Woodworking/Setting up a home workshop

A great deal of good can come of a home workshop. The craftsperson may build many useful and long-lasting artifacts for the house, and these are most certainly good; the real gains, however, come from the work itself: the process of working wood transforms the woodworker as much as it does the wood, and it is through the work that we come to know both ourselves, and the wood. But for this to be true, we must approach our task in the right way.

On Doing Things ProperlyEdit

It is best not to set out thinking I will make a coffee table today, because this is probably not what you will do: more likely, you will be planing sticks of timber, trying to get them square and true, and then cutting joints and boring holes. So reduce your day's tasks to what you are actually going to do: I am going to make this board flat today, or, I will sharpen this plane blade now, for then you are focused on what you are doing. This is important. So much frustration and anguish comes from running down to the hardware shop, buying new tools and wood, and then feeling a fool when you can't produce the lovely smooth things you see in the woodworking magazines. So stop. It's not a new piece of wood you need, nor a new tool, but simply an awareness of what you're actually doing. After all, most woodworking tools have very sharp edges. A finished product does not look very good if it is being held with hands that are missing fingers! Pay attention to what you are doing, from all angles.

The SpaceEdit

The space for your workshop is probably pre-determined by the design of your house; there may be no options. A garage is commonly turned to the purpose (as well as those of cars and storage and everything else!), a basement may be available, or even an attic. But wherever you fit your workshop, aim for a space that is dry, not too hot or cold, and in which you can make a bit of noise without annoying anyone. Size is important, but perhaps not as greatly so as you might think: in a small space, you will simply adapt your practice to fit the space.

If you can, it will help if you can have a space dedicated to your workshop. Although the home workshop is (by definition) not used full-time, by having a full-time workshop space you will be able to keep your tools and materials always ready and generally in better condition. Not sharing a woodworking workbench with the bicycle mechanic of your household, for instance, means that the cross-purposes of these tasks will not come into conflict. Equally, when it is time —those precious couple of hours on a Saturday morning, perhaps— to get to work on your current project, it can be a great deterrent if you first have to disengage the workshop from its other roles.

Organization is key to using those spare hours you have to work your craft. One of the hardest things to do, is straighten and clean up your area when you are short on time. Take the few minutes and do it anyway, your next session will start on the right foot!

The WorkbenchEdit

A good strong workbench is essential, and probably the most troubling part of a new workshop. It is almost Catch-22: skills and cost aside (for it is not hard to build a cheap workbench), one finds that it is a great deal harder to build a workbench without a workbench on which to work! The answers to this are many, but for the home woodworker probably the best ones are: to purchase a complete bench (new or second-hand); or to progressively work up (from first principles as it were) to a bench by making other items first, such as saw-horses or saw-stools.

Saw-horses are the handyman's workbench out in the field.(someone else's house!) But when at home, he uses them as an extension of his workbench. Having your saw-horses at the same or slightly under the height of your workbench has benefits in your workshop, giving you the ability to build projects that are bigger than your workbench.

As mentioned above, saw horses are the "out in the field" workbench. The crudest form of workbench (actually a "workbench" to build your first workbench, and perhaps toolboxes) would be some manner of workbench top (perhaps built of plywood and 2x4 material or an old flat door) spanning two sawhorses. A possible commercial alternative to this is would be one or two Black and Decker "Workmate" benches, which are readily available at stores, or used.

A 4x4 post may be notched as shown to accept 1x4 cross pieces in order to construct a set of simple workbench legs

When building a first workbench, follow the section above about "On Doing Things Properly" carefully. Look at workbenches on the Internet, or that others have built, and roughly sketch out what you want. It is probably wise to think about what you have drawn, and perhaps modify the design to make it better. Do this until your sketch is both something that you will be satisfied with, and can build. Take this step by step. Choose your materials, and consider the tools needed to build what you have drawn and assemble them.

Before you build the top, you will probably build a base. The base must be rock solid, even when subject to heavy work. To build a base, you need to build legs, (or better yet two sets of legs). To build the legs or a set of legs, you must build one leg, build a second leg, and join these in such a manner that they are rugged and stable. Suitable joints for building up simple legs and workbench bases include lap joints, rebate or rabbet joints, mortise and tenon joints, and etc. More advanced joints would include dovetails, mitered joints, or more advanced versions of simple joints. The choice of joinery is dependent on your skills, the tools and materials available to you, and your own aesthetics (You need to like what you make, it will be your's to use and display).

The top of the workbench must be flat, and the sides plumb, as this surface is a reference surface, from which you will gauge properties such as squareness and flatness of your work. You will also mount your vises to the sides and bottom of the bench, and the jaws must be plumb. The top of the bench should be sturdy. As stated previously your bench should not move as you work with it / on it. An old quote about workbench tops (when one split logs in order to build a bench top) was "He who a good workbench would win, must split thick and hew thin". This speaks to the weight and mass that a bench / bench top should have.

The dimensions of your workbench are personal taste, however, most workbenches range from 2 - 3 feet in depth / width, 4 - 6 feet (or more) in length, and 28 - 36 inches in height. The most critical of these, perhaps is height, as this must suit your physique. A rule of thumb is that the work surface should fall between the height of your wrist (when standing), and the height of your elbow. The more hand tools you use, the lower in this range your work surface should be (in order to gain leverage when planing, sawing, and etc.). If you tend towards more power tool use, the bench level can come up in the range. A bench at elbow height would be more a mechanics bench as opposed to a woodworkers bench.

First ToolsEdit

The most essential tools are:

A saw, a crosscut saw is the most generally handy, but a bow saw, coping saw, or backsaw can be used for a lot of the essentials.

A plane, the jack plane is the best choice, but a block plane will do.

A square, a try square is most convenient; it might be easier to find a combination square or framing square.

A chisel, 1 inch wide, with a solid handle made for striking with a mallet. A narrower chisel will do good work, but will take longer.

A hammer, a claw hammer is the most convenient choice.

A drill, brace and bit type is best, but a bit of a specialty item to find. Various egg-beater styles are handy for smaller holes, but hard to use for holes larger than 1/2 inch.

Whetstone, an inexpensive combination stone (coarse on one side, fine on the other) will help keep the edges sharp. If you're careful with your tools, you won't damage them badly enough to need a grinder for a long time. In the meantime, see if you can find one to borrow on those (hopefully rare) occasions when you chip or ding an edge.

There is an endless array of tools that can be handy for particular tasks, or pleasing to the eye and hand, but the particulars will depend on the kind of work you do, the methods you prefer, and your budget. You'll soon discover many of them, but the more experience you have with the basic tools, the wiser choices you'll make when selecting additional tools. You will also make additional tools, to get just the right tool for the job, to learn the techniques involved, to save money, or a bit of all three.

Initially, to conserve funds, consider learning how to recondition used tools: many good tools can be had at yard sales and thrift store, if you're willing to put in the time to salvage them from years of abuse and neglect. In most cases, no great knowledge is needed to carefully disassemble, clean, polish away, resharpen, and reassemble them and you'll gain an intimate knowledge of their internal parts.

Less expensive tools won't give as good of results, especially when aiming for fine cabinetry; they also don't do their best work as easily as a higher quality tool, so it's difficult for a beginning woodworker to tell when the problem is with technique, rather than with the tool. You must make the tradeoff between being frustrated by low-quality tools and wasting money on expensive tools that aren't really the best choice for your work. Try to get good quality tools for these basic, every day, tools and focus on learning to use these to complete straightforward projects, before investing in an expensive array of other tools.

You may be wondering when power tools are going to be covered: modern woodworking has become much cheaper (either in money or the time needed to complete a project) with the advent of a vast array of inexpensive power tools. However, there are many jobs that are accomplished more quickly or better with a muscle-powered tool. For the beginning woodworker, the most important thing is to understand the nature of wood and how it can be worked, this is more easily accomplished by feeling how edges cut through grain. Power tools get in the way of that feeling.

As you work, you will have inflicted upon you many thoughts about how such-and-such job could be accomplished more quickly with electricity. With the exception of adequate lighting, resist those temptations until you understand the costs that safe use of power tools imposes on your shop space and way of thinking about your projects.


For building a workbench and most fixtures for the workshop, softwoods like pine or fir are readily available and sufficient for the job.

For the top of the workbench, you may want to invest in a hardwood top; a benchtop of smooth hardwood will be much more durable and satisfying to work on, but it might be just as well to make one out of less expensive wood and plan on replacing it once it's worn out.