The planer and jointer create the largest chips, and the tablesaw, mitersaw, and router table throw the most dust into the air. 

■  Mobility provides flexibility. Moving tools to a working position, then rolling them away for storage, maximizes floor space [Photo below]. A tablesaw can rest against a wall for most cuts, then roll away from it when you need a bit more space on that side.

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Buy or build mobile bases and tool stands, then move tools aside when not being used to make additional working area.

■  Give it a rest. After settling on an arrangement, walk away from it for a few days. Then, come back and review it with a fresh eye, rethinking each of the points above. 

Today’s Reality: The (Nearly) Cordless Workshop

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Every shop needs wall receptacles, but the expanding selection of capable battery-powered tools reduces the need. Cordless mitersaws, routers, circular saws, sanders, nailers, shop vacuums, and even tablesaws can serve well in a home shop. Because no manufacturer yet offers a complete lineup, you may need several brands of tools and battery platforms to cut the cord on a full range of tools. 

Our tests show that many battery-powered tools handle much of the work their corded cousins do. Runtime isn’t an issue, especially if you have an extra battery pack or two on the charger. Read our reviews to find out what’s available, and to gauge performance of these tools.

Assess your power needs

You can operate a perfectly serviceable shop with just two 15-amp 110-volt circuits ["Today’s Reality: The (Nearly) Cordless Workshop," above]. But you will be well-served by more or beefier circuits. Handheld and benchtop tools up to 112  hp will operate on 15-amp circuits. The larger motors of stationary tools may need 20-amp circuits—check the owner’s manual or the label on the motor. Larger stationary tools may not require 220 volts, but may operate better at that voltage. If you have the option of adding circuits, consider at least a couple of 220s. 

The location of tools and worksurfaces helps determine receptacle placement. Place plug-ins near stationary tools to eliminate extension cords, and make them accessible above worksurfaces, unobscured by cabinets, lumber storage, or other items [Photo below].

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Overhead reels provide power over a large area while keeping a cord out from underfoot, and stored neatly when not in use. Don’t get an unnecessarily long cord, as this causes current loss, and when coiled, heats up in heavy use.

Light it up

When you see well, you work safer, and better enjoy shop time. So make sure to account for lighting in the layout.

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The low power requirements of LED fixtures mean you may be able to light your entire shop with just one dedicated circuit. The power used by a 60-watt incandescent bulb will light seven of these LED bulbs (inset).

Shop lights should be on a separate circuit from tools, to avoid plunging into darkness should a tool trip a breaker. Plan for sufficient overall lighting from overhead fixtures [Photo above], supplemented by task lighting for close-up work [Photo below]. Battery-powered LED task lights reduce the number of cords draped around.

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A magnetic gooseneck lamp eliminates shadows below a bandsaw blade guard, clearly illuminating the cutline. Buy this LED one at woodmagazine.com/tasklight.

When installing overhead fixtures, hang them as high as possible to maintain overhead clearance for moving materials. If you have high ceilings, a 9–10' light-fixture height provides adequate clearance without a drop-off in light level. Although LED fixtures don’t have bulbs that can shatter, guards will prevent accidentally damaging one while moving a long workpiece.

Where will you finish?

Applying finish requires enough space for the project, and perhaps subassemblies such as drawers, doors, and panels, with room between them for access with a brush, rag, or spray can/gun [Photo below]. Existing flat surfaces including your bench and tablesaw will do, provided you cover them to protect from drips. 

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A pair of collapsible sawhorses support a carcase, then store out of the way.

To spray finish you must contain and exhaust the fumes and overspray [Photo below]. Even water-base finishes, with fewer vapor concerns, require an exhaust system. 

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At a minimum, open a shop window and place a fan to move fumes out of the work area. Don’t draw combustible fumes through a fan motor that’s not rated explosion-proof.

If you want to apply finish on your schedule, not Mother Nature’s, you must control the temperature and humidity while minimizing dust in the finish area. This leads to the two final considerations in shop design, dust and climate control.

Figure dust-collection needs

Capturing dust at its source not only keeps your shop tidier, it reduces potentially harmful particles floating in the air. And if you go with a central system, placements of machinery and the dust collector affect each other.

Dust collection can be pieced together with shop vacuums, small dust collectors for individual tools, a dedicated central unit that serves all machines, or a combination of these strategies [Photos below].

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A shop vacuum provides enough air speed to capture fast-moving chips thrown off by a router. The smaller hose also connects to many portable tools, such as sanders.

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The 4" inlet of a single-bag collector matches ports on many stationary tools, and extracts chip quantities that would overwhelm a shop vacuum. You’ll need to move the hose from tool to tool, and empty the bag more frequently.

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A properly sized cyclone collector moves enough air to capture chips from any machine. Many units can be wall-mounted, freeing up floor space.

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A two-bag collector frequently serves as the heart of a small central system, with ductwork connecting to each tool.

When designing a central system, provide a ductwork path from the collector to each machine. The straighter and shorter the path, the more efficient the system. Smooth duct walls allow air to flow easily, maximizing system efficiency. The ribbed surface of flex hose disrupts airflow, so minimize its use. Plumb fixed smooth-wall duct up to tool locations, then connect the tool to the ductwork with a short section of flex hose. Placing ductwork overhead with “drops” to each tool prevents tripping over ducts or hoses strung along the floor. Running a line lower along a wall eliminates the up-then-down path to the ceiling, reducing the length, but dictates machines sitting close to that wall so flex-hose connections don’t run underfoot.

Keep it comfortable

Heating and cooling a shop provides more than a comfortable space for you. Temperature and humidity control also allows for storing and applying finish and glue. Choose a system that tolerates a dusty shop space. If heating or cooling proves impractical, find somewhere else to store temperature-sensitive supplies, and to apply finish when it’s too cold or too humid. 

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