Making the most out of the least: Your tiny garage.


My first garage was, well it wasn’t really a garage. The place where I spent many a weekend wrenching on my first rally car was a small shed at the end of the driveway at my friend Sean’s house. Always fighting for space , we had to remove the bags of lawn waste, lawnmower, and gardening supplies before we could even think about bringing a car in there. Once a car was in there, good luck opening the doors or doing anything easy. Shelter from the weather and a place to wrench on cars with the help of good friends was what made that place special. I longed for a garage of my own.

Subsequent sheds, borrowed garages and driveways followed. I convinced my Dad that my brothers and I could insulate the garage in a weekend and a propane heater made the difference between working on the cars in the winter and a mission to the outer reaches of space. Have you ever changed brake pads when it was 14Β°F out? It is a whole new level of preparation and commitment. Fluid, tools, and physical tasks are completely different at that temperature.

Once on the West Coast, we got with an eclectic group of folks that rented warehouse buildings in the garment district of LA. Lots of space to be had for $200 a month, but you never wanted to leave your good tools there, and you could never really call it home. Because of course; the guy with the blacked-out caddy already called it home, he had been living out of his car for over 2 months. 😐 When we found that out, we bailed pretty quick. Transmission swaps in the UCI graduate student housing parking lot gave way to some rented shop space for $350 in San Clemente. Access to real tools, a lift, a tire mounter, etc. For a time this was as good as it gets. Then the economy tanked and the rent had to go up. I stuck it out while my space got smaller and smaller, eventually everything had to be on wheels, everything had to be mobile (including the rally car). This is a pain in the ass when you have a long term suspension and engine swap planned. It was time to save my cash, stash the rally car at a buddies house, and move the tools back into a plastic shed behind the apartment and buy a house – with a garage!

What do you get for a reasonably priced short sale in a nice neighborhood? You get 250 square feet. Now subtract space for the washer, the dryer, and the water heater. Ready to get all those extra car parts up on the shelves? How about you start with the 15 paint cans, the bucket of plumbing supplies, and the box of house fix-it stuff that you refuse to place on the hood of the rally car. Here’s my suggestions for surviving out of a tiny garage.

  • Label EVERYTHING!
  • You have to start somewhere. Label the box of random house stuff – ‘House Stuff’. That way you won’t spend two hours digging through it looking for O2 Sensors. Put subsequent labels on it later. ‘House Stuff’ can become ‘House Stuff, Painting Prep, Door Hardware’. Call the P-Touch label maker geeky, but when you and your friends can find (and return) every tool in your tool chest, it’s worth cash money in time saved.

  • Put it on wheels. Become mobile and flexible.
  • Being able to quickly roll work areas and tools around keeps things potentially more flexible then the huge garage with every tool needed in the large immovable chest. Harbor Freight furniture dollies work great for bins of spares, and FWD transmissions. Have some spare dollies in anticipation of your next project. Consider building a smaller mobile work table covered in scrap sheet metal with heavy duty wheels.

  • Get it off the ground. High shelves for stuff you use less.
  • If you are a man – you no doubt consider the floor ‘a low shelf’. Now that everything is mobile in your garage, even 1 bin of parts not on wheels will be frustrating when you go to move everything around for a project. Since a box truck will never fit, why not use the magic space over 5 feet for wall shelves along the length of your garage. Consider a one foot deep shelf with angle brackets tied to the studs. Just like your sugary sweet cereal isle, put the stuff you use most at eye level, ‘good for you’ parts lower, and the super healthy un-used items up above.

  • Unfinished, cluttered, and hot. Invest in small money, big upgrades.
  • Don’t have the time for drywall? Consider ‘Thrifty White Shower Paneling’ for the walls. It’s like $9 a sheet and you get three pretty good benefits: 1. You can hose it off. 2. You can write on it with whiteboard markers (and erase). 3. It makes pretty good projector screen material for Rockband or Rally games on the Xbox. πŸ˜€ Rolls of insulation are cheap, and even in Southern California – consider an insulated garage door. My garage door faces the SW and even on the hottest of days the garage is cooler then outside.

  • Setup your old PC or laptop.
  • We’re not building a media center here. We just need access to alldatadiy.com and mp3’s. WiFi and $9 speakers makes the garage so much more productive. Most OBD software can run on a 486, so that old P4 with a gig of RAM will do just fine.

  • Other ideas:
  • Build a storage loft! Span Calculator
  • Front load washer / dryer = a temp work table on non-laundry days
  • Standardize your bins, various sizes that are all stackable
  • Got your own small garage ideas? Hit up the comments!
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    6 Responses to Making the most out of the least: Your tiny garage.

    1. Mike Malsed says:

      Great advice. A buddy of mine has pretty much a full-fledged shop in his garage, and I do mean full-fledged – everything but a lift. Motor swaps, weld up a brew-rig, whatever and we’ve done it. Pretty much the same things you mentioned – I might add a couple of things:

      1. Nest-able. If you can have things sit within or under or inside other things, that can save a HUGE amount of space. He has his “bins of stuff” on little wheels on his secondary workbench so they slide under the shelf, and sit next to each other all nested neatly.

      2. STRATEGIZE. He has a cart with the tools he uses 75% of the time so nearly everything is done just scooting this cart around. Sockets, pliers, wrenches, mirrors, common air tools, etc. are all on this cart so he doesn’t have to go to toolboxes too much.

      3. Wall Mount: He has his compressor over in a corner and has run air to a windy-windy so he can pull what he needs. Makes is SO nice. Same thing with a power cable – nice to just pull what he needs and then let it retract. . .

      I’m modeling my carport along much the same principles. . .well, as I can anyway!

    2. Brian Driggs says:

      Love it! Here’s my additions…

      1. KITTY LITTER BUCKETS. To Mike’s tip about nesting, those 35lb square buckets of kitty litter are designed to hold 35lbs apiece and stack securely atop one another. If you don’t have cats, ask friends who do if they could start hooking you up with their empty buckets. You can get an entire engine bay harness in one, random switches, relays, and connector pigtails in another, and so on. They also stack nice and neat on your angle-bracket shelving.

      Pic: http://www.tarmac-and-gravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/IMG00175-20100328-1421-500×375.jpg

      2. MUSIC. And old laptop is a good idea, especially for pulling up (and searching) the factory service manual on the fly. If space is really at a premium, take that old tabletop stereo system with the AUX inputs out to the garage, mount the speakers up and out of the way, and use your iPod Touch to stream Pandora (about the only thing it’s good for, imo). Be the envy (or scourge) of the neighborhood jamming out to your favorite tunes while you wrench.

      3. FANS. I live in Arizona. I don’t do anything without two box fans pointed at me in there. For $1, you can get one of those doo-dads what screws into the light socket and gives you an additional outlet. Hang a $10 box fan from the rafters with bungee cords and plug it into one of the garage door opener’s light fixtures. Get the bungees right, and you can easily aim the fan right where you want it, without it being in the way.

      Those are a couple of my favorites. Maybe, one day, I’ll get a minifridge for to keep the beers cold and available without tracking filth into the house! πŸ˜›

      Nice idea for a post, Kris.

      • Mike Malsed says:

        To go off your box fans – you can get one of the bigger ones that have the metal stand things (example: http://www.lowes.com/pd_333644-94897-LF-16_0__?productId=3344702) – turn it upside down and the metal stand acts very nicely as a hanger on your ceiling joist! πŸ˜€

        (and now that I have cats . . . hmmm. . . I ABSOLUTELY agree with the kitty litter containers! They’re awesome. . . I use one or two with sanitizer (StarSan) when I’m brewing . . . just dunk whatever in it (bottle, tube, siphon, whatever) and you’re set. . . so handy, and close-able)

    3. Tom Smith says:

      I would caution against using that joist span calculator for a storage loft. The loadings in the pull down menu are way too light for storage loading, 100 live / 15 dead is more accurate.

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