A Workshop on the Cheap

workspace overview

I’d like to start a set of posts in a new category detailing specific refinishing techniques. I think that do-it-yourselfers know many of the basics but would benefit from help in troublesome areas that few websites talk about.

Let’s start with my workshop set-up.

I work from my home. Life in general has to continue so furniture refinishing cannot intrude upon regular living. In addition, I live in Ontario, Canada, where there are dramatic environmental changes from season to season. Hot and super humid in the summer, cold and super dry in the winter. Mud in the spring, rain in the fall. (Hey – don’t get me wrong – I love each and every season here, and wouldn’t trade them for the world. But I do have to pay attention to how wood and paint is affected in different months.)

I do most of my work in my basement. It’s stone-walled with a cement floor, a low ceiling, and no windows, but with good ventilation from either forced-air furnace fans or air conditioners year-round. Eye-level pipes and ducts run everywhere ready to knock me unconscious if I’m not paying attention. And the occasional silent bat swishes near me if I’m working at night – I now just think of him as a buddy (and THAT took a bit of getting used to…).

overhead lighting

General Workshop Area

To refinish furniture (or for that matter, any item large or small), you complete three distinct steps:

1. Stripping and Repair
2. Priming and Painting
3. Protective Finish Application

Keeping these work areas separate allows you to work on more than one project at a time. If you don’t have the space, it’s easy to keep tools and space relatively tight – you just have to clean up after yourself regularly and tuck unused items away. You must then re-set your workspace for the next step since each has different tools and different concerns.

Seven General Workshop Requirements 

1. A floor that can accept gunk.

… like paint, stripper goop, wood shavings, various spills, glue globs, etc. Basement concrete is probably the best. Here’s a photo of my concrete basement floor. All those little black markings are not decorative – they are the remains of a million hockey puck shots by my sons over the years…puck marked floor

… and this was their “goal”.freezer as hockey net

Yes, it is the freezer. This is what loving parents accept.

If you don’t want your floor to get marred, then you can cover it. All the paint and hardware stores sell plastic “drop sheets” – but they’re slippery, move around, and goop sits on top ready to get stepped in. I hate them.

You’re better off using an old hunk of carpet or linoleum or best of all, old bed sheets – they can be hauled out into the sun to dry, or tossed in the washing machine. I’ve painted my whole house using bedsheets pushed up around walls and stairwells, over doorway mouldings and over furniture. I loan them to children doing the same thing. Then I use them to protect stuff in the back of my pick-up truck. They simply never wear out!

2. Excellent lighting.

(…not just good… EXCELLENT). Bright bulbs are a must – overhead, from the side, and close-up. Clamp-on or desk lamps are the least expensive. But you must use the brightest bulbs you can. Here’s how I do it in my 150-year-old basement.overhead lighting overhead lighting

3. Electrical outlets nearby.

… to handle lights, vacuum, tools as needed. A lengthy extension cord allows you to move freely around your workspace.

4. A sturdy work surface.

I don’t actually use a “table”. I use any of these virtually cost-free set-ups:

A chunk of plywood spread across two plastic bins (which may or may not have household items inside!) – this works particularly well for larger items.

work surface bins with plywood

A large, sturdy corrugated cardboard box (like those that garden tools, furniture, computers, etc. are sold in) with the top covered by plastic signboard or discarded cupboard shelving or similar. This is useful when work gets a bit messy – the wrecked sections can be replaced.

work table option 1 with coverwork table option 1

Stacked plastic bins – to get projects to eye level for either standing or sitting work.

work table option 2using the work surface

5. A stool.

NOT a chair. I use this cheap little stool and I LOVE it. I can pick it up with one hand and move it to any position around the piece I’m working on. I can turn this way and that way to reach for things and I can stand up and leave quickly (like when the phone rings or someone is calling me… or that darn bat just gets TOO annoying) without having to carefully move it out of the way.


6. A vacuum.

A shop-vac or similar. It doesn’t have to be big. But it should be easily maneuverable on a decent-length extension cord so that you don’t have to constantly change outlets to get the reach you need.


7. A mid-sized garbage pail

…with disposable plastic bag liners. It should be lower than your work surface height so that you can toss “stuff” into it without having to reach.

garbage container

There you have it. The perfect workshop without the cost. And without the glory.

Next post: The tools!


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