Big-Sky Getaway

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This article is from Issue 33 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Wide-open Montana workshop invites in the mountain view.

By Robert J. Settich

Two years ago, Nancy Ballance traded her Harley for a brand-new 1,000 square foot woodworking shop in Hamilton, Montana. And to make the swap even more improbable, Nancy didn’t own a motorcycle at the time. Fact is, she never has.

It was the motorcycle Nancy planned to give herself for her 60th birthday. For over 30 years, she reminded her husband, Larry, about the inevitability of the present: “I could see in his face that he wasn’t sure that he believed it, but he thought maybe he did.” The reminders became more frequent after the couple retired from the computer industry in California and moved to Montana four years ago. About that same time, Larry started talking about building a woodworking shop on part of their three-acre lot. The couple seemed to talk past each other for awhile until Larry—who is neither a motorcyclist nor a woodworker—crystallized an offer: “Give up the motorcycle and we’ll build you the shop.” Nancy thought for awhile and finally agreed. “It was a good trade,” she said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Nancy and her husband, Larry, used an architectural software program to design a shop that’s in harmony with its scenic location.

Nancy and Larry’s home and shop reside at about the north-south midpoint of the picturesque 100-mile long Bitterroot Valley. Every morning, the sun rises over the Sapphire Mountains, setting into the Bitterroots that serve as the border between western Montana and eastern Idaho. It’s exactly the kind of wide open country that a Montana highway engineer, Bob Fletcher, had in mind when he composed a poem that Cole Porter bought for $250 and turned into the song, “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Nancy and Larry collaborated on planning the shop, producing a design that brings the expansive mountain landscape indoors and then blurs the boundary between indoors and out. The generously-sized and abundant windows flood the shop with light and fresh air, while the attached greenhouse has a sliding-glass door that opens from the shop. A second slider leads from the shop to a patio where Nancy often works. She enthuses, “It’s a beautiful spot to sit and carve.”


Nancy designed a series of silhouette girls enjoying a number of woodworking activities, including the operation of hand and power tools (off-limits in her own youth).

An entry door neighbors a double garage door. In fact, the shop has so many windows and doors that there’s a real shortage of wall space that’s uninterrupted from the concrete floor to the 10' ceiling. “In hindsight,” Nancy admits, “I would have done just a single garage door, which would have given me more wall space.”

Horizontal surfaces abound, with two workbenches, a downdraft sanding table, and two additional work tables. Her Shopsmith Mark V continues the horizontal lines, as do the long cabinets flanking the mitersaw. In fact, the only three vertical elements in the shop are a drill press, bandsaw, and lumber rack.

The finishing room, bathroom, and break alcove make up the shop’s east wall. Note the special decorating touches in and around the alcove.

The theme of openness continues throughout the shop. None of the storage cabinets or spaces below the work tables have doors, so Nancy can quickly locate the tools and supplies she needs.

Because she’s typically advancing several projects at the same time, the 9 ×12' 6" finishing room helps her boost productivity. She no longer needs to wait for the finish to cure on one project before continuing work on another.

Nancy’s Shopsmith Mark V served as her main tool for over 30 years. Her scale model in wood—with its articulating parts—won her a ribbon at the Montana County Fair.

With all the open storage, dust collection is crucial. Nancy opted away from fixed ducting because she thought it would detract from the clean architecture of her shop. Instead, she employs hoses and a portable dust collector. Added to this effort is her shop-made downdraft sanding table—an effective problem solver. Nancy discovered that commercial versions cost plenty because they include a built-in motor and filtration system. With a stroke of design clarity, she whisked away that expense by installing a port below the tabletop that connects to her dust collector. The table’s open shelves store abrasives and finishing supplies (see page 52).

The shop also serves social and educational needs. As part of the design, Nancy included an alcove containing a table and chairs where family and the group of fledgling female woodworkers she mentors can relax and enjoy coffee or lunch together.

The leaping trout motif captured Nancy’s heart during a Yellowstone vacation. She quickly sketched the idea to preserve it.

The Workshop At A Glance

Size: Overall shop 32 × 34', including a 9 × 12' 6" finishing room, bathroom, and 5 × 8' alcove break room. Storage attic reached via a flight of steps. Attached greenhouse, 7' 6" × 11'.

Construction: 2 × 6 exterior stud walls; blown-in R-19 insulation in walls, R-30 in ceiling, and R-38 in roof. 

Heating and cooling: Ceiling-mounted 240V-, 5,000-watt electric heater (The Hot One by Cadet), providing 17,000 BTUs. Cooling not required.

Lighting: (8) 100-watt incandescent bulbs, plus (3) 8'-long fluorescent fixtures with (4) 4'-long tubes in each one. 

Electrical: 200-amp main panel, providing 240V to ceiling-mounted heater, plus 220V circuit for future use. 110V outlets located 42" above floor, and spaced 48" horizontally. (9) 110V outlets in the ceiling. Two switched outlets for mitersaw and dust collector.

Dust Collection: Portable ½-hp, 30-gal. Shopsmith unit that’s

The Floor Plan

Many woodworking shops become so chock-full of stationary power tools that it’s difficult to find the space to set down a coffee mug. But Nancy’s shop abounds with open surfaces: two workbenches, two work tables, a sanding table, and a long counter that holds the mitersaw. And that’s before you count the table and four chairs where Nancy and friends gather for coffee. Note in the alcove photo earlier how she feminized her shop with scrollsawn cutouts of a girl creatively engaged in woodworking.

But the openness doesn’t mean the shop is light on woodworking tools and supplies. Hers is a full-function shop that’s well-organized to keep the focus on woodworking. A double garage door opens wide to bring in lumber, tools, and the mountain view. A sliding-glass door to the porch opens to a favorite place for carving and hand-sanding. Ample attic storage above, accessed by steps, serves both the shop and home.

A dedicated finishing room with its double doors ensures dust-free surfaces, even when production swings into high gear in the main shop area.

Smart ideas for the taking

Downdraft sanding table

If your shop doesn’t have room for this full-scale downdraft table, consider half-sizing the lengths of the top and base for a better fit. You could even omit the legs, creating a unit to place atop your workbench or sawhorses when needed and then compactly stow to conserve space. Abrasives and finishing supplies fill the shelves underneath.

Adjustable tenoning jig

Sure, you can buy a tenoning jig, but the handles are either lifeless plastic or cold steel. Build your own jig and you’ll enjoy the lifetime satisfaction of gripping a pleasing wood knob and handle that you crafted yourself. An insignificant detail? Not for a wood lover.

Power tool Boxes

Here’s an open-and-shut case for portable power tool storage. First, glue and nail the four sides. Cut the top and bottom about 1/8" oversize in both length and width. Then, after assembly, use a flush-trim bit in your router to rout away the excess for a perfect fit.

This mantel clock tour de force showcases Nancy’s impressive skills in turning, carving, shaping complex moldings, and executing intricate joinery.

Nancy’s woodworking journey

When Nancy was a teenager, she spent long hours in the shops of  both her father and grandfather, watching them use their Shopsmiths to create furniture and other projects. The two men were, Nancy says, “very different in the way they worked, which was good, because I saw two different styles of working.” Her grandfather, who was legally blind, taught her patience by his example of setting up power tools strictly by feel. “From my father,” Nancy said, “I got the idea that if you can dream it you can do it.”

Nancy’s carved trout suspended in a stream bed captures the local color of Montana living.

But even with that positive outlook, it was a time, Nancy recalls, when people considered woodworking as “too dangerous for a girl to do. But the desire remained, because I would just sit and watch them work.”

Even before she had a shop, Nancy designed and built ambitious projects such as this corner china cabinet for her mother.

When she finally bought her Shopsmith, in 1977, Nancy says, “I read the manual from cover to cover, but everything already seemed second nature.” For over 30 years, Nancy didn’t even have a shop—merely a workbench and a corner of the garage for her machine. But that didn’t stop her from tackling large projects, including a corner china cabinet, bunk beds, and more.

Today, Nancy passes along her woodworking knowledge to a group of eight women who have impressed her with their own determination. She also has one male protégé with nearly boundless enthusiasm and energy. “He loves going over to the shop,” Nancy said, “and he can sand like crazy.” He’s new to woodworking, but at only a year and a half old, Nancy’s grandson, Jack, is new to nearly everything.

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