Good Size for a Start-Up Shop

Shop owners tell how much space they have and whether it's enough or not. January 10, 2008

I am going to build a pole barn cabinet shop. I plan to let the building grow as the business does. I will build my own doors and do my own finishing. Plan to do small sets, or if large, do in phases - kitchen first, then bathrooms, etc. I can't build my dream shop right now because I am buying 5 acres and don't want to go into major debt. I can get work and have all the tools and skills. I currently run someone else's shop. What size is comfortable for a two man shop that builds doors and finishes work? My budget says 40x40, but I don't think I will have room to finish. What about tarps hung on steel cables to separate an area?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
I have 2K sq ft and need more. I would build at least a 3K shop. You will need an office space, a paint booth space, lumber storage space, milling space, assembly, finished product storage, etc. A 40x40 shop will be too small before you get all the machines set up. But then again, if what you can build using cash is a 40x40, then build that and plan on adding as soon as your cash will allow.

From the original questioner:
That is why I am thinking of 40x40, so later I can add another 40 x40 to give me 40x80. As for office, I will do that out of house.

From contributor J:
I was recently over at a friend's shop that he put up himself. It was 3000 sf. If you could swing it, that is a great shop size for a typical custom shop. Mine is 1440 on my 5 acre place and it's way too small. All it takes is one builder to put off a delivery for a couple of months to kill your work flow. A 40 x 40 is a great place to start, then quickly add on when needed. I'm locked into my shop size, as I'm in a program for home based business and I can't add space, even though I have the room and no neighbors to speak of. It's a liberal land use county in Oregon, where reason doesn't exist. Go for as big as you can! 3000 sf is a nice size.

From contributor D:
In my dream, the finishing is done in a separate building. Dust always finds a way.

From contributor J:
That's why I sub out my finishing to another shop, no where near mine.

From contributor E:
My shop is 2400 sq ft, with 120 of that being office/bath. For me and a part timer, this seems to work well. Have at least 10' ceilings, and large garage doors. For me, taking up the space for the office in shop is worth it. If you need to look up or show a customer something, it would save a lot of time. When you set up, think about expansion when placing your heater and compressor and panel box. In hindsight, I would have set up differently for expansion.

From contributor W:
I think you will be out of room in 30 days. I suggest you make it 1600 ft with a plan to double it within 2 to 3 years. Consider not investing in any more door equipment or tooling, and buy your doors from a quality door company. The quality, consistency, and variety will serve you much better than making your own doors, plus it will free up valuable floor space. Building a finish room in a separate building is a great idea, and it can be tiny by comparison.

From contributor Y:
I'm pretty much in agreement with the others. One man shop, 2k sq. ft., and I have no room to move. Definitely could use another 1k. Having said that, there are many guys out there working with less. The thing is, with a little extra room, you're more efficient, since you're not moving things back and forth out of your way all the time. You may also want to consider different types of buildings which may not be as rustic as a barn, but cheaper to build and more functional.

From contributor H:
I have 2300 sq ft. with slider, double line borer, bander, hinge and pocket hole machine. Forklift and sheet goods rack right behind the saw and 20ft ceiling. No solid wood machines, at 12.00 sq ft for maple doors and 30-40 dollars a door for finishing, I outsource and build the boxes. We can sometimes have two kitchens on the floor due to permit or contractor delays, and I am comfortable, but that's it. 3000 sq ft would be better.

From contributor L:
When I started out, I soon moved into 2500', but it didn't take long for that to feel tight. As was said: plan for expansion. I wish I had done a better job of that where I am now!

From contributor P:
In a shop that small with no finishing room, you should only buy the bare minimum of tools that you need to build boxes and outsource your doors and mouldings. Building in small batches will help, but if the shop is full of tools, you will have no room to move.

From contributor J:
One solution to a small shop is a couple of cargo trailers. After a job is done, load one and it's ready to go when the call to deliver is issued. Then start on the next one, then load it when it's done. The third job can then start taking up valuable space in the corner of the shop. There's a very large cabinet shop in Bend, Oregon that has lots of cargo trailers (Wells Cargo type). That was their solution to needed space. Not a bad idea.

From contributor D:
Cargo trailers could be a nice place to store your finished goods if you want to expose them to extreme climates - hot in the summer and frozen in the winter. Bad idea.

From contributor I:
We do the cargo trailer thing and it's a great solution. We do a lot of cabs a week and we just don't have enough room.

From contributor S:

I'm on my third business, and I've noticed a couple of things. First, the years where I've made the most money were those years when I was bursting at the seams and absolutely, positively had to have a bigger shop. The next year, I got a bigger shop and didn't make much money. There are some imposed efficiencies when a shop is small, and these are lost when you get a bigger space. Read up on Lean manufacturing.

Second, every new shop was soon too small until I got fanatical about storage, clean up, and getting rid of useless stuff. Amazing to discover tools I'd forgotten I purchased three years ago. Now if we can just figure out where we put Grandma.

Third, every shop should be built in a way that allows adding 20-30 feet by adding on to the back or end. Forever. This requires a little planning, adequate initial electrical, sewer, and plumbing capacity, site placement, and a building design that is suitable for modification.

You've probably thought of these things already, but my advice is keep the budget outlay down initially, plan for the future, and then expand when you must.

From contributor K:
I have a little over 2100 sf on an acre. My building is sectioned off into 3 rooms with one being a storage/tool room, about 300 sf, one as the machine room and about 900sf, and the other for finish and assembly at about 950 sf. I also have another building around the corner that's about 2000 sf that we'll start using this fall to assemble and store a large job coming up.

There's anywhere from 1-5 guys working in there at any given time, and sometimes it gets a bit cramped. Especially when the place hasn't been straightened up in a few days. In the next year or so, I'll be building a 5000 sf steel building, and I can't wait.