Organizing Tight Shop Space

A start-up cabinetmaker is working in cramped conditions. Other chime in with space-economizing ideas for workflow and storage. August 29, 2005

We are pretty new to the game and are working through some organizational issues in the shop we just rented. It is only about 1000 square foot. By the time you get one kitchen cut and stacked (in the middle of the floor) you're up against the wall. Our table saw is on one wall about center.

Someone suggested we place the saw in the middle of the room, put some shelving along the wall where the saw is now and when the cabs are assembled put them in the shelving, face out for drawer/door install. He suggested no more shelving than two rows high so that we are not killing ourselves to lift cabs e.g. 90" from the floor.

It seems plausible and wouldn't require too much linear shelf footage to hold one complete kitche out of the way until it's ready to be installed. Does anyone have any thoughts on interim storage? Because the way it is now is heartbreaking. Someone carrying something around the shop has knocked into the taped face of my cabs and it is really irritating doing that two or three times. Any help is appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor R:
Do you have space outdoors to bring in a storage container? I get monthly mailers from a company trying to rent me one or more of these things. I have plenty of space inside but it could help get you through a tight situation.

From the original questioner:
No, outdoors space is tight as well. We are sharing with a granite shop. They own the lot and have literally tons of granite outside.

From contributor B:

I would suggest that you try building backwards. Build drawers first, then FF's (if you are using them) then cut backs, webs, nailers, carcasses, etc. When stacked, parts are in order you need them.

From contributor K:
To the original questioner: What are the dimensions of your shop?

From the original questioner:
To contributor B: Build backwards? That’s an interesting concept. But I think the key that you touch on is “then load them”. A big truck is another thing we are lacking. That is something we are talking about and would be a great benefit in getting cabs out of the way.

From contributor T:
I have a couple of suggestions. These are principles I've used since forever because they work.

First, set your shop up so the work flows through. Almost certainly you don't have a back door, so you want a setup so it flows in a circle. Material comes in, is staged, goes through the saw, then whatever machining you do, then subassembly, then assembly, then what we call "preps", final preparation for shipping, then it's stacked and ultimately goes out the door.

As you've found, if guys have to crisscross around the shop during the stages of production with parts, finished product can get dinged. You may also have noticed that carrying parts clear across the shop, however small it is, is time wasted. A circular flow just moves the product to the next work area, and the next and the next with maximum efficiency.

Grizzly apparently has software on their site where you can lay out your shop. Of course you could do this on paper (for you younger guys, paper is a wood product we used to use before there were computers. It's very thin and easier to carry around than a computer monitor).

Now, about what order to do stuff in. I started out in a two-car garage doing mostly kitchens, often pretty large ones. Such a situation forces you to become very efficient.

Scenario A: Cut and build your boxes, stack them, cut and build your face frames, pull down the boxes, attach faceframes, stack boxes. Build drawers, pull down boxes, install drawers, stack boxes. Build (receive) doors and drawer fronts, pull down boxes, install doors, stack boxes.

Scenerio B. Cut and build faceframes, toekicks (if separate), and drawer boxes. Build doors (or order so they arrive the day before assembly). Cut carcasses; pass them off to the machining area.

Build a carcass, apply the faceframe and toekick, and then pass it off to the next work area, where it's finished up: faceframe is sanded, drawers are installed, doors and fronts are applied. Stack them for shipping. Why do you need racks for this? Build your bases first, stack them two-high, put your uppers on top of that. You can consolidate a lot of cabinets into a very small space doing this, and you don't have to handle them several times.

Of course you'll have to vary this according to your specific methods, but if your methods don't lend themselves to this kind of flow I heartily recommend that you re-examine and modify them so they do.

From contributor R:
Believe it or not I worked out of 380 square feet for a year. Now I have just under a 1,000 and it feels absolutely huge. During this time I also learned to build everything you might say backwards. First I build by doors and applied furniture grade end panels (the most time consuming thing), secondly all my woodworking parts (fillers, crown, finish toe-kick, etc,). Third, I build my dovetailed drawer boxes and fourth I cut by frameless cabinet parts (I use melamine on about 75% of my cabinets, if I didn't I would probably buy prefinished plywood) and edgeband.

Next I do all my finishing, and then I assemble my cabinets, wrap them, and load them on my old delivery van. It has worked incredibly well for me because the all the combined parts themselves take up very little room when stacked against a wall. It's only an assembled cabinet box that takes up a lot of room.

I should mention there are a few exceptions to this: Sometimes I won't build my doors until last when I customer is in a big hurry. In that case I will build everything else, install the job and then make and finish the doors while the house is being finished. The other exception is any cabinet that has a veneer or finished end I will usually assemble it before the finishing stage. To do this you have to be able to build your doors accurately because you cannot fit them beforehand. I hope this helps.

From the original questioner:
The only thing we do with doors is stain and spray. We don't build them ourselves as we aren't setup and probably don't want to be. My partner has suggested that we do all of the crown in shop and install on site. I have always cut and installed onsite, and I don't see there being a benefit to doing it in the shop because of the subtle variables that come into play at the job. But he feels quite sure that it's better to do all in shop.

From contributor P:
I work in a 1,000 square foot shop with way too many tools. About five years ago, I bought a 17' retired U Haul box van, which is the key to my system. Material comes to the shop stacked on one side of the van, gets pulled out as used. Doors and drawers get ordered as soon as I can accurately determine sizing. Cases get cut in reasonable batches, since I've found that completely cutting a kitchen tends to have a few crucial pieces go missing when needed, and the shop is too small to have a designated storage area. Bases get built first, and then put into the truck, which can accommodate stacks two cases high. If I've planned right, the sheet material gets depleted as the truck space is needed.

When drawers and doors arrive, the cases are taken back out in twos or threes, doors/drawers attached, miscellaneous touchup, blanketing or cardboard protection, then stored back in the truck for delivery and installation. The shop stays semi-organized, I'm not driven crazy trying to maneuver around a sea of cases, and the work stays clean and ding-free. The truck is also a lifesaver when the client suddenly needs to postpone delivery on the life-and-death rush job that you've worked extra nights and weekends to finish on time. The truck only adds 100 square feet or so to the shop space, but makes an incredible difference in my operation. Obviously a cargo trailer works similarly; I have a friend who transformed his operation with a 7 x 12 enclosed trailer.

From the original questioner:
Yes a truck would be great. We just can't afford it right now. Funny enough we were thinking about a retired U Haul as well. Our next purchase hopefully is a sliding panel saw.

From contributor A:
I was also going to suggest a truck or trailer as Contributor P mentioned. I too have a small shop and use my truck (14 foot box van) for storage as well as delivery. I only do free standing cabinetry and furniture so I usually don't have lots of cabinets to work around. When I have a multiple unit entertainment center or large office system to build, I will cut all parts first and stack. Then I build a unit and stack it in the truck. I build the next unit, stack it in the truck, etc.

I do have to remove them again for finishing, but when they go back in truck, they are secured for shipping. (If you have a separate finish room, you could even finish them before loading on the truck.) In this scenario, I will install doors and drawers on site to prevent damaging them when moving from truck to shop then back to truck. Most of the time I install crown at the shop, but pieces that will adjoin a wall, soffit, or other structure I cut on site. Just out of curiosity, how are you delivering cabinets now? If you don't have a truck or trailer, sounds like that should be your next purchase.

From the original questioner:
We have a small trailer that we use when outdoor conditions and the size of the job accommodates. But for the bigger stuff, we rent. Yes it's a cost that doesn't pay long term, but we only rent for a day at most, so for now we'll cope. A truck is definitely the next purchase, after a good panel saw with a scoring blade.

From contributor P:
Check the Altendorf's sliding carriage for slop and wear ($5k to replace worn stuff on the older phenolic guide saws), then, if it's ok, do whatever you need to do to buy it. It’s a wonderful saw, and will make an incredible difference in the speed and accuracy of your work. Box vans are always available later.

From contributor D:
It seems odd that you would consider a slider if space is at such a premium. We have an Altendorf slider, but also all the room we could want. Have you thought about a vertical panel saw?

From contributor P:
My Altendorf fits in my 1000 square foot shop. It’s tight, but it bevels and miters nicer than a vertical, and I can rip solids on it, which, were I to go with a vertical, would require me having some space for a Unisaw/PM66.

From the original questioner:
Yes. We are more into small run custom. And the need for a slider is our first statement toward a desire for some speed and quality. We are dying for a score blade. I don't know much, but I have heard there are limitations with vertical. If there’s not, who wouldn't choose one over a floor panel saw?

From contributor J:
I have thought of using a truck for storage at our shop. But we are in the northeast, and I worry about the cold and the humidity. Have any of you had problems with this?

From the original questioner:
Here in NW Canada we are cold but dry. Humidity is not much of a worry here summer or winter. We never have to worry about acclimation times. I guess the hardwood flooring guys concern themselves a bit, depending where the shipment comes from, but it’s never too much of a deal.

From contributor P:
I don't use my scoring blade, other than a few cuts from curiosity - high ATB blades (I'm using FS 6301) cut great when sharp if the saw is true, and eliminate the spinning scoring blade that lives right where my hand wants to land and scares the heck out of me.

From the original questioner:

We are on hold a bit with the new saw idea though. We are seriously considering outsourcing the boxes. We will still need to use our table saw for small stuff. But you're right. When the blade is sharp and saw is true (which ours is not perfect right now) it cuts beautifully. I'm not sure what blade we are using right now, but it's great. It was about $125, which was pretty good.

My friend owns a sharpening company and gives us a break. Now all we need is some time to true up that blade. It is slightly off front to back and I can't stand it. I haven't had time to even find out how to actually true it up yet. We did just get a second hand porter cable chop saw with laser 12" blade. It's pretty good considering it was only $250. However, I tried to tell my friend that what we really need is a good radial arm saw. Somehow he's got it in his head that they are only good for rough work like cutting vinyl siding. I have not used one very much, but that is not my experience at all. I think it would be perfect for cross cutting shelves after they have been cut and taped full length. Are you aware that they are less accurate than a regular chop?

From contributor B:
I build, and pre-finish, as well as manufacture storage and finishing tools. We offer Trim Trees and Wall Tree's to handle temporary (light weight) items such as doors, and door-faces. It occurred to me that you might attach clips to the back of your finished cabinets, and use a type of hanging track that is offered for cabinet installers. Simply utilize your wall space by running full-length channels on your wall at three different (reachable) heights. Once you finish a box, hang the lightest uppers on the top channel, and so forth.

Our shop is only 1500 square feet, and we assemble and package our tools, pre-finish trim and doors, and Fabricate Solid Surface tops out of the same square footage. It’s all about multi-tasking our square footage and having racks that quickly fold down and out of the way.

From contributor G:
To the original questioner: I agree with the post about keeping a flow in mind when setting up your shop. Imagine what kind of projects you're likely to be doing. For each type, write down - step by step - the process involved, and what machine or area is involved. Use these lists to decide what tools and fixtures (assembly benches, etc.) go where. By the way, I love the Altendorf, but do not own one. We do a wide variety of projects: cabinets; furniture, gazebos, mantels, acoustical wood ceilings, reception desks, conference tables, etc.

My shop started out at 1000 square feet and I just used my cabinet saw. Now we're up to 3000 square feet. We still have a good table saw, and use it a lot. I would not try to fit a horizontal slider in here. For us, with our mix of products, the vertical panel saw makes more sense. Between it, and the Jet 10" cabinet saw (which we take pains to keep dialed in), we can do everything we need - as accurately as we need. The vertical panel saw is accurate, space saving, and makes material handling very easy.

Oh, and your question about comparing the sliding miter saw and the radial arm saw. RA's are indeed easier to get out of square. The good ones are good and stout, which does make them good rough mill cutoff saws. They are a little more dangerous (please tell me you wouldn't use it for ripping). Again, I don't own one anymore. I can't justify the space, when the chopsaw is so accurate, safe, and easy to maintain.