12 Tips for Woodworking in a Small Shop

Many woodworkers have more tools and lumber than they have space to store and use them. However, with some proper planning and organization, you can work efficiently in a small workshop space such as a garage, basement, or outbuilding. Here are some tips on how to make the best use of space when woodworking in a small shop.

1. Get mobile

Putting your tools, shop cabinets, and lumber racks on wheels will make your shop feel larger. Mobile bases designed for specific tools or universal mobile bases can be used to mobilize all your tools, including table saws, band saws, jointers, drill presses, planers, etc. Workbenches and lathes need to be rigid, so mobile bases aren’t the best solution for them. However, flip-down casters can be a great way to move those tools after using them.

Casters can also be installed on cabinets, shelves, and clamp and lumber or sheet good racks. Having the ability to move these storage units around the shop provides flexibility in your shop layout. It also allows you to keep supplies or small tools readily at hand while you’re building your next great project.

 

Mortising machine on mobile base

This mortising machine is very easy to move around the shop on its mobile base.

 

2. Use bench top tools

If you have very little space to devote to woodworking, bench top tools are a good option to consider. Compact tools like benchtop sanders, grinders, scroll saws, lathes, band saws, drill presses, and mortising machines can offer the capacity you need while taking up less space than full-size floor model tools. These tools can be stored under a bench top or on storage shelves and then moved to the workbench or onto a piece of plywood attached to saw horses when needed.

3. Buy woodworking tools that can perform several functions.

By using tools that can be sued for a variety of woodworking tasks, you save space another tool would take up. You also save money by not buying that other tool. An example of this is using your table saw extension table as a router table. You can buy extension tables already designed for use for both supporting workpieces on the table saw and for housing a router that is attached underneath the extension top. The router bit is lowered out of the way when not in use. You can also make your own extension table out of phenolic plywood or laminated plywood, cut a hole for the router table insert, and mount the router below.

Another great way to save space with multi-functional tools is to use a drill press as a mortising machine. Mortising attachments quickly mount on drill presses and work very well for cutting mortises in place of a dedicated mortising machine.

You can also insert sanding drums in a drill press chuck for sanding inside and outside curved edges instead of having to have a full-size sander. Sanding drum kits come in a variety of drum sizes. Sanding sleeves are replaceable and come in a wide range of grits.

If your main interest is woodturning items like pens or pepper mills on a lathe, you can get a drill chuck for the lathe and use it to drill the holes needed for pen blanks or peppercorn storage. Lathe drill press chucks are relatively inexpensive and can be stored in a drawer when not in use, saving space taken up by a drill press.

Drill chuck for the lathe

A lathe drill chuck installed in a lathe tailstock

If you have a table saw, you may not need a miter saw. You can make a miter sled for use in cutting miters on the table saw. A circular saw and straight edge or speed square can be used to cut wood down to rough length, with finish cross-cuts done on the table saw for all but the very longest workpieces. You may even get by without a table saw by using a good quality track saw, like the Festool model shown in the video below, for ripping and crosscutting lumber and sheet goods. In fact, many woodworkers rely exclusively on track saws for these purposes.

4. Break down sheet goods for storage

Sheet goods, such as whole sheets of 4 ft. by 8 ft. plywood or MDF, take up a lot of valuable space, up to 32 square feet for a full sheet. Even if leaned against a wall, you need access to the sheet goods and so are limited in situating fixed based tools or cabinets in front of them. However, you can cut down sheet goods to rough sizes you commonly use for your projects when you bring them home from the lumber dealer or big box store.

You can use your table saw, circular saw, track saw, or even a router with a straight edge to cut the sheet goods down to rough size. These smaller pieces of material are easier to move around the shop and store.

5. Use folding tables and accessories

Tables and accessories that fold up are great products for small workshops. Folding sawhorses can be used to hold a partial sheet of plywood for use as an assembly table or work surface. Folding out-feed attachments or stands can be used for supporting long workpieces when cutting them on the table saw or bandsaw, or when drilling long boards on a drill press.

6. Use exposed shop framing for storage

If your shop has exposed wall framing, you can nail cross pieces between the studs to serve as shelves for storing small items like boxes of screws, sandpaper, glue, etc.

7. Use ceiling mounting racks

Metal racks designed to hang from your garage ceiling can be utilized for storing infrequently used items or supplies. You can also build your own racks out of 2 x 4s and plywood. Be careful, however, and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for securely attaching the racks to the ceiling.

 

8. Build multipurpose work surfaces with built-in storage

The tops of assembly tables or workbenches can be used as an outfeed table for your table saw. You can gain a good deal of storage space by fully enclosing the base of an assembly table and installing shelves inside. Shelves and holders can also be mounted to the exterior surfaces to hold small tools, layout equipment, sandpaper, and other supplies.

Flip top carts are a great way to store one tool while using another. Plans for building this type of tool cart can be found online. A different tool is attached to each side of the top, which rotates so that one tool is hanging upside down while you’re using the other tool.  

 

 

9. Get outside

When the weather allows, roll your tools outside to the driveway. This not only frees up space, but it also helps keep down the dust level in your shop. Just be courteous to your neighbors and don’t be running routers or a table saw late at night or at 6 a.m. on a weekend morning!

10. Use your hands

Learn to use hand tools and you will be able to save both a ton of space and a lot of money. A set of hand tools can be stored in one wall mounted cabinet or a well-organized toolbox. Furthermore, for centuries, furniture makers have used only hand tools like hand saws, chisels, and planes to create furniture masterpieces. If hand tools can be used to build museum-quality Chippendale secretaries or Bombe chests of drawers, then they most certainly can be used to build Adirondack chairs, cutting boards, or jewelry boxes.

Using hand tools allow you to be more focused on the art of woodworking as you learn how to cut dovetails, chop mortises, and fine-tune tenons with hand saws, planes, and chisels. Hand tool woodworking also offers health benefits in the form of exercise you’ll get. Flattening a dining table top with a hand plane will burn a ton more calories than running boards through a motorized planer!

11. Get it off the floor

Use your wall space instead of valuable floor space to store tools. For years, I stored supplies like finishes, glues, and sandpaper in storage boxes stacked on the floor of my garage. However, when I wanted to free the floor space, I hung recycled kitchen wall cabinets to store these items.

Tool walls, like the one built by Darbin Orvar in the video below, are a great way to store your hand tools while keeping them handy. A quick glance at the wall will tell you if a tool is in its dedicated space. I plan to build a tool wall for my shop soon and will post an article showing how I did it.

 

 

Another good option for storing your tools is a wall-mounted tool storage cabinet such as the one built by Tom Silva at This Old House.

 

12. Use rolling organizer carts

I recently purchased two multi-drawer organizer carts like those teachers often use in classrooms to store my router bits, pen turning supplies like wood pen blanks and kits, screws, and miscellaneous hardware and other items that can be easily misplaced in a woodworking shop.

While the drawers on these carts are plastic and won’t support very heavy items, they have been great for helping me organize my shop. I plan to use a label maker to create labels for each drawer to make the carts even more useful. Because they are on casters, I can quickly roll them out of the way when cleaning the shop or if I want to relocate them to another part of the shop.

Rolling Storage Cart

I use these rolling storage drawers to store and organize pen turning supplies, pen blanks, router bits, sandpaper, and other woodworking supplies.