I wrote this article to present ideas on how to set up a functional and efficient garage when space is limited. The information here is my own personal opinion and is intended to be a loose guide rather than a “how to”. My hope is that the information on this page will help those with limited work space make the most of their garage as I have learned to over the years. This article is a constant work in progress and may change at any time as I learn new tricks or ideas. Enjoy!

Step 1: Fire Sale!

Get rid of anything you don’t absolutely need. You already have two working floor jacks so get rid of the pile of broken ones you’ve been planning to fix for 15 years. And that steel siding you took from your neighbor just because it was free? You didn’t need it then and you don’t need it now! Space is extremely valuable in a small garage and you need, literally, every inch you can get.

2: Organize the small stuff

Get some boxes or storage bins and start putting stuff in them in some sort of organized manner. When you’re done, go through every one of them again and you are guaranteed to find yourself either moving items around or getting rid of more stuff you were reluctant to let go the first time around. Trust me, you won’t miss that sprinkler head that doesn’t fit anything in your yard. If in ten years you actually need one like it, they only cost a couple dollars.

Step 3: Start measuring

Figure out how much stuff you need to fit into the space allotted. Measure every dimension of every item to go in your garage. Include cars, toolboxes, cabinets, etc. Measure the garage itself as well for length, width and height. Be sure to note where the garage door goes when it is open to avoid planning a cabinet or other item in the way.

Step 4: Map it!

Make a map of your garage. You can do this many ways. The most non-technical is to get some graph paper and cut out squares for each item in the garage, to scale. Then draw the garage on another sheet and put your shapes on it. You can now move things around to see how they will fit. Drawing programs such as CAD or Corel Draw can also be very useful if you have access to them. There is also a web site to do this sort of thing at Grizzly.com.

Step 5: Storage is your friend

Plan for as much storage as you can fit. Cabinets are the best way to organize and keep down the clutter. They also help control dust and prevent things from flying around in an earthquake. Remember… the only obstacle between the wall and the ground for an item to hit is your car! A small item can cause a huge amount of damage during its journey to the floor.

When planning where to install cabinets, keep in mind the amount of room you will need to open the doors. If there is not enough room for the doors to open, consider mounting the cabinet higher on the wall or use shelving. Metal cabinets are the best option but are expensive. They last forever and will not come apart if they get wet with water, oil or solvents. Wood cabinets are fine for most applications but consider coating them with a marine-grade paint to protect the from spills. The MDF cabinets sold in places like Home Depot, Lowe’s and OSH work find for basic storage, but they do not last forever. One good hit with a heavy item and they can break, and once broken cannot be repaired as the MDF material will come apart. Cabinets can be found sometimes on home remodeling projects. Look for solid wood cabinets that are being discarded. With a fresh coat of paint they can be made to look like new. If you are really lucky you might even spot some vintage steel kitchen cabinets being removed. These make excellent garage cabinets and often times the contractor will give them away if you agree to haul them off his job site.

Step 6: Use vertical space

When floor space is at a premium, using available wall space becomes even more important. Instead of buying that beautiful 56″ wide tool chest, consider buying a 28″ unit and add a tall middle section. Any large items can be stored in cabinets or hung from a wall. Most people will never completely fill a 3-level 28″ wide box with hand tools. The very top drawers may be hard to see into, but that is a small price to pay for the amount of floor space you can save by going up instead of out.

The same goes for cabinets. Where there is space, go from floor to ceiling with them. Where space is limited such as car parking areas, put cabinets on the walls up high. Keep foot traffic areas in mind and place them where they are not likely to put someone’s eye out on a sharp corner! Better yet, just put a bright orange foam pad on the corners. If anyone walks into that, they deserved it!

If there is wall space left above cabinets, consider plastic storage bins for holding seldom-needed parts or supplies. Label each one to make life easier once you’ve forgotten what is in them.

Step 7: Secure everything

It’s a good idea to secure everything in the garage from moving. This especially rings true in earthquake-prone areas. Things can move about for many reasons including leaks, temperature changes, trucks driving by, someone bumping a shelf, or when you are retrieving those plastic bins on a ladder! If something moves and your hands aren’t on it, damage is going to happen.

Cabinets should have locks or latches on them. Shelving can be secured using tie-down straps for heavy items or bungee cords for light ones. Simply run the strap or cord across the front of each shelf and pull tight. It’s cheap insurance against car damage and it’s a lot cheaper than a hospital bill.

Step 8: Skip the fancy stuff

There are a lot of things I want in my garage. Air hose reels, drop-down work lights and such are neat to have and can be very handy. But face it, in a 20 x 20 garage there is little need for such things. A 25-foot air hose can reach every corner of the garage and takes up no space at all. Your money can be spent more wisely elsewhere, and the wall space you were going to mount your air and power reels to can be used for a better purpose.

Step 9: OK, maybe a little fancy stuff

In any garage regardless of size, power is never where you need it. Run a few extra electrical outlets. You can’t have too many! Put them on every wall and keep in mind where they may be blocked by cabinetry or tools. Be sure there is one near every tool you plan to have in the garage including air compressor, car lift, wash tank, battery chargers, etc. Consider wiring the outlets in parallel for better distribution of power and less strain on the first outlet in each run.

Air lines can also be run through walls to give remote hookups. Having one near the garage door is very handy for working outdoors without the need to buy a really long air hose. Put a quick-connect wherever you may need air. Two or three is typically more than enough in a small garage. NEVER use PVC in an air system. And just because you’ve done it before without problem does not mean it won’t explode while you are reading this. Use copper tubing and include a water drain tap near each outlet.

Step 10: Wheels are not just for cars

Wheels can and should be put on just about everything in a small garage. Cabinets, tool boxes and other large, heavy items should all have a set. If you find yourself without adequate room for a project, items on wheels can be moved around to create temporary work areas or even rolled outside for an afternoon. A good set of casters is worth its weight in gold when you need to move anything which would otherwise be a permanent fixture.

Not only do wheels make rolling items about the garage easier, they also keep things off the floor. This makes cleaning much easier and also helps prevent insects and rodents from setting up shop in your cabinets. In addition, wood cabinets can become damaged from exposure to water and floor cleaners so raising them up on wheels will help make them last longer.

Rubber and polyurethane wheels are best for easy rolling, long life and minimal scarring of the garage floor. Plastic and especially metal wheels can be a real pain if you hit a small pebble or other form of debris. The item you are rolling can come to a grinding halt and tear the finish off your floor.

Wheels with swivel casters are the most convenient for maneuvering in small spaces. Most rolling tool boxes come with two swivel and two fixed casters. This makes it easier to control the unit when rolling across a larger area, but in a small garage it makes negotiating those cramped spaces very difficult. Consider replacing the fixed casters with swivels.

Step 11: Keep things simple

A small space does not lend itself well to a lot of clutter or intricate details. Checkerboard flooring looks fancy, but in a small space it can make things look even smaller. Leave the checkerboard to the lucky people who have large garage floors and paint yours a single color. Light shades are best for light reflection. Keep decoration neat and simple for a spacious, open look. White walls are best to create an open appearance but will get dirty quickly. Painting a darker shade on the lower section of the wall is a good idea if you don’t like scrubbing marks off your walls.

Additional tips:

If you are on a budget, try stopping by a home supply such as Home Depot or Lowe’s. They often have damaged paint and other materials in the back which they may sell at a discount.

To reduce drafts, spray some insulating foam in the space between the drywall and the floor. Then place molding over it.