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Laying Out a Home Workshop

Where to put everything

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2008.

Laying out a home workshop from scratch is a pretty attractive proposition - but it’s one that’s also full of potential pitfalls. So how do you go about doing it? Where should the machines and tools go, and what over-riding goals should you have?

Proximity

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The first step that should be taken is deciding what machines and tools should NOT be located in close proximity, and those that SHOULD be located close together.

These initially sound rather like non-questions but it takes only a few moments of thought to realise they’re the starting point for other spatial decisions.

For example, these items should not be near to one another:

This...

Not near this...

Because...

Grinder

Bench belt sander

Friction blade cut-off saw

Lathe

Mill

Abrasive articles can wear the accurately ground machine tool surfaces

Main workbench

Bench belt sander

Oxy acetylene work bench

Arc welding gear

Friction blade cut-off saw

Paint

Stored fuel

Aerosols

Danger of fire

Fluorescent lights

Drill press

Bench belt sander

Mill

Lathe

At certain speeds the rotating tools will appear stationary

Air compressor

Working areas

Noise

On the other hand, these should be close to one another:

This...

Near...

Because...

Workbench

Most commonly used hand tools (eg screwdrivers, spanners, hammers)

Frequent access required

Workbench

Drill press

Bench belt sander

Frequent access required

Oxy acetylene gear

Workbench vice

Anvil

Heating and bending requirements need good access

Space

Then, after those ideas have been considered, the next step is to work out which machines need plenty of working space around them – and which do not.

Machine

Space needed

Because...

Workbench

If an ‘island’ design, space is needed around all sides.

If an ‘along the wall’ design, space is needed primarily in front, and to a lesser extent, at ends.

Large, flat items will often overhang the bench

Friction cut off saw

Little space needed in front, but very long clearance needed at one end.

If mitre cuts are to be made, long clearances at appropriate angles (eg 45 degrees).

Chopping the end off long lengths of material

Vice

Drill press

Mill

Lathe

Hydraulic press

Little clearance usually needed in front (enough to stand comfortably).

End clearance at working level much longer.

Unless they are long and skinny, most items will be relatively small and kept within the confines of the working area of the machines.

Bench belt sander

Fairly tall vertical clearance

Reasonable clearance width

Most items will be small and easily handheld.

Sometimes, when grinding ‘along the grain’, taller clearance will be needed.

Sheet metal folder

Sheet metal rollers

Sheet metal guillotine

Pipe bender

Depends on most common application and size of machines

Clearance for handling sheets and moving handles.

More could be added to each of the above tables – make a list of the machines you have and then think through each in terms of these criteria.

Other Space Decisions

Here’s a deceptive question: if the workshop is for working on cars, how much space should be given to the car(s)?

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Most often, space would be left for a single car, but if the car in question is a long-term job (building a kit car, or restoring an older car), leaving space for a single car will usually leave no space for another!

For example, in a typical double garage, by the time you add in clearances for trolley jacks, open car doors and elbow room, there’s space normally for only one car – the one you’re working on.

However, if a car is in the workshop as a long term project, you may be able to support it on rollers and push it sideways into a corner of the working space, so opening-up more room.

If you have a pit or a hoist in your workshop, position it very carefully as it will then determine what is the main ‘car working’ space.

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Another major decision that needs to be made is in regards to storage. Very often, racks, cupboards and shelves are placed on the floor. The result is that when the workshop is complete, the top of the walls are bare and unused.

Instead of taking this approach, it is better if you start your storage ideas from the roof (or ceiling) and work downwards. That is, start off by positioning racks and shelves as high as possible. You may well need a ladder to get to the highest of them, but these locations can be used for long-term light-weight storage and the lowest locations (like the floor) used for heavy and often-used items like hydraulic jacks, ramps and axle stands.

Moving Things

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If you’re tight for space, remember that some machines can be moved out of a ‘storage location’ into a ‘working location’.

For example, a friction cut-off saw is relatively light; when long items need to be cut, the saw can be carried to the middle of the workshop. A table saw can be mounted on lockable castors and wheeled into an open area when full sheets need to be cut. An arc welder can be placed on a small wheeled cabinet and rolled to the work-piece.

Lighting

Having been in plenty of workshops over the years, both home and commercial, I think that having adequate lighting is amongst the single most important aspects to get right.

If you can access it, daylight is best. That means having skylights or translucent roofing panels arranged on the north (in the southern hemisphere) or south (northern hemisphere) roof aspect and, of course, doing most of your work in daylight. However, many of you reading this will be working at night.

In that case, I strongly suggest that you install something in the order of twice the lighting power you expect will be needed. Install the lighting so that sections can be switched off, so for example on a cloudy day, you can run with only half the lighting on.

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Always install additional directional lighting positioned correctly above each machine tool; these individual lights can be switched on and off as needed. (Note: it is worthwhile experimenting with the placement of these lights – it can be quite tricky to gain correct illumination of the work-piece without forming big shadows.)

If you decide to run high pressure lighting that takes some time to come to full brilliance, consider an additional single high mount filament or fluorescent light that you can use if just ducking in and out of the workshop at night.

Power

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If you have located certain machine tools in specific spots – and don’t expect to ever move them – then install power points just for those machines. However, keep in mind that any one machine might demand three power points, not one. That’s one for the machine, one for a suds pump (for work-piece lubrication) and one for a machine-specific light.

Many workshop power points are best organised as designs that hang from the roof. That’s especially the case when they’re being used with portable power tools of the sort likely to be used in the ‘car’ area of the workshop, and also over a workbench.

A workshop-specific earth leakage breaker (“safety switch”) on the circuit board is also a good idea – these days, they’re very cheap.

Organisation

If you’re the sort of person who is always well organised and meticulous about where you put things, your workshop organisation can be very different from someone who habitually runs an untidy work place.

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I am one of the untidy ones, and so I know that despite the best of intentions, over time shadow-boards for tools and original plastic cases for socket sets will remain largely unpopulated! However, I also know that using large open trays for screwdrivers, loose sockets, spanners and hammers will make tidying-up so easy that it is more likely to happen.

In other words, organise the storage of tools in a way that suits you, not a way that might look impressive.

If you like collecting items for later use, size the storage spaces to allow for plenty of expansion over time. For example, whenever I see brass plumbing fittings (elbows, tees and threaded fittings) I grab them. I probably have a few hundred of them in a plastic container; over time I would expect this collection to grow. When organising your workshop, it therefore makes sense to pour all the fittings into a much larger container before selecting the storage space. That way, there’s room for expansion without having to later shuffle everything that’s adjacent.

Air

Don’t forget that activities like oxy and arc welding, painting, grinding and sanding require good ventilation. You therefore must have some way of changing the air in the workshop - whether that’s through open windows or doors, large extraction fans or ventilators.

Conclusion

A well organised workshop will be safer, less tiring to work in, and result in better quality workmanship. If you’re moving into new premises, or undertaking a major reorganisation of your existing workspace, don’t rush in – instead think of what layout will work best for you.

Interested in home workshop projects and techniques? You’re sure then to be interested in the Home Workshop Sourcebook, available now.

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