Size matters, but mobility and flexibility are the two most important factors for anything larger than a block plane, regardless of the size of your shop. That’s particularly true when it comes to shop carts.
As woodworkers we can never have too much space in our shops. And having worked in small and large shops, I’ve discovered that we tend to fill up all available space even if that’s not our original intention.
I’m sure lots of people would question the necessity of a shop cart, particularly in a small shop, but I’m a huge fan regardless of shop size. In most shops any flat surface quickly becomes cluttered with parts, tools and other stuff that you can’t figure out how it ended up in your shop, let alone on top of your bench, table saw or drill press.
When I made the move from sharing space in an old stone barn on the banks of the Brandywine river to a larger, more industrial space, one of the first shop fixtures I made (after my rolling rack, which you can read about here) was a screwed-together, butt-jointed version of this convertible cart. In fact, I made three. And after years of working with mobile carts in the shop, now I can’t imagine working without them. And this cart design is flexible enough to be invaluable in all but the most overcrowded workshops.
When I settled into that new shop two decades ago, I had a large open space for benches and machinery. Even so, my pragmatic nature caused me to look at the space in finite terms. That same pragmatism has always made me fond of multitasking tools. This meant my shop cart needed to do far more than just move stacks of lumber from cutoff saw to jointer to planer to table saw. I wanted something that doubled as an assembly table, a dolly and an out-feed table. (Fig. 1)
From the earliest days of my career I had an assembly table set behind my bench. It was usually no more than a pair of sawhorses onto which a piece of carpet-covered plywood was set. Until the carpet became littered with dried globs of glue, it worked well for protecting projects from being damaged by the errant abrasive trapped between the project bottom and the plywood table.
This system worked, but had its flaws. If you stacked the sawhorses on top of each other, you could not collapse it to much less than half its size. When set up, it was a fixed height – sometimes you just need a higher table for a small project, while a larger one calls for something lower. It was also hard to move from one position to another behind the bench. A convertible cart would resolve many of these problems.
As a cart, it was movable by definition (otherwise it would just be a table). By making the upper section removable, it provided two different table heights. When used in the lower position the placement became fixed, but you can’t have everything. (Fig. 2)
My carpeted assembly table was often dictated by the size remnant I could get, but usually ran about 36” by 48”. The cart would need to be somewhat smaller, but I could always drop my carpeted board on top to provide a larger work surface. I settled on a 24” by 36” overall dimension because it was large enough to work on, but compact enough to thread its way through the shop when loaded with furniture parts.