Shop Size: Downsizing? Benchtop Tools? Readers’ Opinions

In last issue’s eZine editorial, Rob wondered whether other woodworkers had changed to using more benchtop rather than full-size power tools. He also asked  “what’s the size of your shop?”

Some wouldn’t dream of giving up full-size tools. – Editor

“42 X 45 and I wish it was bigger so I had room for a paint booth. I use all full-size tools: 20″ planer, 12 jointer, 12″ table saw with a big outfeed table, two router tables, 24″ double drum sander, 17″ band saw, 18 X 48 lathe, and a 4′ X 8′ workbench in the middle of the room. I love my full-size tools and especially the spiral cutterheads on the planer and jointer. The finish I get on the boards from those tools is better then anything you could get on the smaller platforms. I am, however, getting more hand tools to refine my work and get better results. Stick with the bigger tools unless you have to downsize.” – Tom Hinaman

“You cannot convince me that table top tools are as sturdy or accurate as full-size stationary tools. If one doesn’t have a large shop, then put your tools on wheels. There is no way a bench top table saw can do the things a full-size cabinet can.” –  Scott Thomas

“Have I downsized? Am I taking advantage of new awesome benchtop tools and replacing stationary tools? No. In the last two years, I’ve actually increased my shop size, and added stationary tools. I was always tired of the ‘Woodworker’s Square Dance.’ Want to use the shop? Move the car, the camping gear, the bikes, the Barbie Jeep. Now you can use the table saw. Want to use the jointer now? Move the saw and pull out the jointer and hook the DC up to the jointer and plug the jointer into the one 220v outlet and go ahead. Want to use the planer now? You get the idea.

“So I am lucky now to have a 40’x20’ dedicated space. Mine, all mine. No camping gear, cars, or Barbie Jeeps. I have 220v in the floor. I don’t have duct runs for the DC yet, so I do need to move my flex hose, but that’s it. All my tools are still on mobile bases, so if I do need to move something, I can. Because there is no perfect shop layout. There are good layouts that respect flow and work for many projects, but then you get a different project with different requirements and the shop needs to adapt.

“It’s nice to be able to go from jointer to saw to planer without really having to do much and without tripping or banging up my shins. That’s the difference between building lots of different things (woodworker) or lots of the same thing (furniture factory). There are near-perfect shop designs if you’re going to set up to build 10,000 of the same table, for instance.” – Matt Gradwohl

“I am privileged to have an 800 square foot shop and have full-size tools. A good friend told me years ago that you can build small things on big tools but it is difficult to build big things on small tools. When we moved a few years ago, and I acquired the larger shop, I decided to stick with the full-size tools. No regrets!” -Ross I. Hirst

“I have and have not downsized. I think a good, heavy table saw is too important to give up. Big sheets and 8/4 lumber cut easier and more precise. It also doubles as a workbench. Not an ideal situation, but it works. I also like a bigger jointer. Mine is a 6” floor model. I think they are more stable and safer. I do use a 5hp router in my router table. I can do pretty much anything I need to with it. I do have a smaller clamp-on router table, too. My planer is a 14” which does pretty much anything I need it to do. I do have access to a larger one if I need to, though. My shop is approximately 560 square feet with a 12’ ceiling. A little tight at times, but it does work pretty well. That’s my two cents worth. Hope it answered a few questions.” – Mike Berg

This reader’s opinion was that it depends on the tool. – Editor

“My original shop was a fold-down workbench bolted to the wall of the open carport where I grew up. My dad built it out of 2X4s and pegboard; it was indestructible, and it was wonderful. I was eight when I put together my first project (birdhouses) on that thing using hand tools hanging from the pegboard. In the ensuing years, I expanded my work spaces but little – usually a corner of whatever size garage I had at the time – and as my old tools wore out I would replace them with the best I could afford – always with space savings in mind. Today, as I approach retirement, I’m back in my childhood home and just took down that old fold-down workbench. My tools now are in a separate 12’X24’ shop in back. I’ve graduated from my dad’s few simple hand tools to a modest line-up of power machines, all but one of which are benchtop models (I have an old monster Craftsman lathe I can’t let go of). But, unlike you, I am looking to replace at least two of my benchtops with floor models: a cabinet saw and a floor model band saw; these are items that bring stability, power and capacity with increased size. Other freestanding tools; planers, jointers, drill presses, etc., just don’t seem to offer that much more for all the extra cost and floor space.” – Phil Gilstrap

Some, however, sang the praises of their benchtop tools – but noted that mobility could be just as important, and useful. – Editor

“Recently, I went from a 30×30 basement plus a 20×30 storage loft over the garage to a 16×19 room (and a few things stashed in closets). Since I’m past the live-in-a-restoration-project phase of life, it was easy to give up my multifunctional radial arm saw. I have enough room for a miter box, a treadle lathe, and lots of handsaws, chisels and planes. (OK, the cherry wood stash is in the garage). There’s even room for a combination benchtop band saw/jigsaw cabinet, a modest router table, and a combination tabletop drill press/mortiser cabinet.  Experience has freed me from reliance on large power tools. My advice? Simplify! You’ll find that you don’t need the big boys as much as you once did.” – William Sanders

“The ‘compact’ tools that I have work very well for me. While I’d love to get into big resawing, my little 9″ band saw serves me well for the smaller things that I’ve done so far, mostly trim, curved legs, making jigs, etc. Likewise the small belt/disc sander serves that purpose well, too. With limited floor space, the smaller tools can be shelved or stored out of the way until I need them.  In the work process they are easily put into action on a benchtop. (I have four of those folding Stanley benches that were in production a decade ago… they are perfect for my kind of work and I wish they were still in production.)

“In my old house in Painted Post, New York, I used to have to take all my tools out to the deck in fair weather in order to work. When I moved here to Binghamton I was lucky enough to have half of the basement (11 by 20). So, compact and portable has always been a necessity. The new backyard shed is limited by local building codes, but it offers its advantages nonetheless.

“My personal opinion is that compact tools offer some real advantages for someone like me.  They have their limitations, of course, but a little imagination goes a long way to making things work well.  With limited space and budget, these tools make a workshop an enjoyable reality.” – C.W. Smith

“My shop is 600 sq. ft. And no, I have not downsized my stationary tools.  I do have quite a few of my tools on casters and I quite frequently render my sheet goods to manageable size with a ripping jig and Skil Saw before bringing into the shop.” – Dave Arnold

“What I’d LIKE to have would be a double garage sized with vented-outside dust collection. And some stationary tools. What I HAVE is a room in the  basement, roughly 22 feet by 16 with some nearby dry storage for wood. When I was a child,my father wanted a ShopSmith until he found it had to be moved, changed and reassembled for each task. My whole shop is that way. For noncommercial work, that’s acceptable. The big limitation is the tools I’m allowed. I’d like to upgrade from a contractor table saw to a cabinet saw. But those stairs and a sharp turn at the bottom say that will never happen. Ever. My daughter-in-law thinks of it as a man-cave. Pretty close, actually. I prefer ‘Fortress of Solitude and Sawdust.’” – Doug Walkey

“I have been using nothing but tabletop tools since I moved into this house. My shop is only 12×14, so everything is on wheels so I can roll things out of the way. The benchtop saw is on a cabinet on locking casters that also houses the router table. The original saw fit inside so when I was using the router, the saw was out of the way. This doesn’t work now, as I had to replace the saw a few years ago.” –  Stu Levine

“I do not have a large shop. I configured the outside wall so that I have 8’+ to the left of the radial arm saw. I also have plenty of space to the right. I have aligned the radial arm saw fence with the miter saw fence and I use the drill press table as an outfeed support as well. I put my portable planer in the table saw outfeed table with an RV jack that I use a drill to lift. (Too heavy to lift, getting old!) The jointer, router table and band saw are on wheels. I roll them out behind the table saw so I can attach them to the dust collector. The table saw is permanently attached to it, and I have a Y fitting with two gates so I can run one or the other. I do not think I would be happy with the small stuff, even with all the strides that have been made. Love the mag and the eZine.” – Al Micucci

“In response to Rob’s issue of benchtop tools, I wanted to relate that in a move several years ago from Georgia back to Michigan to be near family I went from a two-and-a-half-car to a one-car garage. Initially, I was disappointed but have dealt with it by having a full-size table saw and drill press. Otherwise, I have benchtop tools (planer, jointer, oscillating sander, band saw, and router table) that function well on shop-made cabinets, a couple with lift-up tables for extra workspace when needed. It also encourages cleanup of the work area, almost daily, so the wife can park the car inside). So, can be done, but  takes effort to keep up.” – Doug Selfe

“Back when you and Noah were getting in each other’s way, I had a shop soooo small (How small was it, Don?), I had to go outside to change my mind. It was 80 square feet. That’s right, an 8×10 room in the old house we had just moved to. We date it roughly to 1804, but it’s a little too young for sharing with Noah. The only power tool I had was a Shopsmith, shoehorned in to that claustrophobic space. But I was able to do some woodworking and I got pretty adept at changing the SS from one setup to the others.

“Today I have a shop that is 22×28 (Yay!) and I still have the good ol’ Shopsmith, but with a lot of help from other tools, some stationary, some tabletop. I wouldn’t like to do without my big tools, but I still don’t have enough room for all big tools. Our Outback still has to come in at night (It is a garage) so all those tabletop tools are on wheeled stands so they can go back in the corner and Mama’s baby can come in every night. I don’t even have the luxury of a regular workbench. Where would I put it? I designed a hollow top table that’s big enough and heavy enough but comes apart very quickly and stacks flat against the wall.” – Don Butler

For instance, this reader said the bench space in his small shop is more important than benchtop tools. – Editor

“I have a garage/shop that is only 19 feet wide and has two-foot wide workbenches on each side. I also garage two small cars in the garage at night. All my stationary tools are on casters and have to be rolled out to use them. While not always convenient, and the cars have to be evicted, I don’t have the space for bench tools on my benches. I prefer using the stationary tools so I’ll have bench space for woodworking. Since I have to put them away every night to allow the cars back in, the garage/shop stays a lot cleaner and safer.” – Ed Amsbury

It’s not just the tools you have to think about regarding shop size: lumber storage and handling is a key issue, as well. – Editor

“I understand the position you’re in. I have a 600 square foot shop, which is way larger that I ever expected to have, but it still doesn’t have room for every ‘toy’ I’d like to have. The space saving tools such as the rail saw you mentioned are great in that you can tear them down to move them out of the way. The drawback is this: there is still the requirement for a suitable flat and solid work surface to safely handle the materials. The shop floor may be OK for a young guy like you, but I try to limit my floor crawling as much as possible. (I do use the rail saw for the initial cuts on full-size panels, saves having to lift the dang things.) If you can solve the material handling issues safely, I say use the space saving choices. It’ll save the kids from having to move the cast-iron stuff after you go to the big sawdust pile in the sky.” – Greg Harmon

“My shop is 24 x 32. I have a mix of older, full-size tools and a few smaller tools. My biggest frustration is storage: wood stacked up, not enough storage and several projects in progress.” – Don Borgerding

“I’m an amateur woodworker in south Georgia with a 1,200 foot heated and cooled shop. 300 feet is for my wife’s crafts and the rest is for my woodworking. I wouldn’t want to have any less than that, and I would have plenty of room if I would relocate my duct work for my dust collection system to run from the middle of my ceiling to my stationary tools instead of from the interior and exterior walls where they are now. I need more wall space for cabinets and storage.” – Charlie Murphy

“My shop is 27′ x 20′ and, at times, I wish we had made it bigger. When we built it I didn’t have as many tools. I would still like a cabinet saw to replace my contractor saw, but since I got a track saw I am no longer wanting the big 52″ fence. I also could probably get a good sliding miter saw and replace a lot of the other saws and clear up more space. However, my dad’s Craftsman radial arm saw would probably stay even though it is as old as I am (51). Other than that, I have the basics, drill press, jointer, miter saw, router table, band saw, scroll saw, lathe, benchtop thickness planer and various hand tools. It can get cluttered so I often find myself cleaning up to find tools and have more room depending on the project. I would probably say my biggest problem is storage, especially for wood and scrap wood. If I figured that out I could buy more tools.” – Loren Neher

“I must confess, if I could triple the size of my shop, I would. I would also double it. I’d like to do large assemblies IN my shop instead of on my patio. I’d like to be able to use my table saw for only a table saw instead of a work surface. I’d like to be able to move a tool into the shop without having to figure out which tool I’m moving out. I guess I’d like to have your problem…” – E.J. Eiteljorge

Some just expressed a wish for a size increase. – Editor

“The answer is: 240 square feet. And no, I’m not downsizing equipment to accommodate the small footprint of my shop. I’m trying to figure out a way to pop out the walls and add more space.” – John Rowe

And some pointed out that it’s largely a matter of personal preference. – Editor

“Your shop has to be built by you, or at least designed by you if you can’t physically do it yourself. The tools you use, type and size of material, what your personal pattern moving through the shop is and generally the types of projects you do, but particularly your personal habits, and we can’t help you with

“I built my first shop in a coal bin in my parents’ basement. If memory is right,it was about 8ft by 9ft. In about 1955/56, DeWALT came out with their first homeowner radial arm saw. It had a 1/2hp, 110-volt motor. The next year they came out with the 3/4hp model and i bought it and, with a very sharp blade, it would cut a loaf of bread very nicely (my mother didn’t think so). I also bought attachments and that was ‘education time.’ After surviving the flying wood from those attachments, I have built five more shops. This current one is a separate building 30ft by 36ft. Probably a little large for where I am in life now, but years ago I decided that this is where I want to be, building toys for my grandkids when it is over.” –  Rob Growney

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