“Tiny house” is a popular concept. But why that is, I can’t figure out. Who wants to live without books? It seems like such an empty life. Still, many of us don’t have the massive space we would like. We have enough and that’s just fine. The rest belongs in dream and wishes, and sometime in plans for the future. In the mean time we make do with what we have.
It seems difficult to think of woodworking as a “tiny” skill, at least space-wise. I think it can be. But there are limitations that come along for the ride. Don’t expect to build big things in small spaces. It really doesn’t work. But that leads us to the real questions?
“Can I expect make nice things in a one-car garage and still have room to park?” and “What equipment can I get that will allow me to build well in a small space?” That’s the tone I read from a number of people in this situation. You may be in a condo, townhouse, or older home that has a one-car garage. There’s some room on the side and ends that you’d like to make use of but aren’t really sure how to do it. Take your time and be a patient shopper as there is a lot of quality equipment out there, both new and used, that will server the small shop well. (We can’t all have a dedicated shop for a number of reasons. My shop is my two-car garage. Everything is on wheels so that the wife can use it in the winter.)
I think the space situation can be resolved. There are some sacrifices but those are obvious: There is no room for big things and hardly room for a lot of small things. Your equipment needs to fit on a shelf, or at least close to it. At the same time the equipment has to be good enough to make accurate cuts.
I’ve put together some thoughts on how to incrementally build a tiny shop. You may or may not have room for everything. This is the equipment (types more than brands) that I would consider (now that I’ve figured a few things out) if I were to do this. I’ve put them in a priority order that I think will help build a nice shop.
1. Jobsite saw. Don’t be confused thinking that you need the bigger table saw to do the job. Accuracy and adequate power are the features you need. This is your quality alternative to a table saw. But don’t buy just any saw. Like the larger table saw, the more power the better. Some jobsite saws have plenty of power. You may spend as much one one of the better ones as you would for a table saw. But if space is at a premium you may not have any other choice. A good one will do the job.
But only use it with a sled for accurate 90 degree cuts. There may be times you want to use it for ripping rough-cut wood. In that case, make a chalk line on the wood and hand-feed it through without using the fence. In other words, treat it like a think called a “rip saw” just to get the job done.
2. Dust collection. Get a shop vac (12-16 Gal) with a small cyclone. You’ll pick up a lot of dust in not a lot of space. Also, get a decent respirator (about $35) and hearing protection. Both your house and garage will be cleaner for it. And your hearing will love you.
3. Assembly area. Two B&D Workmates + 1 hollow-core interior door. They make a useful vise / assembly table. They all store compactly against a wall. But get the older Workmates, Types 2, 4, or 7. Many of the newer ones are heavier and yet seem less versatile. I’ve found the older ones stand on-edge better as well.
4. Hand tools & miscellaneous.
a. The three planes I use regularly: Cabinet scraper (Stanley #112), Block plane (Record #060 1/2), Low angle (WoodRiver #62). The block plane gets the most use. The low angle gets the least use now that I have a really nice planer.
b. Drill/driver + impact driver. These are not only for screwing things together. They also do a fine job with dowel joinery – a sound method that’s both inexpensive and takes up little space.
c. Clamps. Probably 6 of 24” and 6 of 6” to start with. They can be stored on either a rack or in a box that’s not too big or heavy.
d. Saws: Flush cut & maybe dovetail. These are compact and will fit nicely in a small box for easy storage and access.
e. Sander: A random orbital and a 3×21 hand-held belt sander. The random orbital for a fine finish and the belt sander with 50 grit for taking off large amounts of material.
f. Shelving & storage. You might consider one fixed rack on the wall for holding your wood and one (maybe two) rolling carts, fairly narrow (perhaps 18”), for holding all your hand tools, hardware, etc. The amount of wood you are able to keep on hand will be at a minimum. It’s easy to get carried away. Don’t be afraid to do an annual purge of what gets collected. It will surprise you how fast it grows.
5. Three Jigs. You will build these yourself. See William Ng’s YouTube video on squaring up the table saw sled.
a. Table saw sled. For most 90 degree cuts this will give you that precision you require.
b. Two shooting boards. One for 45 degree miters and the other for making your 90 degrees perfect (because not everything will fit on the table saw sled or come out exactly as you would like it to look).
6. Circular saw. This will take the place of your table saw for many uses. Use this for ripping plywood, but only with a track. You could get a really nice one but in reality anything that’s not cheap junk will do fine. My DeWalt does the job nicely. A cast base will be more durable as it will less flex so should provide better precision.
7. Router. Get the size you need for your work. But just don’t get a cheap one. Any mid-grade will do. The Porter Cable with fixed or plunge base makes a good general-purpose pick. Don’t worry about a table unless you have space to store a small one. If it comes in a case then use that for storage. It will be kept clean and that means it will run better and longer for you.
8. 4” Jointer. Some insist on jointing by hand. Good for them. But for the very small shop I suspect that you’ll be jointing just the edges for square and for glue-up. In this case there are many 4″ jointers to be had for very little. They’ll get the job done nicely, cheaply, and are very space-conscious. They will easily fit against a wall and take little space. I see them periodically for about $50 because lots of people don’t want them.
Some will laugh that I suggest such a small tool. My thought is this: You are probably not building anything really large in a such a small shop yet you want to be able to join pieces and square corners as they ought to be joined and squared. That’s what this will do for you. And again they take up very little space.
9. Planer. They are all about the same size. If you can find a bargain DW734 or DW735, go for it. Otherwise any 12″ “lunch box” will do in the small shop. If you get a 2-blade planer then you’ll need either the low angle plane mentioned before or extra fine (240 grit) sandpaper. The results you get is a matter of preference as both will do a fine job.
10. Bandsaw. This item is listed last because it is, in my opinion the last think you would want to fit into a tiny shop. They excel at ripping and curve cutting. Ripping is faster than with your jobsite saw. Alternatively, you could do curve-cutting on a smaller scroll saw, if that’s the direction you are going. If you can find room for it, just remember that a 10″ and a 14″ take up about the same floor real-estate. So unless you are never planning on cutting hefty wood, always go for the 14″. (A 17″ doesn’t take up that much more but the power requirements will be greater and they’re significantly taller.) A 14″ bandsaw also has more blade options than a 10″. For ripping and resaw (cutting through thick pieces) get a good carbide blade just like you would on the jobsite saw and router bits. It will make all the difference.
You can get a lot into a small space by being judicious. And you can do good work with it. Always pick good equipment and keep it tuned up.
Above all, be careful, as much as it is in your power, to exit this world with all of your fingers, toes, eyes, and hearing intact.