Hobby Holidays: Let's Talk Shop


A home workshop can be a gift that keeps on giving, whether you use it as a home business, a community service, or an oasis

For some, Santa's workshop will always remain a fabled toy factory in a far-off land, but for the people of Andover, Minn., Old St. Nick inhabits a piece of real estate just down the street. In the past 17 years, Mel Hartman has become recognized as Santa Claus within his community for the craft he has honed in his home workshop: wooden toymaking; and for the non-profit he created, TLC Toys, which funds and distributes the home-made toys to needy children around the world.

Since he began the operation by himself in a single room, Hartman has recruited the help of around 70 volunteers and expanded his woodworking operation into many parts of his home.

Far from the Christmas tree and candy cane-filled wonderland many envision as the North Pole, Hartman's workshop is filled with noisy, messy, high-powered machines that have required a lot of special modifications to his home. "The workshop needs its own power source to run all the equipment, and it needs a dust collection [system] to keep the mess out of the house," he explains. "It also has its own heating system, circuit system, and a separate access."

Planning Comes First

Home workshops and homes do not always marry happily, but there are several important steps you should consider if you want a quiet, clean, and safe space to practice your craft. Having a solid idea of what you will use your workshop for, says Scott Gibson, woodworker and author of The Workshop: Celebrating the Place Where Craftsmanship Begins (Taunton, 2003), is the first and most important step you should take in the planning process.

"Be honest with yourself about what you'll use it for," he says, because "it's very easy to outgrow [a workshop] rapidly" if you plan too small. If you are going to turn candlesticks and bowls, for example, you may only require an 8 ft. by 12 ft. space as opposed to someone who plans to build whole cabinets, who may need a space up to 24 ft. by 32 ft.

If you are planning an automotive shop, you'll obviously want to make the garage your base of operations—in which case you'll be limited by how much space your car or cars take up. Wall racks and high-durability cabinet sets on wheels, such as those offered by Sears' (SHLD) Craftsman brand and Whirlpool's (WHR) Gladiator GarageWorks line, are a smart way to save space and provide flexibility to a garage shop.

Work With What You've Got

Steve D'Gerolamo is a specialist in turning basic garages of high-end homes into well-appointed workshops for the weekend wrench monkey. For a consultation fee of about $1,000 to $5,000, his Emerson (N.J.)-based company, Ultimate Garage, will help you plan out your new garage's storage systems, lighting, tiling, utility systems, and extras like hydraulic car lifts and plasma TVs. "The garage has become more than a place to park a car," he says. "It's a whole living space."

Woodworking hobbyists should consider the benefits of a garage workshop, but may find a better workspace in their basement, attic, or in a structure secondary to their house such as a barn. Easy entry for large machines and raw materials, access to a constant power source, insulation for sound, and insulation from the elements will all factor into what room of the house is intrinsically best suited for the workshop and how many adjustments it will require.

A trip to Home Depot (HD) or Lowe's (LOW), where you can buy power generators, dust collectors, air compressors, and insulation materials, can provide quick fixes to a lot of these problems.

Be Kind to Your Neighbors

If you plan to sell the objects of your workmanship, you'll also want to consider zoning restrictions. When furniture maker Gregg Lipton prepared to set up shop in a 19th-century lumber mill that had been converted into an estate in Cumberland, Me., he faced some legal hurdles.

After working with a lawyer and gaining the support of his rural town, whose citizens recognized that he would have little in the way of commercial foot traffic and probably not make enough noise to be heard by his closest neighbors, he was given permission to work from the property.

"A lot of woodworkers work from home," Lipton says. "Whether or not it will fly depends on what town, and how close you are to other properties. But you should always check with your neighbors about things like noise and mess that are natural to a workshop."

A workshop is among the most highly personalized spaces you can bring to your home, so if you're thinking about resale value you may want to plan a shop that could be flexible, and bend to the desires of future owners rather than someplace too attuned to your own needs.

"I don't think [shops] are a detraction from value. I think they are in many ways useful spaces in the sense they can be turned into something else," says author Gibson. "I've seen workshops turned into garden sheds and storage sheds for old cars and motorcycles." To his dismay, the buyers of Gibson's last house turned his workshop into a sports bar.

Want to build your own perfect workshop? Click here to see a roundup of great workshop design ideas.

Douglas MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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