Where's your workshop: basement or garage?

DIYers require a space to prep for projects, repair parts, store tools, etc., but that usually means claiming a section of the garage or basement. So which do you use? We'll show you how to make the most of your home workshop.

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.)

The basic basement shop
Each basement has its own peculiarities, so it’s impossible to design one shop that fits all, but here are a few suggestions:

  1. If possible, build walls to separate the shop area from the furnace, laundry appliances and any other mechanical systems.
  2. Add acoustical tile to the ceiling to reduce noise upstairs.
  3. Mount overhead fluorescent fixtures wired to a single switch at the top of the stairs.
  4. Paint the walls white to reflect more light and help avoid a dungeonlike feel.
  5. Install a ceiling-mounted air filter to reduce dust buildup when working wood.
  6. Install adjustable task lighting above the bench or worktable on a circuit separate from the overhead lights.
  7. If you have the space, set a stand-alone bench away from a wall so you have 360-degree access. Then add a narrower wall bench for repairs and metalworking.

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.

The basic garage shop
If your garage shop is small or shares space with a car, design a layout that expands for work and contracts for parking. Follow these tips:

  1. Build a bench against a wall, and keep it as narrow as is practical — a deep wall bench tends to attract tools that don’t get put away. In most garages, the best wall is the one opposite the garage door. If possible, position the bench near a window for maximum natural light.
  2. Use a portable bench such as a Workmate and folding sawhorses for larger jobs.
  3. House most hand tools in rolling cabinets.
  4. Store benchtop tools under the bench. Doors on the storage area keep tools cleaner and can be locked for safety.
  5. Use the ceiling for lumber storage. Build brackets for holding stock, or simply place wood and other long pieces in the roof framing.
  6. Reserve the front end of the garage for garden tools, bicycles and lawn equipment to keep these items easily accessible.

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.

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.

There are some items that are required in every shop. Here’s a list of the must-haves:

  • Bench with vises: You can make a bench out of anything from scrap lumber to milled hardwood. If it’s fastened to a wall, the wall becomes a structural part of the bench, which translates to more space underneath for storage. Free-standing benches need to be designed to prevent racking and should be heavy enough to stay put.
  • Tool and materials storage: Wall-mounted storage, such as shelves and perforated board with hooks, keep tools and supplies on the wall and handy yet out of the way. A rolling chest houses mechanics’ tools and woodworking hand tools. Under-the-bench shelving holds heavier power tools.
  • Air-filtering system: This may not seem like a must, but it can make a real difference in a woodworking shop. These units, usually mounted on a ceiling, continually pull air through and remove fine particles that coat everything, including your lungs. It’s the next-best-thing to dust collection.
  • Lighting: Natural light is ideal, but you might not always have enough. Fluorescent utility lighting (double tubes and a sheet-metal reflector) is cheap and easy to install. Over the bench, plan for some lamps that can be focused on the work. Clamp-on floodlights are an inexpensive, versatile solution, and halogen desk lamps work well for small jobs.
  • Power: In addition to a circuit for lighting, you’ll need to run power for tools, at the very least, one 20-amp circuit for portable tools and battery chargers. If you have a few benchtop tools, consider adding more circuits, you may be working with a friend sometime and need to run several tools at once. If you own or expect to buy heavy stationary machinery, dedicate a circuit for each. And remember, for machines that can run on either 110 or 220 volts, 220 is better. You can use lighter-gauge wire and a breaker at half the amperage.
  • Fire extinguisher: All shops need one that’s rated ABC. Have it checked regularly.

If your needs are narrow and well-defined, your shop can be, too. Small projects such as model making don’t require as much space for stock and tools or actual construction. For this pursuit, you just need a basement corner with a bench, fixed storage above and below the bench and limited, focused lighting.

Dedicated woodworkers, on the other hand, usually end up buying machinery such as table saws, jointers and planers, so space is important. Efficient machine layout can help you get maximum use out of your space. For example, jointers (and for the most part band saws) need only one side accessible, so you can place them next to a wall or pillar. Planers don’t take any side room at all, except for what you need to move from infeed to outfeed positions. It’s often practical to orient machinery on a diagonal for handling longer stock. Investing in lockable caster sets, which are available for most stationary equipment, can greatly enhance your ability to work in a small space by allowing you to move tools as needed.

For auto work and other mechanical jobs, a garage shop is a no-brainer. If the garage is attached, consider mounting the air compressor in the basement and piping the air to the garage to save floor space. Benchtop machines such as a drill press and grinder are compact enough to be stored away if necessary. A metal-sheathed bench top is easy to clean and doesn’t soak up solvents and oil.

Whatever your interests, your shop is sure to evolve as your skills and tool collection grow. And remember: Like any other piece of equipment, your shop can be dangerous if it’s not operated with care. Clean up after every session, store tools that aren’t in use and keep all cutting edges sharp and ready for work.

Bonus Video: