Can a complete carpentry novice build a DIY office shed?
December 5, 2023 7:28 AM   Subscribe

I have a very small house in a pretty high COL area, and need more space. Specifically, I need the equivalent of an additional bedroom to use as a home office/craft space. I can't afford to add on to my house (I'm in a historic area) so I'm considering adding shed to my back yard. Buying pre-built, having custom made, and even buying a kit are out of my price range, so I am considering a DIY build. I have never built anything with wood. Am I setting myself up for failure?

I am interested in a shed which would be 80 - 100 sq feet, would be finished on the inside with electricity enough for a window unit, but no plumbing needed. I live in the deep south in a hurricane prone area, so it needs to be wood and sturdy.

I purchased a set of shed plans just to see how involved it would be. A rough estimate of materials, not counting interior finishings, is about $2k. I would subcontract out the electric and maybe the sheetrock, but would finish the rest myself. I would need to invest in some tools, like a nail gun and a saw of some sort, but regardless this would still be FAR more inexpensive than my other options. One other factor of concern and the reason buying a 'kit' won't work - my back yard is inaccessible by vehicle or forklift, so I'd have to hand carry all materials down a narrow side alley to the yard (or, have it all dropped in by helicopter I guess, but....)

My concern is, I've never built anything. I am a 40-ish female, am moderately to very handy, am good at crafting things and following directions, and will have the help of my very not-handy partner (who is physically stronger than me but has zero skills with tools). This would be a slow project that I figure would take a few months of working some evenings and weekends. There would be no rush other than to complete it before summer hits to avoid working in the heat.

Is this an absolutely terrible idea?
posted by tryniti to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you've never built anything before, I think you'll really regret trying to start from scratch. I've built lots of stuff but I'm still going to get help when I build my carport.

If you price out the materials that you'd need to do it yourself, I think you'll find that a kit will be in the same neighborhood. (A lot of times you can bring your plans to a lumberyard and they'll give you an estimate on how much the materials are.) But the thing about a kit is that everything will be cut to the specifications you need so you won't waste a bunch of wood because you cut it wrong. Or, worse, you might cut it wrong and use it and then figure out much later that it's the wrong size and will cause problems with other things (I'm thinking of drywall and hanging doors/windows).

Also, how would you get the materials to your yard if you use the plans and buy your own stuff? Wouldn't that be the same problem? I bet you could hire someone for just a couple of hours to help you move everything.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:35 AM on December 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

This is a not insignificant undertaking, and I would highly recommend looking at panelized kits instead. I just built one, and I’ll post some more thoughts on the process later.
posted by rockindata at 7:37 AM on December 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

Yes, this is totally possible. I built a shed (somewhat larger than yours) entirely by myself some years ago. It took a lot of time (things go way slower when you are working mostly alone and you have to hand carry the materials by yourself) but you get there eventually. I was not a novice but there's nothing particularly difficult about it and a shed can be really tolerant of newby errors since using standard framing results in a very overbuilt shed.

There are some books about working alone safely (Taunton press has one, for example) and I am sure there are websites as well. It's worth giving that aspect some thought since most framing carpentry assumes you have two or three people working in tandem, and you can do things like have one person up on a ladder calling down measurements and another on the ground cutting boards. The biggest issues I ran into was that I framed my walls on the floor and then tipped them up, and that was way heavier than was safe to do alone; I also found carrying shingles up onto the roof to be really hard. So if I was doing it again, I'd look at options for framing the walls and putting on the roof that were easier for a single person, or I would plan to hire some day labor for those steps.

Usually a small shed doesn't need much in the way of building permits, but if you are planning to add power you might be in the range of needing more interactions with the building department. Every locality is different, though, so you just need to check on what is needed in your area.

Lastly, take safety really seriously. Eye and ear protection with the nail gun and saw; lots of care and thought about where and how you make cuts with your circular saw; lots of care on ladders. It's really easy to get hurt, especially when hurrying.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:46 AM on December 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

I have never built anything with wood. Am I setting myself up for failure?

posted by zippy at 7:47 AM on December 5, 2023 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot to add - one thing that makes this an attractive project is learning the carpentry skill. I have a deck that will need replacing soon and I thought if I was successful at the shed, maybe I could take those skills and work on my deck next. Seems like a good skill to have, though I may be vastly underestimating how hard it takes to learn.
posted by tryniti at 7:50 AM on December 5, 2023

Just to expand on that, what you are describing is do-able, but because of budget constraints and being new to carpentry, you are more likely to run into problems where you need to redo work, or change materials, and if that does happen it will increase your cost to where going with a kit may have been a better option.

That said, it is definitely the kind of project where you can do it yourself if you have enough time, are careful, and have budgeted for possible mistakes.
posted by zippy at 7:53 AM on December 5, 2023

Is there anything else you need built out of wood that you could try first? Like maybe a nice planter box? It's not that I don't think you could do this, just, there are things about working with wood and those tools that aren't obvious from the outset, and one makes substantial strides early on in learning that I think would probably translate to having to double back and redo things that initially seemed like they'd be good enough. I also think that if I were building a shed (my biggest project so far has been a simple play structure), I'd be planning to use metal brackets for supporting the structural elements even if it turns out sheds don't generally get built with them. Maybe that'd be overkill, I don't know, but they definitely make things easier and sturdier. I also happen to know I'd technically need zoning approval, and I'm sure they'd feel much better about things with that plan.
posted by teremala at 8:04 AM on December 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

Do you have a handy friend? Handy friends LIKE building things and helping and usually come with tools. They also usually enjoy being paid in beer/pizza/home cooked meals. Find a handy friend!?
posted by atomicstone at 8:10 AM on December 5, 2023 [6 favorites]

Seconding a kit. I'm a woman who has been an assistant to my husband for a garage addition starting from ground up. Everything from pouring foundations to setting trusses requires measurements be measured correctly, cut true, and set plumb. That's the tough part where experience means success. Having said that, I built an 8x10 tack shed with a porch acting as "designer" and "foreman" with 2 girlfriends. It was weatherproof, the door swung easily, and everyone loved the design and complimented us on it. Several people said we should set up a business. Hell to the no!! It was a tough job to get right.
Oddly enough, the sheet rock is one of the easiest parts. It's labor intensive to put up, but two people can do it using a deadman, and taping and texture just takes patience.
Go with a kit, even if it's not initially the cheapest option. You'll save money and tears in the long run.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:25 AM on December 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

Also, a porch is dead easy compared to a roofed structure. We built ours with a pergola, and it was a piece of cake. Try the porch first.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:28 AM on December 5, 2023 [7 favorites]

You can build a shed w/out a nail gun; use a hammer. Find a small-time builder who will help/train you, and/or take an adult ed course. You need planning permission and an inspection. You may choose not to get this, but get a builder or someone to review things. I think a kit will end up being cheaper in the long run, and you'll learn to do it the right way.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 AM on December 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can do this. If you're a homeowner, carpentry skills are very valuable and will serve you for the rest of your life. You can do it.

However, It will take 4x longer than you think it will and in the end you will not save as much money as you expect. It may end up costing you more than a kit once you factor in re-doing work or fasteners that are always surprisingly expensive. You may need to rent a truck to get the lumber home. You might have to buy or rent more tools. You may need permits that cost money. Is your time worth anything? I once had to go to Home Depot five times in one day.

Learn how to sight down framing members before you buy them, to make sure they're straight and not twisted.

Leveling the foundation or cinder blocks is a CHORE. I built a wood shed and this was by far the most exhausting part of it.

Watch a ton of YouTube videos before you do it. There are a lot of tricks to framing that make things go faster once you know them.

Framing is very satisfying work. There is nothing like walking into a room or a shed and being able to say "I built this!" It is also hard, exhausting work. Pros make it look easy. They are worth every penny they charge.
posted by bondcliff at 8:41 AM on December 5, 2023 [6 favorites]

It's certainly doable, but if you are really starting from scratch, as in this will be your first time with this sort of construction project, learning to use the tools, etc., plan on the project taking at least twice as long as costing at least 50% more than you've estimated. To build a structure that is square, plumb, and true, that is a pleasure to occupy, where your chair isn't tippy and pencils aren't rolling off your desk from an unlevel floor, where the doors and windows all operate smoothly because they're properly installed, where the space is properly insulated and not drafty, built tightly enough to keep pests out... that's asking a lot for a first go at it.

I'm not saying don't try it, or that you can't do it--I think you can! And it'd be a valuable experience. But also be aware that especially if this is your first go, even with careful planning, it's probably going to take longer and cost more than hiring a good contractor to build it for you, to wind up with the same quality of structure.
posted by xedrik at 9:23 AM on December 5, 2023

it’s doable but i’d put it at 95% probability you will not save money over a kit of some kind.
posted by supercres at 9:24 AM on December 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

You can build a shed w/out a nail gun; use a hammer.

Personally I think a nail gun has a big advantage when you are working alone and is safer in that context, but yes, you can certainly do it the old-school way. Ditto things like power saws vs hand saws, but consider the extra time and effort it takes versus the amount you would save. Swinging a hammer for hours is rough on your shoulder and arm, and takes a lot longer.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:48 AM on December 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

Just to add, a neighbor of ours put in a shed without realizing she needed zoning approval. She was nearly required to take it down till the board granted her retroactive permission, so don't miss out on getting all your paperwork done, whether you build it yourself or purchase.
posted by mmf at 10:08 AM on December 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

The first time I used a hammer to do framing I was worn out within a half an hour and I think I bent every third nail. Framing nails are very long and thick.

If this is your first time doing framing do yourself a favor and buy/rent a framing nailer.

Other tasks, such as nailing plywood to the framing members, are relatively easy with a hammer so you don't need to rent a separate nailer for that.
posted by bondcliff at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2023

Do you have a neighbor or a friend who's done some construction who'd help you? I'm a desk jockey who's done some construction work, including re-wiring and re-plumbing my house, and a backyard workshop (with a living roof) because I went down the same path you did.

Framing is fun, especially with multiple people. Raising walls alone is a PITA, if the building has any size to it then three people is really handy. Yeah, a nail gun makes it easier, but depending on the size of the building you can do it by hand. Planked siding sucks (but has advantages), T111 or similar sheathing goes pretty quickly, and that's where I really appreciate a nail gun. Check rentals. Also, Harbor Freight pneumatic tools can work remarkably well. A friend gave me a high end DeWalt framing nailer that's been nothing but trouble. Don't cheap out, but remarkably, nail guns are a place where more doesn't necessarily get you more.

(Electric tools, I spend the extra on the good stuff.)

Re leveling your supports: If you're building on pier blocks, yeah, that's a royal PITA. If you're pouring a foundation, it's actually easier. And regarding that: I see that you're in Louisiana. Do you have affordances for hold-downs on your building, and the necessary details to make it hurricane safe? Having the remnants of your building blowing around your neighborhood is not good... (Not hard to do, just don't set it on pier blocks and expect it to stay in one place in a storm)

Regarding electrical: Check with your local building authority before you start. If you click through to my notes above, you'll notice that the early plans are marked "not for habitable use" or similar; I didn't get the electrical signed off on on the initial plans because of schedule pressures, and when I went back with the electrical plans they made me spec out heating and cooling and the whole bit (California Title 24) which added costs for equipment that I have used only a few times, and would never have used if they hadn't made me put it in. But "habitable" is different from storage, and can be a pain. Electrical is not hard to do (and not hard to do better than a contractor would do it, get a copy of Rex Cauldwell's Wiring a House), but make sure you know what your building department will allow, how you're getting the power from your house's panel to your shed, and what climate control they'll make you do.

As others have mentioned, drywall can be pretty easy. The trick? Those modern textures (which you can cheaply spray on, rent a compressor and buy a cheap texturing gun). If you have to get it flat and smooth, that's a royal PITA. If you put it up with screws, tape the joints, spray the texture, wait a little bit, and then run a big trowel gently over the texture, you get something that hides all of the imperfections and actually looks good.

I have hired a few craftspeople to work on my house, but now that I've gotten into home improvement, my general opinion is: If a licensed contractor can do it, it's pretty hard to fuck it up. Go for it.
posted by straw at 10:18 AM on December 5, 2023

tryniti: "one thing that makes this an attractive project is learning the carpentry skill."

Be clear with yourself about whether you want a new workspace or a project to work on. If you want to learn carpentry skills (which is a great idea), you can start with, say, a birdhouse and work your way up from there.

Also, if you're comparing the price of a kit to uncut materials, consider that you will need a bunch of tools to build this in the latter case—probably a chop saw and bench saw, possibly a handheld rotary saw, and a drill. Plus all the smaller stuff like sawhorses, bits, blades, and so on.
posted by adamrice at 11:01 AM on December 5, 2023

There may be carpentry classes you can take locally. Older posts of yours say you're in New Orleans, and I did this google search and here are some options (although many are probably for people interested in going to the carpentry trade:
NOLA Carpentry Camp
Orleans Tech
BuildStrong Academy of Greater New Orleans
posted by ShooBoo at 11:11 AM on December 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

I built an 8x12 foot shed in my backyard over the course of a summer. This was probably the first thing I built beyond the level of assembling IKEA furniture. I had a friend help hold and move things and I expect that things would be much easier for you if you had another set of hands around at least for certain steps. The main tools I used were an electric drill and a mitre saw. I think in general a shed is a pretty easy build because if you stick with 16" spacing for your studs the thing will be way overbuilt for what it is. My shed is very much a tool/storage shed so I didn't install any drywall on the inside of it though.

I borrowed a stack of "how to build a shed" books from the library and then drew up some plans based on that. It wasn't anything too complicated because my shed is just a box with openings for a door and some windows.

You'll need to figure out what you're doing for putting it on the ground. I'm in Canada so dug in concrete footings to deal with freeze-thaw cycles. This probably wasn't necessary but I felt like overbuilding. Depending on where you are you may have to deal with termites or flooding or other things that could require you to prepare the ground a certain way.

For the electric, how far away is your house and what do you plan on doing in the shed? I think a lot of people just run an extension cord from one of their outdoor outlets if they just need power for lights or to run tools.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:45 PM on December 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

You can lead and do a carpentry project like this, but will need additional people to assist and extra trades like electricians etc.

A hand saw, right angle, measuring tape, hammer and nails would get the job completed very slowly but life will be easier with saw horses, clamps, a power saw / circular saw, power drill and driver etc. So your outlay will include equipment not just materials. (Consider where these could be stored during and after the build- do you need a bigger shed?) Preparing the slab is also materials and equipment heavy, some which you may have from yard work.

As previously suggested a shed kit would reduce some of that outlay as materials would be pre cut..

Things to also consider are understanding building requirements from your local government. Smaller buildings may not require a building permit but might require specific setbacks from perimeter fences, and recommend particular material choices.

Regardless of whatever climate you are in, insulation, sun aspect and pest proofing are also points to consider. It would be frustrating to not be able to use the room for half the year after going to the work of making a working space.

Could you start out by making a furniture item that would be used in your studio? Ana White's plans would be a good place for supportive and clear instructions
posted by pipstar at 4:50 PM on December 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

You can absolutely do this. Building things like birdhouses or furniture won't help you a great deal, as carpentry is a different (and easier in many ways) skillset than cabinetmaking.

Regarding kit vs 'from scratch' - this depends what you mean by a kit. You can buy various kinds of sheds that are mostly pre-built and just need panels joining together and these are simple and quick, but the components are very heavy and getting them in position may be difficult (also expensive) . There are kits that are basically a set of plans and all the individual components cut to size ready for you to assemble. These are cheaper and easier to move into a space with limited access, but require a lot more skill to assemble and are somewhat expensive.

The difference between these and starting with a set of plans and a pile of timber is the skill in interpreting the plan and cutting the pieces accurately (eg plans will tell you the height of a wall frame, but not how long to cut the actual timbers that make it up). Obviously, the cheapest way is to start with a set of plans and buy what you need as you need it. You don't want to be storing building timber out in the open for long periods, so buying everything you need at the start is not the best idea.

I would break the build into stages and learn what you need for each stage, build that, then move to the next. Don't try to learn how to built a roof when you don't even have a floor yet. Build the floor, then build the wall frames, then build the roof frame, then wall cladding, then roof cladding, then interior (depending on the design, the order may have to be a bit different). Buy the material you need for each stage just before you start that stage.

There are so many videos on YouTube that cover every single aspect of what you need to to, the hardest thing will be to figure out which ones work best for you. Watch lots of them for each stage and, if you're unsure, revisit them as you work. Breaking the build down into stages will make the learning process easier and less daunting.

You probably don't need a nail gun but, if you're working alone or with limited help, it can be a lot easier (and safer) to nail a frame together that way because you're not constantly battling to hold something in the right place for long enough to get a couple of nails in with a hammer. Buy a cheap nail gun if you do get one - expensive will last longer being used every day but that's not an issue for you. Always remember to never, ever, ever fire a nail gun when it's pointing toward you or anyone else, even if there's a piece of wood between you and the gun.

You don't need lots of power tools either way - a handheld circular saw (cordless is far easier to manage and less likely to cut your leg off) and a couple of saw horses are all you need for cutting framing/cladding. A handsaw, hammer, square, sliding bevel, string line, tape measure and a pencil will just about see you through. Hand tools are worth spending more on quality because they'll be much nicer to use.

One last thing - if it would work for you, replacing your deck first would probably be a benefit. If you're replacing the deck exactly as it is, you can just copy how it's been done and you'll learn a lot from doing that.
posted by dg at 5:44 PM on December 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

I think this is way too big a project for a first timer. Try building a roofed shelter for your garbage cans, or a small shed (like 4' x 2') for your yard tools. You'll learn a lot, including how challenging it can be to finish a project that seems really straightforward.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:08 PM on December 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Also, if you're going to replace your deck, make sure you know what your locality's regulations and permit requirements are. Civic authorities hate it when people are injured or die in deck collapses, and they want to make sure the work is done right. Just because it's outside doesn't mean it's simple, or trivial.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:12 PM on December 5, 2023

I think this is a very big job for a one-person first-timer. We bought a FANCY TuffShed in 2021 (it has lots of windows and glass French doors, and is 10x12) the same purpose and paid to have it installed. We are also in a VHCOL area and paid TuffShed about $11,000 and the cement pad was another $1000. After seeing the teams do the labor, I would not have wanted to do either of those jobs, especially not solo. We paid a handyman to do electrical, a mini split, drywall, insulation, painting and flooring, but if you’re trying to save I bet you could do the Sheetrock, flooring, and insulation and painting yourself.

We did build a smaller 9x7 Keter (plastic) shed this summer ourselves after building a foundation with 2x4s and pavers. Totally reasonably doable solo but so much easier with two people.
posted by samthemander at 8:00 PM on December 5, 2023

I would first watch as many YouTube videos about doing this as I could to get a better sense of what's involved, and whether I could do it or not. And, if I could, I'd know a lot more afterwards about what to do.

e.g. I've only watched the first quarter or so of this nearly 4 hour video about building a shed by Home RenoVision DIY but already learned more than I knew (which wasn't much). I do not plan to build a shed.
posted by fabius at 6:15 AM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

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