The Perfect Workshop archive

Wednesday 24 February 2010

In Shop Talk Alan Holtham first helps you design your own bespoke workspace


This series will look at the options for setting up and running a small workshop, contrasting the different requirements for amateur and professional use.

Along the way I shall look in detail at factors such as the best use of space, and health and safety requirements particularly with regard to dust extraction, electrics, heating, storage, and security.

Then of course there is the fascinating question of kitting out, working out what hand and power tools you need, whether to go for a combination machine or separates, and what machines are needed for specific purposes.

I shall also look at more peripheral factors like legal requirements for a small business, marketing your work and a particular hobbyhorse of mine, how to photograph your work to get that professional look without spending a fortune.

I will be providing plenty of variety and scope for discussion over the next few months, and hope to temper theory with practical examples and maybe bring in the occasional project to illustrate particular difficulties and how to work around them. However, workshops and their layout are very personal, and although you will soak up a lot of ideas from other sources, always go with what you feel is right for you.

Making do

Creating the perfect workshop is something of a Holy Grail, a wonderful aspiration, but probably never achievable. However, with a degree of ingenuity and a willingness to compromise, you can often get somewhere near.

The problem is that it is rare to have a completely clean sheet of paper on which to design your perfect solution so you have to make do with what is available. Usually you are forced to convert an existing garage, shed or outhouse and this puts an immediate constraint onto the layout.

In many ways though, this actually makes the job of planning the workshop a bit easier. It is daunting starting completely from scratch, you can become overawed by the sheer choice of options. If you are not careful there is a danger that the workshop becomes an obsession and you lose sight of the ball, which is to create a warm and friendly environment in which to work, not a clinically sterile space that you are afraid of messing up with shavings and dust. There is a happy medium though, and a disorganised and untidy workshop is unpleasant to work in and is probably dangerous as well.

Personally, I derive my pleasure and inspiration from working in a light and airy environment with everything to hand. Using wood is a frustrating enough experience at the best of times, so let us make it as simple as possible.

Deciding on structure

First consider whether the workshop is for hobby use only or for business, in which case there is a whole range of other factors to be taken into account, not least of which is to get planning permission for what you intend.

If you want to build a permanent structure it is necessary to find out from your local planning authority just how big you can go. You are allowed to make additions to your property up to a certain percentage of the existing floor area without getting permission. Sheds and other similar non-permanent structures are less regulated and you can generally put one where you like, but a phone call to the planning office is always wise because there may be specific local restrictions in force.


Most of us have to make do with a garage and convert this into the workshop. If you still need to maintain access for the car the situation becomes much more complicated because everything must be on wheels to allow it to be moved to one side after use.

Also consider the implications of bringing a warm, wet car into a workshop full of dry tools and timber. Far better to have your workshop as a dedicated building - the car is better left outside anyway.


You will need to consider the big question of accessibility, but from a number of viewpoints. If you are converting an existing building then electricity and plumbing services will probably be available, but if you are building something new they need to be nearby. Putting up a shed at the bottom of the garden may be the ideal answer, but power would have to be got down to it.

Physical accessibility is important as well. If you are using heavy machinery the workshop should be on the ground floor because I know from personal experience that getting a sawbench through an upstairs window is a nightmare.

Remember that you will also have to receive deliveries of materials, and you will need to get finished products out of the workshop. All this is greatly complicated if you are not on ground level. A wide doorway is vital, a double one even better.

You also need to be able to get to the workshop easily yourself. If furniture making is a hobby, you will want to pop out to it whenever the fancy takes you, even if it is only for a few minutes. If the workshop is any distance away, the spontaneity and pleasure is lost. It is far better to have something smaller where you live, rather than a grand workshop which you have to drive to. This situation is somewhat reversed if you are embarking on a woodworking business. In this case it is better to have the workshop away from home, and physically go out to work and, more importantly, come home from it.

Noise considerations

Consider also the social aspects of siting your workshop. If you intend using machinery or power tools, remember that they make quite penetrating noises and often for long periods of time. Your neighbours will not be impressed if you spend hours working with a router. Installing insulation will help with the noise problem and also save precious heat.

In a wooden shed, lining with Rockwool and then covering this with ply or cladding provides a very efficient and cost-effective noise-reducing barrier.

If your structure is a brick one, the sound problem is usually less severe, particularly if it is cavity wall construction, but consider secondary glazing the windows with either glass or Perspex, keeping the air gap as big as possible.

If you are working in a garage do not forget the doors. The up-and-over metal type transmit every bit of sound, as well as being very cold in winter, so stick some form of rigid insulation to them. The type used under car bonnets is ideal for this.

Whatever you do though, there will always be a certain amount of noise escaping, so have due regard for your surroundings and try and keep noisy activities within sociable hours. Do not forget that you may not need permission for the workshop, but you can be summonsed if you are causing a nuisance. This is where siting the workshop well away from other houses is a great benefit providing you maintain the accessibility benefits outlined above.

Keep in touch

There is of course downside to having a remote workshop. Firstly woodworking is a solitary business at the best of times so it is more pleasant to have others around to have a chat with occasionally. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, using machinery and tools is inherently dangerous and you need to have someone else handy in case of accident. At the very least take your mobile, or install a phone.

Size matters

The actual space for your workshop is often predetermined and you have to work within it. If not, and you are lucky enough to be building from scratch, bear in mind that size does matter. Again, this comes down to what you intend making. If you anticipate machining 8 x 4 sheets on a regular basis then plenty of space is necessary.

Remember, though, that a big workshop has to be heated, and you will end up walking miles in a day as you move from one bit to another. I discovered this at home. Moving from a very compact galley kitchen to a large family-sized one, preparing a meal now involves a walk of several miles rather than just reaching out from one side to the other.

The occasional big sheet can usually be broken down outside and then brought into the workshop for final cutting.

If you are just turning or carving, the actual working space needed is far less than that of a cabinetmaker or joiner, but it is rare to have the opportunity to set up a specific workshop. Far better in my opinion, is to divide up the workshop into definite areas, with all the necessary tooling set out nearby.

You can do all the machining in one space where you need lots of room, then move into a smaller area when it comes to the assembly, then finish in another clean area. This way you only have to heat and light where you are working and dust and mess control is much simpler as well.

Woodworkers Institute

Tagged In:

Alan Holtham , Workshop , Shop Talk , setting up , health and safety

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Top Ten Workshop Planning Tips

I have formulated the following summary of considerations for setting up a workshop, based on about half a dozen of my previous arrangements in a variety of different situations. They are in no particular order, and the list is not exhaustive, it just reflects my personal experience.
1. Big is not always beautiful. A small workshop is much easier to control, will save a lot of walking about, and is cheaper to heat.
2. A long thin workshop is generally more efficient than a square one, particularly with regard to the work triangle.
3. Plenty of natural light is essential, but preferably other than south facing where it can become dazzling. This needs to be supplemented with artificial light, ideally daylight balanced.
4. If possible subdivide the space into a clean and a dirty area, and make provision for easy cleaning up. Think about safety, particularly with regard to dust and its extraction.
5. Ensure that you have plenty of electrical sockets on a properly wired and protected circuit. Go totally over the top with sockets. You will be amazed how many get used, and it will save time and frustration constantly plugging and unplugging everything. Ideally install the metal-clad type, which are so much more robust than the easily damaged plastic ones.
6. Although not as loud as many other types of woodworking, even turning can generate anti-social noise, so do install some form of insulation if you anticipate working long hours to complete that urgent commission. As well as pacifying the neighbours, it will also help with heat retention.
7. Think long and hard about your likely work pattern before you start installing machines. Drawings and scaled cutouts on a plan are fine, but for possible interactions and conflicts you cannot beat actually trying things out in situ. Be flexible in your mind as regards the eventual layout and try machines temporarily in place for several weeks before you finally install them.
8. Think ahead and try to allow for future acquisitions at this stage. It saves having repeatedly to juggle things around every time you buy something new. Also, try and minimise any unnecessary upgrades by buying the right machine in the first place. The cheapest is rarely the best, so build in some spare capacity and buy good quality.
9. Allow for plenty of storage. You will soon accumulate lots of small tools, accessories and gadgets, all of which are easily lost in the piles of shavings. Simple, efficient and visible storage is the only answer. I like toolboards for the bigger tools as you can see instantly if anything is missing. Small plastic drawers are cheap and ideal for all those little bits and pieces, but put in plenty of shelving as well, for timber and finishes
10. Make sure your workshop is secure against theft. Machinery and power tools are in great demand second-hand, so take adequate steps to make sure you keep yours secure, with good locks on the doors and windows. A separate shed alarm is a must if your workshop is in a secluded part of the garden.
Obviously it is not an ideal world and you can rarely fulfill all of these criteria, and anyway the goalposts often move as your working style develops and you go off at another angle.
However, if you embrace these general principles you should end up with a safe and pleasant working environment, though it will never be perfect.