Want to turn a basement mess into a DIY utopia? Here’s how to set up clean, well-lit workroom.
By Ryan D’Agostino
When we moved into our 1854 farmhouse a few years ago, there was, shall we say, work to be done. Taps didn’t work, lights didn’t light. There were too many walls. The attic was inaccessible. There was no insulation. There wasn’t even a hutch for the rabbit we would eventually have.
I needed – and wanted – what every homeowner needs and wants: a corner of the basement that I could transform into a workroom. I designated a small (2,5 by 3,5 metres) room for my shop, but there wasn’t much to recommend the space. It was dark, kind of damp, and dusty. Wires snaked across its ceiling and walls. A bare 40-watt bulb jutted out from one wall with a Rube Goldberg pull-string arrangement running to the side of the board-and-batten door. Both tilting wood windows in the foundation had been painted shut decades before.
The space was hard to love, but it was mine. I could play music as loud as I wanted down there while I fixed one of the kids’ wooden toys or rewired an old lamp my parents gave us. But a workroom isn’t a workroom until it has a workbench, so the first thing I did after we closed on the house was build one. I figured once I had that, everything else about renovating a 162-year-old structure built by farmers would be easy.
Projects came and went, each one marching in turn through the workroom. Paint was stirred and stored in there, cordless power-tool batteries charged, and left-over boxes of screws and nails were set aside for the next project.
But a slow transformation occurred. The room became a mess. Along with the accretion of hardware and new tools came the less desirable. A thin film of dirt and dust settled over everything. A faint odour – some combination of mouse urine and caulk – never left. Broken parts and things that I never use mingled with the tools and hardware I needed constantly. The room began swallowing tools and hardware at a rate that defied its small size. My rolling Husky tool chest was permanently stuck in one corner. I couldn’t even open the door on the beer fridge.
Here was the worst part: I stopped enjoying the time I spent in there. Clearly, it was time to give the room an overhaul. So I asked my next-door neighbour and Popular Mechanics contributing editor Richard Romanski – whose work space is literally a cathedral and organised like nothing I’ve ever seen – for advice. I needed shelves, I told him – five rows of shelves along a four-metre open-stud wall. Richard said, “Sure, we could do that, and a lot more.” The project would teach me larger lessons about controlling an unruly space, one without a single level plane, square corner, or straight line.
Clean up the workroom
We began by hauling everything out of the room. Now at least we could see what we were doing. (Plus, I found my hacksaw!) One obvious problem was that a series of electricians or, more likely, handymen had used the room as an embarkation point to run wiring throughout the house and the boxes were in our way. So our first job was to cut power to what we thought were the affected circuits and then test the wires we intended to move with a non-contact voltage detector.
We found no electrical surprises and had a fairly straightforward time of routing the wires out of the way of where we needed to put shelving.
Prep for storage
Next came preparation for storage. I had envisaged a system of 50 x 100 beams as supports with pine shelving, but Richard had a better idea: epoxy-coated wall standards and brackets. Now, I had always thought metal-bracket shelves looked cheap and buckled under anything heavier than a box of pencils, but he had seen a good, strong steel standard-and-bracket system at our local lumberyard. We would mount those to 15-millimetre AC fir plywood. This is expensive material. On the other hand, I needed only three sheets and it was dead flat. We’d use every square centimetre of it, so there’d be no waste.
For the shelves themselves, we’d use 22-millimetre-thick knotty white pine. It’s beautiful stuff.
We began by noting the position of the Lally column that supports the house’s main beam. The Lally column is a wonderful way to hold up a house, but it seems there’s always one in the way of a basement remodelling job. In mapping out the shelves, we made sure the seams between pieces of plywood wouldn’t fall behind the column. We even used the thing to our advantage, turning it into a divider between the deeper shelves for heavy items and a stack of shallow shelves for smaller items. We were also mindful that the standards not fall at the ends of the shelves. Rather, the standard would be offset from the shelf’s end, giving each shelf a pleasing cantilever about 15 centimetres long.
Measure, measure, measure
So with the wiring neatly tucked out of the way, we began measuring the stud locations, relative to the plywood’s length. “Never assume the studs are 400 millimetres on centre, even if they look like they are,” Richard declared. Our investigation of the stud wall paid off. It turned out that the end of the plywood sheet wouldn’t fall on the centre of a stud. When faced with this, it’s usually easier to add blocking than to crosscut the plywood to suit the stud location.
The factory edge on AC plywood is very good, which means that it will butt neatly up to the next sheet. So we installed blocking where necessary, brought the first full sheet of plywood into position, shimmed it level off the floor, and tacked it to the wall with a handful of 20-millimetre finish nails fired from a cordless Senco nail gun. We crosscut the next sheet to length and butted its factory edge to the factory edge on the end of the first sheet.
Next, we ripped the partial sheets. Again, we planned the rip to allow the factory edge of these partial sheets to meet the factory edge of the sheets below. We offset the sheets, like bricks, to avoid a bush-league joint of four corners.
With all the sheets carefully tacked into position, we nailed them home with the Senco. The result was a nice, neat installation, with smooth, flat surfaces and tightly butted edges. The room was transforming before our eyes.
Everyone has seen metal wall shelving that’s badly installed with standards that are not parallel and wavy shelves. It doesn’t have to be that way. Careful layout and installation – plus a sturdy product to begin with – makes for a supreme storage wall. You stand before it, and you want to stand there for hours, figuring out how best to stack boxes of nails. It’s fun.
Need more tips on hanging metal shelves? Click here to see how you hang metal shelves on an open-stud wall.
First, work out your spacing. The light-duty standards that we used should never be more than a metre apart – preferably less – or else heavy items can cause the shelves to sag. Relative to the Lally column’s position and the weight of the stuff I intended to store, we spaced the standards 692 mm apart.
We began by setting a reference standard that would dictate the position of the standards that followed. Using a sharp No 2 pencil, we lightly marked a plumb line to designate its position, then we took the level and carefully marked a horizontal line across the plywood that would approximate the top of each standard on the wall.
Since we had gone through extra trouble to install the plywood neatly, we had a reliably flat reference surface that would speed the installation of our standards and shelving.
Steady as she goes
We placed the first reference standard in position against the plumb line and poked the still-sharp pencil through its top mounting hole. We removed the standard, drilled a pilot hole on that mark, put the standard back in position and fastened it to the plywood with a single No 8 Simpson Strong-Tie Strong-Drive wafer-head screw. If you haven’t tried these fasteners, please do. Formed out of heat-treated carbon steel, they’re incredibly strong and easy to drive, thanks to a deeply recessed Phillips head. The bottom surface of the wafer head is lightly imprinted with a gripping surface like a tyre tread. When you drive one of these puppies, it stays put.
With a single screw in the top hole, we checked the standard for plumb; finding that it was, we drove the remaining screws, using one fastener in each of the standard’s holes, more than enough to secure it to the plywood.
A simple trick to ensure the correct installation of the next standard: insert a shelf bracket in the first standard and in the new one you’re hanging. Then hold the next standard on its mark while a helper uses a level to span from one shelf bracket to the other. Careful installation of the next standard ensures that it’s not only plumb, but that the shelf will sit properly on it.
The rest of the work in the shop was straightforward. We installed a small section of pegboard over the workbench, painted the ceiling and hung two fluorescent shop lights on it. Richard built a simple plywood work surface over the beer fridge and the Husky cart. And after wire-brushing the stone foundation wall, we applied a coating of UGL Drylok waterproofer using large tampico paintbrushes. (Applying this heavy coating to rock is like trying to paint the surface of the Moon. Each load of paint on the brush covers only about 600 square centimetres of wall surface. Then you take another dip and go at it again. But in the end, it turned a grey stone wall into a gleaming white surface that nicely reflects light in the small space.)
Taking a break from our work and enjoying a beer from said fridge, Richard and I felt a breeze that had found its way in through one of the tiny tilt-in windows in the rock wall. It had been a battle to get that window open, so tightly was it painted shut. But it was worth it. The fresh air felt good, and a sheen of actual daylight washed over the space. I could even see a small square of blue sky through the opening.