Introduction: Complete Workshop in a Shelf

Most Instructables projects require you to have some basic tools and a workshop available - unfortunately, most people do not have the space for these bare essentials available. Just like me.

My girlfriend and I live in a moderate sized apartment for some years now. We have got a spare room that offers sufficient room for our hobbies. Now we expect a baby and this room is assigned to it. As a consequence, I have to move all my tools in a tiny compartment of an IKEA shelf and have to find a new workspace too.

I approached this problem, by building a compact yet solid frame made of low-cost aluminum extrusions. It offers some very handy features:

  • storage space and organization for my tools
  • frame acts as a multi-purpose workbench. It offers:
    • a drill press
    • a router table
    • a bench vise
  • Concept is very flexible and may find further extensions.

Everything is designed to fit the size of the compartment. Total costs of this project are about 150 EUR.

Step 1: The Initial Situation

Having a workspace in an apartment is always a huge tradeoff. I come from the countryside and are used to huge basements and workshops. Working in a tiny apartment is totally different. It shifts the focus of your projects (less woodworking, more electronic projects) and lets you re-evaluate the utility of every tool you have. I was lucky to have a dedicated corner of the room for myself.

Preparing the room for the baby meant to get rid of this corner. All my belongings got temporarily stored in one big box and some smaller piles. Although I will have less time in the near future to work on new projects, there has to be a better solution. The space that was left for me, is a compartment of an IKEA shelf (forgot the name of it). It is the size of 37.5cm x 56.5cm x 59.5cm.

So my issues are:

  • Storage: I need a place where I could store my tools, wires, bolts, and other components I use regularly.
  • Organization: Even more important than having a dedicated space, is to keep everything in order. I do not want to fumble in a box everytime I need a tool.
  • Reduction: Having less space also is a chance. I decided to keep only the tools I really needed. This means to get rid of duplicate and unnecessary ones. Going for basic and high quality tools is my approach.
  • Workbench: I have no workbench any longer and drilling a hole on the living room table is no option. I need a sturdy surface for rough and "dirty" work.
  • Challenge: If you are expecting a child, the stated problems are almost negligible. But hey, there is a chance to prove your skills. Challenge accepted...

Step 2: Workbench Design

I got persuaded by the benefits of aluminum extrusions, in recent projects. They offer a sturdy frame for my 3D-printer and are much less expensive than I initially thought. So I decided to used them again. Over here in Germany, you can order them online cut exactly to the length you want - very convenient and without any additional costs. So I started right away planning a frame made of aluminum extrusions. I did my entire construction work in Autodesk Fusion 360.

After many iterations, the final design that I build is the one I provide here.

My major design considerations are:

  • Low profile drawers for the hand tools. Pliers, wrenches and so on are usually just a few Centimeters high. The lower the drawers, the more tools I can store.
  • Transparent boxes for non-sortable things like nuts, bolts, electronic components, etc. Ordering tiny components in reclosable bags is the most space-efficient storage I am aware of.
  • From the very first idea, the frame was thought of as a tool itself:
    • It should provide a workbench for cutting work, soldering etc.
    • Occasionally, I have to drill some holes. I need a working drilling press.
    • Dremel-tools are very versatile. I wanted the frame to be usable as a router table - the extrusions provide good linear rails.
    • Sometimes you have to clamp things down. The frame should act as a bench vise.

I think my design considerations are a good starting point for everyone to do something similar themselves. I am sure you will have great ideas to improve this concept. As a starting point I provide the CAD file for free use. It also acts as a BOM.

Step 3: Frame Assembly

I ordered the aluminum extrusions according to the CAD-construction. I only used 20x20 and 20x40 extrusions - these are the most affordable ones. After one week, they came pre-cut to the exact length. Screws, corner-brackets and other parts for frame assembly are almost entirely sourced from China. It takes some time to ship them, but is the cheapest source I know.

The assembly is pretty straight forward, if you have the CAD file. Just measure the length of the extrusions and connect them. The only tools you need is a hex wrench, a plier and a rule.

Tip: Corner brackets and connectors cost more, than the extrusions. You can save connectors, if you drill a hole in the end of the extrusion to turn the screw (should be lens head screw M6) in the opposite extrusion. Some extrusions don't even need tapping.

Step 4: Woodworking

Now that you have the frame, you need to build the drawers and the work surface.

I made the drawers from MDF. On the front-end, I put an aluminum extrusion. This makes them look better, but is primarily intended to keep them in place once they are inside the frame.

The work surface is a former kitchen countertop. I got a used one made of solid oak from eBay. You need to cut the plate into two parts. These parts will be connected with threaded rods to build a bench vise. Important things are:

  • The static part of the vise needs a support on both ends. That's why there is an horizontal extrusion in the middle of the frame.
  • It is almost impossible to drill a long hole in the plate to fit the threaded rod. Instead the wood was cut parallel to the sliding direction. Then it was milled on the inside with a router - this creates a tunnel for the rod. After that, everything is glued together. Luckily my brother is a carpenter - he had the right tools for that.
  • Do not forget to put a nut in the static part of the surface. I used one with a larger flange to prevent slippage and to distribute the forces evenly.

Unfortunately, I made no photos of this step. But the renderings will show you the concept.

Step 5: Final Assembly

The last part is to mount the working surface and to install the drawers.

The work surface is only fixed by a small bolt to prevent horizontal movement. Other mounting is not needed. If you want to use the frame as a router table, you have to remove the surface. So make this as simple as possible.

Skateboard bearing placed on screws ensure a smooth motion of the drawers. The aluminum extrusions prevent them from moving, when inside the frame.

Step 6: Further Improvements

Now you have a compact workshop that hides in a shelf. However, the flexibility of the extrusions offers you various possibilities for further improvement.

One thing I mentioned, is the drill press and router guide. I designed them to be used when the work-area is removed. On the left side is a height adjustable board that holds the work pieces. The extrusions do also good work as linear guides. 3D-printing some gliders made of PLA ensures smooth motion. I am currently working on this...

Second, if you build a compact workshop, you will use every inch of it. The extrusions have a depth of 2 cm. That's why I want to use the space between them too. I have already designed and printed a wire coil that fits exactly on the empty space on the left. A ruler holder for the right will be my next objective.

There are many other things that would enhance the functionality of this "workshop in a shelf".

I hope you will find inspiration by this project. It enables you to build many of the projects here on Instructables.

PS: Finding the right tools for this workshop is a challenging task. I decided to fill it with tools that have a level of quality that will hopefully last the rest of my life ("The last tool I will every buy"). If I have the time and there is demand, I will make an Instructable just on the tools I have chosen. I would be great if there is some commonly accepted list of basic tools here on Instructables. I still have the feeling to miss some basics.

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