Dear Lifehacker, I love DIY projects — both household and electronic — but I live in an apartment in the city, and I don't have much space to work. How can I get my DIY fix without worrying about fumes, storage, sawdust or bothering my neighbours with the noise of power tools? Sincerely, Small Space Hacker
Dear Small Space Hacker,
It can be tough to carve out a little space to work when you live in an apartment, but it's not impossible! Finding ways to get large power tools and heavy equipment involved is a bit trickier, but it's definitely possible. Here are some things you can do right where you are now.
Designate Part of Your Space for Projects
The best thing you can do is actually set aside a space in your apartment for personal projects. Instead of just clearing the floor or trying to find a flat space, find a corner you can shove a small table into, a little organisational unit that can fit under the table and call that your "project space". (If you have wall space, store up, instead of out. Shelving units and pegboards are great for tools!) You'll feel better about your ability to get more done if you have a dedicated workbench for your DIY projects, and you won't worry so much about the size if you already have something carved out. Instead, you'll do what you can, as long as it fits, and then move on.
If you're worried about dirt, dust and fumes, try to keep your mini workbench somewhere easy to clean. Consider putting down a tarp or floor cover underneath your workbench, or putting it near a window that you can open if you plan to use something that may emit fumes, dust or other debris. Make it as modular as possible, so that you can mount and remove tools easily. Nothing on your workbench should completely be a single-tasker. That might be difficult when you talk about table saws and jigsaws, but try to give yourself enough storage that you can set things up and break them down if you have to. And be reasonable — you may not be able to have a large standing jig or a CNC router set up in your small apartment, but you may be able to carve out room for a 3D printer, for example, and then move it to a storage shelf when it's not in use.
Spread Out, Then Collapse Down
Consider spreading out in a way that's easy to collapse back down when you're finished. For example, make your workbench table extend out or add a leaf to the centre of it. A rolling island or workbench that you can pull away from the wall gives you plenty of room to work. They can fold up nicely and slide between a bookshelf and a wall when you're finished.
We're big fans of making sure you have a permanent work area for what you want to do, but there will definitely be some times when you want to take over the whole living room for your project, and that's fine! Just make sure that you can keep things clean (open the windows, put down some tarp, cover up valuables with drop cloth), and then you can slide everything away and clean up easily when it's time to change the workspace back to living space. You may not like the idea of turning your living room into a project space, but if it's covered up while you work and everything folds away neatly when you're done, it won't be a problem.
Don't Be Afraid of Repurposing Another Space
If there's anything that our Featured Workspace series has shown you, it's that you shouldn't be afraid of claiming some small space for your own and repurposing it. If you can turn a closet into an office with a few small tweaks, you can set it up as a workbench as well. We even have a step-by-step guide to making the transformation, although it's geared towards turning your spare closet into more of an office workbench than a DIY workbench.
Still, you can take the cue and mount some power strips, some task lighting, use the shelving for tools and materials instead of gadgets and books, and go to work! It's not a lot of space, but remeber that it's more important to have dedicated space than nothing at all. Don't be afraid to use your walls for storage and lighting either. If you need more inspiration, check out these closet offices and imagine them stripped of monitors and keyboards and replaced with soldering irons and vice grips.
Find a Common Area In Your Building You Can Use
When the project gets too big for your workbench, or you need tools that are too big, too loud or too messy for your apartment, it's time to find another place to work. There's a point where you just won't be able to get around this — it's just a matter of how creatively you can adapt to the situation. I'd suggest finding a common area somewhere in your building that you can use as a "garage", so to speak.
If you live in an apartment, see if there's a work area that's normally used by contractors or building maintenance that you could use from time to time. When an apartment gets renovated or major repairs are done, contractors have to have some place to work — why not share it? In my apartment building, we have a loading dock that's actually pretty roomy and fair game if anyone needs a place to let paint or varnish dry, a larger space to assemble furniture, or a place to set up a workhorse or use messier tools. If you live in a townhouse or a place with a shared outdoor space, maybe you can use the shared lawn (as long as it's in the daytime and doesn't annoy everyone around you).
Check with your property manager. If you're on good terms with them, they might clue you in to where there is a little room to work. If your building or community has an amenities room, they may even allow you to use that space as long as you clean up afterwards.
Get Involved with Your Local Hackerspace
We've talked about how to find and get involved with a hackerspace in your community, and it's a great option in this case as well. Check out what's near you at Hackerspaces.org, and see if any of the ones nearby focus on the types of projects you're interested in. You'd be surprised how many 3D printers, laser etchers, CNC routers and other heavy equipment are already available in hackerspaces, so you don't have to get one for your apartment or struggle with where to store one.
Even if the hackerspaces near you don't have that kind of focus, chat with the folks who run the hackerspace anyway. If you're willing to share your tools or offer your expertise to the community, see if they're willing to help you out, subsidise your membership, or even help you out with the costs of tools. You'd essentially be buying into a shared garage with all the tools you'd need, all the space you could want, that you can use whenever you choose.
Finally, check sites like Gumtree, and talk to your friends and neighbours. You may be able to gather enough interest to start your own hackerspace. Then you really will have your own garage you can use anytime you want to work without bothering the neighbours.
Hopefully, these few tips will get you started in the right direction. With a little luck and a little digging, you'll be able to get your DIY on in your own home at a dedicated workspace. Living in a small space doesn't have to slow you down!
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