For Want of a Proper Shop

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 9.06.36 PMMy second-floor shop is freakishly neat. The bench is mostly bare and the majority of my hand tools are stashed in my chest. The “overflow” hand tools (yes, I have maybe one or two) are in various boxes or hanging neatly on the wall.

On the other side of the room, my computer desk has been cleared of all but the essentials. As I write this, all the peripherals (except my mouse) are stashed in the built-in cabinets that I designed and had built a few years after buying my house. And the books on the shelves above are…actually on the shelves above instead of strewn across my worksurface.

Two flights down in the basement, my chop saw and table saw have been dusted clean and pushed back against the wall. I’ve thrown away probably 60′ of moulding…all of it in 6″ or smaller lengths (some people hoard tools; I apparently hoard moulding offcuts). Two old sinks and 16 pairs of shutters have been donated to a local re-use outfit. The many half-empty, rusty cans of paint have been disposed of properly. Everything has a place – and is actually in it.

My hand-tool shop (I can't imagine why my realtor didn't show the workbench and tools...)

My hand-tool shop/study (I can’t imagine why my realtor didn’t show the workbench and tools on the other side of the room…)

It wasn’t too long after my study built-in project that I started as managing editor of Popular Woodworking. Had I waited another couple years, I’d have been able to make those cabinets and shelves myself. And indeed, as soon as I started learning in the shop, I started tackling project after project in my house.

I made and installed 8″ baseboards that matched the original – thank you David Thiel for getting me started down that path. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d used a router table. (And, having been bit by the hand tool bug thanks in large part to Christopher Schwarz, it remains one of the few times I’ve used the router table.)

When I bought my house, the living room, hallways and staircase were covered in matted, kelly-green carpet, and the dining room had cheap parquet flooring atop two layers of vinyl. And under everything was a layer of 1/8″ Masonite with nails every 4″ or so (what is wrong with people?!). Nasty. All of it. I lived with it for about six years, but I finally snapped late one night and just started ripping it out. So I then had to teach myself to tooth in flooring to replace the many (and large) plywood patches a previous owner had installed.

The next year, I decided to install hardwood floors in the second floor hallway. I didn’t really know how, but hey – the boards stayed where I nailed them. And they still look OK five years later.

I tried to strip the stairs. That did not go well. Three weeks of buckets full of baby-poop brown, goopy sludge later, I opted for paint (after another week of neutralizing all the various strippers I’d tried). That went a lot better.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 9.07.37 PM

I hired pros for the shower install. The rest is my work (with a few hours’ help from a now-ex whom I cajoled into helping me grout…might be why he’s an ex.)

The 1970s brown tiled and plastic-tubbed bathroom had to go. I took it down to the studs, taught myself to hang and mud drywall (sanding sucks), then had a glass shower installed. I laid and grouted tiny hexagonal tiles on the floor and subway tile on the shower walls, then framed out the walls with flat panels for an Arts & Crafts look, and built and installed a deep medicine cabinet.

Then, with the help and tutelage of Glen Huey, I built for that bathroom my first piece of casework and cut my first dovetails that I was willing to show to the world – the chimney cupboard that appeared on the cover of the February 2008 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. It holds my towels. (The cupboard, not the magazine.)

I’ve painted every room in the house (as well as the kitchen cabinets) – most of them at least twice. Oh – and every ceiling (my neck hurts from just thinking about it).

You can see my progress as a woodworker throughout the house, and not only in the now many pieces of furniture I’ve built for it. The moulding I installed early on does not look as good at the scarf joints and corners as that from a few years later. And I got faster at it. Last weekend, I installed shoe moulding in two hallways (with many angles and door openings) in just a couple hours (yes, I used a nail gun; sue me). Six years ago, it took me an entire day to do one room. A miter box with a sharp saw on the floor next to you beats running up and down flights of stairs to the chop saw for every cut – trust me on this.

But it’s that very need to run up and down two flights of stairs to access all my tools and machines that made me break down and install the last of the moulding. I’m itching for a “proper” shop – and that was the last bit of work that needed doing before I could put my house up for sale. So now it is. (You can see more of it here if you like. And should you be looking for a new home in Cincinnati, well, please get in touch with my realtor, Tim Hinde.)

It’s a bittersweet feeling; I’ve done so much work on it and learned a great deal while doing it. But it’s done. It’s time to move on and start again – this time in a house with a dry basement (preferably at grade) or a garage. For the last couple years, I’ve been hopping back and forth between my ersatz shop (and up and down my stairs), the shop at work and Christopher Schwarz’s shop. It’s time for a shop of my own. (I think Virginia Woolf would concur).

— Megan Fitzpatrick

p.s. When I do find a new home, it will be one that needs a lot of work, because a) that’s what I can afford b) I like having projects c) I find it satisfying to “rescue” an old building rather than buy a new one. I’ll be documenting the work (and the no doubt many frustrations) here. If you don’t see any new posts in the near future, it might mean I’m living under an overpass.

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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11 Responses to For Want of a Proper Shop

  1. Chuck Bell says:

    Megan, I enjoyed your blog on your house and shop. We ( my wife & I) built a log home 10 years ago, 4 years ago we decided for move again. It was for sale all that time, but no luck, this economy sinks in rural Tennessee. I finally decided to refinish the trim. And finally made the shoe molding in my shop on my router table. When it was all done, it looked great! Our house sold in 2 weeks. WOW !. My wood working skills finally paid off..Now to a new older home for us to make it young again.. Enjoy,,,, Chuck & Bobbi, Tellico Plains, TN

  2. Dan Miller says:

    Why oh why would this blog be blocked at my work. Tried to see this page and it came up as forbidden. Just don’t get it.

  3. Jack Palmer says:

    Megan, we’re also getting our 1870’s farm house ready for sale, so I know what you’re going through. In a little over four years we’ve never really stopped working on it. New White Oak floors , built in book cases , baseboard and crown , new kitchen in Hickory and a shop in the back. It goes on and on. Old houses take you broke in big chunks of money and a slow drain on your bank account.Besides doing this for a living for the past forty years, every house we’ve owned has need this kind of work. I’m ready to move into our Airstream travel trailer. But, and it’s a big but, I need a shop. So we also have to look for something that has shop space. Your house is a lot of house for the price and it shows really well. Around here it would go for $350- $400,000.00. Good luck on your search for a new place. I think we need to move to a less expensive part of the U.S.

  4. Mark says:

    Having gone through several remodels myself, and currently going through yet another, I’m reminded of my father’s advice to customers back in the sixties and seventies with regard to remodeling a home. Without exception, he’d advise they tear the place down and start over, citing the poor construction techniques used, poor materials or often, just the scope of the decay that had set in. The costs associated with building new today are of course prohibitive to many homeowners and the idea of not salvaging what’s already standing flys in the face of what’s called green construction today. Yet, as I tear out the particle board kitchen cabinets and note that the wiring and plumbing are sub-standard and will have to be replaced, and while checking out that wiring in the attic space notice that the insulation is woefully inadequate, and hey, those rafters are undersized for their span and will have to be braced before I can insulate, and oh, the roof will be due for replacement in a few years…. Well, you see where I’m going with this. I’m hoping that my next move is to a small (less than1200 s.f.) place I build from the ground up, done the right way, that will outlive me and hopefully serve a few more generations before anyone needs to do anything more than cosmetic to it.

  5. joemcglynn says:

    Your house looks fantastic, I’m sure you’ll find an interesting fixer-upper to replace it. I’m looking forward to seeing your progress on it.

    I’ve been successfully ignoring my house for 10 years, and have recently started noticing where it’s getting long in the tooth. My foot going through the front deck was the first clue. Or, at least the first clue that I noticed. I responded by putting a doormat over it so I could focus on the sconces I was trying to build, but I’ve since repaired it properly. I now have a long list of house-oriented projects that will keep me busy for the foreseeable eternity.


  6. ramone says:

    I like your blog … I’ll be hangin’ around : )

  7. Pottsvillain says:

    Hey the house looks great. I’m working on an 1880’s victorian, actually almost done if that is ever the case, and yes I would do it again. I know the realtor didn’t want to show it, but… I want to see the bench side of the shop!
    Best of luck selling the house.

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