1950s home workshop organization: Inspiring ideas for DIYers that stand the test of time

1950s home workshop organization Inspiring ideas for DIYers

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The mid-century decades were a defining era for the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement in the United States, where home workshops emerged as spaces of creativity and practical efficiency.

In this article, we’ve curated a selection of magazine profiles featuring these innovative spaces, offering you a firsthand glimpse into how our predecessors crafted, built, and tinkered in their personalized workspaces.

Mid-century home workshop

The rise of the DIY culture in the mid-20th century was spurred by a perfect storm of factors — including an increasingly affluent middle class, the expansion of suburban living, and the burgeoning popularity of specialized hobbyist magazines. Coupled with a post-war resurgence in home-making and crafting, home workshops became the beating heart of many American homes.

We invite you to travel back in time with us to find enduring ideas that remain just as inspiring today. From neatly organized tool racks to clever storage solutions, these 1950s (and early 60s) home workshops maximize space and productivity — a testament to the timeless appeal of the DIY ethos.

Vintage 1950s home workshop with bold colors

Home & Garden magazine (November 1959)

From Paul MacAlister’s workshop in Lake Bluff, Illinois, you can borrow ideas for your own shop. MacAlister, an industrial designer in Chicago, spends much of his leisure time here, and has made his shop one of the most convenient and colorful we’ve seen.

Vintage 50s workshop with bold colors

Bold use of colors makes this workshop sparkle invitingly, and also helps code the contents of drawers and cabinets. Giant-economy-size “rulers” help in visualizing larger projects and in estimating stock. A power saw in the foreground occupies an uncrowded area.

The long workbench can be used from either side. With the ingenious layout of the storage unit above it, all of his are as handy on one side as they are on the other. This “superstructure” can be built of 1×2 or 2×2 framing, then covered with hardboard. Use the perforated kind wherever you’d like to hang tools.

Hardboard panels to hold tools

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Perforated hardboard panels hold tools neatly on both sides. Note how tools are classified so that the ones of a kind are within reach from one place. Most-used tools are kept in the more convenient, lower positions.

A perforated hardboard strip just below the brightly painted drawers hides fluorescent tubes that give good light for close work on the workbench. Outlets mounted along the front edge of the bench are connected to a separate circuit leading from the service entrance.

Features of old-school home workshop for carpentry (1950s)

Here Paul works with his power table saw. To prevent accidents, he keeps a homemade push stick in his right hand, ready to be used when the stock gets farther through the saw blade. The shop’s roominess and good general lighting also contribute to accident-free working hours.

1950s power table saw

How to expand your home workshop (1951)

One of the greatest thrills that can come to a home handyman lies in watching a workshop develop through the years. Sound, careful planning is all-important. Start making your master plan as soon as you become familiar with the basic hand tools.

You’ll modify your plan, of course, as your shop and your interests develop. Make sure each change is for the better. If you don’t, you may find yourself in the sad position of the man with a large investment in tools who spends his leisure time playing cribbage.

Your plan should be comprehensive enough to help you avoid two pitfalls: First, it should tell you where you will put major benches and cabinets, storage racks and tool hangers shelves and power tools, so each unit may be used efficiently without interfering with another.

Model workshop for advanced handyman (1951)

Above: A model home workshop for the advanced handyman

Well-planned, well-equipped, well-lighted — here is a model workshop for the advanced handyman who likes to work with wood. Tool board, bench and cabinet occupy far wall. Power equipment includes a grinder, drill press, circular saw, jointer, and a portable drill. Lumber storage space and shelves occupy near wall.

A small, separate building can house your shop (1951)

Better Homes magazine (November 1951)

A maple workbench in cartoonist Carey Orr’s 20×35-foot workshop is pictured [below]. In this building designed for exclusive use as a shop, hand tools are stored in partitioned spaces and on sliding trays in the drawers below the bench. Edged tools are protected by individual recesses. Above the bench is a bank of 68 small-parts drawers.

Maple workbench in cartoonist Carey Orr's workshop (1951)

Below: Sketching at his shop blackboard, Cartoonist Orr works out the final appearance of a furniture project he has in mind, then determines exact sizes and construction procedures.

Carey Orr chalkboard in vintage workshop (1951)

Orr’s interests are many and varied. He devised cross-slot screwdrivers in 1923, invented an electric pencil sharpener and an electric eraser, patented an indoor golf game and interchangeable play blocks, and devised a powerful, noiseless, flashless missile for use in commando actions during World War II.

Small pine-paneled vintage 50s home workshop

This small home workshop of Mr and Mrs Walter Gregory, Evanston, Illinois was built into a corner of their basement.

Small pine-paneled vintage 50s home workshop

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Do-it yourself: A new American art (1955)

House & Garden magazine (June 1955)

To most of us, art implies a painting, a poem, a symphony: the product of genius or unique talent. Yet the dictionary also defines art as: “Skill in performance, acquired by experience, study or observation; knack. Human contrivance or ingenuity in adapting natural things to man’s use.”

The nationwide US pursuit known as do-it-yourself could well be called the art of the many. It enables us to produce an original product stamped with the hallmark of our talents and designed for our needs and comfort. New leisure and new developments in science have brought about a renaissance of our native American inventiveness.

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Our changing economic and social climate has awakened in us a new, keener sense of values. We are fast becoming a nation of home craftsmen. We willingly invest in power tools to the tune of 172 million dollars a year.

We consider our time and energy invaluable and do not use it lightly. We enjoy fashioning our homes, inside and out, to suit our individual taste. It is our way of expressing the creativeness that is innate in us all. We are becoming the architects of our own way of life.

Do-it yourself A new American art (1955)

The 1960s home handyman (1961)

Better Homes magazine (December 1961)

Whether his workshop fills the basement or just fits in a kitchen drawer, every handyman has tools, attachments, or gadgets in mind that will help him do a greater variety of things, or maybe just make his projects easier and more fun. How to find out what it is? Nothing could be simpler — just ask him.

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A super-organized home workshop from 1961

Mr Ballard Bradley of Racine, Wisconsin, has a shop that’s about as complete as any man could hope for. He’s combined the tools from his father’s shop with a fine choice of power tools for wood and metal.

Notice, however, the empty spaces under the workbench where drawers are missing. Those drawers will be built when Mr. Bradley needs them to store equipment he acquires. A portable router, an electric plane, or one of the other more sophisticated power tools might find a very welcome place in this shop. Also, attachments for his power tools will get a good reception.

1960s large and complete home workshop (1961)

Basic basement workshop

Here’s the basement workshop of our Handyman Editor. In a shop such as his, attachments for the radial arm saw would make that machine even more versatile than it already is.

The shop vacuum cleaner in the foreground is a real helper in small shops where the power tools make dust by the bushel. Many power tools, such as the belt sander in use here, can be attached to the vacuum so the dust is taken up as it’s formed.

Portable electric tools add much to the convenience of working in a shop this size, especially on built-ins and furniture-refinishing projects.

Old handyman workshop from 1961

Like most handymen, Mr Harry Luther of Zion, Illinois, has limited space for his workshop, but he puts it to good advantage with careful organization. Hand tools do most of the work, aided by a few power tools.

There’s an endless variety of hand tools and inexpensive portable electronic tools for a shop like this. Just be sure that you choose tools of the finest quality. If you really want to make a hit with your handyman, consider one of the major power tools, such as the band saw shown here, a table or radial arm saw, or a multipurpose tool.

Carefully-organized vintage home workshop (1960s)

The 1957 “Idea Home” workshop plan

Better Homes magazine (September 1957)

Maximum tool storage in minimum space, coupled with practical, inexpensive lighting ideas, form the backbone of the basement workshop. A peninsula work-bench utilizes sides and ends for drawers and handy shelf units — which would have been wasted space if the back of the bench had been set against the wall.

Floor plan diagram for 1957 home workshop organization

The color scheme — flat-white walls and pastel-yellow ceiling — helps reflect light, which adds safety and disappoints any home-making insects. The shop is easier to keep clean, too, because fine sawdust won’t stick to painted concrete block surfaces.

Bench and tool-panel colors give eye-resting contrast and decoration. Materials enter the shop through the outside door. They’re stored on racks under the basement stairs. The finishing bench and wall cabinets for supplies are located directly opposite — away from cutting and assembling areas. There’s also space in the furnace room for in-construction project storage.

Vintage 1957 Idea Home workshop

Left: The two movable panels ride on a regular sliding-door hardware track. They are dimensioned so they create one continuous board when pulled out (see color photograph above). Spring clips support tools, which are racked in order of importance.

Right: Power tools — jointer, radial-arm saw, and vacuum sawdust collector — ride on casters so they can be moved to open areas for big jobs. The workbench is the same height as the saw table; one becomes an auxiliary worktop for the other. The desk is for project planning.

1950s home basement workshop features

Hollywood handymen: Actors show off their home workshops (1957)

Better Homes magazine (September 1957)

OUR CAMERA found these top movie and television stars spending their leisure time improving their homes and having fun with their hobbies. No acting was necessary for them here. Each is a superior craftsman; each finds complete relaxation and enjoyment working with the tools and materials of other trades.

Actor Glenn Ford builds models

Between movie assignments, Ford divides his spare time into building scale models of airplanes and boats, experimenting with electronics equipment, and making small home repairs and improvements.

His workshop is housed in a small, shed-like building. It’s stocked with portable electric and hand tools only. Note the cricket cage from movie “Teahouse of the August Moon” in which Ford starred.

1957 Hollywood Handymen - workshop of actor Glenn Ford

Rory Calhoun is a typical handyman

Calhoun is more concerned with maintenance projects than those in the hobby category. He recently remodeled a second-story section of his home for additional living space; he is now engaged in rebuilding and updating a small boat he recently purchased.

1957 Hollywood Handymen - workshop of actor Rory Calhoun

Joseph Cotten works with stone and concrete

At present, Cotten is building a wall around a courtyard at the rear entrance to his home.

The actor engineers his own concrete and stone masonry projects and builds his own forms — here a mold for a cap block for the wall. He’s a highly skilled craftsman, not only in masonry, but in woodworking as well.

1957 Hollywood Handymen - workshop of actor Joseph Cotten

Actor Ward Bond uses his shop for repairs, gardening

Bond’s “handyman” activities include the repair of hunting and fishing equipment, as well as home maintenance and gardening. The shop is in a section of his garage.

The device he’s using here is an old harnessmakers’ clamp, given to him by actor Henry Fonda. A strap attached to the foot lever pulls the jaws of the clamp tight.

1957 Hollywood Handymen - workshop of actor Ward Bond

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George Montgomery’s hobby built a furniture factory

Between acting and producing assignments, Montgomery runs a small furniture factory which specializes in Early American (and some modern) reproductions.

This business stems directly from his home-workshop background; some of his power and hand tool equipment is used in this operation.

1957 Hollywood Handymen - workshop of actor George Montgomery

Combination home workshop and garage storage center (1958)

Combination workshop and garage storage center (1958)

Old-fashioned home workshop tips & tricks from the 50s

Better Homes magazine (December 1959)

When Dr and Mrs William Lazear of Winnetka, Illinois, moved into an older home, this shop was their first project. They went on to remodel the rest of their home when the shop was completed.

The workshop shows all the careful planning that went into it. The power-tool island forms a good work area by bringing the saw and sander close to the workbench. Orderly storage for nails, screws, and other small items makes any project go faster.

Old-fashioned home workshop tips and tricks from the 50s

To use some of the ideas from this shop, you’ll need only cigar boxes and baby-food jars to get started. Labels, paint, and simple shelves are all you need to complete your storage unit.

To operate the power saw or belt sander, Dr Lazear has only to turn around from the long bench. Yellow walls and ceiling help brighten the shop, and make it much easier to work in. Single fluorescent tubes are spaced to provide good general lighting. Ordinary rain gutters serve as reflectors for low-cost fixtures.

All electrical power in the shop is controlled from this bank of switches. Indicator lights tell which circuits are on. Regular switches on each power tool must also be used, making accidental starts of the equipment less likely. The magnetic strip just above the switches holds small metal tools.

Vintage workshop electrical controls

Olive jars have a new job of storing jigsaw blades. The jars fit into a rack on the top of the jigsaw arm. Original labels for the blades also go into the jars to identify the contents. Jigsaw and drill press stands are spotted near the wall—convenient to projects on the workbench and for the accessories and clamps on the perforated hardboard rack.

Old olive jars store jigsaw blades - Old-fashioned home workshop

Larger drawers are built in below the workbench surface on one side. Sliding tray in this drawer (for small scraps of wood) doubles the storage space. Since handles would be in the way here, the bottom overhang serves as the drawer pull.

Workbench drawers

Left: Island for power tools has a removable box to catch dust from the power saw. Box is located under opening in the saw table to catch sawdust as it falls. It’s also handy for disposing of small scraps.

Right: Small fruit basket swings out from the center of the workbench, makes it easy to keep work surface clean. Basket sits on plywood shelf attached to the conveniently placed door.

1950s home workshop organizational features (1)

Left: Planning desk takes a section of the power-tool island. Free-form divider provides a spot for clipboard of notes or sketches. Small drawers and shelf helms hold cata-logs, paper, and drawing materials.

Right: Storage unit keeps sheet and roll materials in order. Large sheets of plywood and hardboard slide in behind the unit. Rolls of screening and plastic fit on pegs; scraps stand up at left.

1950s home workshop organizational features (2)

Left: Cigar boxes make good storage “drawers” for small supplies. Only the fronts are painted. Inexpensive handles are attached to make the boxes easy to pull out. Boxes simply slide in between two shelves, have no guides or separators.

Right: Secondhand cabinet from a dentist’s office supports one end of the workbench and holds the less-used tools and parts. Each drawer is labeled—as are all other containers — with neat freehand lettering.

1950s home workshop organizational features (3)

Below: Electrical parts and hardware items are kept in plastic boxes. Shelf unit is made from one-inch lumber, with joints dadoed. Front edge of each shelf is painted to repeat one of the shop’s bright colors.

1950s home workshop organizational features (4)

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