Ask Hackaday: How Small is Your Shop?

Electronics, metalwork, carpentry, sewing — however you express your inner hacker, you’ve got to have a place to work. Most of us start out small, assembling projects on the kitchen table, or sharing space on a computer desk. But eventually, if we’re lucky, we all move on to some kind of dedicated space. My first “shop” was a corner of the basement my Dad used for his carpentry projects. He built me what seemed at the time like a huge bench but was probably only about five feet long. Small was fine with me, though, and on that bench I plotted and planned and drew schematics and had my first real lesson in why you don’t reach for a soldering iron without looking first. My thumb still bears that scar as a reminder.

Many of us outgrow that first tiny space eventually, as projects (and accumulated junk) outpace the available space. Some of us go on to build workspaces to die for; personally, I feel wholly inadequate whenever I see Frank Howarth’s immense wood shop, with its high ceilings, huge windows for natural light, and what amounts to a loading dock. Whenever I see it I think The work I could do in there!

Or could I? Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to workspaces? Would more space make me a better craftsman?

I doubt it. Personally, all a huge wood shop would be for me is a place to stash too much junk and an excuse to buy too many tools. Last year we moved across the country, and before we left I divested myself of most of my woodworking machines simply because it costs crazy money to ship heavy stuff. My intention was to build a new wood shop based mostly around hand tools, being generally smaller, quieter, and generating less dust. I told myself I’d only need a small space for a bench and some chisels, and that would force me to learn skills like hand-cutting dovetail joints. As I watched my tools go down the driveway at fire sale prices to Craigslist buyers, I cheered myself with the thought that in the end, it would make me a better woodworker.

A really tiny shop. Source: Clickspring

Even though I haven’t built that space yet for lack of free time — somebody has to write these articles! — I still think a smaller workspace will be a net benefit. For inspiration on what kind of craftsmanship is possible in a tiny shop, look no further than Clickspring, the YouTube channel devoted to some of the most mesmerizing machining videos around, including a masterful open-frame clock.

Chris produces his works of art, both the timepieces and his videos, from a ridiculously small machine shop that covers a mere 6.5 square meters (70 sq ft). Stuffed into this long, narrow space are two lathes, a milling machine, a sturdy workbench, and plenty of well-thought-out storage. That Chris works mainly on clocks and other smallish pieces probably helps make the shop work, as does that fact that he can spread out into an outdoor space for large jobs or those that produce fumes. But picture yourself working in that space and turning out work of that quality. Apparently, size doesn’t always matter.

Now it’s your turn. How small a shop do you have? Does a small shop limit you in any way? Do you think it makes you a better craftsman? Is your small shop just a temporary space on the way to bigger and better thing? Sound off in the comments section below, and don’t forget to share pictures of your shop, along with any tips you have for dealing with a small space.

Featured image: Mr. Carlson’s Lab.

36 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: How Small is Your Shop?

  1. Wait. Why is a truly small shop something to be desired in the first place? It means you have to move five extra things to get to anything and even getting basic access to tools becomes awkward, let along having the space to properly use them.

    It’s cheaper overall and easier to heat and cool and so on but that also means it’s just crammed so close together that at some point it becomes truly detrimental to your workflow. I am all for having an organized shop and you only need so much space to be effective but at some point, like micro houses, it becomes detrimental to actually getting things done in a clean, efficient and orderly manner.

    It seems better to find a balance than to place the value of a small space so high against so many other competing things.

      1. The author stated:

        “Or could I? Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to workspaces? Would more space make me a better craftsman? I doubt it.” They opened the door for discussion of course but their personal stance seems to be that “they still think a smaller workspace will be a net benefit.”

        I disagree, to a point.

        They seem biased towards smaller spaces. My opinion is that too small is not what you want. Subtle, but different opinions.

        My argument is that if you have too little space, you are limiting yourself unnecessarily and that the perceived “gains” start to require exponentially more effort to continue to shrink things down.

        As a crude example, it’s just a very poor use of time to have to move a dozen things just to be able to start part of a project, then have to move half a dozen more to do the next step instead of just doing two steps and being able to move on.

        1. I’ve gone from a desk in my bedroom to a 3x3m garden shed to a 6x3m garden shed to a 6x7m shed and now a 10x9m shed.

          I still have to move 10 things to get anything done. More space just means more projects on the go at one time and more space to collect stuff – yeah sure, I’ve got a use for that broken 9kw generator ( well that’s what I tell my wife)

    1. It’s part of that “less is more” double-think that is spreading across society and rotting people’s brains.

      People today strive to have less stuff so that they can fit into a smaller space. Then when that space starts feeling empty they move to an even smaller one and repeat. They actually get a dopamine rush from throwing away their tools because they think that having less stuff somehow returns them to some sort of ideal simpler life.

      Don’t get me wrong. Too much stuff can fill up any space preventing actual making from taking place. There are practical limits to everything. Also, there will be a limit to how much space one can afford. But.. more space is usually better if you can get it.

      You may not “need” a ton of space for doing one thing but… producing most modern objects includes multiple aspects of ‘making’. A small to medium sized and well-organized lightweight work bench is great for electronics work.

      Today hardware is only half the project though and a stand up workbench is not the best place for coding. You need a nice, comfortable sit-down desk for that.

      That handles the softer stuff. Even an electronic project should have some sort of case though. Besides, eventually you will want to build something more substantial. you will want to build something that moves or a piece of furniture or.. who knows what.

      Will you build it from wood? You want a heavier duty bench for that. You might ‘make do’ with a few hand-tools but I challenge you to cut plywood into a good-looking box without a table saw or get precise angles on your supports without a miter saw. You will quickly find out that a long, empty table is necessary to get the best use from either of those saws.

      How about metal? If possible that should be in a different area of your shop to keep sawdust and metal-cutting oil from mixing into a dangerously flammable paste that coats your stuff. You will want a metal table for your welder, and a permanent spot for your drill press. Eventually you might even need room for a lathe!

      Don’t forget a ventilated place for your 3d printers and laser cutter!

      Do you have a car? Do you commute to work or school? If so then you spend a lot of time in your car. What better kind of projects are there than car projects. You will get to enjoy them in the place you are stuck for some number of hours per week. How about a shop area that you can drive the car into?

      Don’t get me wrong. It is possible to make awesome things in a small space. If a small space is all you have that’s ok. Make do and build something. Making things is part of being human, be the best human you can be! Don’t let anything, including space restrictions deter you. But.. all this smaller, lesser is better crap… let’s flush that idea down the toilet where it belongs once and for all!

      1. I to have a problem with the new Sparten trim to the bleeding edge, out look. There is a strange word from the past seldom used today, BALLANCE. I am a generalest, and beleave specilisation may work fine for insects, but not people.

        I like to weld sculpture, work in wood, electronics, gardening, and have a pashion for trying to build robot extavators, and dump body spoiles transporter, think light weight mining carts, that take ther load to an local dump site unload them selves, then return to receave more. I think I need to live on a farm with several shipping containers for material storage.

    2. I’ve found that when a shop becomes too large, you’re continually commuting between machines and rooms. Having some space to breathe is definitely a plus, but it can become a hassle. That mainly applies to shared work spaces and professional environments, though. It’s hard for the home gamer to grow too big.

      1. I would argue the contrary. If you have to commute between machines in your own workshop then that is a problem of your organisation and layout. Not of the large space.

        In a shared workspace, the extra space goes well in providing a safety factor so that others don’t end up encroaching in your work area. It also allows other people to observe a person working on a project and allows for group participation while not taking over other work areas that other people may be using at the same time.

        1. Beyond a certain size it will be inevitable. No amount of organisation can reduce sheer size to nothing. You can optimize, but never fully eliminate.

          There are other factors too. You don’t want to mix wood and metal too much if you can avoid it, because dust and oily grease isn’t a good combination and a safety hazard to boot. That means making separate areas and that in turn means commuting.

  2. 400 sq ft, updated by another 200 sqft 2 years ago. Did all RnD, and production of metal clay since 2006. So far we have sold over 25 tons. Small places are easier to keep organised.

  3. My shop is electronics building and is 16′ x 20′ on the 1st floor – working area, & 16′ x 8′ on 2nd floor – storage. Then an 8′ x 20′ wood working area. The my wife is a sewing person with an 24′ 30′ x 10′ volume, as the walls are covered by shelves. Small is not an option!

  4. Working with about 100 sq ft in a space that is not designed for working in. Within that, a large CNC mill, shop smith mark V, and wood crammed in every corner. I have a community maker space that I work in when I have a project that is just too large or requires extra special tooling.

  5. I had bought a small handy house (portable buildings) years ago for a decent price. Measured about 10 by 12 (feet), double doors on the front so I could easily back my truck up to it and load/unload, windows on front only (did not want anyone having easy access from the back),windows in the front for a small window unit in one, a heater for the winter (could open the other window to vent gases if needed, depending on type of heat and what I was doing).
    Size was perfect. plenty of room and privacy.
    I did not count on the wife and kids though, and all the crap that everyone “must keep” for many,many years, including all the damn decorations for christmas, halloween, easter, goddamn,you name it!
    So, after many years of using the storage building for,you know, actual storage, I watched my work shop dwindle from plenty of space, to half the size, to 1/4 side, to enough room for a work bench and books, to being stacked up with all kinds of crap on my work bench. I gave up! it was nice to have a place to work, that was mine, set up exactly how I wanted, with a TV and dish link, but that’s all gone,I rarely go out to it anymore and when I do, it is a nightmare.
    This is a warning to everyone, if you get space, fight for it early on, never give it up, do not EVER let anyone in it! once “they” get in there, however cute you think they are or however much they bitch and complain, you will loose it all. It is a war, and like all wars,once they find a foothold, it is very difficult to get it back. Go ahead, throw those old baby cloths in there thinking maybe one day someone will need them, or a place to put that damn plastic christmas tree until next year, once it starts, it will never end.

    1. Sounds like a communications fault.

      Our so called “nerd room” is split down the middle between my office / bench and my wife’s textiles area. We each gripe when the other’s stuff grows out of hand, but generally we respect each other’s space. Kids of course are banned from the room unless supervised, and even must obey the “danger zone” by our desks.

    2. Well said man, well said. Maybe I can suggest a solution :) Every once in a while, go there and throw away some random stuff out. Do it silently but steadily, and soon much more space will be available :)

  6. Hmm, I am of the opinion that size doesn’t matter. I always end up with enough space to sit in one chair and mend ‘whatever’ on the seat of the second chair. I think the graph of space V time is probably asymptotic in nature and by the time I am ready for a wooden box the working area will be infinitely small

  7. I have a 10x7ft space in part of a spare bedroom that’s my home office and workbench. It has worked out well for the last decade, but I had to tame my inner hoarder first and resign myself to keeping only one project in play at a time.

  8. My workshop is based in 2 garages, featuring 2 times 5 x 8 meters, resulting in 40 square meters dedicated as a workshop an another 40 square meters for storage and my completely digital modelrailroad layout. I’m mainly interested in electronics, home automation and (model)railroading.
    I like to build a project from A to Z completely myself. (Beginning with drawing up electronic schemes, casing, mechanical parts, down to programming the mcu’s in my designs), to be able to do this, I have several machines: a 50w co2 laser, a large cnc mill to be able to cut iron (for my homebuilt real working steam locomotives), a smaller portal cnc mill (mostly used for fabricating pcb’s), a lathe, 3 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, and some electronic measuring equipment, tools and programmers.

    Here are some pictures of my main workshop: http://www.digitalplayground.be/?p=805

    This is where all ideas are born & all programming and 3D printing is done:
    (That screen is a 4K 49″ curved, ideal for all my CAD work)

    Want more info ? Visit my blog on http://www.digitalplayground.be for more projects :-)

    Best regards,
    Kris

  9. My electronics area is in a cubby hole under the stairs… I’d have to measure to say exactly, but it is about 8’x 4′ and 5′ high, with about 1/3 of the 8×4 area cut off in a triangular section. You can kinda see it on the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiSx10iPsTQ around the 0:16 seconds mark. Being 6’6″ tall, I obviously cannot stand up in it, but sitting down it is actually quite nice. It is more than large enough for any electronics project I have done to date.

    My wood shop is a combination the storage room, and takes up about 8′ long x 6′ wide (full height ceiling, though!). The wood shop part is at the end of the storage room, though, so the room itself is longer. Eventually I plan on walling off the last 8′ of the storage room for a dedicated wood shop, so that I don’t get dust everywhere.

    My only problem with having a small-ish woodworking area is that you are limited in the size of products that you make. For instance, it is just about impossible to make something like a desk or table. Other than that, small can be just fine. My work bench has two rows of space for storage, I have a pegboard for smaller tools and gear, and all my clamps are stored on the ceiling, clamped to the beams.

    1. My wood working shop is something like 10×12 with 7 foot ceilings. I made a L shaped set of loft bed for my kids in it.

      Benches and tools for about 2.5 feet deep all the around 3 sides.

      Using mainly and tools really comes in handy. I also made a 6×6 foot L desk in there. Complete with legs and tails. It was tight and final assembly was in place but stool could do out. It wouldn’t be a good idea from a production standpoint, but then I’d look into a vertical clamping rig for the tops.

      1. Good call on the hand tools thing… I am thinking of table saws, where the longest cut you can do it less than half the length of the room (you need space to stand, to place the wood prior to the cut, and follow-through room where the wood can go past the blade). I do like hand tools for some things, but I am not sure that I can give up my table saw for much of what I do. :-)

  10. I would LOVE to have access to some of these 200 square feet shops. Mine is 5’x10′, and I have two lathes, a drill press, band saw, and a mower and tiller stuffed into there (shelved and organized with collapsable tables/benches except for lathes that need solid and sturdy benches). An unfortunate side effect is that I have to set up tools on a driveway or on a patio whenever I need to use them, and move other tools out of the way to get to the tools I need. It has forced me to add things to benches like removable wheels so that I don’t require someone else to lift or position. It’s a pain, really, and gets in the way of creativity because it becomes a chore. Luckily, I also have another 3’x8′ space to stuff the welders, air compressors, and tool boxes. The electronics parts/scanners/3D printers get stuffed into a cubby hole under the stairs. There are unintended costs to the lack of space.

    That’s where hacker spaces could excel so well – when real estate is at a premium, and one-and-done tools are still pricey for a single use, a hacker space allows a more communal use of things without hitting you hard in the wallet.

  11. I have a single 12′ long wall to use for my computer bench, work bench, test equipment rack, and storage space. I can manage to occupy out to about 5′ from that wall before bumping into my son at one end and my wife directly behind me, because we all share the same hobby room. Needless to say, vertical organization is vital.

  12. I have the luxuary of owning a commercial property(for my love of cars), but my electronics hobby has always just fitted into whatever spare room or cubboard we had in the house. I have to say thro the years, space is great, and being able to hoard a little is a godsend for that emergency bodge, but realistically if its a hobby you can fill the biggest room with crap, and make do with the smallest, you’ll always find a way.

  13. Seems like “what you make” and “what resources you have to make stuff with” will often become a feedback loop. My shop door is 2 feet wide. If I want to make something bigger, it has to come apart into narrow sections.

  14. My workspace is basically half of a table. Other half is taken up by my computer. Everything is stored in lots and lots of boxes. I can’t even put my scope on the table, because it’s soviet analog scope, which is built the way everything soviet was built – it can be an anchor for battleship Potemkin, or serve as barricade for few comrades. Whenever I need it I just stand it on its back (has convenient struts for that) next to the table. And my entire apartment is 37 sqm, not much space for two adults, one child and two cats…

  15. My shop is 5′ x 11′ but thankfully has a 15′ ceiling. Today is the 5th anniversary of my business here repairing audio equipment for recording studios and musicians. I have to do a lot of shuffling things around, but space in NYC is at such a premium that I make it work. Of course if I had more space I could work on larger pieces of equipment and not have to put my tube tester away after using it, but would I make more money overall? Probably not.

  16. I have a lot of spaces.

    My big shop is a 24×24 tin building. I have my wood, sheet metal and welding stuff in there. For bigger wood projects I take my table saw and my chop saw outside. Smaller stuff I do inside. Welding is set up by the door so I can work in out outside, ditto with the plasma cutter and oxy acetylene torches.

    My electronics shop is roughly 12×12 with good overhead lighting and all of my test equipment at hand, The room is circled with industrial steel shelving that is full of treasures.

    My vinyl cutting and 3D printing shop is about 12 x 8. I need to do some reorganization in there. I also have a roughly 5×5 part of a room that hopefully will hold mid sized CNC router table before too long. I got the materials to build tables, benches and shelves in there one of these days…

    The property is dotted with what I call truck cap buildings. These are little buildings that typically have 4′ tall walls and have a truck cap (camper top for you guys down South) on top. The truck caps are typically 2′ tall or taller so this gives you a 6′ ceiling, I have like 7 of them for assorted uses. These are handy structures, and they go up fast. If you have $$ you can buy plywood for he sides, and the 4′ tall sides work well with sheet goods. If you are poor you can rip anything into board and batten, which takes longer but it is free. I have one that I built a bit differently, that has the walls more like 12 feet apart and than a 45 degree segment with the truck cap on that. My sawmill fits in that, or at least the crosshead does, and the first few feet of the track. That works out real well, I have some covered storage for tools, log cants, gas cans, chains, a come along and a scissors jack etc in the building, with the track going out the open end. The track is heavy steel so the elements are not too bad on it.

    Off the barn the electronics shop is in I have a 12 x 14 overhang that I used for working on engines etc. And I am about to start construction on another 12×14 overhang off the other side, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

    I also have plans for a 2 story 16×16 pole barn in the woods for my music interests. I am hoping to start to dig into that sometime next summer.

    A few of these buildings are solar powered. So for me I have decent sized spaces and small spaces. I make little spaces wherever I can.

  17. “Too goddamn small.” My 3D printing, prop/costume-making, and electronics workspace is in my livingroom…along with my quite extensive mult-computer ‘battlestation’, and my bed… In the kitchen I have a screenprinting setup, machine tools, and a bunch of stuff I haven’t managed to set up yet since moving it around… (Drill press, cut-off saw, band saw, belt sander, bench grinder…)

    Shelf and table space are really at more of a premium than floorspace at times… (And lighting, for some reason???) I easily have over 200sqft of ‘mostly dedicated’ shop space, but it really seems like at any given time, the majority of the usable surfaces in my apartment are covered with junk. Right now, my ‘clean bench’ (The 24×36″ table next to my 3D printer, for electronics and model work) is entirely taken up by my currently-dead monitor… I just managed to finally get my mini-mill set back up on a bench in the kitchen after clearing the bench off, and I’m fixing the mini-lathe… No idea where to put the laser cutter…especially since it pretty much has to be out in the livingroom, because it’s the only reasonable place I can exhaust it from…also, computers.

    I’d kill to have a place with a garage…if only so I could buy a cheapass welder and start throwing together worktables on a whim with square steel tubing and plywood… (Not to mention shelves to wrangle ridiculous bs like my current storage room, which would be 80% empty if everything were on shelves…instead it’s waist-deep in boxalanches.)

  18. For a radioamator operator and a electronics technician i think the best is to have the space you think you need,for example i build a small room next to the house were to keep my gardening tools and as i buildit i discover that in the roof was plenty of space to make the shack and electronics workshop…

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