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Cool Toolsheds, Wonderful Workshops

“I can do that.”

As Mike Newkirk watched woodworking guru Norm Abrams of PBS’ The New Yankee Workshop build project after project on television, Newkirk came to believe that with the proper tools he could create beautiful things from wood as well.
“That’s where the sickness started,” Newkirk jokes as he and his wife, Kay, members of Warren RECC, stand in what were once the two center bays of a four-car garage, now a spacious, nicely appointed woodworking shop behind their home in Oakland.

The workshop didn’t start out in its present form, however. Instead it began with an inexpensive direct-drive table saw from Montgomery Ward and an idea for a doll cradle.

The doll cradle was a gift for daughter Amanda, who was 4 years old at the time and delighted with the Christmas gift her father had made. Now 34, Amanda still has the cradle, and her daughter, Quinn, has a more elaborate version, combining a child’s rocker and doll cradle into one piece.

The intricacy of Newkirk’s creations has increased in tandem with the sophistication of his workshop. Both have grown slowly—one tool and one skill at a time. And that incremental growth is how Newkirk advises would-be woodworkers to approach the craft.

“Start with the best table saw you can afford,” he says, noting that $500 is probably the minimum for a good saw. “Then add a joiner, a planer, and good clamps. With those four tools you can pretty much build anything.”

The most important tool
However, the most important tool is not on that list and is not something you can buy, Newkirk says. It is attitude.

“I have spent days and a lot of wood making sawdust,” Newkirk laughs. “You have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to step back and figure out where you went wrong and start again. If you’re going to succeed, you are going to fail.”

Newkirk’s wife and partner in woodworking echoes his sentiments.

In her career, Kay was in quality control, trying to ensure exacting standards. Still, she says from experience, “Nothing is perfect. I won’t quit until it suits me and is aesthetically pleasing, but I still know that nothing is perfect.”

Workshops on a budget
Just a few miles from the Kentucky/Tennessee border in Burkesville, Paul Jackson Sharp and his wife, Evelyn, have another kind of workshop. The Tri-County Electric members specialize in working on racecars.

Sharp says he can now “fix most any car by ear” after 60 years of working with motors and carburetors, but he didn’t always have a lot of money to invest in fancy tools or storage devices. He has, therefore, learned to add on slowly and repurpose items.

Coffee cans, for example, make great containers for bolts, nuts, and even small tools such as hole saws. Baby food jars also work well. Bolt the lid to a board and the jars come off and on easily. They can also be tucked up under a work surface.
Carts with wheels, a valuable asset in any shop, can be created from spare parts.

Sharp takes pride in the fact that he has never bought anything on credit, waiting instead to purchase tools until he could afford them.
Even so, he advises others to invest in a good set of hand tools for whatever job they plan to do.

“Don’t buy cheap tools,” he says. “You need brand names. The cheap stuff won’t hold up. Wait to buy until you can afford good tools.” Sharp is particularly fond of Craftsman tools, which carry a lifetime guarantee.

That common-sense approach has worked well for Sharp, who says he still has many of the tools he started with six decades ago.

Sharp also advises others to find the right place for each tool and always return it to that place.

“I can come into my shop in the dark and find any tool I need,” he boasts.

Sharp also recommends finding a good parts store so you do not have to keep a lot of parts on hand. If possible, he also recommends getting a federal tax identification number (used for small businesses), which can sometimes lead to discounts.

His other piece of advice falls along similar lines. “Keep everything close at hand that you need for a specific task,” he advises.

Sharp has a sturdy worktable that stretches across most of one wall. All of his nuts, bolts, screws, etc., are within arm’s reach, as are the tools he needs to do the finer aspects of his work. Likewise, items needed for the larger aspects of his work are kept together.

Creating a topnotch workshop
Ken Collier, editor-in-chief of The Family Handyman, spends a lot of time considering what makes a workshop or shed functional. Here are his top eight tricks of the trade:

1. Lots of space. It’s always too small.
2. Put as many things on casters as you can.
3. Have surfaces at the same height. For example, having a worktable at the same height as a table saw allows you to use the table to support a piece of plywood.
4. Light. A topnotch workshop needs lots of light; you can’t fix problems if you can’t see them.
5. A safe place for flammables is important, especially if any grinding or other metal work is going on.
6. Put outlets at waist height.
7. Put in a floor that you like; you’re going to spend a lot of time standing on it. Plywood, vinyl composition tiles, rubber tiles, or sheets are all popular choices.
8. Have a moaning chair. Everyone screws up once in a while, and it’s good to have some place to flop down. Comes in handy for visitors, too.
So get sawing, nailing, growing, and creating.

Whittle down to organize
Whether you are working on racecars, building furniture, gardening, creating jewelry, or doing any other activity that requires a workshop, Tracie Utter, a certified professional organizer (CPO), says most of the time we have too many items, too much stuff, rather than not enough.

She talks to clients extensively before delving into the organization.

“We talk a lot about habits, likes, and dislikes,” Utter says. “When organizing items, you have to know your habits and be willing to commit to changing the bad ones.”
Utter recommends beginning by putting like items together.

“Sometimes you find that you have 15 hammers,” the Louisville-based organizer says. “Yes, they are different shapes and sizes, but do you really need 15 of them? Perhaps you might give a few away, or if they are in disrepair, throw a few of them away.”

Once you have whittled down the items to the ones you really need, the next step is to put them in a place where they are easy to find and use. “They need to be handy for the purpose,” she says.
“Your habits are so important in organizing. Set up the area for your style of work and then organize the flow to support that.”

Utter uses gardening as an example.

“Typically gardeners are creative people,” she says. “Creative people can get disorganized quickly. Let’s say you know you are going to be in and out of the shed a lot and you don’t want to clean up each time. The habit you need to develop is to commit to a time when you will clean up. For example, from 3-4 p.m. on Sunday, you commit time to put everything back where it goes. Friday and Saturday everything can remain in a flurry.”

When it comes to gardening, one of the items Utter likes is a gardening bench.

“This represents home for all the gardening stuff,” she says. “With gardening there are so many little tools to keep track of. That’s why I love having cubbies. Each cubbie should have a purpose. If you have that creative mind that can’t quite keep it organized, at least you can keep it there.”

And Utter would agree with Sharp on repurposing items.

“Things like a watering can with a big opening and a handle are great to carry small items such as gloves around. Pails are good as well. Once you are in the garden, you can use it for the intended purpose.”


The Newkirks have other advice for designing a woodworking shop.

• If possible, locate the shop where you have an outside entrance. Basements are great in terms of space, but without an outside entrance, you will have to move wood up and down stairs, which is typically frustrating and occasionally dangerous.
• Use carts with rollers. That makes it easier to move tools around.
• Clean as you go. Clutter can cause accidents.
• Keep your tools in good repair.
• Be mindful and patient. If you get upset about something, walk off and leave it. Come back another day.
• Realize that there is a “stop time” for woodworking and other crafts involving power tools. As you get older, woodworking can be too dangerous. If you stumble next to a table saw, you can get seriously injured.


Amy Keeling Walton, a professional organizer based in Bardstown, writes a column on organizing for Kentucky at Home magazine. She says organizing is “making life work better,” and has numerous tips for those with workshops and gardening sheds:

Organizing gardening sheds
• Use a golf bag for a gardening caddy. These bags hold long-handled and short- handled tools. You can often find used bags at thrift stores. Many people also have a bag in their garage they are not using.
• Keep a small bucket with the hand tools you use frequently outside the back door so you don’t have to go and get all the tools out.
• A large flowerpot is good to store garden tools. Fill it with sand mixed with a small amount of motor oil to keep tools from rusting or corroding. The sand should be damp but not moist with oil.
• Remove chemicals from sheds in the winter or in extreme heat. They should not freeze or overheat.
• Put a regular nail through the eye of the spring in a clothespin, then attach it to the wall of your shed. You now have a handy way to hang garden gloves.
• Keep soil and other potting mediums in trash cans with lids or in clear, lidded containers, rather than bags. Clear containers are best. Clear containers with wheels, like dog-food containers, are the very best. Be sure to label the cans.

Organizing workshops
• Peg boards are great for people who like to see their tools. They are inexpensive and come in all sizes. They also allow you to use various sizes of hangers and hooks, which accommodate everything from the smallest tool to a weed eater. Using tie-wraps, you can also mount 2- to 3-foot sections of a PVC pipe to the board, and slide long-handled tools into the pipe.
• If you want to buy an organizing system, look into the Gladiator system, an interchangeable system of hangers and hooks, baskets and bins. This is a versatile system.
• Look up in your garage. Many now have high ceilings. Use this space like an attic to store less used items overhead. You can purchase overhead shelving made for workshops to maximize unused overhead space.
• Magnetic strips also work well. You can attach items of most any size.
• A 5-gallon bucket with a tool liner works well for gardening or other workshops.


One of the best-known formulas for organizing is called SPACE. Developed by Julie Morgenstern, a well-known professional organizer, all the organizers we spoke with mentioned this handy acronym.

Sort. Put like items together.
Purge. Make the hard choices now to get rid of things. It will pay off later.
Assign a home. Where you are going to put it? You have to first know the space where it will best live before determining which container is best.
Containerize. Find a container.
Equalize. Put your stuff away.


Three common oversights
Ken Collier, editor-in-chief of The Family Handyman, says there are three mistakes people often make when setting up a workshop or garden shed:

1. Light. “If the shed doesn’t have power, consider skylights,” Collier says. “They don’t take up precious wall space like windows, and keep the shed secure as well.”

2. Security. “Sheds can be easy to break into, because they are often more isolated,” he says. “Watch for doors that swing out, because the hinge pins are exposed (get fixed-pin hinges). You may want to lock some items up inside the shed, ladders especially, because they can be used to gain access to the house.”

3. Ventilation. “Because the shed is typically not insulated, a shed can become like an oven.”

Be creative with windows and materials
“Be creative with windows,” advises Collier. “For most sheds, there’s no need for expensive windows like you’d put in a house. Antique windows, combination storm-screen windows, barn windows, or just sheets of acrylic all are interesting options.

“Use low-maintenance materials. There are great choices in siding, roofing, and trim. A shed is also a great place to do something out of the ordinary: post and beam construction, maybe a porch, photo-voltaic panels, you name it!”

Find more tips at, in print, or download the latest digital edition of The Family Handyman on your iPad.


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