10 Items you need in your workspace

Sure, your workspace will always be a project in itself, but these 10 essentials are a solid foundation for a well-stocked shop.

1. A Good Vise

Two hands are almost always better than one, and an easy way to use both of your mitts when you’re in the shop is to clamp things in a vise. The better the vise, the more you can do with it. A quality, name-brand vise like a Wilton could set you back $300 to $500, but it’s worth it. If that’s outside your budget, look for a sturdy vise that doesn’t have a lot of slop in its moving parts. Our favorite place to buy a vise is a garage sale: We’ve picked up vises similar to the one shown here for less than $20 each. They’re not Wiltons, but they’re quality pieces.

2. Booster Pack

In the old days, people used to jump-start a car by connecting it to another car with cables. That era ended with the invention of the booster pack. For $50 to $100, these little wonders can offer 10 to 20 serious jump-starts per recharge. Many offer other features, like lighter/accessory plugs, a work light, an air compressor, and even USB or 110V ports. If you don’t think you need one, try it just once and you’ll change your mind.

3. Wheels Under Everything

Most of us don’t have the luxury of a large, dedicated shop space. Even if we did, we’d still want everything on wheels so we could customize the shop layout for the project at hand. We put casters under all our tables, heavy equipment, and basically everything else in the shop so we can arrange things in the most efficient configuration. A bonus is that wheels make cleaning a snap: Just roll the equipment out of the way, clean the area, and roll it back. 

4. Pegboard

Just as wheels add flexibility to a shop floor, pegboard adds it to the wall. Pegboard and hooks are inexpensive and allow you to store tools, small parts and other items to support your project. They also make it easier to stay organized. When the project is done, you can simply rearrange the wall for the next project. 

5. Scrap Wood

Clamps and vises are handy for holding parts while you’re working on your project, but sometimes they’re not quite enough. Scrap wood is actually a powerful, inexpensive tool that can enhance your clamps and vises. Sometimes you’ll use a wood block to keep your car from rolling away. You may also use some wood to hold the engine at just the right angle when engineering a swap, as a fixture for a fabricated bracket, or as a hammerform for a custom sheet-metal part. Keep some 2x4s, furring strips, and scraps of plywood in the corner of the shop, and you’ll always find a use for them. 

6. Clamps, Clamps and More Clamps

Remember what we said about two hands being better than one? And how handy a good vise is? Well, a clamp is basically a portable vise. One clamp is good, but more is better. A good assortment of C-clamps, locking pliers, ratcheting clamps, and any other form of clamping device will help you squeeze things into position, hold parts where they need to be, and generally keep your hands free. Like vises, good clamps can be very expensive, but also like vises, there are many ways to buy them used for reasonable money. Buy every one you can afford, and hang them on your pegboard.

7. Shelves, Cabinets, Drawers and Bins

By now, you may have picked up a sub-theme of this story: Organization and flexibility can make or break a shop. While wheels and pegboard are key in this area, you still need to put stuff somewhere. We like cabinets for stuff we want to keep clean, shelves for stuff we need to be able to see, drawers for tools and supplies, and plastic bins to subdivide all of the above. All of these items can be bought new for reasonable money, and many of them can be found used for little money or even free. Don’t forget flexible storage when you plan your shop.

8. Fasteners

While we’re on the topic of organization and bins, we like to keep our shop’s bins filled with common fasteners. There’s nothing worse than being partway through a project and having to run to the hardware story to get a nut or bolt. 

We like to keep fasteners in bins so that when it’s time to refill, we can just carry the bins into the store and refill the compartments that are low on stock. It’s a bit surprising what we’ll spend to fill a bin–maybe $100 for the initial haul–but it’s worth it. We stay away from the cheap assortments in catalogs and on the Internet; we’ve found that they often contain low-quality hardware and sometimes a lot of fastener sizes we don’t need. We customize our own setup and spend a little more in the short term, but we figure we’re saving in the long term.

9. Flexible, Portable Lighting

Okay, now we’re pretty organized. But if we can’t see what we’re doing, we’re not going to get very far. In the old days, the ideal shop had a whole lot of florescent lights mounted everywhere. While these are still the staple of a good shop, battery-operated, flexible lighting has come a long way and is worth some investment. We’ve grown very fond of portable LED lights. Most are inexpensive and offer good battery life, long bulb life, and magnetic mounts so that we can use both of our hands when we’re working.

10. No Static Storage

When it comes to storage, it’s time to clarify things a bit. We want to store things in the short term so that we can finish a project. Then, thanks to our pegboard, wheels, magnetic lights, and portable clamps, we’ll rearrange things for the next project. 

However, we want to eliminate what we call static storage: If we’re not going to use it in the next few months, we don’t want it in the shop. Our flexible shop only has space for project storage. Once something starts sitting long-term, we either throw it away responsibly, sell it off, or move it to a place more suited to long-term storage, like a basement, loft or external storage unit. Shop space is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted on static storage.

Bonus Item: Tunes

We’ve discredited old-school shop equipment like jumper cables and all-florescent lights. When it comes to the way we get our music, though, the old school still rules. Sure, we could get a pair of amplified Bluetooth devices to connect to our iPhone, but what’s fun about that? The best way to add some flair to a shop, challenge yourself, and listen to music is to take an old car stereo (preferably with no faceplate), hastily wire it to a used battery (or a booster pack), and run some lamp cord to some old speakers. Duct tape, tinfoil and a cassette adapter for the aforementioned iPhone add to the charm.

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View comments on the CMS forums
12/8/20 6:07 a.m.

Although I haven't bought it yet, my next workspace will have a parts washer.  I remember my dad cleaning parts with gasoline using a coffee can and a small brush.  That was fine until the cigarette in his mouth ignited the fumes in an empty can and burned off his eyebrows and the front of his hair.

wspohn Dork
12/8/20 11:02 a.m.

I just wish my work space had that much room clear of cars and parts stacked up around the edges!  Best work space feature is a storage place somewhere else!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/8/20 3:45 p.m.

I've been redoing mine, and I'll share pics once it's finished. But just getting rid of stuff has helped a lot--selling some parts, finding good homes for others, tossing away garbage, and sending hazardous stuff to the collection site at the landfill. Plus LED lamps are pretty helpful. 

Bardan New Reader
3/21/21 2:49 p.m.

On the part about tunes, I worked for a guy that always had country music on. As a teenager I wanted rock so I asked "do I have to listen to that s#%@?". He said that rock music get mechanics all tense and they damage cars, country music relaxes them and they do less damage. He was right!

SkinnyG (Forum Supporter)
SkinnyG (Forum Supporter) UberDork
3/21/21 8:06 p.m.

Very true.  I am usually playing "slow blues" now, which I find is much more calming than metal.

bencii New Reader
3/11/23 2:41 p.m.

I would like to know whose MGB did that center console speaker come from?

4/11/23 2:17 p.m.
Carl Heideman said:

Sure, your workspace will always be a project in itself, but these 10 essentials are a solid foundation for a well-stocked shop.

Read the rest of the story


Kayfriedrich New Reader
4/11/23 2:20 p.m.

I have as an priority tool 2 pillow for may nees

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/12/23 6:17 a.m.

I use the same ones. They work great.


5/28/23 10:16 a.m.

I would like to add two other items.                                                                                                                                                                                                        The first one is a hockey puck, at least one for every floor jack you use. Place the hockey puck in the saddle of your jack to prevent damage to the vehicle you are raising.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The second is a refrigerator or cooler. You have to stay hydrated, but it is really nice after you clean up for the day, to spend a minute and have a"garage" beer to relax and make plans for tomorrow.

Bazemore23 New Reader
8/19/23 11:47 a.m.

You missed a strong portable shop vacuum , which I have two - one on each side of the shop. 

cwfritz New Reader
8/19/23 12:01 p.m.

Jackstands!  Also strap-on knee pads and a floor creeper.


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