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With a sturdy table, you’re on your way to a portable workbench

Sun., May 1, 2011

You don’t need a vast wall of screwdrivers or a herd of pricey power tools to have a great workshop.

We learned clever ways some handy folks outfitted their home workshops, with smart ideas that even the least-handy homeowner can copy.

The biggest theme: If you have a space to place a solid table, you’re in business.

We saw some impressive workshops, but two impressed us with their ingenuity.

Sales representative Nathan Gilbert, of south Charlotte, N.C., created a handy, portable workbench that can be rolled out when needed.

Physician assistant Tom DeVito, of Raleigh, N.C., took advantage of underused space below a deck and converted it into a nifty hideaway.

Both men show a knack for conquering clutter, which is often the first step.

“A lot of people don’t know how to get started,” said Billy Gandy, merchandising vice president for cleaning and storage products for Lowe’s.

One easy way to manage hand tools, paint cans and the like is to make the most of wall space. The classic pegboard-hook setup still works wonders for tools, Gandy said.

Garage wall rail systems, which screw into studs and let you clip on yard tools and storage baskets, are also popular.

Basic utility shelves are big, too, Gandy said, because you can stack a lot on them and create order in short order. The less stuff that’s on the floor, he said, the more options you have for creating a good workspace.

Stretching a tight garage

Gilbert, 58, had to get creative when the only space available was a tight garage. So he bought a cheap pair of 36-inch-high kitchen cabinets, screwed them together, and added a little reinforcement and then some locking casters.

He attached 3/4-inch particle board (32 by 52 inches) for the top. The overhang leaves room for clamps. The cabinets themselves provide storage.

When he’s got work to do, Gilbert rolls the cart to the center of the garage. He runs a heavy-duty extension cord from a wall outlet to the power strip on the side of his bench for tools.

And by the way, his table saw and router table are on wheels, too.

Digging out the cave

DeVito, 56, started with an existing 4-foot-high cave under his deck, a common arrangement in many homes. He dug out the dirt floor by hand – a digging party would have gotten it done a lot quicker, he concedes – and proceeded from there.

His project, which is more ambitious than some might want to attempt, shows you can do a lot with a little space. There was lots of trial and error, but even the mistakes provided moments of enlightenment.

“It was sort of ‘Zen and the Art of Workshop Building,’ ” he said.

DeVito had some steps built from the deck to the workspace below. Then he added simple corrugated roofing that drained rainwater coming through the deck into a gutter.

He said he didn’t have a lot of carpentry skills, but he enclosed the area and added a basic workbench.

DeVito said his shop is a work in progress. He may never actually “finish.” Which is fine by him; making it better is half the fun.

Easy ways to organize

Storing tools on pegboard hooks is far easier than digging through a toolbox. Plastic clips that keep hooks in place when you pull tools are a must. White pegboard makes for a cleaner-looking shop.

Make a good workbench from a flat, solid-core door set on 4-by-4 posts, with 2-by-4s as a reinforcing border on the door. You can find doors at salvage yards for as little as $10.

To keep your work surfaces clear, attach power strips to table legs or cabinet sides. Consider an overhead retractable extension cord ($30 or so) to keep chaos at bay.

And while a basic fluorescent shop light takes care of business, consider adding a clamp-style desk light.

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