Some Things I Learned About Working in a Small Workshop

The workshop at home is generally a spare room, maybe a surplus bedroom or a room in the basement...

Bernard E. Jones, The Practical Woodworker, 190?

I've always worked in small spaces.

When I was learning how to use hand tools, my grandfather's workbench was so crowded with stuff I had only five feet of surface to work on.

When my wife and I first were married, I had shop that was a spare room in the log cabin we rented, maybe it was 8'x10'.

Our next place had an old shed, 10'x11', that I fixed up into a nice unheated space.

When we moved to our place outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park I built a nice 12'x16' studio that I got to work in for only four months before we moved to work at Yosemite National Park. There our house had a 10'x 10' space that worked well...

...and now I use a room off of our bedroom for a studio. I think it measures 10'x11'.

In random order, here some things I have learned over the years...

1. Have a work bench that suits the space and the work that you do.

2. Have a work bench that has a tool cabinet underneath it.

3. Have only the tools that you need for your work.

4. Organize those tools well and have them readily available.

5. Tool boxes take up valuable floor space. Tool box lids become places to put things which you have to move some where else so you can open the lid. This drives me crazy, I really need to finish the new work bench and its drawers so I can get dispense with my tool chest!

6. Have a focus - know exactly what it is that you want to make. I know many people need to sample making a lot of different things before they know what it is that really makes their heart sing, but having a focus will reduce work shop clutter.

7. Have another storage area. There is another building on our property that serves as part-time work shop, storage shed and fire wood shed, it houses all my power tools, carpenter tools and lumber for projects around the house. I store all my tone wood in an upstairs closet.

8. Keep your work space clean.

9. Good lighting is a must.

10. Don't get uptight about working in a small space, a small space is better than no space!

My ideal work shop.

You can find this illustration on page 1 of The Practical Woodworker, edited by Bernard E. Jones.

Whenever I see this illustration I realize how it has influenced my work spaces over the last 20 years, it is simple and efficient and lacks power tools, which is a most alluring thing.

I find wood working very romantic and I always treat it as a way to enhance my life, even if I am trying to make money at it.

There are people who visit my studio and can't believe I actually make classic guitars in its small space. I tell them that Julian Gomez Ramirez, a Spanish guitar maker who immigrated to Paris in 1914, whose guitars today valued at over $20,000, worked in a shop that was 8'x 10' and had only one light bulb.


  1. I agree 100% of the value of a tool cabinet under the bench vs. a stand-alone toolbox but this obvious conclusion seems to fly in the face of the current fashion where tool cabinets under a bench are disparaging referred to as "bathroom vanities". Sigh.

    1. It's nice to have someone on my side! When I was a kid I loved digging through my dad's tool chest just to see what I could discover, with my own tool chest I discover forgotten tools. I'd rather have a "bathroom vanity'!

  2. I think it comes back to No. 1: "Have a work bench that suits the space and the work that you do." I've seen furniture makers actually use the space underneath the benchtop to better hold/support/access the piece they're working on. Like so:

    But I don't see myself ever needing to stick part of a guitar underneath the benchtop so I can have better access to any of its parts. For luthiers, it seems like a good idea to use the space under the workbench for storage purposes.

    P.S. I love your blog! I'm learning to build instruments using only hand tools, and I've found the information you share invaluable. It seems most luthiers these days (or at least most of those who share their methods) rely heavily on power routers, power sanders, and misc specialized jigs and machinery.


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