Shop Journal

November 14, 2008 06:00 PM
From finding a site, to deciding on size, to purchasing tools, few aspects of farming involve more decisions and compromises than building a shop—and everyone's choices will be different. "A feature that one person loves, his neighbor down the road wouldn't want to mess with,” says Gerald Roberts. He farms with son Larry and Larry's son Cory near Penfield, Ill.

Gerald and Larry built the family's shop in 2000. (Cory was a teenager at the time.) "It's not elaborate, but it lets us do everything we want to do,” Gerald says. The only jobs the family sends to repair shops are major repairs on newer engines with various electronic components.

They constructed the shop between a wood-frame, dirt-floor machine shed and a barn. "We needed the barn for cattle,” Larry explains. "We didn't want to give up yard space for the new building. And we didn't want to take down any of the trees because they would provide shade for the shop building in the summer.”

Shop Snapshot
Building: 50'x 80' Lester Building

Eave height: 16'

Interior lining: White steel paneling

Doors: 16'x26' hangar door; 8'x10' overhead door leading to machine shop; walk-in door

Office: 9'x15' office, between shop and machine shed

Heat: In-floor radiant heat; baseboard heat in office

Lights: Twelve 400-watt metal halide bulbs

Workbenches: Two portable benches on rollers

Unusual features: Two fully equipped toolboxes, both on rollers; kitchenette in shop bay

Storage space: Cabinets and bins along shop bay walls; additional storage in machine shed and old shop

The issue of fire, which could destroy both the shop and the machine shed, was a concern, Larry says. But it was a risk worth taking, in light of other advantages.
The land and the need to fit between existing buildings determined the shop's size: 50'x80', which was ideal.

"We have enough room to work on two jobs at once,” Larry says. "If we have a long-term project going on, such as an engine overhaul or transmission job, we can leave it for a while and still have room to do repairs. We didn't want to make the shop too big because if you have extra space, you feel obligated to use it for storage.”

The 16'x26' door and the shop bay are large enough for the farmers' 24-row planter and 90' spray boom to enter, although they can't be unfolded. They bring their 30' grain platform and corn head inside on trailers.

Although Larry thinks the shop is all he and Cory will ever need, they could pave the inside of the machine shed—and, in wintertime, hook up a portable heater—and work in the shed. The two buildings are connected by a breezeway, with an 8'x10' overhead door in the shop wall, big enough to admit a fork lift.

The existing facilities led the farmers to install only one access door. Putting a second door in the opposite wall would have required building a new driveway, looping it around the barn and cattle lot.

"And the door would have eliminated some space on the floor for storage or tools,” Larry says. "We haven't missed the second door. For ventilation, we open windows.”

Machinery enters the shop through a one-piece, hangar-type HydroSwing door ( "It's a little slower to open than an overhead door,” Larry says. "But it seals well.”

It also provides shade if the farmers want to work on machinery outside. The 20'x26' concrete apron is mostly used for cleaning their combine when harvesting seed beans.

Installing an overhead door, instead of a hangar door, would have required 2' more ceiling space. "Going with 16' walls, rather than 18', almost paid for the door,” Gerald says. "And the lower walls give us less space to heat.”

Heat is a priority. The Robertses' favorite feature is the shop's in-floor radiant heat. "If you're going to be in here every day, as we are, you want floor heat,” Larry says.

"With floor heat, tools don't rust,” Gerald says. "And there are no fans running to stir up dust.”

With in-floor heat, a snow- and ice-covered semi tractor will dry off overnight, Gerald adds. They turn the thermostat on in early fall, set it at 60°F, and let the shop warm up as the weather cools off.

"If you wait until December and let the shop get cold, it takes more LP gas to warm it up,” Gerald says. They burn about 1,200 gal. of LP in a normal winter.

The farmers found that letting in cold air by opening the hangar door triggered the thermostat in the rear of the shop. Using a conduit installed in the floor along with the hot-water tubing, they installed a switch by the door so they can shut the furnace off for about two hours until the air temperature stabilizes. "If we forget to turn it back on, the air temperature is only about 5°F cooler the next morning,” Larry says.

To keep heat from bleeding outside the shop, they buried 3"-thick foam insulation board 2' deep around the outside of the concrete floor. "The subfloor is just sand and gravel,” Gerald says. "Now, there are insulating blankets to put underneath concrete—technology that wasn't available when we built this shop. But we're in good shape—the soil outside the shop wall remains frozen through the winter.”

The growers photographed the 250' heating tubes before concrete was poured over them. Using the photos, they can determine where it's safe to drill into the concrete if they want to anchor a tool in the floor.

To conserve heat, the walls of the shop are filled with 4" to 6" of blown-in foam insulation. The ceiling contains 18" of fiberglass batt.

Running one water line that was shorter than the others into an attached office did not produce enough heat, so the farmers supplemented it with a baseboard heating system.

Geothermal heat, which warms Gerald's house, might be the ideal system, he notes. "It's something I would investigate if I were building the shop again,” he says.

The 6" concrete floor, which houses the hot-water heating tubes, is reinforced with wire mesh and contains Fibermesh polypropylene fibers ( to prevent cracking. The floor is level next to the walls, so tools and cabinets can be placed there without shimming. The floor slopes toward the center. Drainage is not a big issue for the farmers because most washing is done outside the shop, and the floor heat dries spills.

The shop is equipped with 110-volt and 220-volt single-phase power. Conduit buried in the floor carries power from the main panel to a subpanel at the rear of the shop.

Illumination is from twelve 400-watt metal halide bulbs. "Originally, we installed recessed light fixtures to keep the building clear-span,” Gerald says. "But they didn't put out enough light, and they left a dead spot on the wall. The metal halide fixtures extend only a couple inches below the ceiling, no lower than the top of the door frame.”

White steel paneling on the walls and the ceiling reflect the light. "Using perforated paneling would have reduced noise somewhat, but it would have been hard to clean,” Larry says. "And it might have wasted a little heat.”
"There's no echo when the shop is full of equipment,” Gerald says. "But it does echo when the bay is empty,especially if the door is closed.”

Tools and furnishings. The shop's array of tools includes drill presses, stick and wire welders (including one setup just for stainless steel), a plasma cutter, a metal band saw and more. Corners of the bay are devoted to tire repairs and metalworking.
Rather than install permanent workbenches, the family prefers two portable benches that roll to the work site. Two rolling toolboxes ensure that tools are available for multiple jobs. Three 220-volt outlets let the farmers run their welders where they are needed.
The family opted not to install a hoist, figuring a fork lift could do the job just as well. They also ruled out a vehicle lift or oil-change pit. "A lift or pit takes up space, and you have to work around it,” Larry says. "And we work almost exclusively in farm equipment, rather than vehicles.”
A salvaged desk holds a market video monitor and a microfiche reader. The microfiche reader and cards, picked up at an implement dealer closeout, come in handy because high-speed Internet is not available in the Robertses' locality.
The shop bay is lined with cabinets and bins salvaged from houses, schools and implement dealerships. The machine shed and old 24'x36' shop provide additional storage space within walking distance.

Overhead storage space is provided above a 10'x10' utility room, which contains a toilet, sink, hangers for coveralls, the boiler and controls for the floor heating system and the shop's air compressor. Framed with studs 1' apart, the ceiling can be used to store heavy tools, such as transmission jacks and tractor splitting stands. Insulation in the walls and ceiling muffles the sound of the air compressor.

Office space. Between the shop and the machine shed, there was just enough space for a 9'x15' office. "We wanted an office just big enough for shop records because we keep our farm records in our homes,” Larry says. "We preferred to build an extension for the office, rather than sacrifice the shop's workspace.”

"We chose not to install a shower,” Gerald says. "It seems like a lot of people who installed one have found they don't use it very often.”

"Running water is a must, but a sink and a place to change out of our coveralls is all we need to clean up,” Larry says. Hot water is supplied by a 2½ -gal. heater, running off 110-volt power, located in the shop's kitchenette.

If they had employees, the family probably would have installed a break room. Instead, they opted for a kitchenette, equipped with sink, refrigerator, microwave oven, deep fryer, grill and cabinets, outside the utility room, in the bay of the shop.

"We eat out here a lot because we don't have to clean up, as when we go in the house,” Larry says. "But the location is more subject to dust than an enclosed break room would be.”

Return on investment. The farm shop cost about $100,000 when it was built eight years ago, but it has been worth every penny, the Robertses say.

"It pays for itself every day,” Gerald says. "Except when we're in the field, we spend every day out here, often until 9 p.m. The savings from doing repairs ourselves mount up quickly.”

"The cost of a shop is about the cost of a house, but we spend about as much time here as in our houses. My favorite thing is being able to do any job in a controlled environment,” Larry adds.

You can e-mail Darrell Smith at

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