garage

As a city dweller, I’ve often looked with envy at the spacious outbuildings of my rural friends and relatives. Horse barns, potting sheds, root cellars, equipment garages — plentiful, enclosed, and private space is the one thing that makes me envy those who live beyond the end of the bus line. I think often about what I could make if I had a room of my own: a purpose-built, well-equipped space in which to create.

Apparently I’m not alone in these thoughts. Homebuilders commonly offer two-, three-, and even four-car garages for new homes. But all that space isn’t needed simply to shelter the family Chevy. It’s needed to keep pace with the explosion in DIY projects and their concomitant material and tool requirements.

Randy Nelson, president of Swisstrax, a manufacturer of workshop and garage floor products, says that garages are quickly evolving into more than simply places where people keep their cars. Installation of the company’s special-purpose floor tile in garages and workshops is booming.

“[Spaces for making things] have just about doubled in the last ten years,” says Nelson. “People aren’t just stuffing junk in their garages any more. It’s become the male domain, the place where they can do their work and have their tools.”

There are scores of books providing advice on setting up a wood shop or metal shop, and many others that describe setting up specialty areas: a paint shop, a photography studio, or a chemistry lab. But what I wanted was not a single-purpose workspace. I was seeking the ultimate, multipurpose Maker’s Workshop: a versatile, flexible space capable of handling nearly any project I could think of — from building a cedar-strip canoe to compounding fuel and oxidizer for a rocket engine, from soldering a Minty Boost to developing a model ornithopter.

This article is the first in a series detailing the creation of a modestly sized yet state-of-the-art Maker’s Workshop, which I named the Barrage Garage. This installment covers the design and construction of my Barrage Garage, and the considerations behind its climate-control systems, floor coverings, and other infrastructure. Future articles will describe the equipment inside it, such as workbenches, machine tools, hand tools, and welders.

Workshop Design Criteria

The first step was to determine which features were the most important and practical.

Egress A 9-foot-wide, automatic, well-insulated door outfitted with required safety equipment was essential. The huge door makes bringing materials in and out of the workspace a snap.

Fenestration Natural light and a view to the outside were high on my list of priorities. Therefore, the design called for four east-facing sliding windows having a total glass area of 24 square feet.

Organization I devised a plan for a combination of stackable modular cabinets, which, along with a slotted wall storage system, maximize the efficiency and versatility of my space.

Surfaces I wanted more functionality and style than a concrete floor could afford. I selected a special-purpose tile floor for workshops and garages that makes walking and standing more comfortable.

Power I needed 240 volts to run the heater and welder, and 120-volt receptacles placed at frequent intervals along all walls on two separate 20-amp, GFI-protected circuits. This ensures a plentiful, safe supply of electrical power to all tools.

Building the Barrage Garage

My first task was to site the structure. Where should the workshop go?

Initially I considered placing the shop in my basement. Possible, but this would involve far too many compromises. The basement is a low-ceilinged space with marginal access via a narrow stairway. The thought of carrying tools and materials up and down, turning corners, and so forth quickly dissuaded me.

Instead I turned to the nearly forgotten space along the alley in back of my home. Separated from the rest of my yard by a chain-link fence, it was covered with 25-year-old lilac bushes. I loved those fragrant, beautiful spring blossoms, but the space those lilacs grew upon was workshop-perfect: it had room, privacy, and access. So, goodbye lilacs.

City ordinances allowed me a maximum of 240 square feet for the shop. With the city building permit obtained, it was time to push some dirt.

PUSHING DIRT

It all starts with a level floor. Every workshop, atelier, pole barn, or garage must have a level floor if great things are to be made in it. It has always been this way. Four thousand years ago, in the reign of the great Egyptian pyramid builders, construction techniques were rudimentary. Imhotep, legendary architect of the pharaohs, had only knotted measuring ropes stretched taut between stakes, plumb bobs, and sighting sticks.

But Imhotep gave the pharaohs the tools to build monuments capable of withstanding 50 centuries of desert sandstorms. He did that by starting with a perfectly level floor. It’s believed that the Egyptians leveled the area under a pyramid by cutting a shallow grid of trenches into the bedrock, then filling them with water. Knowing that the height of water within connected trenches would be at exactly the same level, the workers hacked out the intervening islands of stone and sand with hoes and stone drills.

The Barrage Garage has a flat floor as well, but my excavators used a 75-horsepower backhoe and modern surveying tools including transits and lasers.

My end result is pretty much the same as Imhotep’s: a perfectly level slab placed in exactly the right spot.

CONCRETE IDEAS

After excavation, the concrete work began. Concrete is composed of Portland cement, gravel, sand, and water. When freshly poured, concrete is wet and plastic. But within hours it begins to solidify, ultimately becoming as hard as rock.

Most people call that process “drying,” but the concrete crew foreman on my job told me that’s not really the best choice of words. Concrete does not simply solidify because excess water has evaporated from the slurry. Instead, the water reacts with the cement in a chemical process known as hydration. The cement absorbs the water, causing it to harden and bond the sand and pebbles together, creating the stone-hard material we know as concrete.

FRAMING THE CONCEPT

Prior to the mid-19th century, building was an art that took many years of apprenticeship to learn. There were few if any building codes. Quality of work was based largely on the personal integrity and craftsmanship of each builder.

For 2,000 years, the most common technique for building with wood was the method called timber framing. Buildings of that era still exist; typically they are barns and homes with huge wooden beams supporting large open spaces.

In the mid-19th century, building techniques changed. Cheap, factory-produced nails and standardized, “dimensional” lumber from sawmills allowed for a faster, more versatile method of construction called balloon framing.

Invented by Augustine Taylor of Chicago, balloon framing revolutionized building construction. It utilized long, vertical framing members called studs that ran from sill to eave, with intermediate floor structures nailed to them. What used to take a crew of experienced timber framers months to join and raise, could be constructed in a fraction of the time by a competent carpenter and a few helpers.

Over time, balloon framing evolved into the current technique known as platform framing. The Barrage Garage, like most modern buildings, is built by nailing together standard dimensional lumber — 2×4 trusses holding the roof and 2×6 studs forming the walls — at code-defined intervals. Then, plywood sheathing is attached to the lumber frame, and the basic structure is complete.

A SOLID FLOOR

The first order of business after the workshop shell was complete was to install the floor. There are three general options: coatings, mats, and tile. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Most common and least expensive are coatings. There are several types of coating available for concrete floors, including epoxy, polyurethane, and latex.

Epoxy paint is probably the most widely applied form of floor coating. Epoxy forms a hard, durable surface and bonds solidly to a correctly prepared surface. Because floor coating provides no cushioning, it can be hard on feet and legs. Also, it doesn’t last forever: expect to recoat the floor every five years or so.

Polyurethane coatings are also very durable, and they resist chemical spills better than epoxy. But urethanes do not bond directly to concrete, so an epoxy primer coat is required.

Latex garage paint is widely available and inexpensive. It goes on easily and doesn’t require the prep work associated with epoxies and urethanes. However, it is less durable.

PVC floor protection mats are another option. They protect the porous concrete floor from staining or corrosive chemicals such as oil, paint, or acid. Mats are typically simple to install, requiring only scissors. Importantly, they add a cushioning layer above the hard concrete.

Special-purpose vinyl tile is the premier flooring option for workshops and garages, and that’s what I installed in the Barrage Garage. These floor tiles, from Swisstrax (swisstrax.com), snapped together firmly and were easily installed without special tools.

Tile handles heavy loads and high traffic. It resists damage caused by chemicals, and it’s far more comfortable to stand on than concrete. But best of all is tile’s ability to transform a humdrum workshop into a great-looking space.

Tiles come in a wide variety of colors, which allowed me to create my own floor design and inspired me to echo the floor colors on the walls and window trim, and in a cool wall-mounted atomic ball clock and coat rack inspired by George Nelson (see CRAFT magazine, Volume 01, page 135). Now that’s a workspace designed to inspire a maker!

The walls are framed from 2×6 studs, which provide enough depth for R-19 insulation, and the windows are double-glazed.

I briefly considered a hydronic radiant floor heating system. A hydronic system uses in-floor, hot-water-filled tubing to heat the room from the ground up. I knew that the concrete slab floor would be cold, and that a hydronic system would make the room warm and comfortable. But the hydronic system has a longer heat-up time and much higher initial costs. This swung the decision toward a fan forced-air heater mounted in the rafters.

But is gas or electric a better choice? A good case could be made for either. Deciding which made more sense was a study in what my old college professors would term engineering economics.

Step 1. Determine operating expenses.

To make a solid financial decision, I needed several pieces of information: the relative energy costs for gas and electricity, the purchase costs for each type of heater, and the efficiency of each.

I studied my utility bills to determine comparable energy costs. January natural gas costs me about $1.10 per therm, a therm being the energy equivalent of roughly 29 kilowatt-hours. So $1.10 divided by 29 equals a gas heating cost of 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. The local energy utility charges 7.2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Electric heaters are 100% efficient, that is, all the energy input goes toward making heat. Gas heaters are about 80% efficient. To account for the gas inefficiencies, I divided the gas cost of 3.4 cents/kWh by 80%, yielding a net cost for gas heat of 4.2 cents/kWh. Bottom line: where I live, gas is 3 cents per kilowatt-hour less expensive than electricity.

Step 2. Determine initial costs.

So, the smart money goes with gas, right? Well, not necessarily. While comparable-sized gas and electric heaters cost about the same, gas line installation can be expensive. The contractor quoted a price a bit north of $1,000 to trench, plumb, and install a gas line to the workshop.

Step 3. Compute the payback period.

$1,000 divided by $0.03/kWh = 33,333kWh

The heater I’ve chosen operates at a maximum of 5 kilowatts. So, each full hour of use costs 15 cents more if I use electricity instead of gas. Dividing $1,000 by $0.15 per hour computes to 6,666 hours of heater use. Given the relatively light use of the shop, the payback period on the installation of a 5kW gas heater would be decades, so I invited Reddy Kilowatt into my shop.

NEXT: In Volume 13, Gurstelle explains shop organization.