Ready to drop into a flow state on your next making or repair project? Here’s everything you need to know about setting up a great home workshop.
In an overly virtual and increasingly busy, complicated world, making becomes a way of grounding ourselves and being hands-on with the creative activities that inspire us. Whatever it is you’re making, you have to log out of cyberspace and put the phone down to do it. Making is as much therapy and a way of rebooting oneself as it is relaxation, creative self-expression, and a way of maintaining and improving your physical world.
One of the many wonderful things that has come out of the maker movement is public (and members-only) workshops known as makerspaces (sometimes also called hackerspaces). These are places where you can go to use the space’s tools, take classes in various forms of DIY, collaborate on projects, and to just have a fun place to go to make and socialize. If you haven’t looked into it, check to see if you have a makerspace in your area. They’re popping up all over — in dedicated spaces, libraries, schools, and church basements.
Group makerspaces are great, but some areas don’t yet have one and some people prefer the convenience and solitary nature of working at home. Enter the personal makerspace.
A well-designed, properly set up and stocked home makerspace is a joy to behold. After years of the desks in my shop/home office being covered with junk, with inadequate storage, and tools spread all over the house and the basement, I got serious and re-did my entire space. I went through the process outlined in this article, drafted a plan, and executed it. It was not easy and it took a lot longer than I’d hoped, but the results have been transformative.
I now have a clean, well-organized workspace with all of the tools, supplies, and materials where I need them. I have four main work areas: a computer/office desk, a multi-function work desk, a desk for more aggressive forms of makery (cutting, drilling, sanding, gluing, etc.), and a desk for miniature painting and modeling.
You Can Make It Anywhere
Some people reading this might be thinking: “Lovely idea, but I don’t have the space.” Trust me, if there’s a will, there’s a workshop. During my time covering the maker movement, I have seen home makerspaces in the tiniest of closets, on roll-out under-bed platforms, in the corners of sailboat cabins, in pre-fab backyard garden sheds. All you really need is a work surface, a box of basic tools, and some materials and supplies — and you have a usable workspace.
Tip: You need tools for most forms of making, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need a lot of expensive, specialty tools. If you’re clever and resourceful, you can acquire enough of what you need to at least dip your toe into countless areas of making. Start with basic tools and projects, see if you like the activity, and then expand your toolset accordingly. Saying you can’t afford whatever it is you want to do is likely an excuse. Also, do a search to see if you have a tool library in your area. These libraries will either loan or rent tools to you. This is a great way to try before you buy or to check out a specialty tool for a specific project.
What Makes a “Makerspace?”
Makerspace? “You mean workshop?” you might be shouting at the screen. Yes. And no. There has emerged a category of DIY tech tools that have been dubbed maker tech. “Makerspace” can be used as nothing more than a synonym for a home workshop, but what tends to distinguish the term is the presence of specific so-called maker technologies commonly found at group makerspaces, such desktop fabrication machines; the materials, tools, and equipment for physical computing; and the tools and materials for high-tech forms of making, such as robotics. But honestly, you can call it whatever you want.
Desktop Fabrication Tech — One of the beauties of a group makerspace is that, quite often, these spaces have invested in machinery that the average DIYer can’t afford. These include FDM (“Fused Deposition Modeling,” aka “filament printers”) 3D printers, which extrude a plastic filament in layers to build up a three-dimensional print; SLA (Stereolithography, aka resin printers) printers, which use light to cure a resin material into the shape of a 3D digital design fed to the machine; and CNC (computer numerical-control) machines and laser-cutters, computer-driven devices that cut material as specified by a computer design file. As the prices of these machines drop, they are becoming increasingly affordable to home users.
Physical Computing — Microcontrollers and single board computers, like the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, have revolutionized the use of computer-controlled devices and sensors in the physical world. These computers (and the sensors and actuators that they interact with) are inexpensive, and while they require some expertise in basic electronics and programming to operate, they are designed to appeal to as wide a range of users (and uses) as possible. Knowing this technology and having the basic equipment in your shop to work with them can greatly expand the range of projects that you can tackle.
Designing and Planning Your Space
A personal makerspace can really help to focus and inspire your making. I set up a dedicated mini-painting workbench right next to my computer work desk, and oh, how glorious that has been. When I want to give my head a break for a minute, if I hit a writing dry moment, etc., I just roll my Aeron chair over to my painting session and “do some splashin’,” as one pro mini-painter puts it. I know this is an indulgence that those who work outside the home don’t have, but it is such heaven if you can swing it.
Once you have chosen and measured your space, sketch it out on paper or use one of the online space planning tools. Here’s one I like. Do a search on “workshop design” and the type of making you’re going to be doing to see what design resources are out there. Seeing your layout in three dimensions is really helpful in intelligently planning your space. For that, you can use a 3D design app, like Sketch Up.
The rest of this article will touch on the basic design considerations and tools you might need. List out all of these tools and considerations and indicate them on your plan. Besides the physical objects, look at your plan and consider workflow, tools and supplies that need to be within reach, short-term and long-term storage storage space, and so on. Basically, imagine yourself executing a project in your space, and then try to imagine weaknesses in your design that need to be corrected.
You obviously need a place to do your work, and that means a work surface of some kind. You can easily make a workbench with little more than a board (or an old door), an existing table, or a dedicated workbench. You can also buy fairly sturdy, feature-rich workbenches for surprisingly cheap (see “Don’t Hate on the Harbor Freight” below).
Much will depend on your space and tool needs. I am a big proponent of having multiple benches dedicated to different tasks and project types, but I have the luxury of a 12’ x 25’ sunroom workshop on the back of my house. If you have a much smaller space, you may need a solution that allows your bench to be mobile and stowaway. If you’re an apartment dweller with seriously limited space, consider dedicating a closet as your makerspace. You can mount a piece of wood at bench-height inside, build shelves above it, and tool storage on the inside of the door(s). Do a web search on “closet workbench” to see numerous examples of this type of Lilliputian workspace.
Lighting and Power
A lot of people don’t realize the importance of workshop lighting, relying on whatever light fixtures they inherited from the space their workspace is in. Trust me, lighting is extremely important. What amount and kind of lighting you need depends somewhat on what type of work you’re going to be doing. My main form of making is modeling and painting miniature figures and terrain for tabletop wargaming (Warhammer 40K, Frostgrave, Blood & Plunder, Gaslands), so I need tons of full-spectrum light directly over my painting and modeling benches.
The good news is that there are lots of inexpensive LED lighting options available these days. You can get packs of six super-bright 4’ LED fixtures, which are chainable, online for under $50. This will likely give you all of the illumination that you need. For desktop spot-lighting, I use LED light panelsthat are used for photography and video production. These go for around $30 and have color temperature and brightness adjustments.
You’ll need to plug your lights in, of course, so this is a good time to think about power needs. What tools will you be using, and how many outlets will you need? For most home makerspaces, a thoughtfully placed power strip or two can make a big difference.
Another thing that newbie home shop creators don’t plan adequately for is storage systems. System is the operative word here. You don’t just want a shelf or pegboard with a haphazard collection of boxes and miscellaneous bins. If you’re designing a space from scratch, especially if space is a premium, you have the opportunity to really think through your storage needs and design a system for properly handling all of your stuff.
Luckily, there are tons of storage solutions around these days. To get some idea of what’s available, go to a container store or other retailer that has lots of storage tech. Take photos or download pictures of storage systems you think you might want to use. Think through your specific storage needs. If a lot of your store materials and supplies are small, you obviously don’t want to buy a bunch of big bins that your items will get lost in. Buy one or two of the storage containers you think might work and try them out. When you’re certain you’ve found the right system, you can purchase the rest with some confidence that you have the right tool for the job.
Tip: If you rely on plastic bins as part of your storage system, consider getting clear plastic bins. That way, you can see exactly what’s inside even before taking down the bin. Also, you might want to consider storing tools and materials by use rather than material type. So, for instance, everything sanding-related might go in a bin, instead of sandpaper in one, sanding blocks in another, wood putties in another, and so on.
For my shop, since a lot of my materials and supplies are small, I rely on multi-bin storage cases. These are briefcase-like plastic cases that have customizable sections or removable bins. I get mine at Harbor Freight and they are $8–12 each (sometimes even cheaper with a coupon). They stack well and are perfect for my needs. They are a bit cheaply made, but since I subject them only to light use, they work fine. For a harder-working shop, there are sturdier, more expensive versions available, from brands like Stanley. For my basic shop tools, I rely on tried and true pegboards.
The basic design brief here is to figure out what your current (and near-future) storage needs are, and then find a uniform and scalable storage system to house everything. Don’t forget to think through how you will retrieve, use, and return things in your workflow. This is an often overlooked aspect of storage tech design. I did think through this when choosing storage cases, but there was one thing I forgot to consider. I have severe arthritis, and I forgot to consider the physical stress of manipulating bins stacked on shelves above my head. This can make it somewhat intimidating for me to get bins down, which is not conducive to happy working. In the future, I might make(or buy) a low rolling rack to house all of these cases and only put light materials and supplies above my head.
In my book, Tips and Tales from the Workshop, I don’t break down making by category (robotics, crafting, woodworking, etc.) but rather by process (cutting, gluing, clamping, soldering, finishing, etc.). These processes are nearly universal for all types of making, and I wanted makers to think this way. In planning your shop and the tools you’ll want to gather and acquire, you want to think this way. Make a list of all of the processes you’ll be employing in your shop and the basic tools you will likely need for each.
Tip: If you’ve ever spent far too many minutes looking for a pair of scissors or a stinkin’ pencil, you know how frustrating this can be. You can easily solve this by keeping multiples of cheap, basic tools, like pencils, scissors, rulers, drivers, all over the shop. I saw decent shop scissors on sale this week for under a dollar a pair. At that price, there’s no reason to have scissors at every station where you might need them.
Besides the basic tools, you will likely need specialty tools for the types of making you’ll be engaged in. This process will also impact some of your basic tool choices. For instance, I have clamps in my shop, as any maker likely would, but because my work is primarily with miniatures, my everyday clamps are things like mini binder clips and tiny clothespins, rather than conventional-sized spring clamps (though I have some of those on hand, too).
Maker Tech Tools
If you’re going to be doing desktop fabrication, like 3D printing or CNC routing, or working with physical computing components like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, servomotors, and sensors, you’ll need the special tools and equipment associated with these. Obviously, what maker tools you’ll need depends a lot on what types of projects you plan to do. In deciding what desk fabrication tools best fit your needs, you’ll want to consult something like Make: Ultimate Guide to Desktop Fabrication and watch product reviews on YouTube. Desktop fab remains a fast-moving space, so make sure to do your homework. Good quality 3D printers are still fairly pricey for the average maker, but if you do your research, you can easily get a surprisingly reliable and versatile FDM printer for well under $1,000.
For physical computing electronics work, you’ll need a special set of tools. The good news here is that, to get started, you don’t need much more than a decent soldering station, a digital multimeter, and some “helping hands” holders to secure circuit boards and components while you solder them.
Tip: You can custom-build an octopoidal helping hands device using Loc-Line flexible tubing. Do a search on Instructables.com for “loc-line helping hands” for dozens of different versions of this build. Here is one project from maker Jeremy Cook. Making a set of these hands is fairly cheap, fun, and you’ll have an everyday tool that you made with your own hands.
First Order Retrieval
When planning your shop, one great design approach is what Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) calls “first order retrievability.” What this means is that your shop is designed so that the hardest working tools — the things you need most frequently — are closest to you, and the less in-demand tools (and materials and supplies) are farther away. Of course, these radiating rings of tools change depending on what project or aspects of a project you are working on. So, tool mobility becomes important. Adam has much of his shop on lockable caster wheels so that he can re-configure his workspace as his project needs dictate. Keep this in mind while designing your space and plan on plenty of rolling carts and machines, work surfaces, and other shop furniture mounted on lockable casters.
Don’t Hate on the Harbor Freight
In the maker community, it is something of a sport to make fun of the cheap tools found at Harbor Freight. While it is true that a lot of Harbor Freight products are on the cheaply-made side, if you’re careful, discriminating, and do your homework, you can get perfectly fine workbenches, storage tech, hand tools, and even some respectable shop machinery and equipment for hundreds less than higher-end brands.
For starters, Harbor Freight workbenches, work carts, and storage systems are perfectly fine, especially for a home makerspace on a budget. I just bought their multipurpose sheet-steel workbench for $99. It’s got a lot of great features for the price: a pegboard, an LED bench light, a 3-outlet power strip, two drawers, and an under-bench storage shelf. It’s sturdy, handsome, and not as cheap-looking as you might expect for under $100. Of course, it comes flat-packed and requires hours of tedious fiddling with nuts, bolts, and washers to assemble.
I also bought one of their rolling metal 3-shelf service carts ($49). I am thrilled with both of these purchases. Their 30” rolling 5-drawer mechanic’s tool chests are also positively reviewed and can often be bought with a coupon for under $200.
When someone asks me about what it would take to get started in woodworking, metalworking, mechanics, or whatever, I tell them: don’t be afraid to start off with Harbor Freight tools. You can always upgrade to better tools as you get more serious. There are many thoughtful reviews of Harbor Freight products on YouTube. Do a search on the type of tools you are interested in and “Harbor Freight” to find out more about a particular item and decide if the quality and price point are right for you.
Your Makerspace is a Sanctuary
Finally having the personal makerspace I have always dreamed of has been a godsend on so many levels. A space like this becomes a sanctuary. A place to relax. I forget my troubles. I lose myself in the joys of making.
On a practical level, it’s wonderful to have a home workspace, but do not underestimate what it can do to your mental health and your creative self to have a place specifically designed for making and self-expression.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are a maker. We all are. Regardless of who you are, what your interests are, your skill sets, at the very least, you likely cook, work on your home, tend a garden, engage in a hobby, maintain a car, or any other hands-on activities that require tools, techniques, and materials, and that yield desired results. Making is as old as we are. The maker movement is simply an empowering identity and a community gathered around learning, sharing, and celebrating this very fundamental of human activities.
The 18th-century British artist and poet, William Blake, had a concept he called “renovating passion.” This is the thing that you do, that, in doing it, renews you, inspires you, sets the world right again for you. Your creative reboot. For those for whom making is a renovating passion, you need a proper space in which to indulge yourself.
So, what are you waiting for? Find a corner of your life that you can spare, set up a workbench, gather your tools, and get busy!