What to Consider when Turning Garage Into a Workshop
There is no better spot for your dream workshop than in the garage. Because things you do in a workshop tend to produce noise and mess, a garage workshop has the advantage of isolation from the rest of the household. Whether your interests tend toward woodworking, metalworking, small engine repair, or just plain tinkering away with the ballgame on the radio, you’ll spend plenty of quality time in your garage workshop.
In more temperate climates, garages often make better shops than basements. Ventilating the shop is as easy as opening the garage door or rolling machinery outside for doing dusty work. Garages usually have high finished ceilings or open trusses, so you can maneuver larger building materials and make taller projects without overhead restrictions. Having a shop on ground level also saves your back from straining when you need to move machinery, supplies, and projects in and out of the workshop.
If you’d rather not dedicate your entire garage to a workshop, you can still keep one or more stalls available for parking a car, bicycles, or a lawn tractor by simply mounting your tools and workbench on wheels. Wheels make it possible for one person to easily move even the largest machinery.
One problem with most garages is they don’t have enough electrical outlets. Those that are present are often fed with an inadequate electrical supply. Many garages, even on new homes, are wired with a single circuit. Some garages on older homes have no electricity at all, especially if they are detached from the house. When a garage serves only as parking and storage space, a single electric circuit is sufficient for servicing a garage door opener, an overhead light, and maybe a few light-duty outlets. But once your garage becomes a workshop, you’re going to need more electricity to power tools with larger motors, such as table saws and planers.
Creative use of space in and around your garage lets you build a workshop that meets your needs without making your garage unusable for other functions.
Bench-top power tools can be used on your workbench or you can build rolling bases to make them easy to transport from place to place. Either way, they offer excellent flexibility and efficiency.
With ample cross-ventilation, a garage shop is pleasant to work in during spring and fall months, especially if you work in the cool of the day. Winters and summers are a different story, depending on where you live. Garage walls are often uninsulated, so your workshop can become nearly intolerable to work in on bitterly cold days or during hot, humid summers. Uninsulated spaces will be difficult to heat or cool efficiently. Wood glues and finishes won’t cure properly below 55°F, so you’ll have to move gluing and finishing tasks indoors or save them until spring.
A couple of heating options can make winter shop time more tolerable and even pleasant. Standard “milk house” style electric heaters designed for heating a room simply won’t generate enough heat to warm an entire garage. Kerosene or propane-fueled heaters, especially those with built-in blowers, will do the job more efficiently. A higher output, 240-volt heater will also work. Either choice is safe to use in a garage, provided you open a window or door or raise your garage door a few inches to exhaust carbon monoxide. You’ll also need to turn off the heater when routing or sawing for long periods of time so the heater flame doesn’t ignite the dust.
Cooling a garage shop during the summer can be equally challenging. Cross-ventilation will help draw breezes through the shop, especially if you use a fan to help move the air.
Unfinished garage walls make it easy to store supplies, lumber, and tools. Mount shelving, workbenches, lumber racks, and pegboard directly to the wall studs. You can even store lumber and other odds and ends overhead if the roof trusses are accessible.
A combination of light sources should include natural light, general overhead lighting—preferably from a fluorescent tube fixture (see pages 192 to 193)—and directed task lighting provided by a trouble light or other lamp fitted with a compact fluorescent or LED bulb.
Preparing the Garage
Getting your garage workshop up and running is one thing, but refining it to suit your specific working style will take years. Most DIYers enjoy the process of creating and recreating a workshop as their tools amass and their skills improve. For our purposes, we’ll discuss the basics of turning a space into a workshop. Of course you’ll need to adapt this general advice to fit your context, budget, and personal preferences. Depending on your space limitations and expectations, the job may be as easy as clearing out some clutter and putting up a workbench.
It’s probably impossible to have too much light in a workshop. Try to have enough light so you won’t be forced to work in the shadows. In addition to natural light from windows and skylights, workshops should be lit with a combination of overhead and task lighting. Overhead lights illuminate the general workspace, while task lighting directs focused light on the workbench and other machines where you need it most.
Ordinary ceiling-mounted incandescent light bulbs provide a reasonable amount of light in the immediate area under the fixture, but the light drops off quickly as you move away, creating shadows. If you’re adding new fixtures, plan for one single-lamp fixture to illuminate about 16 square feet of floor space. Your garage shop should be equipped with fixtures that have protective covers over the lamps.
Make the most of natural light if your workspace has windows. Sunlight produces wonderful workshop lighting. A few windows, a skylight, or simply opening garage and service doors can largely replace artificial lighting during the daytime. Natural light makes even small shops more pleasant to work in while providing some radiant heat. Install skylights so they face north or east if you live in a hot climate. You’ll get the benefit of indirect sunlight brightening your space without all the extra heat. For cooler climates, position skylights southward to capture more direct sunlight.
Compact fluorescent lamps are better than incandescents because they provide the same light output with only a third of the wattage. Depending on the type, CLFs can be used with standard incandescent fixtures, fluorescent fixtures, and those with dimmer switches.
Fluorescent lights are well suited for your garage because they provide diffuse, even light. They are inexpensive to buy, and they operate on a fraction of the energy used by incandescent light bulbs, yet they produce about five times as much light and last about ten times as long. Fluorescent fixtures and bulbs come in a rapidly expanding range of sizes, shapes, and qualities. On the low end, you can buy 4-foot “shop lights” for less than $10 each. However, these budget-priced fixtures have low-quality ballasts that often make an annoying buzzing sound when the lights are on. In colder temperatures, the ballasts warm up slowly and make the bulbs flicker or light dimly. For about two or three times the price of economy fixtures, you can buy better quality 4-foot lights with “industrial” ballasts that start quickly in cold weather. The ballasts operate quietly and outlive their cheaper cousins.
For larger workspaces, consider installing 8-foot fluorescent lighting (see pages 192 to 193). Each fixture will cost $50 to $100 on average, which is usually still more economical than buying two premium 4-foot lights. Long fluorescent fixtures are made for commercial applications, so you’ll be assured of good-quality ballasts designed for cold-weather use. Long fixtures also make for easier installation. You’ll only need to hang and wire half as many lights.
Lighting & Electrical
Use heavy-gauge extension cords in the shortest usable lengths to power your tools. This cord will be adequate for tools drawing 15 amps or less, provided it’s not overly long.
Along with ample lighting, you’ll need sufficient electricity in your shop. At a minimum, workshops require two circuits. One 15-amp circuit should be dedicated to shop lighting. Otherwise, you could be left in the dark if you trip a circuit breaker while using a machine. The other circuit supplies power for electrical outlets. Read the labels on your tools to identify how many amps they draw at peak loads, then use a circuit rated 20 to 30 percent over this number. For smaller corded power tools, a 15-amp circuit is usually sufficient. Full-size table saws, planers, jointers, and dust collectors should draw power from a 20-amp circuit. Large tools that produce 2 hp or more are generally wired for 220-volt operation, which requires at least a 30-amp circuit. If you don’t have room to add two or more new circuits for the shop, a licensed electrician can install a smaller panel of additional circuit breakers, called a subpanel. Subpanels are also useful when your shop is located in the garage far from the main service panel. Having a subpanel in the shop allows you to switch circuits on and off conveniently without having to walk all the way to the main panel.
Caution: Adding new circuits to the main service panel may exceed its amperage capacity, even if there are slots available for more circuits. An electrician can determine whether adding more circuits or a subpanel will be safe for your current main panel.
You’ll likely need to use extension cords to deliver power where it’s needed or move machines around the shop in order to plug them in. Extension cords can be used safely to power most tools, provided the cord’s amperage rating is greater than the tool’s peak amperage draw. In other words, if the tool draws 12 amps under maximum load, use an extension cord rated for 15 or more amps. Keep the length of the extension cords as short as possible without causing tripping hazards. Long extension cords can starve tools of optimal amperage to operate properly.
Air Quality & Ventilation
Sawdust and fumes from stains, varnishes, and other finishing supplies can compromise the air quality in your shop. Contaminated air isn’t just unpleasant to breathe, it’s unhealthy. Use portable fans to move the air through windows and doors when you are sanding, sawing, or routing. Place the fan in a window or doorway opposite another open window or door to create a cross breeze. When your woodworking tool arsenal grows large enough to include those really dusty tools, especially table saws, stationary sanders, and planers, invest in a dust collector to capture dust, wood chips, and other debris right at the source.
Woodworking supply catalogs and home centers sell workbenches, but you can probably build a bench of equal or better quality yourself for less than what you’ll pay for a ready-made bench. Project books often include plans for workbenches, and woodworking magazines publish workbench stories nearly every year.
Benches fall into three broad categories: traditional cabinetmaker’s benches, utility workbenches, and metalworking benches. Traditional benches are those with thick hardwood tops and sturdy wooden leg bases. They’re freestanding, so you can position them wherever you need to and work around all four sides. Bench dimensions are typically 2 feet wide and 4 to 6 feet long. The top work surface tends to be a laminated blank of hard maple, beech, or other hardwood. The extra thickness helps absorb vibrations produced by heavy pounding, and the added weight keeps the bench stationary. Bench tops are often outfitted with a series of holes along one long edge or at the end. Wood or metal pegs, called bench dogs, fit into these holes and work in conjunction with a vise on the bench to hold long boards or large workpieces. If you buy a traditional bench, expect to pay more than $500 for a good one.
Utility workbenches are easy to build and a good value for woodworking and general home-improvement tasks. These benches may resemble cabinetmaker styles with a heavy top and a skeletal base, or they can be as simple as a sheet of plywood on top of a closed cabinet or two. A utility workbench can be freestanding, or you can fasten it to wall studs. Your bench will be more useful with a vise, but you can often forego the vise and use C-clamps or other short clamps to secure your work to the bench top. Or buy a clamp-on bench vise.