Building a Backyard Artist Studio
Two years ago, my family moved from Florida to Colorado, leaving behind my beloved shed I had converted into an art studio. When we bought a lovely little brick home in our new state, the backyard was outfitted with a rusting metal shed flanked by gnarly tree bushes and lined with diagonally-embedded bricks. Now that I was a spoiled backyard artist, I knew this metal tetanus heap was sitting on the hallowed ground of what would one day be my new den of creative wonders.
Settled in and eager to unpack my many boxes of art supplies and maker tools, I began dreaming up my new space–this time I would be building from the ground up. Anything was possible, except for the fact that I had no idea how to construct a building.
Starting a big project where I have largely no idea what I am doing and have none of the skills necessary is one of my least favorite endeavors and is always incredibly overwhelming. I would spend hours looking out at that rusty old shed and seeing everything I had to do before I could even start building–tear down an existing shed, somehow uproot the trees around it, dig out a foundation, fill it with crushed rock, lay treated runners, so on an so on–each task was equally a mystery to me. None of it felt achievable.
I just tried to start moving in the right direction, certain that I would never finish, and sure that I couldn’t do this. But eventually, often slowly, sometimes frantically, I built a fully beautiful studio in my backyard even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. And you can, too!
The inside of this backyard artist studio is my new favorite place in the world. Every day I walk in and think Wow, I really made this? How did that happen? Is this real? The studio took a long time–October ’16 to June ’17–but now that it is finished I am in disbelief. I still feel like I don’t know how to build a studio, yet here I am sitting inside the studio that I built.
If creating a space like this is one of your dreams, I want to say right off the bat that you can do this. I had a professional run the electricity and family help with the framing and foundation digging, but other than that this entire structure and everything in it was completed with my own two hands and skills I learned from the internet and library books. The permit office also offered tons of wisdom on what wood to use and specifics of local building code.
The words “I’m building an art studio in my backyard” go a long way; people want to help others pursue their passions, and that simple phrase seems to soften the edges of grumbly lumber yard workers, pull some extra construction forgiveness from neighbors, and loosen the hands of generous acquaintances with big scrap piles.
I didn’t use any tools out of the ordinary–a table saw, circular saw, jigsaw, hammer, cordless drill, paintbrush, and a sander did nearly all the work.
Step 1: Making a Wish List
Since you’re here on Instructables, I’m going to assume that you are creative in a whole lot of different ways. For you, building an art studio might be more of a sewing shed, workshop, or makerspace. Knowing how you will use the space and designing around those ideas can make your process go smoothly and ensure that your new creative workshop has everything you need, and a concise wish list will keep your mind on your goals.
Before starting your design, make a list or web of all the activities you want to do in your new space. Be sure to list any large equipment, furniture, or storage you might need for each category.
My Wish List was really long, and it looked like this:
– Rolling Cart (for my palette, gesso, storage of large jars of paints and mediums)
– Storage space for finished works
– Enormous blank wall for painting really big paintings
– Large paper storage
– Large surface for drawing (could be desk; very smooth, flat floor for giant rolls)
Making of Weirdness (general craftiness)
– LOTS of shelves with boxes
– HUGE desk I can throw things all over and not worry about damaging the surface
– Sewing machines (2)
– Separate workspace so that I don’t have to clean up ongoing projects before using the sewing machine (ideal for quick mending)
– Movable, multi-functioning furniture
– Large open floor space
Enjoyable, Inspiring Environment
– Music (bluetooth speaker)
– Place to sit and read
– Big windows, lots of natural light
– Inviting space with cozy fabrics, feels like I want to hang out
– Guitar hanging on the wall
– Track lighting to adapt to whatever I’m doing in the space
Space for Future Growth, More Storage, New Mediums and Materials
I was able to achieve everything on my list with careful planning, and the list completely dictated the design in many aspects.
Step 2: Designing the Space and Getting a Permit
PERMIT was this monstrous, scary word I had avoided in all of my previous home projects. I usually research residential code and skate just underneath the requirements for permitting (or, in the case of running electrical to my previous backyard shed/studio, seek help from genius friends and plan to claim official idiocy if the need arose). My permit-avoidance strategy worked until it came to designing and building my backyard artist studio from the ground up.
I spent a lot of time procrastinating this whole permit issue by sketching endless iterations of my future studio. What if it had a door to a greenhouse? What if it had two stories? What if it had a roof deck? How do I build a circular hobbit door? These outlandish ideas (and more!) crept the looming PERMIT away; until I had a solid plan, I didn’t need to even think about a permit!
That didn’t last for too long–after all, all of my art stuff was sitting, aching, dying in the attic. I had to attack the PERMIT.
It is super important to look at your city’s code before beginning the building design process. You can do this easily online by searching “[name of your city] building code” or “can I have a shed on my property in [name of your city],” or, if you hate online research, head down to city hall and talk with the building department. Personally, I found the online code search to be difficult and unclear–all that government language is far over my head.
The employees at city hall, however, know it all backwards and forwards, and a 30-minute talk with the local building department filled me in on where I could legally place my studio. In my city, a structure that is under 200 square feet can be placed anywhere on the property, but buildings over that size had to have a larger setback from property lines. I also learned that there could be no more than two “accessory structures” on my lot, meaning that if I had two other sheds, treehouses, or buildings, I would have to first remove one in order to get a permit for my new space.
My city requires permits for accessory buildings over 120 square feet. Originally I was determined to stay beneath this threshold in order to avoid the seemingly daunting task of talking to the government and acquiring a permit; further research deemed this impossible, as any size structure with electrical wiring needs a permit. Fortunately, this little permit issue freed up my thinking: Since I have to get a permit anyway, I will make this as big as I want.
DESIGN AND PERMIT PREP
Equipped with the knowledge that I could throw down a studio anywhere on my lot that was smaller than 200 square feet, I grabbed a tape measure and headed for the backyard. The max size of building that would fit aesthetically and logically in the space was 16’x12′, clocking in at 192 square feet.
With a sizable footprint marked out in the yard, I took my dimensions to SketchUp.
I had never used Google Sketchup before, but it was really easy to learn for my purposes. My lack of any building experience led me to choose a more modern, single-pitch roof–it seemed a whole lot easier to build. I first drafted a big, ugly 16’x12′ box with an 8′ tall back wall and a 10′ tall front wall to create the roof pitch, but that enormous 10′ wall across the front gave a daunting appearance. The looming 10-foot front looked awful as a big, solid hunk of wall; I pushed half of it backwards (the novelty of the Push-Pull was fresh), creating an entry porch and adding much-needed dimension to the front; it also gave me an obvious place for my entrance. I didn’t mind loosing the square footage inside–after all, this new space would be three times larger than my previous art studio. So much space!
My wish list included having one huge, uninterrupted wall for making giant paintings. I kept the back wall free of any windows to fulfill this goal. Insetting half of the front wall created a 4’x8′ nook inside the space, and that seemed like the perfect place to build that huge desk that was in my wish list. A window above the desk, to the left of the desk, and the use of a sliding glass door gave me the natural light I wanted.
I was able to find a salvage sliding glass door and two windows. With those dimensions decided, it was time to create building plans. An online search for my local building code spelled out specifications on framing that were required for my area.
Uncertain of what needed to be included in my building plans to be submitted for the permit, I downloaded the construction plans for a wooden Costco shed that had a similar roof to my structure and copied the construction details, like toenailing studs together. I drew my framing plans by hand using a pencil and a ruler; there wasn’t anything special or complicated about it. A quick online search gave me instructions on how to frame in a window and sliding glass door, and I copied those details into my plans as well.
GETTING THE PERMIT
Part of the reason that getting a permit seemed such a daunting task was that I could find no DIY examples online of what was required to apply. The city’s website simply said I needed “building plans,” “construction drawings,” and a” site plan,” none of which meant much to ignorant me.
To create the site plan, the city printed out an outline of my lot and the location of my house, driveway, and paved patio. I drew the location and dimensions of my studio on the lot and included the distances between the studio and my property lines. This document was then reviewed, stamped, copied, and given to me to add to my drawings for permit approval.
I took a folder with the approved site plan, a print out of my SketchUp, and my drawings of the framing to the building department at City Hall to ask what else I needed to provide. To my surprise, the man said “nothing!” and looked over my drawings. He carefully asked about types of wood and lumber dimensions for my floor and roof, looking up requirements in a massive book of building code. Writing on my drawings, he specified that I needed to use 2x6s for the floor and roof joists. I needed to use joist hangers for the floor and hurricane clips for the rafters (noticing the confused look on my face, he kindly explained what these things were and where I could get them). After reviewing my plans for over an hour, he wrote his corrections in red pen, stamped every page with approval, tucked the stack into a yellowed folder, and handed it to me with a “congratulations, here’s your permit (that will be $175, please).”
Step 3: Making a Foundation
After a number of family members helped clear the rusty old shed and rip out some small trees,
I decided to build a gravel base for my building to sit on; this requires excavating an area, framing out the space, filling it with crushed gravel, lots of compaction, and finally laying treated wood to act as runners. The floor is then built directly onto the treated runners.
After a number of family members helped clear the rusty old shed and rip out some small trees, a Bobcat-owning (the big machine, not the amazing animal, although that would be super amazing but not as helpful) family member come over and dug out 6″ of dirt where I wanted to put my studio.
I made a roughly 16’x12′ wooden frame out of treated 4x4s and set it in the big, shallow hole. There was an existing concrete sidewalk leading from our home to the old rusty shed, and I framed around it rather than jackhammering it out–no wood would be sitting on the concrete.
I called a local landscaping company and said “hi, I need enough of whatever type of gravel you recommend for a shed foundation to fill a 16’x12’x6″ space delivered to my home.” The next day, a huge pile of gravel was welcomed to our driveway. I hauled it all to the backyard, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, and spread it out using a garden rake. After the whole thing was full, I smoothed out and leveled the surface using a long 2×4. Then I wet down the gravel and used a hand compacter to smash it all down into a solid area.
With the foundation complete, I laid my 4×4 treated runners down eight feet apart.
Building code required the floor be built with 2x6s on 12″ centers with joist hangers. We built the floor frame, leveled and centered it onto treated runners set on the foundation, and toenailed the floor to the runners. After an inspection for floor framing, we screwed down our subfloor. I thought momentarily that this would be a good place to stop and offer a small, backyard stage to the local children who are interested in theater.
Step 4: Framing, Framing, Framing
With the floor ready to go, it was time to start framing. My brother-in-law and father-in-law played huge roles here, taking my permit drawings and getting right to work. We were able to do all the framing in a handful of hours.
We first framed out the back wall, using the floor as a work surface. After the wall was constructed we lifted it into place and screwed the bottom board into the floor joist below. Then we erected the front wall with the window. Each wall was built on the floor, lifted into place, checked for square, and screwed to the floor and adjacent walls. After all the walls were framed, the roof joists went up.
To help support the roof, I needed one huge beam coming up from the corner of the porch. Along with a rusty shed, our new home also came with a very nice wooden swing-set–that’s a lot of free wood meant for the great outdoors! I used the large swing-set beam as my support pillar; it has so may cool divots and cutouts from where it once held swings.
Code mandated 2×6 roof joists, 12″ on center, and that we use hurricane clips to make sure the entire roof doesn’t blow off in a twister. Initially my plans had a skylight; the installation proved to be more difficult and problematic than I was willing to deal with, so I simply did joists straight across instead.
Step 5: Exterior Sheathing, Painting, Roofing, and a Deck
With the structure complete, my first goal was to get the framing and floor protected. I hopped on a ladder and started screwing OSB onto the rafters. This was a shaky business–I should have put the siding on first to offer some additional stability to the building, and with my not-so-accurate wood cutting and adhering, I skewed the building a bit out of square. This, of course, made many steps in the future much more difficult. In his book A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan laments the out-of-square problems that arose in the design and building of his backyard writing house. If only I had learned from his mistakes! There were many times throughout my process that I felt an anonymous sort of kinship with Pollan (and definitely many times I envied his partnership with a professional architect and builder).
I spent days nailing up pre-primed siding and trimming annoyingly skinny triangles off of the sheets to fit them to my not-square walls. I snagged some live-edge boards leftover from a friend’s tiny house build to create an accent wall on the studio patio, and used scrap subfloor to create a base for the wood siding on that exterior wall.
At the end of each step of the process, the studio felt like it took on a little more of myself. Once the framing was completed, the studio first came into the real world; but once the siding was on, I had an official interior and exterior. All of my visions of the space were constantly overlapping with the building, as if drawn on transparencies and superimposed into the air everywhere I looked. I loved to just sit inside and think, I have an “inside!” Over there is “outside!” Wow!
I painted the studio with a warm gray to match the exterior wood on our house, but I needed to go funky above the seam of the siding. I wanted the sight of my studio to bring me sheer joy every time I gazed at it (particularly while washing dishes and catching glimpses out the window above the sink). Working with a palette of golds and yellows, I brushed on tones reminiscent of all the variety of pollen colors neatly tucked into cell after cell of my beehives.
All of this happened in the fall, and I was eager to get my little building rain-proof. Roofing was a super scary step for me to start (another one of those skills I didn’t have and knew nothing about), but the internet once again gave the needed information. I nailed down rows of tar paper, overlapping each layer by a few inches (the paper was marked with a line showing how far to overlap). Next, I installed drip edge on the sides and back of the roof. Then came all the shingles, nailed down row after row–the plastic wrapping on the shingles helpfully described their installation–and finished with drip edge along the top of the roof to keep water from sneaking up underneath the shingles. No leaks yet!
I wanted to reuse a lot of the swing-set wood in the studio, so to build the porch I cut swing-set scraps into 2″ strips, beveled the edge slightly, drilled pilot holes and counter-sinks, and screwed the boards to the exposed floor joists. I painted the joists with exterior paint underneath the patio area to offer some extra protection from the elements. The patina on the swing-set wood was pretty intense at the time of installation–the finish has aged a bit, but it is still loaded with funky old nail holes.
The exterior finished up wit lots of inexpensive furring strips to cover seams and clean up rough joints. I stapled hardware cloth beneath the bottom trims and to the foundation frame to keep skunks and other cute critters from living underneath my studio. A porch light, garage sale chair, and some salvaged windchimes (which I found in a ditch, fashioned a new clapper out of some scrap cedar, and hung up on a day I was feeling gloomy) add homey touches to this sunny little spot.Once the exterior was finished up, I had a realization–I’ve done all of the steps left ahead of me before. I’ve done insulation. I’ve hung drywall. I’ve taped and textured. I’ve built shelves. I was back in my wheelhouse, and although I am certainly not very good at many of the skills required moving to the interior of the space, I could at least rely on my own experience and not just on YouTube to know what to do. That was a good feeling.
Step 6: Designing the Interior
Once the outside was complete, I started sketching out where my built-in elements would go; this was mainly to determine where I would need outlets and boxes for light fixtures. I did a lot of sketching of the space, primarily the desk area, to try and decide what storage should be built in and what storage should be mobile/from IKEA.
I decided I needed TONS of outlets–two on the wall with the shelves, one underneath my desk and two above the desk on either side of the window, one to the small wall to the right of the desk, and one on the south wall. The only wall with no outlets is my big 16′ painting wall. I also planned for track lighting, an exterior pendant light, and three exterior outlets–one next to the door on the porch, one tucked up into the rafters, and one on the back corner of the studio where a heating/AC unit will eventually live.
The loft had yet to be dreamed up at this stage; it wasn’t until the drywall was up that I truly understood how much wasted space there was above the window. More on that later.
Step 7: Electric and Insulation
After finishing the exterior of the studio, I had this moment of: wait. I’ve done everything from this point out before–I did electric, insulation, drywall, and shelves in my old studio! It was a fantastic feeling (although I was conveniently not thinking of the floor, and that was a true pain in the butt). The electrician, my only hired professional, came and wired up the inside of the studio based on my “plans” (I just marked with sharpie on the studs where I wanted outlets and lights).
Once the wires were in, I started insulating using rockwool. This is a little more expensive of an option over fiberglass insulation. Rockwool stays in place by itself without the use of staples, so installation is easier, it fills the entire cavity and offers a higher R-value than fiberglass, and it is sound-deadening so I can blast my music without worrying about the neighbors. At this point in the build, I was mainly interested in the “ease of installation” portion of any option available to me. Rockwool is often used in sound studios; If I suddenly and tragically die, my husband Dave can convert the space into his recording studio (or be stricken with grief and sell our home to someone eager to have their own backyard recording studio).
Having installed both fiberglass and Rockwool insulations, I HIGHLY prefer the Rockwool. It was so easy to put in, and it is so quiet inside the studio. The space holds its temperature well.
Step 8: Drywall
After insulation came drywall, at which I am admittedly terrible. Fueled by donuts, a friend helped me hang the heavy sheets on the ceiling. We cut many holes for electrical boxes in the wrong places. We hated our arms for being so weak. We cursed the screws for missing the rafters. The walls went much easier of course, but still, I hope I don’t have to drywall ever again.
Then I watched a dozen videos on how to tape and texture drywall. I relied heavily on the “texture” portion of this combo, and went with a sort of “slather on knives full of mud” look to cover up all of my many, many taping mishaps. On the walls I sanded most of the texture down–the big back wall, which is intended to be an enormous work surface for giant-sized canvases, got the most fine sanding of all–but I grew sick of the dust and left the ceiling in all of its thick, knifey-texture glory. This technique of heavy knife application is very forgiving, and I get a lot of compliments on how beautiful and original the texture is.
Step 9: Plywood Floor
Texturing gave way to primer and “Snowy Pine” tinted paint, and then I could get started on the floors.
The floor needed to perform a lot of functions for me: I wanted something inexpensive, nice-but-somewhat-bland-looking, easy to install, and completely flat. The surface had to be without grooves or variation so that, if the time arose, I could throw a massive sheet of paper down onto the floor and draw on it without worrying that my pen would hit a seam between boards. This eliminated traditional wood floors (and all sorts of engineered floor) that has usually-desirable gaps.
I decided to make my floors out of inexpensive plywood, but did not want the look of huge plywood sheets. A nice helper at Lowe’s cut five sheets of 1/4-inch, oak-faced plywood into 6-inch wide, 4-feet long “planks.” I shuffled the stacks of boards so that the planks from a single sheet wouldn’t be near each other. Board by board, I squiggled heavy-duty construction adhesive onto the back, dropped the board in place, and drove a handful of finish nails through to the subfloor. I used a variety of lengths to start my rows so that the floorboards are randomly staggered, giving a lovely wood floor effect.
Then I went back over every single nail with a punch and hammered the heads below the surface. Then I went back over every single nail and groove and filled any surface variations with wood putty. Then I went back over every single nail with an orbital sander. Then I stained the floor (with the color “Weathered Oak” left over from another project). Then I sealed the floor with a heavy-duty polyurethane.
These were really cheap to make, but the process was all terrible and took forever. You could probably skip some steps if the smoothness of the floor is not an issue for you, but I wanted a big flat space for more art making.
Step 10: The Big Desk of Productive Grandeur
To build the desk, I constructed a simple frame out of scrap 2×4 and screwed it into the studs. I measured where I wanted the height of the desk using this cool metal chair I got at a garage sale. The desk top is a sheet of 1/2 inch plywood with a sanded surface on one side, and I used some iron-on veneer to cover the plywood edge and give the illusion of a solid piece of wood. I painted the frame with leftover white paint from the walls and sealed the desk surface with several coats of mineral oil. This surface is meant to be battered and abused in any way I see necessary in my art making.
As soon as this desk was installed, I couldn’t wait to start creating on it. The huge workspace allows me to throw everything I need on the desk and see it all at once–I can throw my planner, journal, sketchbook, water bottle, mug of tea, notecards, laptop, ipad, colored pencils, and post-its all over without having to stack anything. During the day, natural light spills through the window and makes spinning crystal rainbows across the walls.
Fabric scraps, books, big paper pads, and ephemera all found homes underneath the desk in some IKEA storage pieces. I bought a cheap foam roller for exercise purposes, but the roller found a better use underneath my metal chair–a constant fidgeter, it helps me focus to put my feet on the roller and kick it around while I’m working.
The windowsill above the desk is fashioned from an antique table that was the first furniture my husband ever bought for me–it was this gorgeous, strange table with giant beehive-looking legs and a hidden fold out leaf. The table suffered horrific warping when it transitioned from the humidity of Florida to the bone-dry Colorado climate, and was beyond repair. We loved this table–it had served us so kindly through so many homes, meals, and projects, and I’m determined to repurpose all of its bits into new things we can use and love.
The table had a veneer that was bubbling. After removing the veneer and sanding the surface, I cut off the sides of the table so I could use the unique decorative edge as a design element. No side of the table was long enough to fill the whole windowsill; things had to be pieced together in creative ways to get a relatively seamless edge along the front.
Desk and windowsill done, I raided our garage for trim. The past owner of our home left a generous pile of scraps, and I was able to baseboard the space without spending any money.
Step 11: The Birth of the Magical Space Loft
The loft was not in my initial plans, but once the drywall was up and the wall texture completed, I was faced with the reality of how much wasted space was up above the desk. During my “research,” I borrowed every book our local library had on designing tiny homes, off-grid cabins, and small structures, and these texts impressed on me the appalling sin of each inch of space without a function. I measured the empty void, and it was the perfect size to fit a twin mattress. Seemed like fate.
There was only one problem: I really wanted to build my shelves immediately. They were the final element before I could finally unpack all of my art friends that had been boxed up for years. I longed to be reunited with my paintbrushes and weird tools! But the loft kept picking its way onto my brain and refusing to be overlooked. I started mentioning the idea of the loft to a few friends and family to gauge reactions, and everyone was all “YOU HAVE TO DO THAT AND ALSO I WANT TO SLEEP THERE.” I spent a week trying to logistically figure out how I could build the shelves now and add the loft later. This would mean installing the shelves and then sawing into them at a later point; it’s a terrible option, and I knew that I would end up never building the loft if it came to that. Late one night, after tossing and turning over the problem for hours, I sat up in bed, groaned to Dave, “I have to build the loft first UGGHHH,” drew up my plans, made a materials list, went to sleep, and drove to the store early the next morning. The loft was finished by noon.
The napping space is built with 2x6s. I built the frame directly on the wall, liberally screwing the boards to the studs. I added the front board, then screwed in supporting boards at 12-inch increments. I used 2x6s so that there would be no concern at all about the stability of this thing, and I had a few scrap boards leftover from the rafters and floor.The floor of the loft is 1/2 inch plywood with one sanded side, screwed down to the frame and covered in blankets for coziness. I used two scrap plywood floorboards and a few spare bright box nails on the front of the loft to make it look less like a lumber pile and more like an intentional, integrated part of the space. The underside of the loft is painted white to reflect all that gorgeous natural light. I have future plans to integrate storage into the loft structure; right now it isn’t necessary, but that’s a lot of room that could serve a function.
Step 12: Epic Wall of the Internet’s Favorite DIY Shelves
If these aren’t really the internet’s favorite plans for floating shelves, then they definitely should be. I built these shelves in my last art studio, and I am totally sold on them being the best shelves ever. The instructable is easy to follow and offer super customization. The process demands detailed consideration of the space and careful planning, and once that’s all done, the actual shelves are easy to construct and install. My shelves had to follow the angled ceiling, tuck into the loft, stop at different points to accommodate the desk and under-desk storage, and seamlessly fill the wall surrounding the window. That’s a lot to ask.
I used 2×2 select pine for the verticals and MDF for the shelves; to save on cost, I purchased 16″-wide MDF and had the lumber yard cut each board into two 8″ wide pieces. The instructions for the shelves say to use a chisel to carve out the slots for the shelves; I have the luxury of borrowing a table saw with a dado blade capable of ripping out accurate chunks of wood in one go.
I didn’t have enough edge of my beautiful dining table left to make a second windowsill, so I integrated one of the shelves into the window to create one big seamless shelf-sill.
Most of the things I need to store are fairly small, but in order to fit taller items like sketchbooks I ended several shelves before the wall. This created a few little nooks for bigger stuff and a spot for tall rolls of paper to sit on the floor and prop against the wall, tucked neatly in with the surrounding shelves. The lowest shelf is wider, using the full 16″ of board, and narrows incrementally to match the higher 8″ shelves. This fatter shelf stores things like my record player and encaustic tools that would not fit on the slimmer shelves. Unfortunately, my jigsaw is pretty wonky and doesn’t do a fine job of straight lines, so the edge of my super-cool angle-shelf is not the clean, pristine line I had hoped for.
I’ve tried many methods of paint storage. The pegboard is by far the greatest way of keeping my paints organized, and I can quickly tell when I’m low on the staple colors.