Shop Sweet Shop

You probably spend a lot of time in your garage, but there’s no reason why the space has to be an uncomfortable, disorganized hovel. Likewise, turning it into a clean, efficient work area shouldn’t drain your checking account.

The name of the game is shopping smartly and effectively. Sure, you might really want that newfangled gizmo, but what about first attacking the basics? After all, storage, light and comfort are nothing to scoff at—and when you do want to splurge on extras, you’ll be able to enjoy them.

We have been at the magazine game for a quarter of a century, and much of that time has been spent in the shop. Since we like you guys so much, here are 25 of our favorite low-buck shop tips. You can thank us by continuing to build cool cars.

1. Dumpster Diving

Kitchen remodeling is an American tradition, and a lot of that old cabinetry and hardware is simply heaved into the landfill. Sure, the decor might be mid-’70s Americana, but it should be fine for your shop. We recently spied 8-plus feet of old kitchen cupboards sitting by the side of the road. The look was a bit dated, but the units would have been perfect for keeping car care products, cleaning supplies and other garage stuff.

2. Let There Be Light

There is no need to work in a cave. A dark garage is a tiring and unsafe work environment. Have a contractor add some outlets to the ceiling of your garage, then hang a bunch of four-foot, twin-tube fluorescent light fixtures. These fixtures sell for about $10 each. Paint the walls and ceiling white to maximize the effectiveness of the lights.

3. Forgiving Foundation

Concrete is cold and hard, and creepers tend to get hung up on every little crack and pebble. Our low-buck solution: carpet. Old carpet makes a great shop floor, and it often can be found for free. Ask the local installers to keep you in mind the next time they’re redoing someone’s home—they might be glad to unload the unwanted stuff. When it gets dirty, throw it away and repeat the process.

4. Get Greasy

We learned this one from Carl Heideman: Grease is the solution to many of the world’s problems. Sure, a thin coating of the stuff can lubricate just about anything, but it also makes a great anti-seize compound. Apply grease to gaskets as well as the insides of hoses to aid later disassembly. A tube of grease and an inexpensive acid brush go a long way.

5. Get Connected

The answers to many automotive problems can be found on the Web, and more than once we have found ourselves bringing a laptop out to the garage. Adding a simple wireless router to your home network makes cruising helpful forums from the garage a breeze, and routers can now be scooped up for less than $50.

6. Buy in Bulk

If you need a particular socket for a project, grab the entire set. For example, a Craftsman 10mm, six-point deep socket retails for $4.99; for $25.99, you can get an entire nine-piece package. The set also includes a storage tray; that means you won’t have to stop work and and enlist a search party the next time you need a deep-well socket.

7. Table on Wheels

We built this movable table years ago, and it’s been a great companion. After all, it’s strong enough to support a car body and features enough real estate for almost any project. It also has 4-inch casters at one end to make it mobile. The frame is made from 2x6-inch lumber, while a piece of 3/4-inch plywood forms the top. You’re free to make one in any size that you prefer, but ours is 30 inches high, 96 inches long and 48 inches deep. An old solid-core door also works well for the top, which would then dictate the other measurements. For extra convenience, we attached an outlet strip to the side of our table.

8. Air Versus Electricity

Air compressors are amazing pieces of equipment. They also take up valuable garage space and suck down copious amounts of electricity. If you mainly need compressed air to run your impact wrench, consider the new generation of electric impact guns. Prices have fallen below $50.

9. Welcome to the Jungle has become a lot more than just books and music, as they also offer a huge selection of tools from the likes of Ingersoll Rand, SK, Makita, Precision Instruments, Porter-Cable, Hitachi and even Longacre. The prices are more than competitive, and their Super Saver Shipping is a deal: Spend more than $25 with—not their third-party sellers—and the shipping is free. We like free. (We’re also big fans of the wish list, as it clues in our relatives to the fact that we prefer car stuff over socks and shirts.)

10. Pump You Up

Most of those little 12-volt electric compressors are a joke, but a bicycle air pump is an efficient, inexpensive piece of equipment. Yes, it can be used to air up your car tires. As a bonus, you’ll get some exercise out of the deal.

11. Simply Storage

We all wish we could have a huge garage, but sometimes reality dictates otherwise. How about constructing a shed out back? This 10x12-foot plastic unit cost about $1200 to build. Stick your bulky items and garden equipment in the shed to free up valuable garage space.

12. Ride the Lightning

Batteries are expensive. They’re also clogging up our landfills. In this day and age, there’s no reason not to own a quality rechargeable flashlight.

13. Mail Call

Those plastic mail bins are an awesome storage solution. They’re sturdy, nestable and just the right size. Unfortunately, it’s illegal to employ them for personal use: In theory there’s a $1000 fine and three years in the slammer if you’re caught with them. As a more pleasant alternative, you can purchase nearly identical bins for about $10 each from Uline.

14. Shop Used

Quality tools have a long service life, and we have seen some amazing deals on secondhand merchandise—like this used Snap-on torque wrench for $40. We favor face-to-face transactions for used tool sales so we can inspect the merchandise ourselves. Buying in person also eliminates the need for expensive shipping. Some of our favorite haunts for used shop equipment are swap meets, pawn shops, garage sales and auctions. And don’t forget about the big pieces of equipment, as a preowned welder, lift, hydraulic press or bead blast cabinet can be a great deal. We have seen preowned two-post lifts starting at about a thousand dollars.

15. Rubber Soul

Some things just don’t want to stack neatly: bungie cords, jumper cables, clean rags and the like. Rubbermaid storage containers come in many different shapes and sizes, and they’re a perfect solution for keeping things organized, clean and out of sight. Prices start at less than $10 each, and we have found that they’ll last for years.

16. Plastic Pals

Billions of plastic drink bottles are unceremoniously tossed every year, but they can lead a second life. We have made oil dry scoops out of the gallon-sized jugs, while bottles of nearly any size can be reconfigured into funnels. The thicker ones are also good for transporting used fluids to the recycling center.

17. Shelve It

Invest in good, solid shelves—either build them yourself or buy some quality units. We have had excellent luck with heavy-duty wire metal shelves, as they’re tough, strong and deep. You can also access your stuff from all four sides. If you have the space and need to store really big items, shop around for preowned pallet racks—there’s an entire industry dedicated to them. And a little safety tip: Secure the shelves to the wall so they don’t tip over when loaded.

18. Take Good Notes

What was true in high school is true today: Good notes are a good practice. In addition to our dry erase board on the wall, we dedicate a notebook to each car in our fleet. It’s a simple, cheap procedure that frees up brainpower for other things in life.

19. Foam Floor

We love our interlocking foam floor pads. They’re light, inexpensive and portable, making them perfect for the shop as well as the track. We’ve even used them to cover the floors in enclosed trailers. Basically, we put them wherever we want an insulated, non-fatiguing surface. Afraid they’re too expensive? Figure only a buck or two per square foot.

20. Build a Bench

We like big, expansive work benches, and there’s no reason you can’t build one yourself out of used base cabinets and a bunch of 2x4s. A cordless drill will be your best friend for this project. To optimize the work surface, cruise the scrap metal yards for a piece of 18-gauge stainless or hot-rolled steel.

21. Extend-O-Matic

Seems like all of us have modified screwdrivers for different purposes, but usually it’s the standard ones that get sacrificed. Ever need to reach a Phillips screw that’s buried? Remove the handle from a spare Phillips screwdriver and fit the tail end in your electric drill. We used a Dremel to free this one.

22. Power as You Please

Hang a retractable extension cord reel right in the middle of the garage ceiling and you’ll always have power at your fingertips. Many garages have a plug up there for the door opener, so generally no extra wiring is needed. The heavy-duty setups generally sell for $50 to $100.

23. Comforts of Home

There’s no reason why your garage has be devoid of all comforts and conveniences. Shop classifieds and local yard sales for an old stereo system, bar stool and micro fridge.

24. Organization is Key

Ever lose a tool? It stinks, right? It’s a time-consuming process, but fitting foam organizers to your tool box makes it easy to determine when something has gone AWOL. We have also found that this setup helps keep tools in place when traveling—it’s quieter, too. The DIY kits take a while to cut, but they allow you to customize your setup.

25. Borrow, Don't Buy

Don’t have it and don’t want to own it? How about borrowing it? Many of the national auto parts chains lend specialized tools—steering wheel pullers, ball joint separators, spring compressors, coolant pressure testers and air-conditioning clutch pulley pullers. Some also rent out engine hoists and diagnostic equipment. Expect to leave a deposit, but in the end your budget won’t get dinged.

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