How To Build the Perfect Starter Mechanic’s Garage
Not a millionaire? Not a problem. You can still build the perfect mechanic's garage for wrenching.
A version of this story originally appeared on The Drive. Bob Vila is partnering with The Drive to share syndicated articles from experts who really know car maintenance.
The most painful reality you’ll face as a DIY wrencher may be the fact that you’ll never have the kind of shop you see the celebs working with on your favorite program. Those high-dollar facilities are equipped to pump out any ride in a matter of weeks, not years, and when you compare them to what you do have to work with, suddenly you feel as though you’re lucky to install a bicycle chain.
But are all those lifts and toolboxes really necessary? Absolutely not. Some of the most unique builds come from a two-car garage with the family station wagon occupying most of it. Heck, a lot of folks don’t even have garages to work in! So long as you set yourself up with the right tools and a strategic system, any project is possible regardless of your setting.
We’re not here to just throw words of encouragement with no direction at you, though—drop a few bucks to us through Venmo and we’ll do that too. What you can count on The Drive’s top shop junkies is to help you set up the perfect “garage” anywhere. Time to set it up!
Building the Perfect Garage Basics
- Estimated Time Needed: Ongoing
- Skill Level: Beginner
What Is the Perfect Garage?
Let’s get metaphysical and ask, “What do you feel is the perfect garage?” Most of us immediately imagine something similar to the hangar Carroll Shelby had to work with back in the day, tools everywhere, as well as a few Cobras and a GT40 prototype. While that’s a great pipe dream, it’s not something most of us are likely to achieve any time soon.
The facts are that most enthusiasts have a single or two-car garage to work with—if they even have a garage at all. What we envision as the basis for the perfect setup is one that allows you to work as efficiently as possible. A space that keeps you in a constant flow from start to finish without becoming overwhelmed by clutter or discouraged about the difficulty level of the job you’ve taken on. Over years of wrenching, you’ll find that a specific setlist of tools takes priority or that some things others love don’t work for you. Our advice is to start small and gradually grind out the perfect garage as your skills and needs develop.
And it’s important to realize that it’ll take some time to find a system that you consider perfect. Even with a limitless budget, you can’t expect to throw all of your money at a shop and expect yourself to immediately take to it.
Garage “Building” Safety
As you can probably gather, we’re not actually talking about how to build a garage from the ground up. So, you don’t have to worry much about safety glasses, protective gloves, and hard hats all that much—unless the situation tells us otherwise.
But organizing chemicals, tools, parts, and shelving units can still be rather dangerous. So, you’ll want to keep these safety tips in mind as you work:
- Chemicals are chemicals. Even in storage, harsh chemicals are just waiting to cause problems. It’s best to store flammable, toxic, and downright nasty products where they can’t do any harm. Chemical storage sheds are a thing. Invest in one.
- Don’t overload your shelving. It’s easy to forget that shelving systems have weight limits. Be sure to keep that in mind while you fill them up. If you neglect this, you’ll either wind up with a major mess or flatter than a pancake when that thing comes down.
- Keep heavier parts closer to the ground. Don’t put your cylinder heads on the top shelf unless you want to send your spine through the concrete. Keeping all heavy things on the ground level might not be convenient, but it’ll keep visits to the chiropractor at a minimum.
- Point the pointy bits away. As you organize tools, materials, and whatever else is in your shop, keep the sharp end tucked away. Trust me. Your screwdrivers and bits of sheet metal are dying to take a bite.
Everything You’ll Need To Set Up Shop
Trying to tell you what you need to set up the perfect garage is nearly impossible. As we said, the ideal garage is the one that best suits your needs. We have no clue what kind of vehicles you’ll be working on, the kind of work you’re willing to take on, or even the kind of budget you have at your disposal. That does mean you’ll need to dream up your very own list of essential tools and supplies for your garage. But there are still some basics that every garage should have.
- Tool chest
- Mechanic’s tool set
- Work bench
- Shelving units
- Small Parts Organizers
- Push broom
- Shop vac
- Magnetic sweeper
- Storage cabinets
- Air compressor
- Pneumatic tools
- Floor jack
- Jack stands
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
Here’s How To Plan Your Garage Setup
Let’s do this!
1. Clean Shop
Before you go throwing shelves and workbenches into a garage, you need to clean up. Keep in mind that many of the things you put in there will stay in place for a very long time. You really want to make sure you do an excellent job at sweeping the floors and cleaning the walls before you go nuts. If that means tearing everything out, it means tearing everything out—better now than later.
2. Get Your Basics in Order
While you clean, it won’t hurt to note the things you have and compare them to the list of basic needs we provided and the one you’ve created for yourself. Once you know what you need, go ahead and start collecting what you can. It can be expensive to buy everything at once, so take your time and gather the items you absolutely need first and work your way through the list of things you need.
3. Take On a Few Projects
Once you’ve got your ducks in a row, the best thing to do is put yourself to work. The projects you take on, the vehicles you work on and, most importantly, your workflow will define the setup you need. So, you’ll want to get your hands dirty and learn a few things about the trade and yourself before trying to replicate the systems and tools others are using.
4. Clean Shop AGAIN
It might seem stupid that we’re reminding you that cleaning up the shop is essential. But the reality is that it’s very easy to fall into the poor habit of working through the clutter. Trust me. You’ll spend more money replacing tools and parts you lose around the shop than anywhere else if you don’t keep things clean. It’s best to nip any habits in the bud now and save a substantial amount of money that you can be spending on items your shop really needs.
5. Take Note of Your Needs
After working through a few projects, you can take the time to think about the tools and set up that best suits your needs. After cleaning up shop again, you can stand back and start to visualize the layout that’ll best complement your workflow and any additional tools you might want to invest in.
6. Reorganize Your Setup
Don’t just dream, do it. Take the initiative to start organizing your shop so that it’s the way you want it. During this portion, you’ll really start to feel like you’re chipping away at your dream setup. Don’t just think in the now either. For example, making space for a lift or station you eventually intend to purchase now is a good idea.
7. Go Shopping
Ok, so you have a list and a vision in mind. Still, you can miss the little things. Take the time to check out the local tool supply. You’re sure to find little things that will improve your workflow. Things like magnetic tool rails, paper towel dispensers, and screwdriver holders can make a major difference in any project. Just be ready to get carried away and blow through an entire paycheck when you do.
8. Gather, Organize, and Take Inventory of your Parts
Mechanical hobbies are expensive. That’s not because of tools, though. It’s the parts that absorb your income. That’s precisely why shelving units and storage cabinets are crucial for any garage. Now, and every so often, you should look at the parts you have, take inventory and organize them. Trust me. Building a collection of spare parts that you can pick from will save you a TON of money in the long run.
How I’d Start Setting Up My Garage From Scratch
We’ve all dreamt of a garage setup designed to our exact tastes. Here’s how I’d do it.
How much space does my dream garage have? An industrial-size building would be the actual dream, but a two- or three-bay garage would also work just fine. A single bay is excellent for storage, but projects tend to take up quite a bit of room. Having an additional bay to dedicate to an engine rebuild or similar project is a significant convenience that quite honestly propels the project forward to a substantial degree. That’s something I would keep in mind if I were to build a garage from scratch.
A suitable workbench doesn’t need to be the size of Kansas to suffice, but it sure is nice when it is. In my dream garage, a wrap-around workbench would be one of the first things to build. That way, there’s plenty of space to store tools on top and large equipment beneath while giving you plenty of room to tear down whatever you need without having to risk contamination or spilling your cup of joe.
Tool storage is a significant concern for many, but being a minimalist in this area goes a long way. I’ll admit that I’d certainly buy into the idea of a pegboard simply because it saves a good amount of space on the workbench, but I’d use it for little more than keeping the essential hand tools. Other than that, one large chest for miscellaneous tools and a few smaller toolboxes dedicated to specialty tools such as electrical diagnostic tools, pneumatic tools, and so on would be just fine for me.
If you have a project car, you have spare parts on hand. That collection, while convenient, takes up more room than anything else in my possession. Multi-tier wire rack shelving systems work wonderfully for parts storage. They do take up some floor space, but when paired with totes, you can quickly organize everything you’ve got on hand. I currently rely on a similar system and would absolutely add something similar to my dream garage as my brain is programmed to work with it. I’d like to see cabinets to separate speed-related parts or those I pick from most frequently, as well.
I think a good air compressor is something you can’t afford to overlook when talking about specialty tools. Obviously, pneumatic tools for mechanical projects are a great addition to any shop. They also give you the option to venture further into paint and bodywork. Even if you aren’t a body guy, which I’m not, having the opportunity to apply a proper coat of paint is always beneficial. I currently don’t lean on compressed air for much more than busting wheels free or filling up tires. However, I’d still like to see a 30-gallon compressor in my dream shop.
What About a Lift?
Everyone’s dream garage has a lift, right? Mine too. If I had a limitless budget and an industrial-size space, installing a car lift in your garage would be on the agenda. I know that isn’t a realistic thought, though. So, a good floor jack, some jack stands, and a creeper would take its place. Oh, and a transmission jack. Trust me. A regular floor jack just isn’t the right tool for the job when the time comes to replace the clutch.
Pro Tips to Building Out Your Garage
We’ve built a few garages out, so here are our pro-tips.
- Check out other shops. I’m not one to say that you should buy the latest greatest gizmos that your buddies are using for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses. I will say that it’s worth dipping into an industry veteran’s shop whenever you can, though. Don’t just look at the big things when you get the chance to, though. Look at how they organize the little things like spare parts or their workbench. This is a great way to pick up little tips that can really boost your efficiency.
- Try your hand at projects before you invest in costly systems. Different areas of focus require various specialty tools, and you can spend a ton of money in specific areas. Engine building, painting, bodywork, chassis work, and interior work are all things that require different things from your workspace. It’s best to dabble in those things before you buy all of the gear you’ll need to take them on regularly.
- Don’t be ashamed to work with what you have. Who cares if you can’t afford a shop that’s armed to the teeth? Don’t buy into the fact that you need the latest and greatest gear to get the job done. Expensive tools and all-inclusive setups do make work easier, but they aren’t necessary to make it possible. Not only that, there’s a little more pride in completing a job with very little in your corner.
FAQs About Garage Setups
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: How should I organize my garage?
A: You should always organize your garage so that the layout compliments your workflow. You want to think about the tools and supplies you use most frequently and prioritize them by placing them in areas that are easily accessible. Beyond that, the organization does depend on the amount of room you have to work with. No matter the case, shelves, and storage cabinets for tools, supplies, and spare parts are highly recommended.
Q: What is the best garage storage system?
A: I find good old-fashioned shelves to be the best storage system. They have a broad and open area that allows one to easily access the things they need without having to sort through much. Of course, toolboxes and parts bin organizers are also must-haves for any garage or shop.
Q: What tools does a beginner mechanic need?
A: That depends on the work you intend to do. A mechanic’s toolset does cover the essentials, but that’s about it. You want to think through the area you’ll focus on the most and get some specialty tools for that type of work. For example, those who work on engines should also spring for compression testers and other diagnostic tools, while bodyworkers want to invest in sanders and an air compressor.
Q: What should be in a garage?
A: You. Even if you don’t have a “garage,” the essential element of any environment you intend to work in is yourself. Then come the tools and the projects. Again, it all comes down to your desires and needs based on the work you do. Otherwise, all the devices in the world aren’t worth anything. But, if you’re just starting, the list of basics above is an excellent source of inspiration.
Q: What should not be stored in a garage?
A: Outside of perishables and vinyl records, you really shouldn’t keep any pressurized containers or exceptionally harmful chemicals in your garage. If an accident were to occur, such as a fire, these products can make the matter dramatically worse.