The following is excerpted from “The Workshop Book,” by Scott Landis (first published in 1991), which remains the most complete book about every woodworker’s favorite place: the workshop. This new 216-page hardbound edition ensures “The Workshop Book” will be available to future generations of woodworkers. Produced and printed in the United States, this classic text is printed on FSC-certified recycled paper and features a durable sewn binding designed to last generations. The 1991 text remains the same in this edition and includes a foreword by Roy Underhill.
Like a house, the workshop is a complete environment. It provides shelter and basic human needs like heat and light, comfort and safety. The shop must therefore account for all of the same structural requirements as a house – a floor, walls and ceiling (along with a foundation, windows, doors and a roof, if it is freestanding). Beyond that, the dedicated, functional nature of the workshop and the equipment that is used in it embrace a whole range of issues and specific requirements – electric power, dust collection, task lighting, solvent storage and vapor extraction – that are only peripheral in most houses.
Unfortunately, in too many workshops, these critical support systems are accorded scant consideration. After spending so much time, energy and money on the workshop structure and equipment, we’re too often willing to put up with an inadequate, even unsafe or unhealthy, work environment. But, as Donald Williams, furniture conservator for the Conservation Analytical Laboratory (museum support center for the Smithsonian) told me, these systems should be nonnegotiable. “They may seem extravagant to the person who’s scraping by in the basement,” he said, “but for me that’s where it starts. You do without a table saw if you need to.”
In this chapter I will outline the basic systems that are common to most shops. To attend to them all would require the diverse talents of a small corps of professionals – an architect, a builder, a mason, an electrician and a plumber, among others. You may have some of these skills yourself, or be able to crib enough information from the literature to undertake much of your own construction. If not, you may prefer to hire (or barter for) a professional to do the job. Electricity, in particular, can be dangerous – even deadly – so do not undertake any electrical operation about which you are at all uncertain.
In any case, entire books have been written about each aspect of the subject, covering everything from roofing and insulation to electrical wiring; and there are federal, state and local building codes that apply to just about any structural situation you can imagine. Refer to these sources (a few of which are listed in the Bibliography) or to a licensed professional for more detailed information. And contact your local fire marshal or insurance representative to make sure that what you are about to do is not only safe, but legal, and will not adversely affect your insurability.
Purpose-built workshop buildings come in every shape and size and in every conceivable type of construction, from poured concrete and rammed earth to log, timber-frame and standard balloon framing. Converted shops are at least as varied. In this book you’ll find comfortable shops that are located in a pole shed, several old mill sites, the granite bowels of an industrial building, a Chevy bookmobile and hewn out of a chicken coop. I know of one Arizona sculptor who works in a hogan, the traditional earth and timber longhouse of the Navajos.
So many different types of buildings and construction methods are used to build shops successfully, that I won’t attempt to discuss them all here. There are, however, several structural considerations worth mentioning, whether you’re building from scratch or working in your basement.
Insulation is as important for comfort and energy efficiency in a shop as it is in a home. What’s more, insulation absorbs machine noise, making the shop a more pleasant place to work in and to live next to.
After roasting for much of six years in an uninsulated tin garage, Roger Heitzman took action before moving his California workshop into a corrugated-steel, light-industrial building. He attached a separate 2×3 stud wall to the inside of the steel frame with screwed-on brackets. Then he stuffed fiberglass insulation in the furred walls and ceiling and he sheathed the inside with 1/2-in. drywall. The effort paid off. Heitzman’s half of the 2,400-sq. ft. building hovers around a pleasant 70° F during most of the summer, while it sizzles at 100° F in the uninsulated cabinet shop in the other half. During the three cool months of the year, auxiliary heat is supplied by two portable kerosene heaters (10,000 Btu).
Different construction situations and budgets call for different insulating materials. Fiberglass and polyurethane foam are two of the most popular, although Homasote panels and ceiling tiles are also used to advantage. A few timber-frame shops I visited were fitted with stress-skin panels, in which foam insulation forms an unbroken vapor barrier around the skeletal frame, effectively reducing drafts and heat transfer through the walls. Stress-skin panels are expensive but they are installed quickly (the interior wall covering and exterior sheathing are built into each panel), and reduced heating costs will make up for at least some of the initial investment.
Interior paneling contributes to the sound and thermal insulation of the workshop, and several shops I visited were either completely paneled or combined a wood-sheathed wainscoting on the lower portion of the wall with a drywalled surface above. Wood paneling creates a warm, cozy atmosphere and provides a rugged, puncture-resistant surface to which tools and shelves may be easily attached. Drywall is relatively inexpensive, easy to install and is usually painted white for a bright working environment, but it is readily gored by an errant swing of a board, and fastenings must be driven into supporting studs or attached with special anchors. (I always feel more secure with a nail, screw or dowel in wood than with an anchored screw in drywall, particularly if the fastening must cany any amount of weight.)
In a large space, a dropped ceiling will aid significantly in retaining heat and absorbing sound and will reduce the risk of fire that comes with the accumulation of fine sawdust on studs, wiring and lighting fixtures. Of course, these advantages must be balanced against the loss of headroom.
It is important to remember that workshop doors frequently must accommodate more than just people. A standard 2-ft. 8-in. wide interior door is too small to comfortably allow movement of machinery and materials, much less a large piece of furniture or a small boat. Even a 3-ft. wide exterior door will prove too narrow for many workshops. The best access is provided by an insulated, custom-made door at least 4 ft. wide, or by a larger sliding door, such as the one shown in the photo above. In many garage workshops or freestanding structures, a standard overhead garage door makes it possible to open up an entire wall of the shop. This access to fresh air creates a pleasant work environment during mild weather and makes it easy to move equipment and materials in and out of the shop.
Garage doors and large sliders are difficult to insulate and seal, however, so they may create problems in cold weather. Since most heat loss in a building takes place around the windows and doors, good insulation is important not only in the construction of the door but in proper weatherstripping. A tightly sealed door will also help contain noise and dust, which is especially important if the shop is located inside the house.
Martha Collins’s versatile door-within-a-door design (shown above) offers several different options for access. Daily entrance is provided by either of two 28-in. by 83-1/2-in. double-glazed doors. Opening both doors creates a 56-in. wide opening, big enough for most large objects. These doors are, in turn, hung within a pair of larger doors. Though Collins rarely opens them now, the big doors proved useful when she moved in; the 94-in. by 94-in. opening was almost as large as the end of the 45-ft. trailer that delivered her shop equipment. Unlike most overhead garage doors or horizontal sliders I’ve seen, these doors are well insulated and sealed, and she only has to open as much door as she needs.
Debate persists among woodworkers over the ideal workshop floor surface. Most shops have either a concrete or a wood-frame floor. The former is the rule for basements, garages and many small outbuildings. It has the obvious advantages of ease of construction, low maintenance and great strength, and its smooth, solid surface makes it easy to roll machinery or other carts and fixtures around the work space. What’s more, the concrete stays cool in the summertime and it is one less combustible material in a shop full of dry tinder.
But concrete has some serious disadvantages over the more forgiving plywood or solid-wood surface. Concrete is often cold, damp and slippery, and it’s hard on dropped tools (and coffee cups) and harder still on feet, legs and back Without a substructure of floor joists, there’s no way to run wires or dust-collection pipes beneath the floor, unless they’re installed in the slab, thus committing you to the original layout. And last but not least, because concrete is a poor insulator and a good conductor of electricity to ground-a much better conductor than wood-it increases the risk of electric shock if your machinery leaks power.
To cope with these realities, the people I visited who work on concrete have adopted several strategies, which vary greatly in their complexity and expense. Some simply cover the concrete with vinyl floor tiles or with rubber-mat runners in high-traffic areas, such as the bench/tool-chest corridor and in front of machinery and assembly tables. You can purchase hard rubber or cushioned mats, which are easier on the feet, but I know of at least one shop that does just fine with oversize truck mud flaps. Of course, any kind of floor mat will interfere with rolling carts and machinery, but this is a small price to pay for the greater comfort they provide.
If you are installing a new concrete floor, it can be made relatively warm and dry with proper site preparation and the addition beneath the slab of gravel, foam insulation and a good plastic vapor barrier. For the ultimate in thermal comfort, consider installing radiant-heat pipes in the concrete when you pour.
A number of woodworkers I visited covered their concrete floor with wood. Curtis Erpelding laid 2x2s on 16-in. centers, insulated between them with sheets of Styrofoam and covered it all with particleboard. (Plywood would make a more rugged, if more expensive, alternative.) He ran conduit between the 2x2s to service outlets on short posts located at each machine. Erpelding wanted to use flush-mounted electrical fixtures, but the Seattle fire department specified off-the-floor receptacles that would not be vulnerable to a splash of coffee. In practice, Erpelding figures they’re also easier to keep clean and easier to reach.
This sort of in-floor wiring is rather permanent, but Erpelding explains: “I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted things laid out.” Plywood ramps bridge the height difference between the wood platform and surrounding concrete floor and make it easy to roll his shop vacuum and production carts around. The built-up floor underlays the entire bench area and part of the machine space, thus retaining the practical advantages of concrete in the assembly and storage areas and around some of the machinery.
A wood floor makes a “friendlier” work surface than concrete, but it is not without drawbacks. When built above bare earth, it is also subject to moisture. Covering the earth with a good vapor barrier and perhaps a skim coat of concrete over gravel will improve drainage and reduce moisture infiltration. The insulation must not be exposed or it will eventually deteriorate, either as a result of moisture or nesting critters. Wood is obviously more susceptible to fire. Aware of this danger, Peter Axtell poured 2 in. of concrete atop the plywood floor in his spray booth.
Considering the weight of machinery and the activity that takes place in most workshops, a wood floor must be heavily built. Kelly Mehler’s wood floor supports heavy industrial machinery with full-cut 2×12 floor joists on 12-in. centers, sheathed with three layers of tongue-and-groove oak flooring. The floor creaked a bit when Mehler installed his 2-ton planer with a forklift truck, but it never sagged. Mehler’s shop was a car dealership in another life, and the floor is overbuilt for most workshops, but 2×10 joists on 12-in. centers (and more support posts and beams than you think you need) would probably not be excessive. Plywood floors should be protected with a good-quality epoxy paint or a porch-and-deck enamel. (Choose a light-color paint to keep the shop bright.) Solid-wood floors can be oiled, painted, varnished or left bare to develop a rich patina.