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Old 02-09-2008, 10:45 PM
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Tips for shop layouts and tool purchases.

This list is compiled from some of what I feel are the most important shop layout ideas and tool purchasing tips I've ever come across, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it...

There is what you want, what you need, and what you get….

The above statement, while true in many “life instances”, is especially true when it comes to buying tools and setting up your shop working space. Every “shop” is a reflection of each individual user’s activities within. Some people will use it for woodworking (which is not my primary focus in this writing…), some will use it for metal fabrication work (also not the primary focus…), and some will use it for general auto repair and restoration work. (Here is my primary focus…) I decided a while ago to give out some general guideline ideas for setting up that “ultimate shop” that we all dream about. While this is not the best, nor is it intended to be an end all reference, I hope that everyone who reads this will find at least one pointer or useful idea that can be incorporated into their own shop.

First, a little talk about shop space…

While most all of us would like nothing better than walking into a 12,000 square foot shop (that is my ultimate dream anyway) with every tool every made at our disposal to use for even the most mundane job, that simply is not a reality unless the lottery numbers lined up for you. In reality, the average home garage is the one place that serves as general parking and auto shop for many of us. How we equip it and lay it out to suit our needs is what makes each one unique. I am mainly going to serve out ideas for a working shop in a home garage similar to most two-car garages. Since mine fits into that bracket, and I have tried to adapt what I could to work in it, that seems like a good starting point. My “shop” is a 20 by 22 foot detached garage that has served as a catch-all, do-all working space. It is far from ideal, even farther from nicely equipped, but one thing I have learned is how to work around what I do not have. In other words, try to glean what you can from the tips I am offering, even though they are just my opinions.

Shop Layout Tips and Suggestions.

Two things I need to mention. One concern is meeting your local building codes. All the best efforts will become a waste if you are not up to code. If you plan well, the local inspector may be more willing to work with you. Secondly, Think Safety!!!!!!! I cannot stress this enough. Although I put this second, it does not belong in second place. It should .at the forefront for shop work. Probably the most needed, but least used items in any shop are the safety items. A pair of vented goggles, welding gloves (if you weld), a fire extinguisher, and a very sturdy floor jack and matching jack stands are an absolute must.

One of the biggest challenges faced in any shop has to be the basic layout of the working area (followed closely by how to pay for all the “toys” held within…). However, before you even begin the layout of your shop space, you must be certain as to the goals you wish to accomplish in your shop. This is the stage that you must be 100 percent honest with yourself in your skills and abilities. If you are proficient in upholstery work, you may not desire to set up your shop to do body work. There is nothing wrong with “farming out” the work you don’t feel comfortable doing. Very few people can build a car from the ground up with no help. I know I can’t., and I will openly admit it.

Since I plan to do most all of the drive line work on my vehicles, and the majority of the body prep work in my garage, I had to plan for skills yet to be acquired. I also had to figure out how to gain the most usable space from the 440 square feet of floor I have. For my workspace, that meant putting almost everything I have on wheels if it had to remain on the floor, or to hang items on the walls to save floor space. This means that my air compressor, parts washer, and welding cart all needed to be as portable as my roll-away boxes, engine stand, and cherry picker. You should do whatever you can to eliminate all the large stationary “footprints” left by some items. I understand that this will not work in some situations, but for some, this may be the hot ticket to organizing. The only item I left without a movable base is my 18” by 48” welding/ fabrication table.

I am now also a firm believer in laying out your shop according to “usage zones” I’m trying to keep as much tear-down work in one area, clean-up work in one area, and tool storage in one place as is possible. By keeping similar use items clustered together, you really can get more work done. Everything placed in the shop looks cleaner as well. I’m also finding it easier to keep the shop clean because everything has its place. Poor organization will destroy productivity, and make you less likely to want to work in your shop. For a bonus, keeping the garage floor clean is much easier when you can move items out of the way.

I also learned that the best place to store some items is in a completely separate area altogether. A simple backyard storage shed will work just fine to help clear out otherwise unnecessary items from your shop. Lawn care and other seasonal items are often times deposited in the garage, but seldom really belong there. In addition, the bigger and bulkier items from an automotive project can (or should) be stored in alternate areas. Perhaps a basement (or unused bedroom if single—or you wish to be…) can be used as well.

In laying out your shop to make it the most usable and enjoyable, I strongly encourage you to get it wired (either by yourself—having it inspected if zoning so requires it—or professionally.) for a minimum of 100 amp service, preferably 220. Then get it insulated (minimum R-11 in the walls and R-13 in the ceiling), and get the walls and ceiling finished. You can drywall the inside, or do as I did, use 3/8” O.S.B. with a 4 mil. plastic vapor barrier.

Lighting is important in any shop, and I firmly believe you can never have enough light in your shop. Lighting is especially important over the workbench area. Fluorescent lights are great as long as you use the cold start variety if your climate dictates it. Otherwise, you have to warm the shop before flipping them on, which is what I currently do. Well, I believe that covers all the basics, so now it is on to the fun stuff.

Suggested Tool Selection for the home garage or shop.

I stated previously that it would be great to own at least one of every tool ever made or ever needed. Unfortunately, this is the real world, and we have to make do with two major constrictions when deciding what tools to equip our shops with. First, can we really afford to shell out the big dollars to purchase the same tools that the professional shop mechanics use? Second, even if the money is there, do we really need them?

Let’s be honest for a moment. Every garage hobbyist would love to have the Snap-On, Matco, or Mac Tools truck roll up to your door, but for the most part, the new tool prices of these retailers is beyond a normal hobbyist’s budget. However, if you know what to buy and where to look, you can oftentimes score big on used professional tools. Simply watch for yard sales, estate sales, shop mechanics that may be upgrading to a different brand, check Ebay or Craiglist, local Buyers guides, or my personal favorite, divorce situations where the ex-wife parts with stuff that she sees as “junk” (this is a situation where spare car parts in a bedroom can turn out poorly…). Timing can mean everything when used tool shopping.

In my own opinion (and I sincerely hope not all agree with me…), for the backyard hobbyist, some of the best tools you can buy absolutely need to fit two main criteria. They have to fit your budget, and they positively have to have an awesome lifetime return policy. As a tool buyer, you gain experience in what to buy and what not to. There is only one thing worse than a cheap tool, and that is a cheap tool with a sorely lacking return policy. Harbor Freight, and Sears Craftsman both have some stuff that is worth the purchase price, and some stuff that is total junk. Put simply, do your research and you should be fine no matter what you brand of tool you buy, as long as you buy quality stuff.

The following is my list for the basic tools needed, then my add-ons that should be added as your skills and needs grow. So here’s my pick for the first twenty items you really should to have (along with a few side items to complement them)…

1. A rolling tool box. Get the best one that you can afford, in the largest size you can fit in your garage. Trust me, you will not be sorry.
2. An air compressor. Once again, buy the best one you can afford, with the highest cfm rating that is within you budget. Two stage compressors are better with recovery time and cfm ratings, but are more expensive to purchase. Tank size isn’t the most important factor, cfm rating is. Also, once you have the compressor, keep the tank drained. It helps longevity.
3. A suitable work bench/ work surface. I’ve seen a few different designs ranging from home built units all the way up to fancy store bought units. Some of the best ones are unbelievably heavily built. One I saw was supported by angle cut 2 inch square tubing that was anchored to the cement block wall of the shop. Granted, that’s a bit of overkill for a home shop, but it was really cool…
4. A high quality bench grinder, and a portable 4 1/2" angle grinder. When buying these items, look for ones with the highest amperage rating your budget permits. When it comes to power tools, amperage equals power. A bench grinder will do you no good if you can snub it off because it’s underpowered. Also, include the grinding wheel-dressing tool to true up the grinding wheel.
5. A decent sized bench vise. Although the size dictates price (and boy are they expensive…), a six inch vise is money I feel would be well spent.
6. Basic hand tools. A basic higher quality lifetime warranty set of screwdrivers. Combination wrenches in both SAE and Metric sizes. A set of regular and deep depth sockets in both SAE and Metric and in all three of the more common drive sizes of 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2”, and in six and 12 point styles. Do not forget the breaker bar or the cheater pipe that should be in every garage.
7. A basic selection of impact sockets and an impact ratchet to drive them. These sockets are specifically designed to be used with your air drive tools, unlike the regular chrome plated sockets
8. A drop light. See “lighting” above
9. A selection of hammers. Ball Pein and mini-sledge in weights up to 3 pounds is my suggestion. Also, claw hammers only have a place in construction, not automotive applications.
10. A high quality set of pliers, including Vise-Grips. Do not scrimp on this. Using the cheapies simply are not worth the scraped knuckles or the aggravation.
11. A creeper and a drain pan for automotive fluid recovery. One with a lid if pets or children are present is a necessity. Changing oil gets really messy without one…..
12. A basic grease gun with both the needle and Zerk fitting tips. Make sure you have a flex hose for it (and do not carry the grease gun by the hose. Don’t ask how I know…
13. A high quality, decent sized collection of punches and chisels. Don’t forget the brass drift punch either.
14. A coolant tester, battery tester, battery charger, and battery booster cables (do you notice a trend here???). Nice to have, but non essential is one of those radio setting saving tools. Saves on resetting the clock and presets that may tick off the other half…Not like I speak from experience or anything…
15. A set of pry bars. IMO, you don’t really need the high dollar ones, my Discount Liquidators set has lasted just fine.
16. A higher quality drill and the metalworking bits to match. You also may really want to consider buying a Drill Doctor to re-sharpen your dull bits.
17. High quality Allen wrenches and Torx male and female sets in both metric and SAE. If you can afford them, splurge and get the socket drive as well as just the regular “key” type Allen wrenches.
18. A decent tap and die set. By decent I do not mean the $9.99 Harbor Freight special.
19. A pick set, an inspection mirror, and a magnet mounted to a flexible wand. I tend to use the magnet a lot…
20. A spark plug gap gauge and feeler gauge set.

The above list is only my opinion of the basics, and I’m sure others will add to it and subtract items from it, but I’m hoping it will give someone that’s just starting out an idea of what to start with. That stated, here comes the more specialized tool listing…

1. A welder. You just never know how often you’ll use it until you have one. You can buy a stick welder, a MIG, or a TIG. I have two welders. A Century wire feed 110-volt unit, and a Lincoln 225 stick unit. I do not regret buying either. Now if only I could weld better…
2. A set of gear pullers
3. Torque wrenches in both 3/8 and 1/2” drive, and ones that can measure in inch*pounds and in foot*pounds. These expensive, precision instruments deserve to be handled with care. Treat them as they should be treated and they will last a very long time. Never simply toss them back in a drawer, and always reset them to zero.
4. A torch. I’d put this in the same class as a welder in that you’ll never truly appreciate having it until you do have it…
5. Tubing bender, double flaring tool, flare nut wrenches, and a brake service tool set. There simply is no term that can describe the feeling you get from using the correct tools for brake and fuel line servicing. Everything seemingly goes much more smoothly, and you get better results.
6. A set of stubby and a set of ratcheting wrenches in SAE and Metric. If you can afford them, you should look to complement those sets with a set of offset and deep offset ratcheting wrenches.
7. A serpentine belt removal tool. Sometimes you just have to have it due to the tighter confines of today’s engine compartments..
8. Various suspension and steering assembly tools. The reason I say “various” is that you may or may not have the skill/desire to do this type of work. If you do have the desire/skill, look into a ball joint/tie rod separator, pickle fork, and a spring compressor.
9. Parts washer. Although not a necessity, you will come to appreciate having it if you need it.. It’s a lot like owning a car trailer or a cherry picker. Not always needed, but I’m glad I have one.
10. A drill press. Not the bench drill press variety either. Go with the biggest you can afford. You won’t regret it.
11. Diagnostic tools. Multimeters, sensor testers, scan tools, and vacuum /pressure gauges. Buying scan tools is all dependent on your skill/comfort level.
12. Body and paint tools. These are specialized and I’m not going to go into a huge list because I could easily add another 5 pages to this list of tools…
13. Major engine overhaul tools and equipment. Once again, these are “skill tools”. These are engine builder specific tools and in some cases you may be able to simply rent them. These tools include: a cherry picker (engine crane), an engine stand, valve spring disassembly tools, piston ring pliers, ring compressor, gasket scraper assortment, and lastly, precision engine assembly tools. Bore gauges, dial indicators, calipers, a magnetic base, and a degree wheel.
All these tools came to mind, and I am sure more tools that are specialized will crop up. Thanks for reading.

In a while, Chet.
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