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Your guide to the smartest shop space-makers
By Joe Hurst-Wajszczuk
Few of us ever admit to having “enough” tools and machinery, but sooner or later, we realize that it’s possible to own one too many. Finding parking spots for those most-needed machines, benches, stands, and materials in a crowded garage or basement can take the thrill out of making sawdust. All too often, we eat up shop time dragging heavy pieces across the floor, turning every project into a series of hassles.
Enter mobile bases—the next best thing to building a bigger shop. These affordable accessories maximize available space by enabling you to roll in machinery when it’s needed and then roll it out of when it’s not. Mobility is the quintessential tight shop solution, but it can be equally valuable in larger workshops. Repositioning machinery improves workflow and, in some cases, creates extra assembly space for large projects.
Choosing the right mobile base—or deciding to make one yourself—isn’t as difficult as it seems. Here’s a list of options, plus a handy product-selection decision tree you can use to get your shop rolling.
Your Mobile Options
Dedicated or Universal Base
Mobile bases come in two basic flavors: Dedicated and Universal. A dedicated base, as shown in Photo A, is the simplest solution because it’s engineered to match the size and weight of a given machine. However, custom bases are more expensive (on average $50 to $100 more than comparable universal bases), and they can cost you more later. Because these bases fit specific machinery, future shop upgrades, such as replacing your old 6" jointer with an 8" one, may also mean buying a brand-new base.
Universal bases, as shown in Photo B, are suitable for almost any machine that fits within the base’s size and weight range (see “Average Machine Weights,” below). Prices for universal bases generally fall in the $50 to $100 range. The downside to universal bases is the assembly process; however, even those bases that come with a bag of parts can be completed in less than two hours.
Dedicated bases are ready to go straight out of the box, but lack the flexibility to adjust to a changing shop.
Universal bases require some assembly, but offer the flexibility to adapt to a changing shop and a variety of machines.
Caster count: 3, 4, or 6?
According to the rules of physics, a three-wheeler provides the most stability, but in some shop situations, a fourth wheel makes more sense. Three-wheeled bases are perfect for jointers and table saws, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence suggesting that top-heavy equipment, such as bandsaws and drill presses, can be dangerously tippy on three wheels. Proper precautions, such as bolting the machine to the base, and being extra careful when rolling the machine around, can prevent disaster,but a wider four-wheeled base is an even safer bet.
If you’re looking for some way to wheel around a cabinet saw outfitted with an extension table, you might consider a six-wheeled base. An extra pair of wheels makes the large machines easier to roll and better distributes the weight across the frame.
Hand-tightened wheel locks (C) are good for machines that are moved infrequently, but foot-activated pedals (D) can be raised or locked in place without needing to bend over.
Wheel locks: hand or foot-activated
Besides having the ability to move where you want it to go, it’s equally important that your base/machine combo stays firmly planted where you want it to sit. You don’t want a table saw to roll or spin when ripping a sheet of plywood. For that reason, the wheel-locking mechanism may be the most important factor in base selection.
Your decision comes down to convenience (see photos C and D). Hand-tightened wheel locks are effective, but not as easy to use as foot-operated levers and plungers. The ability to quickly brake and release a base without having to crawl around on the floor is worth the few added bucks, especially for your most mobile big tools.
Casters for custom carts and bases
Some so-called “portable” tools, such as planers, sanders (even some table saws) do not come with a base. In this case, you’ll need to build your own cabinet base and then equip it with casters.
A set of four casters can wind up costing more than a mobile base kit; however, casters are more suitable for larger and heavier applications such as lumber racks, assembly carts, and workbenches. They’re also easily recyclable for future shop projects. Here are some other pointers:
• When choosing casters size matters. Larger 4"- and 5"- diameter wheels cost a few dollars more, but are better able to roll over cracks and cords than three-inchers.
• Swivel-based casters can help you spin a cart around on a dime, but you’ll pay more for the extra mobility. To save money, position a pair of less expensive fixed casters on one end.
• For stability, at least two casters should be equipped with double-locking mechanisms. These brakes keep the wheel from turning and prevent the caster from swiveling.
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