The Perfect Hand Tool Workshop

by | Jan 30, 2019 | 23 comments

Sadly I ain’t one of those that can say he’s been in a generations old workshop all of his working life.

There aren’t tools still hung on the wall that my grandad put up, or boxes full of secrets who’s keys were lost lifetimes ago.
Instead I seem to move workshop like a Viking.

I’ve never been able to settle for one reason or another. Change of location, change of work but mostly as I’ve always wanted to do it alone, or my way as I like to say.

I’ve worked everywhere really. Outside in a field, right through to a fully kitted up industrial unit. They’re all had at least one thing I’d change about them, but on the whole they’ve all served their purpose perfectly well.

woodworking workshop

What To Look For In A Workshop

As a rule, finding a workshop that’s right for you is about being clear on what it is you need from it.

When working with machinery the space required is pretty much dictated by the kit and size of stuff you’re building. Each machine takes up a certain footprint and the perfect workshop would allow for ample space around them, ensuring they’re practical to use and comfortable to move around.

If it’s hand tools that you build with then I’d say that most places can be made to work, you just need to size your workbench to fit the space and bring in your bag of tools.
In this case I’d take advantage of being able to put your focus on making or finding a place that feels nice, so that you always want to work.
I’ve always found the environment to be the most important thing for anything creative.

A dry, heated back bedroom could work very well. You could work in your pants and slippers and you’d never have to psyche yourself up to venture forth into the cold.
The productivity you may lack in the small space you’d more than make up for by wanting to actually be in there.

This whole “in the house working” is something I’ve only just discovered. We’ve temporarily moved home while we get a load of building work done at the barns. I’ve set a little workshop up in a spare room while I’m here, and I love it.
As a professional I naturally need a lot more space, and the filming takes up even more on top, but it still works a treat in here for now.

So what would be my dream workshop?

Well, I do love watching the world go by, so my perfect workshop would probably be somewhere more lively like a town. Maybe the first floor of a shop with great big windows so I can see the comings and goings down below, without being on show. Being on the ground floor though might feel a little like working in a fish bowl.

That really is the joy of hand tools, you can create a workshop almost anywhere.
You can crack on and use what you have even if it isn’t perfect, or if you’re in a position to choose then you really can get creative.

As a little extra today we’ve created a short e-book for anyone asking themselves the question, ‘Why would I do it all with hand tools?’.
It pulls together the concepts that we’ve touched on over the years, giving the reasons that we believe hand tools are the best solution for the individual maker. Whatever your skill level we hope this guide will help you find the route to getting set up and building, and show you a little more about what we do.

You can download it for free below.

P.S If you’re already subscribed then you’ll find a link to this download in your notification email for this post.

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About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. Derek Borne

    I know what you mean about working in a house. I’ve recently put my bench in the dining room. I see it every time I walk in. My kids play with the stuff on it and I am free to interact with my family and friends while working. It also forces me to keep a much cleaner shop. It helps that there is a fireplace right beside so shaving clean up is always fun.
    Blessings on you two this year and thanks for putting yourself out there so we can follow along.
    Manitoba Canada

    • James

      As a maker of picture frame , I find art to fill the voyage of that is lacking warmed and beauty . From art our flow of imagination is endless .

  2. Bryan Tretheway

    I also have my workshop set up in my house. A cozy little side room with all my woodworking books and projects. I love it.

    I share the Garage with my brother and he does a lot of metal work. It was surprising how much junk gets put in the air by power tools, it only took once having little metal shavings in my finish to move inside.

    Plus, it’s warmer and the kitchen is right down the hall….

    Love your work Richard! Keep it coming.

  3. Tony

    I don’t really know what my ideal would be but I know what I wish I’d done different when I built my fairly big shed (25ft x 16ft). It’s bloody cold with bare wooden walls and corrugated bitumen roofing and so it’s damp. If i had my time again (or when i have to do some renovating), I’d make sure it was well insulated and ideally had some sort of economical heating to keep the damp at bay. So I think pretty much anywhere is good enough but warmth, light and dryness are what differentiates between good enough and great in my view. Cheers for all the blogs ad updates.

    • Michael

      I doubt it is damp, just condensation, you need a thermal barrier, 3″ or more foiled backed insulation.

  4. Roger

    I’ve actually just finished renovating the laundry/utility room. It was a mess and only stored crap we didn’t actually need. It’s now a lovely space, bright, and with just enough room to work comfortably at the bench. I’m still getting it kitted out. It was intentionally built to be a nice place to be, as I knew I wouldn’t want to be there if it was dreary. And I’m glad I spent the extra time and finances to make it right. Although it’s in the basement, it does have a small window (just for ventilation as it under the back porch) and tons of new ceiling lights, so it’s always nice and bright. I couldn’t be happier and don’t miss the power took days being out in the garage in the cold at all.

  5. Jason Martin

    My current workshop is the small front room of our house. The room is only 8 feet x 5 feet, so it’s a little cramped (my workbench is only 4 feet long), but it’s also fairly cozy. Sometimes it’s difficult to position longer pieces to work on them, but I make do. I am surrounded by large windows that let me see outside from every side. so it’s nice to work in when the weather is being interesting (i.e. rain storm, snow storm, or even just nice and sunny). We are currently looking at moving in about a year, and one of the priorities is a room that I can use as a workshop that has decent windows and isn’t in the basement.

  6. Len A

    Great to hear from you again and what a useful little e-book on why Hand Tools. Greatly looking forward to more projects and videos in the coming year.

  7. Dean Browett

    My ideal workshop would be one that is warm in the winter – last winter I was planing timber in -1C……man it was ‘kin’ cold. This winter I have a wood burning stove (donated by my mother-in-law) – and it is brilliant.

    It would also have four sides open to nature during the warmer months with 360 deg views.

    I would also like it to be in a place where I could work at all hours that suited me – you know some days you can’t get your arse in gear for one reason or another – or you just don’t feel like it until late in the day.

    I started out using machinery and power-tools, but I now work mostly with hand tools and much prefer the closer connection with the material. I think hand tool working gives you a much deeper understanding of what it is to be a woodworker. If you predominantly use power tools and machinery I think it begs the question of whether you are a woodworker or a wood machinist?

    Don’t get me wrong – I do use power tools – biscuit jointers, morticing machines, routers etc, but they now are a secondary choice.

    I’m in currently in the process of making a workbench for my wife (she’s into lampworking) and have hand planed every bit of timber. I bought some 9″ x 2.5″ timber for the 8″ aprons and I couldn’t get anything wider than 4″ because all the timber was too close to the pith and I had checks and shakes everywhere….a right royal pain so I had to joint everything wider than 4″.

    I now have an understanding as to why hand crafted furniture is a costly affair.

  8. John G

    Thanks for another good and encouraging read, and for the time you both invested in producing it. Hope all goes well with the barn renovations. Also a big thanks to the folks who commented – knowing a bit about the way others get on helps me too.

    My upcoming workshop is in the half-basement of the cottage with decent windows looking south through some woods to the lake. Lots of trim and finish to do but it is snug at least. The cottage is heated with wood. Right now it’s -14C outside. We have had record snow this January – more than 3 ft. Lovely.

  9. Mark Dennehy

    Not sure there is an ideal (except maybe in the sense of “ideal for this particular job”, but before good tools, before the workbench, you have to have some space. Elbow room. The ability to move around the bench somewhat.

    Right now I’m stuck in an 8×6 shed and the bench is 5×2. If I could swap it out for a 3×2 bench, it’d probably be worth it just to get those few feet of space so I could move enough to use the tools.

    I look at people working in apartments and tiny spaces and the one thing I see in common is that they work on physically small projects or they have to go through a dozen hoops to get anything done at all.

  10. Martin

    Lovely post! I say that having worked at home (in a tiny leaky potting shed/Anderson shelter – every year a few falling apples from a neighbours tree would bust new holes in the roof) and now a place in the middle of town that is exactly the proverbial fishbowl!
    Took some learning to work without feeling like I was being X-rayed every day, not letting wonderfully crazy people burst unbidden into the space, stopping every five seconds for a cuppa and a chat with some interested fellow, or getting asked if I could just quickly put some shelves up… Love it though, I can now make as much noise as needed without annoying said appletree owning neighbours, and it’s only 5 minutes walk down the hill, so it’s still like being at home really…

    Both spaces just evolved – I reckon that’s the key to finding the perfect space, just building it as you live in it, not trying to get everything right straight off, letting it all grow up around you in it’s own good time.

  11. Milo

    I lucked out as an artist owned our house previously and had already built a 21x 15 workshop. It’s not very well insulated, but it has 6 huge polycarbonate panels in the ceiling plus three windows, so is nice and light. My Little John workbench sits across one end, with plenty of room to move around it. My plan is to put in a small wood burner for the winter and a small a/c unit for the Summer as it can get a bit much when really hot. Once these are installed and I can control temps better I will truly be like a pig in shit.

  12. Pascal

    The quest for the perfect workshop could also become an excuse not to start anything. Same with tools, joinery–anything actually.
    I have found to be more creative when I don’t have everything I think I need, when I give it a go without any apprehension.
    My “dream” workbench was built from Richard’s series (thanks man!!). Rock solid, and over-engineered probably, but I can dismantle it and take it outside, or anywhere I go. My buddy workbench. And that is perfect for me.

  13. Ed

    Great post to get the neurons firing.
    Seems to me that any workshop will ultimately become an expression of the personality of the person who will be using it, so whether the shop is a re-purposed bedroom, half a garage or a purpose-built studio, the motivated woodworker will take advantage of whatever opportunities the space offers and make that space work. That said, some spaces are just easier to like than others. For me, important characteristics of a likeable work space include: lots of natural light, easily controlled temperature, plenty of natural light, enough room to swing an 8 foot board in any direction, and large windows full of glorious light.

  14. joe

    After having grown up watching Norm Abrams, I thought I needed a big shop. Like you, I am amazed at how little space I really need.

    I am a hobbyist hand tool woodworker. I basically work along a wall in the garage. Without any sacrifice or discomfort, my space is 10 feet long. A 4×8 sheet of pegboard and a shelf underneath the bench hold my tools. I have some cabinets on the wall as well for miscelanous items. In terms of depth, the bench needs two feet and ideally I like about 3 feet behind me but can get by with less if the car is still in the garge.

    Of course, I dream of a 1000 square foot shop full of windows and a recliner chair in the corner. Who wouldn’t want to take a nap in their woodworking shop? In all reality, it’s unlikely going to happy.

    What I currently have suits me well and I am quite content to work in it. Life could be far worse. I might some day build a smaller 4 foot long bench to work in the house out of a tool box as it’s too hot in the summer for serious work in the garage.

  15. Steven seaton

    Happy new year!, Richard and Helen
    Woodworker men and women .
    It’s took me while to comment on this as I was daydreaming about the perfect workshop 🤔😀
    To be honest though I don’t have a whole lot of experience with workshops as my day job working as a self employed carpenter/ joiner means I’m always filling me pickup with every tool you can think of
    To then get to the job and off load me tools there to then realise I can’t get in the customers garage to let’s say hang new internal doors etc, so most of the time you end up setting up outside and hope to hell it doesn’t rain ☔️ 😩 not forgetting the constant shoes off , shoes on , shoes off scenario every time you go in an out the house to check door fit any wondered me backs shagged,but you’ve just got to crack on and get the job done ! Plus I’m the grand old age of 41 now so I feel I have the right to have a good old winge and rant! Haha!😀
    Anyway so this brings me onto my new found love for a work shop which in the past I always thought it had to be kitted out like a Norm Abram style with every power tool you can think of , well sometimes a hand chisel was used to straighten the corners of we’re the router had been ,so basically a mini woodworking factory in your garage , yeh right that’ll work in a single garage in a small town in North Yorkshire!
    So really all that did was make me keep watching somebody else woodwork on tv.
    While making me constantly try to figure out how I was going to do all that in my single garage with bikes , skateboards , fishing rods and all the other stuff that comes with family life , so needless to say you just never end up doing anything and just keep watching!
    But that’s all changed now since I found The English woodworker !
    Hurray for Richard and Helen !
    Since finding this channel somewhere a think it must of been YouTube and then going on to buying the first of many videos
    The English workbench l can now say in a square of about 4metres by 4 metres I have a Workshop , I must admit it’s not perfect it’s sort of organised chaos haha!
    But it’s getting there , I’d like more natural light but as my garage is attached to the house and under my bedroom there is only one window which is north facing not ideal especially this time of year , but what it lacks in light it makes up for in warmth as it is well insulated and I’ve also installed two radiators running of the Combi boiler in the house with separate zone valves so if I’m in the garage I can set the thermostat to 15c which very nice to work in and it doesn’t use a lot of gas on my energy meter which I was worried about because of the garage door etc letting heat out ,but with it been zoned off from the house means it’s great because I don’t need the house heating running while I’m in the garage ( workshop) 😉 and knowbodys home it’s spot on !
    When I first built my English workbench I had it against the wall under the window, well that was after I spent about a week just admiring it and turning the vice in and out for know apparent reason apart from it was amazing! Ha ! Maybe a bit odd I know but I was like a proud father !
    Anyways after I made the side table I realised the bench was no good against the wall it was hard to cross grain plane you just couldn’t relax a kept thinking any minute now I’m gonna smack me no5 into the wall and probably me finger even though me hand would have hold of the plane handle, you just know as soon as I would be about to hit the wall me little finger would just decided to go jump out and play chicken between the wall plane ha! Ouch! 😫
    Also a found all the shavings would just mount up on the bench in the tools everywhere but on the floor , so a moved it off the wall to right smack bang in the middle of my workshop , and I can safely say it’s changed everything I know all I’ve done is move a bench but if you have space do it !
    A can’t really explain it, it just works
    I now have my tools behind me all laying out on top of two wood trestles I made and a couple of spare 8 by 2 s as a make shift bench no fancy tool holders it’s great
    So now I have this sort off 2 foot bench behind me then about 3 to 4 foot to my work bench then past that about 3 foot to another make shift 2 foot ply wood top bench under my window and around garage walls with all me cordless power tools etc stored under there nowt fancy because the only bench I really need now is The workbench , I do have a couple of power tools set up like the drill press I use this for drilling out most of the material from the mortises just simple to keep the noise down as I don’t think me neighbors would appreciate it as well as our lass is a nurse and the whole night shift thing well let’s just say it would be like poking a bear with a stick ha! I do know this is all hand tools but sometimes you’ve gotta make slight changes and the drill press is very quiet so that’s a plus ,sometimes I do it free hand it just depends what time of day etc
    So I suppose that’s my biggest compromise because everything else is fairly quiet even now I’m doing the dove tails on the hall table build and I’ve found if I can saw almost down to the knife lines with the coping saw I can pair to the lines with a really sharp chisel no noise .
    Well after all that I suppose my idea of a perfect workshop is we’re I can make noise that won’t bother anyone , warmth and plenty of light!
    So I had a think and I’ve nailed it ld like to build me self a workshop pretty much next door to the Tadcaster brewery North Yorkshire as my favourite ale is John Smiths
    So I could be working away in me new swanky workshop whilst every now and then capturing the smell coming from the brewery 😋 or yes I’ve nailed! Also it wouldn’t be far from a new found timber yard I was told about in Ripon called Duffield Timber it’s got all sorts in and a good price I think so check it out if your near there I’m about 1 hour away but it’s worth it , actually a wonder if you’ve been there Richard ? Or maybe it’s a bit to far.
    Well anyway I’m hoping Soon I can make this workshop start to pay the bills that’s the next step trying to design some pieces to sell it’s that part that I know is going to give me real headache building stuff pricing stuff then hoping it sells ,
    But what’s that saying “build it and they will come” so good luck everybody and I hope you get your dream workshop!
    Keep up the good work Richard and Helen
    It’s great stuff
    Ste 👍

    • Dave

      Ste, cheers for the tip re Duffield Timbers. Might have to set off early next time I head down the M1 to watch the mighty LUFC and pop in. Looks a better selection of sawn boards than I can find locally in Newcastle.

      As far as workshops go, the grass is always greener. I live and work (not as a woodworker) out of a two-bed “Tyneside flat”, and used to have my workbench in the middle room. I’d walk past it every time I went to the kitchen, which was about once every 20 minutes to make tea and procrastinate (which I’m doing now). I’d always stop, even if just to cut one set of pins, or sharpen a chisel. Or stare at my vice.

      Late last year I moved all the gear out to a workshop about half an hour’s walk away. Next to a brewery no less, but one of those micro affairs. As soon as I had more space I set about building a whole load of extra stuff (including a Matthias Wendel bandsaw) and got myself a drill press. I love the extra space, but I really miss having a bench around the place. So much so that as soon as I lay hands on some decent redwood pine I”ll be building a new bench to Richard and Helen’s design.

      Good luck with starting up designing to sell. It’s been my dream for a while now, but I can never quite seem to pull the trigger.

  16. Ste

    Hi Dave
    Thanks for the reply 😀
    Nice to hear from somebody not to far away , it’s also nice to know I’m not the only one who likes to stare at his bench and drink buckets of tea , yes you guessed it I’m drinking one now !
    It must be great having your own workshop now ,so a think you can say the gun is loaded just got to pull that trigger ha! But I know only to well how hard that can be with work and bills etc .
    So it has to be done in spare time which I don’t mind , a think the main thing holding me back is ,I’m i good enough and are people really going to pay say £400 plus for a hand build hall table or are they just goner go to IKEA and pic one up for £80 and I know there’s no comparison but I suppose that’s were the marketings goner have to come into it to target the right customers who’ll appreciate this work , anyways same to you and good luck!
    I hope you eventually pull that trigger and they sell like hot cakes !
    Or one more thing if you looking to buy a vice for you work bench when you build it ,well I got mine from were Richard mentioned on one of his post Lake Erie Toolworks Wood Vice Screw, dictum .
    Somewhere in Germany it’s about £210 but worth every penny and considering I only spent about £150 on the timber to build the bench just 8x2s joist material etc from me local builders yard and it’s spot on actually there’s some pics in the gallery page somewhere ok

  17. Dave

    If your bench is owt to go by you’re good enough and then some, plus you already work for yourself, so you’ll be under no romantic illusions about what’s involved.

    The problem I see is exactly the one you’ve put your finger on: there’s an ever decreasing number of people who can recognize quality when they see it. Because so few people really know how anything is made anymore, not many are able to judge the qualities that set a handmade piece apart from an MDF cube pressed together on a production line.

    I was as clueless as anyone else before I started woodworking. One of the things that made me start was the white-hot rage I always had moving ton-weight MDF junk from old flat to new flat back when I lived in London, only for it all to fall apart as soon as I’d got it up the fifth flight of stairs. Lots of people know they aren’t getting quality at the moment, but probably don’t feel confident they can spot it when it’s in front of them.

    That’s where the marketing comes in, and the internet gives you the chance to sell to the world from your garage. I think the marketing is probably five tenths of it. Chippendale wasn’t just a master craftsman, he also invented the furniture catalogue. Still died pretty broke, though.

    Plus there are signs things are starting to change culturally, at least in the UK and Europe that I know of. More of an emphasis on having less stuff, buying better quality “heritage” pieces. More of an appreciation for natural, sustainable materials. Even IKEA are going to start selling refurbed gear: they can see which way the wind is blowing.

    So almost no time like the present. Maybe wait to see how the Brexit malarky plays out though. Made sure I got my order for the wooden screw sorted before any tariffs kick in. Didn’t shell out for the full kit so I’ll have to make a garter and stick a broom handle in for a tommy bar.

  18. Ste

    Appreciate the comment about my bench ,
    I’ve built a few things on it now , a couple of side tables and the hall table and I can honestly say that you won’t need anything else in a bench and the vice is amazing !
    You won’t regret it .
    A know what you mean about the MDF
    wardrobes, a bloody nightmare to move about , but I see why people buy them as there affordable and they do the job .
    But hopefully I’ll be able to target the
    right group of people who appreciate well made furniture to sell to .
    I think I’ve got a long way to go before I get to Chippendale standards ha!
    Anyway good luck with the bench build I’ll keep me eye out for it popping up in the gallery cheers Ste

  19. Darrin Patten @thereviewsearch

    Hi, Thanks for the sharing such an informative article about hand tools. I also agree with you that I also believe hand tools are the best solution for the individual maker.

  20. Carla Schroder

    This is a great discussion, it is nice to read about what other woodworkers do. I am fortunate to have a large heated garage to work in. The workshop part is about 15′ x 24′. I hung enough lights for an operating theater. I like to salvage grotty old lumber, and make boards from small logs. Not really interesting in being a hand-tool sawmill, so I have a bandsaw and thickness planer. I also have a sliding compound miter saw and table saw, which are nice for making a lot of repetitive cuts, but they mostly sit idle these days. I bought a Ryoba saw, it looks and feels cheap, and it is a joy to use. $25, nice thin kerf, accurate cuts, and I prefer the handle to Western saw handles.

    I am building the English workbench per Richard’s course (that was a rat, friend, not a mouse), and it’s going slowly because of learning to use chisels and planes. Also learning to sharpen them (again thanks to Richard’s sharpening course). I bought the Veritas MK II Honing Guide and like it quite a lot, though the micro-bevel feature doesn’t work as well as it should. One of these days I will call the nice Veritas people and see if they have good advice. Otherwise it is a great little tool.

    My projects are a mixed bag. Building and fixing fences (hurrah for cordless power tools!), putting up shelves, making wheelie bases for feed barrels, saddle and blanket hangers, worktables and tool stands, lumber racks, and hopefully this summer I can put a wood floor in the barn, and replace the rollup garage door with a nice hinged double people door. I have batch of kitchen drawers to rebuild, and several furniture pieces to make. I like wood carving too. Love working with wood, and making lumber out of trees. I live in a forest so why not.

    I especially appreciate Richard’s minimalist approach, and staying focused on the outcome more than nerding out on tools. I love nice tools, but realistically there are only a few I actually need.


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