25 tips to take your workspace from cavelike and cluttered to comfortable and clean

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jul 27, 2022 | garage, Workshop | Posted in Shop Work , Restoration & Renovation , News and Notes | From the June 2009 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by GRM Staff

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 once 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. 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 internet, 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.

6. Buy in Bulk

If you need a particular socket for a project, grab the entire set. This Craftsman 10mm, six-point deep socket set, for example, even includes a storage tray–which means you won’t have to stop work 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.

9. Welcome to the Jungle

Amazon is more than just books and music, as they also offer a huge selection of tools. The prices are more than competitive, we’re also big fans of the Amazon 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? 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 from companies like Uline.

14. Shop Used

Quality tools have a long service life, and we have seen some amazing deals on secondhand merchandise. 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.

15. Rubber Soul

Some things just don’t want to stack neatly: bungie cords, jumper cables, clean rags and the like. Storage containers like this one from Rubbermaid come in many different shapes and sizes, and they’re a perfect solution for keeping things organized, clean and out of sight.

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.

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.

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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das86turbo
das86turbo
6/6/22 10:49 p.m.

Few more ideas. 1) Wipe board with different color pens.. great "in your face" reminders, and you can cross things off as you go., 2) old bike tubes for padding and to prevent scratches, 3) old bearing race halves for use in a press, 

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass HalfDork
6/7/22 4:56 a.m.

In reply to das86turbo :

You mention a wipe board - I have some shelving units, one of which is creating a 'wall' in the garage. I put dry erase board on the back of it to

A) conceal what's on the rack from prying eyes

B) use as a dry erase board for my ideas/checklist.

It's a great 'tool' that was cheap and multi-purpose

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
6/7/22 11:20 a.m.

We have an expansive patio; I use a small deck box to store bigger items for the Datsun (doors bell housings etc).

I didn't want more than one shed in the back so this was a really good solution; it creates additional seating and frees up garage space.

The only other thing I'll add is put as much as possible on wheels: most of my F500 engines and spares are in storage bins (snowmobile engines are small). They are stacked against the wall in the 3rd car bay of the garage. Having them on wheels lets me move them if I need more work space for the Datsun.

trucke
trucke SuperDork
6/7/22 3:58 p.m.

Hallways are good places to store hardware so you can see them and get what you want quickly!  Added the light fixtures years ago so I could see.  

 

trigun7469
trigun7469 UltraDork
6/7/22 4:35 p.m.

I need to do this in my garage and basement frown

RonB001
RonB001 GRM+ Memberand New Reader
6/8/22 9:17 p.m.

Update on the lights:

Instead of 4' fluorescent strips, get 4' LEDs instead. 

IIRC enough to brightly light a 2-car garage were about $80 on Amazon.  I have an extra pair over my workbench as task lighting.

I appreciate the workmanship on Trucke's hallway shelves.  The downside of rabbeted shelves is lack of adjustability.  An easy alternate is to drill a series of holes and use the little "L with a pin" shelf holders.  The 1" spacing of pegboard scrap makes a good drilling jig, although it doesn't last very long.  Then, when you want a different arrangement, just move the shelf holders to the new spacing.

I didn't see any mention of sinks.  If you can keep the pipes from freezing, a laundry sink is a very useful addition to a garage.

pinchvalve (Forum Supporter)
pinchvalve (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/8/22 11:11 p.m.

My tip is to buy clear storage totes. It's much easier to look and see what's in them then trying to constantly label and relabel. Home Depot has smoked see-through totes that are pretty strong

spedracer
spedracer New Reader
6/9/22 3:25 a.m.

Garage Journal is the place to go if you really want to geek out. They tend to have much larger spaces than most, though. I'd strongly suggest a LOT more light than you think you need. I went with relatively cheap dual 4 foot housings and high CRI led bulbs and it's been the single best addition to the garage. If I recall I have something like 20 of them in my 3 car garage and its great. There's a while lighting forum over at GJ with links to lighting simulators/tools, and you can do it fairly cheap as you'll need enough you can get a doscount at lighting supply sites if you call.

86Starion
86Starion None
6/9/22 1:25 p.m.

In reply to das86turbo :

I do all 3 of those things! So much that I just scrapped some excess bearing halves that I had several duplicates of. The 4x5 white board in my shop is priceless. If I can't even find a 10mm how am supposed to remember what's next on the list

te72
te72 Reader
6/27/22 1:03 a.m.

A more recent tip from my fabrication of a ramp truck to haul the Exocet with: welding curtains.

 

I'm doing a lot of welding, grinding, painting, etc, on this project. As we have a dual purpose parking / project garage, I'd like to avoid getting the other cars dirty and certainly don't want weld slag flying toward them. So, I hung a large tarp I had from another project of sorts, from the ceiling. So far so good, though if I were doing it again, I would probably have hung it a bit differently.

 

I swear that no matter how big your garage is, you will always find scenarios in which it could definitely be larger. =P

GM > MG
GM > MG New Reader
7/27/22 1:33 p.m.

Renovated our kitchen, old cabinets right into garage. Set alittle higher than std. kitchen height. Totes would not fit so I added wire shelf.

Slat board is from commercial clearance warehouse. $200 new - paid $25 and $10 for all different sized hooks. I've got lawn tools on it but you could configure it for anything.

Yes, everything piled up. We just sold house, downsizing pre-retirement.

YAY !

laugh

 

 

 

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 4:41 p.m.

In reply to das86turbo :

I have a free whiteboard on the door.   I write  my shopping list there....Lowe's...Carparts....tools...internet. 

Take a picture when you leave.   Order or have the list with you when you shop.

 

Old coolant hoses also good for sacrificial protectors.

 

Grind away 0.030 from OD on the old race to use to press in New race.

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 4:47 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Alternative to wheels.,

Make a base pallet out of 4x4s.   Pallet Jack to move as needed.   Good for workbenches made from old file cabinets and double thickness plywood, with or without 1/4 Inch plate from steel scrap yard.  The pallet base won't move when you are working.

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 4:51 p.m.

In reply to das86turbo :

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 4:52 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Tom1200
Tom1200 UberDork
7/27/22 4:58 p.m.

In reply to BimmerMaven :

Very clever, I like it.

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 5:10 p.m.

In reply to RonB001 :

Sinks

Shop for used restaurant stainless..single and triple.   I pd $50 and $75.   New price is scary...

Don't forget to add a hot-only hose-bib to the sink....old washing machine hose and garden sprayer...

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
7/27/22 5:15 p.m.

In reply to BimmerMaven :

Looks like triple didn't upload...

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/27/22 5:51 p.m.

In reply to 86Starion : that's the one I'm always looking for too...10mm does not want to help fix the car! 

 

DaleCarter
DaleCarter GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/28/22 10:44 a.m.

You described my shop pretty well, but I am going to get clipboards and paper pads for all my cars... GREAT IDEA!!!   I use wipe boards, but the legal pad creates a history that goes away when I wipe the board clean.

The one thing I did that has been the most copied in my shop is a can rack made from metal framing members. Tin snips and some short reach rivets make for really easy fabrication. The shelfs are the perfect width and the channel works as a retention lip. You don't even have to put this against a wall because the channel retains on both sides. I'm starting to think about this as a rolling "wall" now :-)

DaleCarter
DaleCarter GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/28/22 10:49 a.m.

The rolling bench is my favorite piece. I'm using it here to fab a new windscreen for the Panoz.

MiniDave
MiniDave Reader
7/28/22 1:58 p.m.

One of the things I appreciate the most in my garage setup is that the laundry room is right off the garage, and not only is the washer/dryer in there, but also a sink and toilet! That way I never have to go in the house to wash my hands or use the loo......

I agree on the LED lights - they rock! I got mine from Costco - twin bulb 4 ft long for about $20 each on sale. You cannot have too much light in a shop.....

I also use the clear tubs on the wire racks from Home Depot, easier to find stuff and the lids keep it from getting dusty.

One last thing that I really like and use constantly - storage for nuts and bolts. I used to just throw them in whatever container I had lying about, but I've decided wire brushing old rusty bolts is just not worth it, so I keep a selection of new, grade 8 stuff on hand. I buy from Bolt Depot, service is good, prices are OK and that way I always have what I need - no time spent digging thru tons of old rusty hardware to find that last bolt needed to finish a job. I built an a-frame with bins on both sides, the bins are the lids for the containers so again, stuff stays clean and they're transparent and labeled so it's easy to find that size I need.

DaleCarter
DaleCarter GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/28/22 5:54 p.m.

In reply to BimmerMaven :

Great idea!

earlybroncoguy1
earlybroncoguy1 Reader
7/28/22 6:00 p.m.

 

Wall cabinets are salvage from Habitat restore. Floor cabinets are just 2x4 frames with plywood tops and doors, leftover laminate flooring from house remodel makes a great benchtop. Rustic tin on walls is salvaged from barns in my area. Red shelving unit in the corner under the big screen TV (cheap on CL) is a flat file cabinet (think blueprint storage), I use it for hardware, sorted into clear plastic bins. Poster/signs are decades' worth of collecting, garage sales, flea markets, birthday/Fathers day/etc presents. Trophies are from my fling with autocrossing my 5.0 LX Mustang about 30 years ago.  

DaleCarter
DaleCarter GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/29/22 9:04 p.m.

I REALLY like the way you did your shop. Looks like a really comfortable spot instead of an operating room or museum :-)

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
8/3/22 9:31 a.m.

In reply to MiniDave :

I got lucky decades ago when Duke U. Library upgraded from "card catalog" to digital indexing. the structure is solid oak, dovetailed drawers...sturdy.  got rid of all the little boxes, cabinets, etc....mostly.

Handy hardware and parts saves me time going to buy piecemeal, or looking around for something....it all adds up.

I stop by local recycle and Habitat for Humanity regularly; the guys will call me if something special (for me) comes in...

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
8/3/22 9:39 a.m.

In reply to MiniDave :

Plumbing:

ditto the toilet/ shower/ sinks...a luxury for sure.  In my previous shop, I had an outdoor shower to save indoor space.   Cheap at Habitat for Humanity...self contained fiberglass.

Also consider hot water spigots outside for washing stuff.  more effective, and more friendly in the cooler seasons.  Use 3/4 in pipe (same size as cold)...don't skimp on 1/2 inch.  you'll enjoy the extra flow.

Which leads to tankless water heaters.....no standby loss....considerable for hobbyists, and continous supply when powerwashing outside.

APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/3/22 10:03 a.m.
BimmerMaven said:

In reply to MiniDave :

I got lucky decades ago when Duke U. Library upgraded from "card catalog" to digital indexing. the structure is solid oak, dovetailed drawers...sturdy.  got rid of all the little boxes, cabinets, etc....mostly.

Handy hardware and parts saves me time going to buy piecemeal, or looking around for something....it all adds up.

I stop by local recycle and Habitat for Humanity regularly; the guys will call me if something special (for me) comes in...

That's awesome!

APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/3/22 10:04 a.m.
DaleCarter said:

The rolling bench is my favorite piece. I'm using it here to fab a new windscreen for the Panoz.

Panoz?  Great cars.  A buddy of mine has one.  Do you have a build thread somewhere?

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
8/3/22 10:11 a.m.

Lighting

Sadly, every 10 yrs, we need double the lumens to see the same detail...damn!

A great headlite well worth the money.

for general lighting, I designed a grid layout with minimum labor and wiring, yet very flexible.

Imagine a chain-link fence...

lay it on the floor...

expand until each "diamond" is  7 ft high or wide...

one 48 inch fixture now fits on each leg of the diamond.

one 4 in sq jxn box supplies  up to 4 lights.   3/4 in conduit allows grnd, neutral, and 5 colored "hot" lighting circuits. and more colors for unswitched "tool"  outlets.

a 24x24 garage would use 3 x 3 lighting groups.   you can wire up zones acc'g to use.  I use the 5th circuit for "navigation lights" ...just one light in each corner so I can get around anywhere even if only working in one "zone".   can also connect to door light....so they come on when you open the big door(s) instead of the pitiful bulb on the motor.

 layout 7 ft spacing around the perimeter. snap chalk lines to make your grid on the ceiling.....it should look like the chain link fence, diamond pattern.

light boxes go at proper intersection.   tool power boxes (e.g. for pull down power cord) in between at alternate intersections.   take a compass at 6 inches.   mark a line 6 in out from each box intersection.   this is  where your screw hooks go to hang the fixtures.

 

Since all wiring is in 3 rows of 3 boxes,  measure and build on the floor.  screw up each box with conduit using chalk grid.  then connect the 3 runs to each other and switch(es).  pull wire.

"populate" your grid as needed....wiring is ready and waiting.  upgrade. repair. move around....easy.  you can even redefine a "zone" by simply changing the correct hot to the outlet for light.

 

for planning....

2x 40W fluorescent uses about 100W;   18 fixtures on a 15A circuit; 24 on a 20A circuit

2x "40W" LED...about 25W; 72 on a 15A; 96 on a 20A

LET THERE BE LIGHT....

APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/3/22 10:31 a.m.

I'm a big fan of enclosed storage.  it keeps the contents from getting covered with the dirt, grime and dust that gets created in an active shop and makes the place feel less cluttered.

I also like a combination of fixed and rolling benches.  My Dad made the rolling bench in this shot for me about 35 years ago when I was a professional tech.

The fixed benches give me a place to mount the vice and their stainless tops are easy to clean.  The under cabinet lights ensure that I always have a bright workspace.

This ancient motorcycle lift of unknown brand is the bench that I use the most.

It's my transmission rebuild table.

Rear engine, engine installation lift

Engine stand

Race car stand

and, sometimes I even put a motorcycle on it.  Although, weirdly, I don't have any pictures of it with a motorcycle on it.

trigun7469
trigun7469 UltraDork
8/3/22 10:51 a.m.

Does anybody use peg boards to clear space?

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
8/3/22 10:54 a.m.

VERY nice workbench/ lift!

Vairs.....bringing back memories;  ulimately a 1970 LT-1 Kelmark mid-engine, front radiators and A/C! Camaro disc brakes....sigh.

 

parts lined up for a Toyota 1MZ-FE V6 in a first gen MR2.....soon

 

enjoy!

93gsxturbo
93gsxturbo UltraDork
8/3/22 12:28 p.m.

My advice?  Don't be afraid to throw stuff away.  I have been doing a major garage refurb this summer (electrical, heat, windows, doors, insulation, drywall, paint, lighting, etc etc) and the first thing I did was empty out 10 years of crap, even crap that I had moved from my other house and not touched.  Felt so good tossing stuff in the trash I wish I could do it every day.   

My process was to look up the "solds" on Ebay, if it was worth more than $100 sell price I would list it on FB Marketplace for half ebay, if it was under $100 sell price it went in on scrap.   If it didnt sell or no interest in a week, it went in on scrap.   All my half cut 2x4s, PVC, dryer ducting, etc that you always end up with went in the trash or burn pile.  Went through all my spares and if I couldnt fit them in a single tote (all electrical in one tote, all plumbing in one tote) I pitched whatever I determined to be the least desirable.  Threw out a whole bunch of used outlets and switches I had been keeping from when I repainted the house and changed from ivory to white outlets.  Any rattle cans or oil bottles under 1/3 got thrown away. 

Basically if I couldnt give it away to a friend or sell it for more than $50, it went in the trash.  

 

  

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