Perhaps you already know exactly where you will be locating your workshop. Maybe you already have a workplace in some form. If so, you may want to skip ahead a few paragraphs. But if your workshop is still little more than wishful thinking, read on a bit.
The most obvious place to locate a workshop in most homes is in the basement. Cement floors and walls are no particular disadvantage in a workshop, and cellars are often the last unclaimed space in a busy house. There’s much to say about cellars (see above and facing page), but there are other possible settings, too.
Survey all your options before deciding where to set up shop. Among the alternatives might be a spare room, an attic space (is it tall enough?), the well beneath a stairway, the garage, a converted porch, an outbuilding like a barn or a shed, a back hall, a closet, or even a piece of furniture like an old dresser or desk. For some kinds of workshops, a piece of the kitchen will do, say a single drawer and a borrowed piece of counter or cabinet.
Whatever the space being considered, think through its workshop possibilities from two angles. One approach is obvious: Will it work as a workshop? The other angle is just as important: Will it interfere with other activities in the house? Turning an empty and unused space into a useful space probably makes sense; adopting a corner of the kitchen as a paint shop is likely to inconvenience everybody else in your household.
But let’s consider each of the options in a little more detail.
The Garage. The garage offers some inherent advantages. Most are well ventilated, relatively large, and can be turned into combination spaces (the car won’t complain about being displaced now and again). But the garage utilities, like heat and electricity, might require upgrading, though if the garage is detached from the house, issues of noise and dirt and dust are probably moot.
Typically, a garage workshop has a workbench built permanently into the end wall opposite the garage door. If they are mounted on roller stands, quite good-sized power tools can be easily maneuvered to the side of the garage so that the car can be brought in from the cold. Another advantage of a garage is the size of the broad, tall door; it makes getting almost any machine inside no problem at all. In many garages, the area over the overhead door is open to the rafters, lending itself to storage if the roof is pitched. If you have a garage, it just might be the best answer.
The Spare Room and Other Inside Options. An extra room is the right choice in some homes, but often the liabilities outweigh the potential gains. The comforts and conveniences are appealing, of course, since the room is probably heated and has electrical service and perhaps even good lighting, both natural and artificial.
On the down side, access is often difficult. That’s a problem if you have to move in large machines and quantities of material. Hallways and doorways designed for domestic use just aren’t industrial-sized. Noise can be a problem, too, in the interior of a house, as can dust and dirt. A second-floor room exaggerates all these problems, doubling or even tripling the exposure of both house and inhabitants to the dirt and noise pollution.
The bottom line, then, for a spare bedroom or other empty room in the main portion of your house is this: If your workshop activity is loud and takes lots of space, you would do better to find another spot. Woodworking will probably require significant and potentially expensive renovations, like soundproofing and a vacuum dust system. On the other hand, if the work can be confined to a tabletop and won’t wake up a napping nephew in a nearby room, go for it.
A converted back porch has fewer of these liabilities, since access to it is easier. But you may need to add electricity, insulation, or make some structural changes to adapt it effectively.
The Attic. The biggest plus is that attic spaces are often unused except for storage. Unfortunately, the minuses are numerous.
Take your tape up top and measure the height of your attic. Even if you can stand up comfortably, will you be able to maneuver raw materials around? Or will you find yourself cutting down materials at an outside work station first?
Accessibility questions must be raised here, as well. Flights of steep stairs are risky and tricky when moving materials and heavy tools. You may find that the top of the house is prohibitively difficult to reach with equipment or supplies.
Now, how about the floor? Often the ceiling joists that support the attic (and the ceiling below) are undersized for workshop loads. If it’s hot in the summer, you may have to install windows and vents. An exhaust fan may be necessary, too.
If you are lucky enough to live in a giant Victorian house with one of those grand, tall spaces beneath steeply pitched eaves, the attic may be just the place for your shop. But for most of us, it’s not an option.
Barns and Outbuildings. A century ago, most householders were also farmers. They might have gone to work in town or at some other trade during the day, but about half of all Americans were at least part-time farmers. Many of the barns, sheds, and other auxiliary structures still standing around old farmhouses are survivors from that era.
Today, many barns and other outbuildings are long gone, but if such a “dependency” (as the preservationists like to call such peripheral buildings) has survived, it may be the perfect answer.
Before you arrange delivery of the tools for your new workshop, however, check matters out carefully. You’ll need power, and very likely more than just one antiquated fifteen-amp line. Otherwise, you’ll be forever going back and forth between the shop and your panel (or, worse yet, putting the building at risk of fire by overloading the line). Two lines, one of which carries twenty amps, are probably the minimum.
What about structural stability? And heat? Security may, too, be an issue, as unwanted visitors might just make off with valuable tools and materials if they are left unprotected.
The Nook or Cranny Approach. There are lots of small spots in the average house that could be adapted. For example: a fold-down worktable over a washer/dryer, or concealing shelves with tools and supplies under the stairs. Stairwells and back halls are often large enough for small, self-contained tasks, but rarely offer enough space and flexibility to function as full-fledged workshops.