Design Your Own Shop

When does a collection of tools become a shop? Surprisingly, it has little to do with the tools' size, quantity or even portability. What makes a "real" shop is the fact that you bring the work to the tools rather than toting the tools from one job to another.

Viewed from this perspective, a shop is a piece of stationary equipment that you custom design to suit the projects you pursue. Creating a shop doesn't necessarily mean building a dedicated structure, but it does involve claiming some space, typically in a basement or garage — places where tools are probably already stored. Here's a look at the pros and cons of both spaces and how to make the most of them.

Movin' on down
The great thing about a basement shop is that it's usually a comfortable working temperature year-round. It's also convenient: All of your tools are under the same roof, so there's no trudging out to an unattached garage in the rain to fetch a tool for a household chore. And it's amenity-friendly: Many basements contain the home's electrical service panel; if the walls and ceiling are unfinished, it's easy to run a few new circuits for power tools and lights. (If the laundry room is down there, you have running water, too.)

On the downside, shop work generates dust, noise and odors that can permeate the rest of the house. And unless the basement has a separate entry, moving materials and large projects in and out can be difficult if not impossible. The proximity of a downstairs shop also makes it, and your tools, accessible to other household members. In addition to being a nuisance (if tools are borrowed and not returned), this can raise safety concerns — you may need to install locks to protect children. Finally, most basements are shared spaces, so you need to make sure that finished areas, storage and laundry appliances remain accessible.

Although some basements are damp or plagued by seasonal water intrusion, these problems don't necessarily rule out a basement shop. Keeping windows shut and installing a dehumidifier can help to solve humidity problems. If the floor is damp or has a small area of standing water, check that gutters and downspouts are clear and operating properly, and consider installing a sump pump to keep the floor dry.

Getting away from it all
An unattached garage's distance from living areas can be a great benefit. You can make noise until the neighbors complain, and you don't have to worry about tracking sawdust throughout the house. Best of all, it can provide a welcome retreat — a place to get away.

A garage shop is ideal for building big projects such as boats and working on cars, bikes or lawnmowers. Garage doors offer plenty of room for bringing in sheets of plywood and long pieces of lumber. Unlike a basement shop, which can feel like a dungeon, a garage with ample windows benefits from natural light, and it's easy to install more windows if necessary.

Although you can arrange a one-car-garage shop so that the car will fit when you're not working, a two-car garage works best: You can claim one half for your shop and even wall it off for easier heating. Of course, if you're a two-car family, you'll have to decide whose car stays out in the weather. (You're on your own for that one.)

Weather is the main reason many unattached garages go unused as shops. Without insulation and heat, they're pretty much seasonal workspaces — at least in the northern half of the country. An unheated space can promote humidity and temperature conditions that are conducive to rust. If you decide to install heat, consider a ceiling-mounted gas-powered space heater that doesn't take up valuable floor space. Typical garages aren't serviced by more than one circuit, so you may want to run underground wiring from the house for power tools and lighting. It's likely you can bury cable and then run it up at the garage (encased in rigid conduit with the appropriate fittings), but check building codes before you begin.

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Happily attached
The ideal situation for many homeowners is an attached garage. It combines several of the benefits of a basement — proximity to the house and the potential to hook to your home's power, heat and plumbing — with those of a garage — natural light and wide-door access for handling large materials and projects such as working on a lawn tractor. The only real downside is the loss of covered parking for a vehicle, at least while you're working. Of course, two-car garages offer greater flexibility, and a three-car garage should have enough space to satisfy everyone.