Making Space to Model – Apartment Workbench Musings

My friend Trevor Marshall has been blogging this week as he installs an impressive new workbench/storage system in his basement as part of a home renovation using Ikea Kitchen cabinets to create a new modelling workbench.  I’m envious, but as much as I’d love to have a big space, that’s not an option for many of us including myself.  City living often means apartments and small spaces.  Seeing his posts and dreaming of that kind of space did however, make me think back to when I started living in an apartment in downtown Toronto, and how long it took me to figure out how to make space to model.  My first apartment was a three bedroom shared with two other guys, where basically we were living like students (except graduated and with jobs as we started our careers), all our personal stuff was in our rooms, and the kitchen/living room was effectively shared space.  It was great fun and good times, but it meant that i was trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into a small (9’3″ x 13’0″) bedroom.  My bed, desk, all my belongings, and space to work on model trains.  It took me a couple of years, but eventually i started setting up a small workspace on my computer desk, and basically moving my wireless keyboard out-of-the-way when i broke out the modelling tools (though eventually this setup cost me a keyboard when i spilled an entire jar of warm black paint over the desk trying to open it).  For painting, i set up on the metal fire escape with the rather unsavoury proof that the Racoons has been up the fire escape.  It was far from perfect, but i made do and was able to at least work on small projects for years.

IMGP1486Computer desk/workbench in 2011.  Working on a Custom Finishing pyke crane kit, modifying an Athearn Flatcar, and a couple of Sylvan resin kits in a space just a bit bigger than the 8.5’x11′ piece of paper it’s sitting on.

When I moved into my current apartment in 2011, we had a spare second bedroom that has become the combination spare bedroom/office/train room.  It works well in a lot of ways.  I was able to buy a new computer desk when we moved, that allowed the old computer desk to be completely re-tasked as the modelling workbench.  It meant i went from making room on the computer desk, to being able to organize a workbench and leave it set up.  Since 2011, the space has grown with the addition of an Ikea Micke cabinet which stores paints, kits, supplies and anything not being used at the moment.  Beneath the computer desk, is a stack of plastic tubs, storing projects or groupings of projects (i.e. there is a tub for anything British outline, a tub for the Nova Scotia project, and so on).

IMGP2181RawConvCurrent workbench setup.  Ikea Micke corner desk with computer and Ikea Helmer drawers underneath storing styrene, metal, wood, decals and tools.  The ancient hand me down mylar computer desk/workbench (with project tubs beneath), and an Ikea Micke storage unit, storing paints, supplies, kits and all manner of stuff.  On top is a box sheltering a diorama project, and no, our cat doesn’t read, but it made me feel better putting the note there!
IMGP2185RawConvA better view of the workbench setup.  Cutting boards and supplies on the pull out keyboard tray so I can slide it in and out of my way, and general working space on the top, along with tools and regularly needed supplies close by.  Upgraded lighting after using the same mediocre lights for years is on my to-do list.

While this setup works well for me, I also realize that there are many who would like to be able to have a workspace, but can’t even manage this much space to dedicate.  I have a solution for this as well, one i got from the pages of Model Railroad Hobbyist, an online e-zine which is free for all to read.  In their October 2014 issue, there was an article on a portable workbench.  I saw this and it inspired me, as I am often on the road to family, and a simple wooden box would give me the opportunity to take a kit with me and work on assembly, or decaling a car, or some other low mess project requiring tools at times when I’m not home.

16307133630_b579ccda98_bPortable workbench setup, a small cutting board, a white board for notes/sticking instructions to, a piece of track to set equipment on, and away you go.

For those who need a place to even build a simple box like this, I’ve seen condos with workrooms as part of their amenities, or in cities like Toronto, there is the growing availability of “Maker Spaces” or tool rental libraries, where you can rent tools and bring them home, or use their space for a small fee as your workroom away from home.  One example is the Toronto Tool Library, I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one of the options I am considering for building the benchwork of a module or two when we hopefully re-organize the office/spare room this fall to remove the double bed and replace it with a futon.  This will create some space where i can set up a module to work on, as at present, the bed eats up well over half the floorspace in the room, and the only person who uses it 99% of the time is our cat Fergie.

I guess the whole point of this, is that if you want to model, being in a small space is only stopping you if you let it.  There has to be somewhere you can work, even if it means constantly setting up and then putting away all your tools and supplies.  Think outside the box, if modellers in Japan and the UK where people often live in much smaller spaces than what we think of as small in Canada can do it, so can you!

5 thoughts on “Making Space to Model – Apartment Workbench Musings

  1. Neat post. Thanks for sharing some insight into how you’ve found space to work when space, for anything, is at such a premium.

    It’s amazing just how much “stuff” this hobby can attract either in the volume of models or in the tools and goods used to support them. I would wager that learning to work with the space you have becomes a lesson in learning to focus it all. That seems like such a good thing.

    If you have a minute, I’d sure like to read more about how you’re practicing the hobby in a smaller footprint. This is great stuff for the modern model railroader.



  2. Thanks Chris, yes, the need to carefully consider every purchase is something that i’ve learned in over a decade of apartment living. That goes beyond modelling, but especially for modelling. Unlike many, i don’t have a stack of unbuilt kits waiting on me getting to them to fill out a layout, i’ve managed to keep to whatever projects i’m working on. Sometimes there are too many of them, but at least there aren’t stacks of un touched projects.

    One rule we kind of try to enforce in the kitchen is “one in one out” in terms of minor appliances or tools. Haven’t quite got that far with the models, though after packing up the layout at my parents last year, i could probably fund a bunch of future projects with selling some of the currently packed away models at one of the model railroad flea market shows around Toronto.

    I will definitely write more on small spaces and small footprint modelling. I think starting a post on that today while watching sports and avoiding the heat is in my future!


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