Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 154, June 2018 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
Downsizing Into a Studio Workshop
By Mark Miller
Waco, TX

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

My tiny shop I started writing about in the April 2018 issue of Wood News is up and running in a limited capacity. Being on the third floor of a modern-day Anasazi cave dwelling, I'm reluctant to do anything that will resonate through the floor into the cave below. So, chisel chopping is subject to case-by-case scrutiny. If you think hand tool wood working is quiet, if you imagine birds singing and bees buzzing, you've never tried to avoid waking the hypothetical baby downstairs. My handsaws roar and bench planes rumble.

I'll share my opinions and experiences, but bear in mind, my perspective is one of downsizing. The things I see and conclusions I form are through the filter of leaving much better accommodations. Though it might come across as sour grapes, I'm actually enjoying the experience.

The Bench

The Workmate isn't a woodworking bench, it's a portable "get it off the floor so I can work standing up" bench. For me, a bench needs to have a solid vise and surface for clamping. It needs to be mostly rack free, and the top needs to be solid enough to chop on (think of chopping a mortise on a trampoline). The Workmate does hold things, but it isn't a vise.

The entire work surface is designed to move. The front section travels in and out on screws to make (in spirit) a twin-screw style vise. Instead of a jaw clamping against the edge of the bench, it's the bench itself that moves. The center and aft sectioned surfaces are positioned by the user to accommodate various clamping arrangements.

The front section of work space (the twin-screw jaw part) can flip up to a vertical position and clamp down on the center surface. This scheme must have looked really good on paper, but I can't think of any benefit grand enough to offset the loss of stability. When I want to clamp something down, I usually employ a clamp.

All of this flexibility and adaptability makes it rattle like a pickup truck bed full of beer cans. You can't touch it without some clink or clunk, which most folks would hardly notice. Could be I'm a bit over sensitive surrounded on all sides by neighboring cave dwellers.

Finally, it's small, and that's no fault of the Workmate designers. I'm spoiled. If you read the first article in this discussion, I typically use half my benchtop for working and the other half for piling stuff. I didn't quite appreciate the luxury of having a place to set a bench plane, chisel mallet, or layout tools during a work session until I met this Workmate.

The Tarp

Not as handy and fuss free as I expected. I imagined a slick, vinyl surface to protect the carpet by catching sawdust and shavings. That part works. I also imagined I could just sweep things up after every session. That part doesn't. On carpet, the light-weight tarp is a living, moving thing. It has footprints, wrinkles, divots, and folds that capture and hold dust and chips. But, it's the most practical alternative to shaving covered carpet.

Tool Storage

While I'm not opposed to putting my toys away, I'm not accustomed to hiding them. In my home shop, tool storage is a combination of "on the wall" and "on the bench". Seems pretty cut and dried, but when planning this tiny shop, I missed several things that aren't quite on the bench and aren't quite off it. My sharpening paraphernalia lives on a shelf under the bench, shooting board and bench hooks lean against the "working end" and clamps….. clamps live wherever they want. This doesn't work in a one-bedroom apartment, especially if you run the chance of a surprise barracks inspection by sergeant Major Wife. It's not a matter of, "a place for everything and everything in its place" rather, it's a matter of no place for anything and everything in a box. What you're reading is the petulant rants of a man accustomed to his workshop. I tell myself to take a breath, build a tool chest, and learn to work from it. Craftsmen have done it for centuries. But right now, I just ain't likin' it.

Machine Free

Not "having" machines is different than not "using" machines. I like my handsaws, they've all passed a rigorous selection process, and I like using them. However, the words "machine free" take on a whole new meaning when you actually and honestly don't have the customary machines. Let's see a show of hands of everyone who enjoys ripping 4 feet of 2x4 with an 8 tpi panel saw... That's what I thought.

Making these long rips makes plenty of time for contemplation and I've come to a few conclusions. Hand tool woodworking requires you to reset your internal clock. Your expectations of how long something should take and that switch inside that says, "this ain't workin'" needs to shift. Your internal filters of what's fun and what's scut work will need to flex as well. This statement brings me full circle, back to "machine-free has a whole new meaning."

My first project was a little milking stool/plant stand with legs, shaped by hand. I like making these legs because I enjoy using a spokeshave. My new machineless shop has helped me see that shaping the legs is the easy part, the ice cream. The meat and potatoes of the leg operation is ripping construction 2x4s to width, a task I usually accomplish on a bandsaw and had conveniently overlooked. So I reset my internal clock to "hand tool time" and look forward to using a really sharp saw in soft wood. In other words, the monotonous rip is not an unpleasant means to an end, it's its own end, a mini-project that I can use to build my skills and enjoy my tools.


Location, location, location! In a 600 square foot shop, I like the smell of oil based finish. It smells like a "job well done." In a 500 square foot apartment it smells like a lost security deposit. Fortunately, shellac is my go-to finish because it's easy and I can make small amounts. For anything petroleum, I'll have to find a place outdoors.

Before, I'd just drop a piece of plywood or cardboard down and apply finish. Do I make a mess? I guess. I don't leave the place looking like a 3D Jackson Pollock painting, but I don't give it much thought either. It's a shop. Well, it's not a shop anymore, it's an apartment with carpet and I'd better make darn sure to avoid permanent messes. Meet Mr. Dropcloth and paper booties.

Wood Storage

I haven't figured out the wood storage dilemma. In my home shop I'm a hoarder, I over-buy and keep the left overs forever. In my tiny shop, I hardly have room for work, much less piles of "stabilizing lumber" or offcuts. I'll have to learn to live with the space I have, but I don't like it.

All this, living your craft, is possible almost anywhere if you're willing to compromise. It's not optimal, but it's possible. Sure, I could resort to spoon carving over a trash can, but it's not my thing. The "tinyshop-in-your-apartment" is certainly not ideal, but it is possible if you're able and willing to adjust your methods and techniques. For me, woodworking is as much a process of solving problems and making solutions as it is design and production.

You can email Mark at leathermech@yahoo.com.

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