Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Garage Workshop: Initial Thoughts

(Longish post, sorry.)

Well, you say you want to do woodworking, right?

And you either don't have a basement, or it's damp, or it's your Man Cave, or otherwise unavailable for use as a woodshop, right?

And your local NCOB (Nazi Community Organizational Body) - more commonly referred to your Home Owner's Association - doesn't allow separate shops, outbuildings, sheds, covered porches, or other structures which - although you paid good money for your property and it would greatly contribute to your quality of life - may possibly present an irregular, nonconforming look to your property and are thus Oulawed, right?

Well, my friend, the Garage is probably gonna be your new home. Unless you're single and don't mind planing boards on the kitchen table.

The Garage is actually a very natural selection of space for the at-home woodworker. Most Garages have the following desirable features:
  1. It is separated from the house - if not as a separate building, by at least a 1 hour fire rated wall, by code. This means that dust and noise are much more self contained than would otherwise be the case in a basement (or kitchen table). Once dust gets into your homes ventilation system, it ain't getting out without a lot of money spent.
  2. It may house your main service panel, providing easy access to add additional circuits.
  3. Big doors to the outside for hauling machinery, wood, supplies, etc.
  4. Most people don't mind it being a little on the dirty side. Ever seen a clean, tidy garage that wasn't a cover photo for Handyman Magazine? Yeah, me neither.
  5. For attached Garages, they have taller ceilings than the main house. For a non-split-level home, the main floor level is probably at least between 10 and 13 inches above the garage floor, but the ceiling line most likely remains constant. My house with 8' tall main floor ceilings has a little over 9' in the garage.
  6. Using it to store your car is purely optional (depending on dispositional status of Spouse/Significant Other/Reason for Living/etc.)
Garages have their downsides to deal with, however:
  1. Concrete floors absolutely SUCK to work on for any length of time.
  2. The floor slopes at least 3" down to the door opening, making it more difficult to properly register machinery setups and build cabinets (although we will solve both issues).
  3. They may or may not be insulated, making woodworking more of a seasonal activity, depending on climate. My garage is fully inside the main house "box," yet the insulation is only in the ceiling and the common wall of the house - the garage itself is outside of the house's "thermal envelope." If you think of your house as your body snugly wrapped under the covers on a cold winter night, the Garage is your cold left foot that isn't under it, only here you can't scootch it back under the covers. Our Garage Workshop project will solve this issue.
  4. They are most likely severely lacking in electrical outlets - "receptacles," in proper electrical parlance. By code, you need a minimum of single 15 amp GFI (Ground Fault Interrupt) duplex receptacle and one or more non-GFIs for overhead garage door openers. Builders are notorious for providing the bare minimum for everything, so this is typical. We'll solve the electrical problem with a subpanel upgrade and lots of new properly sizes receptacles.
  5. The lighting usually sucks, usually provided by a pair of puny 40W incandescent light bulbs that makes everything look like it has the flu.
  6. The common "fire wall" with the house is an important barrier. Remember that running cars give off carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas. Garages also store gasoline, oil, and other highly flammable liquids. Thus, anything you do that penetrates this barrier in any way can be seen as a serious problem with local codes, your insurance company, and your health and safety.
    However, it is my FIRM belief that major work (electrical, HVAC, construction, etc) needs to be properly permitted and inspected for your own protection, and the process "should" catch any issues with this important barrier.
    Otherwise, you run a risk where a disaster such as a fire may not be compensated by the insurance company if they found out you did work which was against code and was not permitted. Even if it did not contribute to the disaster.
  7. Wood shops absolutely eat space. But unless for most garages are way too small, even for cars, unless you drive a Mini. Mass builders of new homes make garages so ridiculously small as to be quite unsuitable for their intended purpose. For most homes built in the last 10 years, even a two car garage is barely adequate for a single car, much less two. I've seen garages built which were so tight that you could not open the doors. Meaning YOU COULD NOT EVEN GET IN AND OUT OF THE CAR.
    On top of that, you have your NCOB (er, HOA) which explicitly bans external sheds to store mowers and other yard-like implements of destruction, so the garage is already swamped for space.
  8. Using it to not store your car is In-No-Way-Jose-Feliciano optional (again, depending on dispositional status of Spouse/Significant Other/Reason for Living/etc.).
This blog will focus on the design and implementation of turning a normal two-car 21'x21' garage into a Workshop Paradise, as well as document project logs and so on. We're going to cover these main topics:
  • The givens: What we have to work with. The first thing to do is establish a full initial survey in all three dimensions, which is critical to the planning process. It's also important to properly survey your available building services - electrical, plumbing, HVAC (heating/ventilation/cooling). I think it's really important to completely document in sketches and drawings of how your home's systems are laid out, from the basement to the attic, so you can figure out how to extend them into the workshop properly.

  • Planning: We need a clear vision of what we want the final thing to look like. Most at-home woodworkers use both hand tools and machinery in varying doses, so the workshop I build is clearly a unique case. But what I come up with may provide insight to your design and your thought process.

    However, one should understand that there is no such thing as the "ultimate workshop'' as initially designed on paper. Even Norm Abram's shop, which was built out of the ground for a single purpose, has its design flaws. For example, it has a concrete floor and there's no under-floor dust collection - he runs a trip-hazard flexible pipe from the table saw to the wall DC line. Egads.

    I think wood shops need to be used for some time to be fully understood. You can initially lay out your current stable of machinery and workbench, but until you get in there and start making big boards into smaller ones, you really don't know how close or far apart the machines should be, or where their positions should be for maximizing efficiency. Then you have to plan for new stuff. Do you have a 4" bench top jointer but really want an 8" full size behemoth? What if your furniture making takes you to "needing" that 20" planer? What if you are getting along with a tiny benchtop table saw and find a decent Unisaw on Craigslist for $300?

    The point is, you will always be tweaking things and making improvements. That's a self-analysis of your workflow and, really, half the fun of having a wood shop. In the beginning all you can do is design a decently thought-out solution as a starting point, and let time and experience take it from there.

  • I will need improvements to the home's building services to turn a dead utilitarian space into livable conditions: Updating the electrical system to support the machinery and other electron-pushery-utensils; installing proper lighting, adding insulation, heating and/or air conditioning for year-round comfort; adding a utility sink; and other niceties.

  • Workstations. We'll need to design stationary major work areas like the table saw, miter saw/radial arm saw, router table, drill press, bandsaw, jointer, planer, assembly, and of course, our hand-toolery kung-fu tomfoolery (i.e., a real honest to God woodworking workbench).

  • Cabinetry. One of my most basic design requirements is to have lots of cabinets with everything stored away in its proper place. There's no more frustrating, time wasting endeavor than searching for a tool in a bucket, box, or on a shelf someplace. And with dust getting everywhere - even with decent dust collection - I want clean and tidy tools with nothing stored out in the open.

    Cabinets are actually a lot of fun to design and relatively simple to build. After a lot of research I've decided to store any below-countertop stuff in drawers of varying sizes, instead of open shelves or behind cabinet doors. Drawers allow you to graduate and sort tools by function easily, keep the dust out, and provide a much cleaner look.

  • Mobility where required. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think absolutely everything needs to be on wheels, but some stuff really should be on a mobile base. When your shop is on the smaller side, the more mobile things are, the better. I picked up a 2-ton cherry picker/ engine hoist from Pop Boys for a hundred bucks which is fabtastic for unloading the latest CL find and moving the big stuff around. Too bad it weighs a ton and takes up space.

    My design will incorporate a few roll around cabinets and assembly tables, which allow me to spread out when working but compress down to a smaller space when not. Intelligently designed, I think this will allow my Fabulous Wife to park her car and still let me get some stuff done.

  • Dust collection. This aspect of shop design cannot afford to be underestimated. I didn't think it was important until I finally plugged in my table saw for the first time and ripped a 2" wide, 48" long strip of MDF. Yow.

  • We'll also need to factor in for those things that need space but you usually don't think about until you move in:
    - Raw wood storage
    - Offcut storage (these critters multiply like rabbits)
    - Hardware storage (nuts n bolts n things)
    - Air compressor. Yes, you need one. And no, it is never big enough.
    - Woodworking hand tool storage - saws, planes, marking utensils, etc. (next to The Workbench)
    - Normal shop everyday hand tools like screwdrivers, wrenches, levels, hammers, etc.
    - Handyman tools - Drywall tools, painting stuff, plumbing doodads, electrical stuff...
    - Hand power tools like routers, circular saws, drills, air guns. These can consume a lot of space as well.
    - Misc. liquids/supplies storage: thinners, glues, waxes, stains, paints, brushes.
    - Other "normal" denizens of the garage: Mowers, lawn tools, bicycles, garbage cans, cars, etc.
That's enough of a road map for now. As I get some pictures together I'll post the progression.

-Matt

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