How To Get Into Woodworking Without a Garage

A garage is ideal but not mandatory for woodworking. With some creativity, you can create a woodshop in more places than you might think.

If you’re interested in woodworking but fear you lack the proper space, don’t let it deter you. Whether you’re an apartment dweller or homeowner with an overstuffed garage, you can still tackle many types of woodworking projects.

While living in a small apartment in New York City, I started my carpentry career by joining a large co-working woodshop. It provided the space necessary to work with and store lumber while giving me access to all kinds of table saws, jointers and planers.

What You Need In a Woodworking Space

Your specific requirements will vary depending on the type and scale of your woodworking projects. I’ve used my experience plus the expertise of Brad Rodriguez, a woodworker and founder of FixThisBuildThat, to assemble this list of factors and considerations to keep in mind.

Space

You’ll need sufficient room for equipment and maneuvering workpieces without damaging the walls. Rodriguez recommends “at least two to three times the longest dimension of your project as a comfortable place to move around and work on it.” He says you can get a lot done in a space as small as 6- by 6-ft.

Ceiling height

Make sure the ceiling isn’t so low that longer items bang into the lights. Think about the size of your finished project as well. If you’re planning on building a 10-foot-high bookshelf, don’t choose a room with an eight-foot ceiling.

Power tools

Whittling or carving might not require any power tools. But for most projects, you’ll need at least a power drill and some type of power saw.

A power drill lets you bore holes in wood as well as drive screws and other fasteners. Portable table and miter saws should be enough for rip cuts (along the grain) and crosscuts (across the grain). If you’re using power tools, Rodriguez says to make sure your space can handle their power requirements. If not, call an electrician to upgrade.

Dust collection

If you’re using a saw or any power tool that creates sawdust, you’ll need a dust collection system. A small shop vac that connects to the dust port on your tool will greatly cut down on cleanup time and reduce the harmful dust or debris you may breathe in.

At the very least, buy power tools that come with dust collection bags. These are relatively small and can fill up fast, but they’re certainly better than nothing. Rodriguez cautioned against using heavy dust-producing tools like sanders in a room with a cold-air intake, which could spread dust throughout your living space.

Lighting

Proper lighting is essential for making accurate cuts and measurements, as well as monitoring how much material you’re removing when sanding. You’ll especially need it for smaller, delicate projects, like building a birdhouse or repairing a piece of furniture.

Sufficient lighting also increases overall safety. In a dimly lit workspace you might trip over a stray extension cord, misjudge depth perception while cutting, or overlook screws or other fasteners on the floor that could cause you to slip.

Workbench

This is the most important piece of a woodworking space. Typically made of wood, these sturdy work surfaces can be used while sitting or standing up.

Workbenches intended specifically for woodworking, as opposed to gardening or electronic work, should ideally include some kind of wood vice or clamping mechanism. This holds your workpiece firmly in place while keeping both hands free.

Alternative Woodworking Spaces

Depending on the type of woodworking you’re interested in, plenty of spaces can be used in lieu of a garage.

Basement

Basements make great woodshops because they typically offer a lot of space. If unfinished, you need not worry about damaging walls or flooring. Rodriguez’s first three woodworking shops were all in basements.

However, with limited windows, basements don’t offer great ventilation and aren’t ideal for staining or painting projects that generate harmful fumes. They’re also not convenient for moving items in and out, especially bulky furniture pieces.

Balcony

According to Rodriguez, apartment balconies make good workspaces. “They typically have power and storage closets on them, which you can store all the tools,” he says. It’s also easier keep dust outside your living space while providing great ventilation for painting and staining.

A balcony can be cramped, though, and your neighbors might have issues with excessive sawdust.

Spare bedroom

Depending on your needs and the patience of family members, an unused bedroom could work as a woodworking setup. It you go this route, limit yourself to light-duty projects that require hand tools. Power saws and sanders make too much noise, and sawdust could make its way into the rest of the house. Plus, paint and staining could fill your home with harmful fumes.

Outside

A backyard or driveway provides unlimited ventilation and no height restrictions. That’s good for working with long or bulky items like sheets of plywood, molding or baseboards.

You can’t leave your tools and equipment outside, so you’ll have to haul everything back in when you’re done. But if you’re tackling a one-off project, it could be a great option.

Community workspace

This is a great option for beginning woodworkers. They typically provide a full range of power tools, saving you money, and experienced members can walk you through how to use the equipment properly and safely.

These workspaces require a monthly fee that’s likely cheaper than buying all your own tools, so it could be worth the investment. The tradeoff is convenience; you can’t pop in 24/7 as you would in a basement or garage.

Tips for How To Do Woodworking Without a Shop

Stay organized

“If you’re in a small or mobile space,” Rodriguez says, “it’s so important to know where all your tools are and have them easily accessible.” Rolling tool chests and bins are great options for temporary workspaces.

Start small

If you’re just starting out, don’t overthink it. Start with a small project that doesn’t require a lot of space or ventilation. This way you can figure out what type of woodworking you most enjoy, and gradually determine the type of space that works best for you.

If you find you prefer wood carving to heavy-duty assembly projects, you’ll avoid buying expensive tools and configuring a space you don’t need.

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Alex Rennie
Alex Rennie is a freelance writer who specializes in the home improvement, DIY, and appliance space. Having spent more than five years as a residential and commercial carpenter in NYC–specializing in custom furniture construction and installation–Alex uses his hands-on experience and expert insight to craft product reviews, buying guides, and how-to articles. He has previously written for CNN Underscored, Business Insider, and Popular Mechanics, in addition to Family Handyman. He currently lives in Los Angeles, CA, where he spends his free time hiking and relaxing on the beach with his wife and their two dogs, Louie and Iggy.