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Where Do I Begin?

Even if you’re starting with this, there is a way to make your dream shop a reality. It may seem like wrestling a bear, but just break it down into the major categories of what you want and then list your subcategories.

I don’t even know where to begin in this article…there’s just so much to write about.  And what if I write about something when I should have written something else before that?  Maybe I should just go watch TV.  Oooh…176 channels.  What if I’m missing a show while I’m watching another one?  Maybe a DVD would be nice.  But which one?

Having an image in your head of your workspace isn’t too hard; but when you get into the details and realize how many decisions can be made and how many options there are, it begins to feel like cleaning before your mother comes over.  Where the hell do you start?

Before You Dive In

Take things to an even more basic level—do you even want to revamp your shop?  To actually achieve this, you need to make an agreement with yourself that you’re going to embark on a design effort.

What to Expect: A few months of filling out your list of requirements in each design category, doing some research with magazines, this blog, Googling, and some books, doing some design drawings, testing your layout by play-acting through the motions, and then coming up with an Order of Operations when you build each shop improvement.

If I offered that you’d have your dream shop fully designed and ready to build in exchange for a few months of reading a whole lot about woodworking stuff, drawing, and some shop time, would you take it?

Break Your Design Into Categories So You Know You’re Not Forgetting Anything

If there’s anything you take away from this I’d say break down your whole design into categories.  Then further break that down into sub-categories.  I find that using a mindmap is the easiest way to do this.

My broad categories are:

  • Shop Layout (including Dust Collection)
  • Envelope & Environment (Walls, Roof, Doors, Windows, Temperature/ Humidity Control, Fresh Air)
  • Utilities (Lighting, Electrical, Plumbing, Compressed Air Piping)
  • Tool Stations (including integral Storage at each Station)
  • Fire & Safety (First Aid, Safety Gear, Extinguishers)
  • Security (Doors, Alarms, Engraving)
  • Sound Attenuation
  • Separate Rooms (Outbuilding or Room for Finishing, Lumber Storage, Design Studio/ Office, Bathroom, Lounge, Display/ Gallery)

You can get a free copy of the Woodshop Design Outline I use by signing in to the upper right of the blog page and I’ll send you one.

Once you define the way you want to do things in each category (your criteria list), these things become projects that have to be done in a certain sequence.  This means you have to do two big things:

  • Design what you want in each category
  • Research for ideas and what’s out there

This can create two types of overwhelm (what to design and what information to look for).

A pen and folded paper is ALWAYS with me, and the small notebook is in my car. That way my ideas don’t go to waste.

Overwhelm of What to Design

Creating a Design Outline turns your first overwhelm into “next actions” that are specific and actual things to do.  Like “make a door and door frame, then demo and cut a door opening, frame it with king and jack studs to a header, then fit the door frame in, shim and secure with screws.”  When you add up all these smaller projects, you have a new shop that has been well-thought out from a higher level, overall view.

It’s much easier to design when you can focus on a narrow aspect of something, and temporarily ignore everything else.  Even when you are developing the overall outline, you can ignore all the details and just focus on the broad categories and put them in a logical order.

So, focus on mapping your whole design effort first and don’t do anything else.

Overwhelm of What Information to Look Up

To solve your second overwhelm issue, practice ruthless “just-in-time learning”.  Don’t look for anything that isn’t related to what you’re currently designing.  If you’re focusing on your Layout, don’t bother reading that Dust Collection article.  Instead, save it for later.  It’ll still be there.

I had the habit of bookmarking tons of websites and rarely going back to them.  However, if I just looked up the information only as I needed it, I would have been interested in reading it right there.

WoodChip Tip: When doing research, you will be making decisions along the way.  Say you decide to design around a central dust collector.  So, ignore information about shop vacuum based systems.  Basically, shed the information you don’t need along the way.

WoodChip Tip on top of the WoodChip Tip: As you read about the pro’s and con’s of different things, you’ll narrow things down even further.  Maybe you decide you don’t want to install a 3 hp cyclone system, and you want to have a single-stage type dust collector.  Then focus on the info for that system.  But be careful; do a future-check.  What if you decide to have a cyclone system later?  What infrastructure would you have to put in to make provisions for that?  An extra 220V outlet on its own circuit?  So then you’ll have a 120V circuit for the single-stage one, and install a 220V circuit for the future.  Or, think about buying a 220V single-stage collector now that will require the same electrical as your future cyclone.


This is my design folder, with my shop outline.


Oooooh…I Want to Build That!

The next time you see what looks like an awesome shop project, think about how it fits in with your design.  Does a multi-function clamp-cart and workstation really help you?  It doesn’t interest me because my shop design has all of my clamps at the Assembly Table and Workbench already.

Rolling workstation?  I have two Assembly Tables, a Workbench, and plenty of large outfeed/ infeed tables planned to do work on.  Plus, these things usually don’t get rolled around with you as you work, so you will wind up zig-zagging across your shop to get stuff from it.  This defeats the purpose of having a workflow and tool layout.  Just store what you need at each station, and have multiples of things if necessary.

Now a rolling stock cart does interest me.  That helps my workflow, carrying a stack of boards from station to station.  But without knowing what my vision of how my shop should be, I might waste time building all sorts of stuff that I won’t need or want later.

Woodworking magazines have a lot of content; that’s what keeps you reading it.  But it doesn’t all apply, of course.  They have to fill their pages.  To widen their audience, they have things that will fit different people.  They don’t know which 10 or 20% you will use, only you do.  The designs the writers come up with are done without knowing what your shop is like or how you use it.  So you’ll have to think deeply about whether it will work for you and whether modifying it will make it ideal.

Trace Shop Projects Back to the Beginning

I know that randomly making shop improvements here and there could be a waste of time if I’m going to have to redo it later because I forgot something.  And, if I wanted to do a small shop project, sometimes it leads to another shop project and then another one.  So planning a bit on paper was where I started.  But where do you start exactly?

Say you want to insulate your walls because it’s too cold in the winter to work.  Awesome, I’ll go buy some insulation.  But wait, if I close in the walls, what if I want to upgrade my electrical?  I may want to install a window too.  That’s all way too much work, so I think I won’t do anything at all.  So what if my shop looks like an episode of Hoarders.  Sound familiar?

Often, small shop improvements lead to other things, so it can quickly get overwhelming.  This leads to years of your shop looking the same.  And performing the same.

What if you traced everything back to the beginning?  I mean pretend you barely have a shop at all.  If you’re not starting with a brand new building, draw the outline of your shop and start from almost scratch.  Organize your ideas and walk through the order that you’ll need to build them in.

Before I could get started with the insulation project, I took another look at my electrical design. Now I’m confident that if I close up this wall I’ll be ok with what’s inside.

Remember the insulation?  I’ve wanted to insulate for quite a while now.  But, I traced that project back to what enclosing the wall in gypboard affects.  The electrical is routed inside the wall, but it’s not the way I want it to be.  So, I decided to do the electrical first.  But, will the electrical accommodate my shop layout?  Uh-oh.  I guess I better get my shop layout the way I want it first.  Then there’s the issue of future tools, and shouldn’t I try out my layout ideas first before committing to them?

You can see that talking yourself through your design process makes you realize what affects what, the order of things, and brings up critical questions to ask.

Good thing I accounted for a Drum Sander in my original design…even though I thought I couldn’t buy one until much later.

Future Tools:  Want a Drum Sander?  Panel Saw?

I didn’t have much in the way of toolage starting out.  But my shop plan did.  It had everything.  Now I have 75% of that.  One at a time, I followed my design in my own priority order and bought the tools as I needed them.  I knew right away exactly where they went in my layout, and had dust collection and electrical ready for them.

How did I know what I needed?  Based on the types of projects that interest me, plus allowing for things I will be likely to build.  I flipped through tool catalogs like Rockler and made a list of every major tool possible. Then I narrowed it down for what I do now and what I will be likely to do.

Having been woodworking for awhile, I was aware of the various frustrations I was having.  Handling large sheets on the Table Saw was a pain, so I included a Panel Saw.  Wide glue-ups couldn’t fit through my Planer, so I included a Drum Sander.  I’m always hurting for more horizontal table space, so I decided on two Assembly Tables.  A good Cabinet Saw was also a must.  Eventually, to speed up stock breakdown, I figured I’d want either a Radial Arm Saw or a Miter Saw.  Now I was confident that every major station was being accounted for.  So planning the layout was next, then on to dust collection design, and finally to electrical design.

This is an overhead view of the loft I’m planning, sort of a balcony space overlooking the shop.

Are You Really Locked Into Your Shop Boundaries?

Before you draw the outline of your shop, think about whether that’s it.  Just your existing garage or basement.  Can you extend it?  Add a 5’x7’ square that projects into your backyard a bit for a small design studio?  Can you build an outbuilding for the bulk of your lumber storage or finishing?  Perhaps you can use your vertical space for a small loft space.

If you’re designing a new shop and have the room, you might as well include a small bathroom, design studio, and bulk lumber storage room that are located out of the workflow.  A finishing room would also be a good idea, perhaps located near the Assembly area.

Layout Focus

A lot of design decisions will be on hold until you settle on a good shop layout.  It does take a physical amount of time to draw your current and future tools and workstations to scale, and experiment with different arrangements.  You will be considering all sorts of different woodworking operations and walking yourself through them, and deciding which ones take priority.

Using your shop boundary drawing, showing all of your doors, windows, and existing conditions (drawn to scale), decide on the major areas of your shop.  In mine, I have a Stock Breakdown area, Milling/ S4S area, Joinery and Shaping area, Finish-Prep (Sanding) area, and an Assembly Area.

I then decided how I want those areas arranged, to go with my most common workflow order.   Within those I pick the tools that make sense for each type of operation.   Now you can arrange clusters of tools for these spaces.  Once you do that, though, check to see that the tools in one region are positioned so you can flow to the next area easily, especially if your typical workflow calls for it.

For example, I use my Drum Sander for Finish Prep sometimes (to save on hand or random-orbit sanding time), so I located the Drum Sander to be convenient for both this and for the milling process.

Then there’s the part of taking your design into your shop space, and play-acting processes to see if the layout you drew works, and what should change.  But don’t worry, you’re revamping your shop, which is fun.  It’s not like you’re scraping gum off of your driveway.

WoodChip Tip: Don’t be afraid to spend a bunch of time on a layout and totally re-do it if you discover it doesn’t work well in real life.  It’s going to be a lot harder to change things once your electrical and dust collection is designed.

What About a Special Workstation?

Don’t forget about creating stations designed just for you.  You are not limited to what you see in magazines, like a typical Workbench, Miter Station, etc.  If you do a lot of glue-ups, consider a clamp jig station with rotary or flip-up clamping fixtures that takes advantage of any vertical height you have.  If you do some metal work, look at having a separate area with easy to clean surfaces.  The same goes for decorative painting, glass cutting, or any other specialty process that you do often enough to justify its own station.

I’m really going to do this...

Why is This Ignored?  A Note About Aesthetics

Something that is almost always ignored by woodworking magazines and TV shows is how stuff in your shop looks.  These publications typically offer designs that are “easy”, quick and dirty projects that use crappy plywood and they say “Hey look, we filled another 5 pages!”

Well, you’re a woodworker—a creator, an artist.  So why aren’t you making your shop a place that’s inspiring to you?    If you’re making furniture that gives you an exciting feeling, why not do that to the place where you spend so much time?

Some say they would rather focus on making furniture and not put so much effort into “shop stuff”.  But, step back and think about this.  By making your shop mirror your artistry, you get two huge benefits.

If you sell your work, you can use your shop as a visual marketing tool.  Purposely take photographs of your work with the shop in the background.   If someone sees your workspace, they’ll know an artist lives there.

The other is that it’s inspirational to you.  If your shop looks like an episode of Hoarders, you can’t be in a very good mindset for making awesome things.

Integrate aesthetics—what wall treatment do you want?  What about a 3-dimensional or unusually textured wall surface?  What about slanted walls for a nice architectural touch?  Do you want a theme running through your shop?  What about cool floor inlays?  What about decorative lighting?  Make it a showplace, not just a crappy basement or garage.

Why not elevate the whole shop to a new level while you’re at it?

Use This Blog

There are a lot of resources and articles on this site that pretty much walk you through the design process.  If there is anything you would like to know more about, let me know in a comment below and it may become a blog post in the near future.  Click on the Starting? Go Here! category and read those first.

If you go to the Resources, Guides, & Glossary page, you’ll find checklists, outlines, and criteria that I use.  Also, I posted my own Shop Layout for both a 2-car and 3-car garage, my Dust Collection Plan, and my Electrical Plan.  I’ll be posting some of my other drawings and details in the future, and I’m creating more stuff to help you get to your ideal workshop.

Connect with me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter for more ninja tips to Optimize Your Woodshop!


Gotta get more clamps,



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2 Responses to “Where Do I Begin?”

  1. Bobby says:

    Thanks Steve, that’s awesome for me to hear. I’d like to know how it goes; if you need any input just let me know. If you go to the Resources tab at the top, there’s some supplements that may help you outline your shop’s “must have’s”.

  2. Torch02 says:

    I want to thank you for stepping through a lot of the different thought exercises necessary for planning a shop. As I’m in the process of buying a new (to me) house, I’m sure I’ll spend a lot of time scouring the archives here to plan out what to do with the increased shop spaced that is coming with the purchase

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