Top Shop: The (Way) Above-Average Below-Grade Workshop

Roger McClure’s basement workshop is packed to the rafters (joists, actually) with tools and accessories, but that doesn’t prevent him from keeping a tidy shop. 

It’s all about using space wisely—and creatively.

At first glance, Roger McClure’s Louisville, Kentucky, workshop looks like any other. But then it dawns on you how much stuff Roger has without being crowded. When you’ve been at the woodworking game as long as he has, you learn a thing or two about economizing space.

“Because of the size of my shop, I’ve got to use the top, bottom, and middle,” says the 78-year-old retired machinist. “And everything is full.”

Roger and his wife, Jo, built their house 17 years ago. A standard stairway leads to a two-thirds basement underneath. Unfortunately, wishing it were a full basement doesn’t make it so, so Roger had to adapt. Over the years he put the space he has to good use. Sheet goods, for example, are stored in an overhead space in the garage, and long stock enters the shop through a special covered pass-through at left (much like a pet door) cut in the foundation wall. “You should have heard the builder when I told him to come over and start cutting through the concrete,” Roger says with a laugh. The pass-through is located above the Powermatic 90 lathe (see the floor plan below).

Roger devised a unique method of transferring rough stock from his garage to the basement. Because the garage floor is 3' below the basement ceiling, Roger had his contractor cut this 12 x 20" pass-through hole through the foundation well. 

Once in the basement, long stock is stored on racks above and below the compound mitersaw. Exotic woods, which tend to be in shorter lengths, are stored separately on racks Roger built between the floor joists. “I have to let it cure for up to two years,” Roger explains. “It’s a great place for it to air and cure.” Clamps, various jigs, and pushsticks are also hung—like woodworkers’ stalactites—from the joists, where they are out of the way but easily accessible, as are the drop-down power cords.

A unique arrangement of dust collectors, each with its own remote control, also conserves space. Roger uses three Jet 650s with 4" ducts attached to the joists and running to the tools or, in the case of the compound mitersaw, making just a short run from collector to tool. The collectors are unobtrusively placed in corners. A ceiling-mounted Jet air filtration system removes airborne particles, helping preserve a healthy shop environment while keeping fine dust from settling on the furniture and countertops in the main living spaces above.

Wall space is put to effective use as well. Roger built two sections of joist-hung cabinets that store a variety of accessories and provide convenient parking spots underneath for larger machines, the majority of which are mounted on casters with special parking feet (see Figure 2 under "Smart Ideas for the Taking", below). A large pegboard rack on a third wall provides additional storage. 

Even a trio of floor-to-ceiling support posts was put to good use. Each has a pole-mounted workstation that Roger designed (see Figure 1 under "Smart Ideas for the Taking"). Two support grinders and the third, positioned next to the drill press, keep bits (and a telephone) easily accessible. 

From the opposite view, we see an open area between Roger’s workbench and table saw. Here, Roger wheels in his mobile machines for planing, jointing, scrollsawing, and routing. The area also provides ample room for assembling large projects.

The Workshop at a Glance

Size: 24 x 30' with separate 8 x 10' office and 8 x 10' bathroom/finishing/supplies storage room.
Construction: Basement shop with concrete walls and 8' (exposed) ceiling.
Heating and cooling: Lennox two-stage sealed combustion gas furnace and 3-ton air-conditioner.
Lighting: Sixteen 4'-long 32- and 40-watt dual-tube fluorescent lights plus six ceiling-mounted halogen task lights aimed at selected tools.
Electrical: Four 220-amp circuits and eight 120-amp circuits
Dust collection: Three 650 cfm Jet dust collectors and two shop vacuums; one Jet 650 cfm three-speed air cleaner.
Air compressor: Puma 4.6 cfm 120 psi.

Near the center of the shop is the Delta Unisaw, equipped with Uniguard and Incra fence. After going through a series of contractor’s saws, Roger bought this one five years ago. “It’s a fabulous saw,” he says. A fixed outfeed table and a mobile tool chest with a surface at the same height provide additional support when working with long pieces. Stationary tools (a 13" planer and 26" bowl lathe) occupy the space on one side; a stationary workbench is positioned on the other.

Between the table saw and a larger workbench is an open work area. Roger rolls the tools stored around the shop’s perimeter into position here, performs the needed tasks, and then rolls them back to their parking spots.

Cushioned rubber mats cover the concrete floor at key standing locations. “At 78, you need all the comfort you can get,” Roger says.

With this arrangement, Roger has everything he needs to make the furniture and turned pieces found throughout his home. Finished projects, usually made of oak, walnut, or exotic woods, include an entire bedroom suite, coffee tables, end tables, a humpbacked trunk, and an array of turned pieces and jewelry boxes.

Not bad for a guy who started making airplanes out of orange crates in the third grade. Projects around the family farm kept Roger interested until he entered high school, where the tools in the shop class fueled a desire to start making his own projects. “I dreamed that one day I would have a shop like I did in my high school woodworking days,” Roger recalls.

Roger had no formal woodworking training, but during a 40-year-career as a machinist and later an instructor with Phillip Morris, Roger built a collection of tools and developed his skills. “They didn’t have woodworking magazines like they do today,” Roger says.

His years as an instructor continue to serve him well. Several times a month Roger does product demonstrations for a tool manufacturer and serves as an instructor at Louisville-area Woodcraft stores.

Most of the time the tool’s metal fence is fine for Roger’s 6" jointer with its short bed. But when jointing long stock, he lengthens the infeed table with a shop-made extender. It’s a laminate-surfaced infeed table/solid-stock fence combo attached to the tool with a C-clamp. “I only use it when working with big pieces,” Roger explains. “Ninety percent of the time I use the tool’s fence.”
Incoming rough stock can slide either over or under the compound mitersaw, which has two 2 x 10' lumber storage shelves above and two more below. The No. 2 dust collector (seen in the near background) is dedicated to this saw. A 12 x 18" dust-collection hood helps keep the shop clean. “It makes a horrendous mess if you don’t contain the dust,” Roger says. Box-like wings measuring 4' long on each side of the saw base provide ample support for long stock.

Roger built this solid rosewood router table six years ago and outfitted it with an Incra lift and LS17 fence. The surface measures 34 x 44". Three drawers contain progressively larger router bits. The table includes emergency stop buttons for the 3½-hp router plus a lockout switch so Roger doesn’t have to take time to open the cabinet and unplug the router before changing bits. Three drawers hold various tools and templates for more than 40 different types of dovetails. 

Mobility—that’s the key to Roger’s 24 x 30' basement shop. 

“With as many tools as I have and the size of my shop, my tools have to be mobile,” Roger explains. “The exceptions are the Powermatic 90 lathe, Unisaw, planer, and bowl lathe.”

The Unisaw with two outfeed tables—one fixed and one mobile—occupies the center of the shop (see the Floor Plan at right). A 13" planer and 26" bowl lathe occupy fixed positions on one side of the table saw, while a fixed workbench occupies the other. The Powermatic 90 lathe is fixed on the opposite side. Between the table saw and sizeable workbench behind is an open workspace. The remaining tools are parked around the shop’s perimeter, providing Roger with unobstructed passageways around the shop. All other tools can be rolled into this area for temporary use.

To conserve even more floor space, Roger hangs frequently used items from the joits above and has built workstations on three beam support (jack) posts. Drop-down extension cords and ducts for the dust collectors are also attached to the joists to minimize clutter.

Roger stores sheet goods in the garage where he has a hoist and an overhead storage area. That way he can cut the sheets to smaller pieces in the garage and then feed them through the pass-through or carry them down to the shop. Rough stock slides easily though the pass-through and is stored on racks at the mitersaw station. Exotic woods acclimate in racks between the joists until needed.

Roger equipped his shop with Jet dust collectors strategically positioned in corners around the shop. “It’s more expensive to do it this way, but they don’t make as much noise, so my wife can watch TV and do her needlework undisturbed. And they do a good job of containing the dust,” Roger says. 

The walls are put to good use, too. Here Roger keeps various tools, saw blades, clamps, and jigs out of the way but close at hand.

A trio of small rooms along one side provides Roger with a convenient restroom and sink, a small office, and additional storage.

The Floor Plan 

“I would pick a location where I would have an outside entrance. I encourage anyone who is thinking of building a below grade shop to have a walkout basement.”

“Five years ago I bought a Delta Unisaw with Uniguard and added an Incra fence system.  Together, they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Smart Ideas for the Taking

1. Jack-post workstation: Using as much available space as possible, Roger even put three basement jack posts to work by designing pole-mounted workstations. In this case, pieces of pine are cut to fit around the pole, secured with bolts, and topped with 1" medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and plastic laminate (see Figure 1) to support a high-speed bench grinder. The center station holds the telephone and drill bits for the nearby drill press, and the third station holds the 7" low-speed bench grinder.

2. Parking feet: Here’s a simple tip to secure a rolling cabinet that uses nonlockable casters. Roger fashioned these parking feet (see Figure 2) from scrap lumber and 1" rubber chair leg tips. A quick spin with a drill driver turns each chair tip securely against the floor for a secure grip.

3. Segment cutting jig: Precision is a must when cutting segmented rings and staves. Roger designed the jig (shown above) so each of the 16 pieces in a ring is cut at 11¼º. To make one just like it, see the Figure 3. To use the jig, clamp the stock against the 111/4 degree end of the adjustable stop. Repeat this procedure to make the initial cut for all the segments. Then reverse the stop end for end to make the cut at the other end of each segment. Clamp each one against the square end.

4. Stave cutting jig: For cutting staves, Roger uses this jig to ensure safety and precise repeat cuts. First he attaches a clamp to the 2"-square workpiece and cuts it to the appropriate angle (11¼º). Because the next cut would be made on a workpiece no longer square, Roger secures it to the jig with toggle clamps and safely slides it through the blade. To make one for your own shop, see Figure 4.

5. Bowl press: Roger designed this press (Figure 5) to glue up his segmented and stave turnings. The frame and base are made of solid stock and a piece of Baltic birch plywood. Pressure is applied by a 1" dowel handle fitted into a German 1 1/4 x 18" bench screw (Woodcraft #01H41; $54.99). The screw’s foot pad, which he had made at a machinist’s shop, attaches with an Allen screw.

6. 30º triangle cutting jig: “I’m as proud of this as any piece of furniture I’ve ever built because it was complicated to build and the edges fit so well,” Roger says of his triangle table with fluted legs, which measures 21" tall and 26" corner to corner.  Made of American black walnut with a polyurethane finish, the table is the result of a triangle-cutting jig (Figure 6) Roger made that produces exactly 30º cuts every time (see illustration).

Roger McClure - A True Master of Many Skills

Not only is Roger an accomplished turner and furniture builder, but he is also pretty good with do-it-yourself home improvement projects too. This space used to be a deck. After a contractor enclosed it and installed drywall, Roger built the fireplace mantel, shelves, and cabinets. In fact, Roger built everything shown here except the mirror and antique clock. 

An occasional demonstrator and tester for Incra Precision Tools, Roger not only talks the talk, he walks it as well as evidenced by this wooden-hinged masterpiece box. Note the dovetail-within-dovetail seamless corner joints and beveled top.

Roger spends a lot of time at his Powermatic 90 lathe. The 12 x 18" hood collects dust particles, while a shower curtain suspended from hooks catches larger chips, causing them to fall to the floor within a confined area for easy cleanup. A tray on the machine bed keeps tools within arm’s reach. Also within easy reach is a remote control for a joist-hung TV and DVD player. “I turn off the lathe and watch technique videos by top woodturners,” says Roger. “Then I turn on the tool and try to duplicate what I learned.”

Some of Roger’s many turned projects include (clockwise from top) a spalted-maple bowl, a natural edge bowl of maple, a travel mug, a staved lidded container and segmented bowl.

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