DIY

How to Build a Storage Shed

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Build a shed big enough to store more than what you currently have.

Click on the article’s Image Gallery for referenced figures and diagrams.

Almost everyone has a storage problem of one sort or
another. And that used to include John Frost of Grafton,
Massachusetts . . . until two years ago, that is, when John
found a way to come out ahead in “the race for space”.

Nothing beats having an honest-for-real barn
when you’re in need of a sheltered place to park the old
Farmall or stash 20 extra bales of hay. Unfortunately,
though, many back-to-the-landers–myself
included–don’t have a barn, and can’t afford
the investment of time and money necessary to build one.
(Which helps explain why most of us have more tools and
machinery sitting out in the open, exposed to all kinds of
weather, than is right and proper.)

‘ Then again, if you’re “fresh out” of storage
space–and if (like me) you can’t see your way clear
to construct a genuine barn–it may interest you to
know that you can come by all-weather storage space for
slightly over $1.00 per square foot . . . if you’ll just do
the building yourself.

My new “did it myself” storehouse (see accompanying photos)
contains approximately 500 square feet of floor space, took
me six weekends to erect, and set me back only $528 for
materials. The structure is functional, attractive, and
sufficiently spacious for my needs (it holds–with
ease–two cars, a tractor, and a canoe). And
the shed meets all local construction codes . . . which
means [A] it can handle the substantial snow loads of a
typical New England winter, and [B] no building inspector
can ever “throw the book at me” for non-compliance with The
Rules.

Check Your Local Building Codes

The very first thing you should do if you decide to build a
shed like mine is trek on down to your city clerk’s office
and obtain a copy of the local building code. (Some
municipalities sell the book, others give the manual to
anyone who asks for it, and still others yet have no copies
of the guide for distribution in any manner. If you run
into the last situation, however, there is an easy way to
find out exactly what you’ll have to do to keep the
building inspector happy: just apply for a construction
permit.)

If you’re lucky enough to be able to take home a copy of
the code book, you’ll find that the volume offers a bonanza
of useful information for the do-it-yourself builder. For
example, the fourteen tables and appendices of my town’s
manual list such things as allowable spans for various
sizes of rafters under given load conditions, load-bearing
qualities of assorted soil types, and other hard-to-get
technical info. As a result–ironically
enough–that code book is one of the most valued
volumes on my reference shelf.

Planning: The Key to Success

There’s an old saying that “an hour’s planning will save
three hours’ work: one hour when the job is first done, and
two more when you have to do it over”. Believe me, this
statement is just as true for the shed-builder as it is for
the manufacturers of jumbo jets.

Plan ahead, then start by asking yourself how large a
storehouse you really want. (And don’t be too conservative
in your estimate or, if you’re like most people, you’ll be
wishing the shed were twice as big within six months of its
completion.) A good idea is to decide how much space you
need to corral your present inventory of unsheltered goods
. . . and then add at least half again as much square
footage to your projected building’s floor plan.

Of course, before you get too carried away with
the design of your own private warehouse, you’ll have to
face reality and ask yourself how large a storage building
you can actually afford. Since prices do vary in different
parts of the country, I highly recommend that you [1]
compare the current cost of supplies in your area to the
prices mentioned further on in this article, [2] modify my
“buck per square foot” figure accordingly, and
then [3] roughly calculate just how much your
“dream shed” is going to set you back. If the price is out
of the ballpark, you’ll–naturally–have to think
again about the size of your yet-to-be storehouse.

And have you chosen a site for the shed? And is that site
reasonably level? Will you have to clear away trees or
stumps before you can build? What about drainage: Are you
absolutely certain that the first afternoon thunderstorm
that comes along won’t transform half your building’s floor
into a pig wallow or (worse yet) leave the shed waist deep
in water? Go outside and drive some stakes into the ground
to mark out the four corners of your proposed structure.
Then sit down and think about what those stakes
are trying to tell you. Take a long, hard look.

Naturally, you’ve planned to position the shed so that its
open side faces away from the prevailing winds of winter.
Likewise, it’s a good idea–if you can–to locate
the building downwind of something larger (your house, a
row of tall trees, etc.), so that the little storage shed
is at least partially “blanked out” during periods of
heavy, blowing precipitation. Think and plan!
Remember, if you have any complaints about the size, cost,
or location of your structure after it’s built,
you’ll have but one person to squarely place the blame on.
And it sure won’t be me!

Designing Your Shed

Once you’ve chosen a suitable construction site and you
know the approximate dimensions of your mini-warehouse,
you’ll want to concentrate on the structure’s actual
design. I chose the tried-and-true “carriage” style for my
own shed, a configuration which–I think–rather
effectively combines rustic charm with efficient use of
materials and, more importantly, makes for easier
construction.

If you’ve ever seen an authentic carriage shed alongside a
19th century farmhouse, you know that a good deal of
old time Yankee foresight is evident in the general layout
of such buildings. The pitched roof, for instance, ensures
good drainage and helps to support heavy loads of, ice and
snow . . . while the use of bays as basic modules permits
flexibility where size is concerned. (Need more space? Add
another bay!) For a truly practical all-weather storage
structure, the carriage-style shed is hard to beat.

If you want to experiment a little with the design of your
storage building–but you feel, perhaps, that you lack
the necessary drafting or engineering know-how–check
the larger libraries in your area for Architectural
Graphic Standards
by Charles G. Ramsey and Harold R.
Sleeper ($44.95 from John Wiley & Sons). Between the
advice contained in this tome and the info tucked away in
the pages of your building code, you’ll have grist for many
an evening’s reading and sketching!

Draw Your Blueprint

You don’t have to be a design draftsman to work up a usable
set of plans for your mini-warehouse. (I should qualify
that: Some building inspectors do, in fact,
require builders and that includes owner-builders–to
submit professionally drafted plans for approval.
Others will settle for a rather crude sketch. Moral: Visit
city hall first . . . before you set pencil to
paper.)

Crude sketch or detailed plans, all you need to make your
building’s drawings are a sharp pencil, a ruler, and a pad
of graph paper. Keep in mind–no matter what the local
building inspector asks for-that your plans must be
detailed enough to [1] enable you to calculate the amount
of lumber and other materials you’ll need for the project,
and [2] allow you–when the time comes–to cut
and join beams in an orderly fashion.

OK. Pick a scale for your plans (say, one inch equals two
feet). Then sketch front-view and side-view outlines of the
shed, to scale (Fig. 1).

Next, from your front- and side-view drawings, determine
the exact sizes of framing lumber that you’ll need for the
building. And strive for efficient use of materials.
You
may find, for example, that the load-bearing
requirements and overall dimensions of your structure’s
roof are met by several combinations of rafter size and
rafter spacing. However, only one such combination
will require the fewest board feet of lumber, and
that’s the combination you’re looking for.

Don’t forget, too, that lumber is usually sold in
multiples of two running feet. Which means that if
your plans call for a number of nine-foot-long studs,
you’ll either have to [A] change the framing dimensions to
an even number of feet (eight or ten), or [B] accept the
fact that you’re going to have a large stack of expensive
cutoff ends to feed to the fireplace after the building is
up.

As soon as you’ve settled on the most economical dimensions
for your mini-warehouse, begin a detailed cross-section
drawing (see Fig. 2) of the structure. Show all framing
members to scale and you should be able to use the drawing
to make up a complete list of all the materials you’ll need
to fabricate the shed.

About Materials

While I don’t deny that it may be well worth your while to
scout up a supply of low-cost used lumber for the
construction of your building, I do feel that–unless
you happen to be long on time and short on cash–you
should be extremely wary of offers of free hen houses,
barns, and the like. That dilapidated old barn with the
45° list (which the owner says you can have “free” for
the dismantling) may not contain enough sound, usable wood
to justify the many back-wrenching hours you’ll spend
ripping it apart. The final decision, of course, is up to
you . . . but I prefer to stick with all-new lumber from a
building supply house or a good local sawmill.

Once you’ve found a source of framing timbers, check with
sawmills in your area for rough-cut boards to use as
roofing and siding. (Fresh-cut, green, ungraded
stock–which is all you really need for exterior
siding–is vastly less expensive than the cured and
graded material sold by commercial lumber dealers.) A visit
to the sawmill will not only save you money, but will lift
your spirits as well. The sight of all that pitch and
sawdust flying–and the almost overpowering aroma of
fresh-cut pine (and other woods)–is guaranteed to
bring out the latent lumberjack in just about anyone!

Build Your Foundation

Now that you know what you’re going to build and where
you’re going to get the materials with which to build it,
you’re ready to start on your shed’s foundation (if any).

A full foundation and floor are necessary only if you
intend to heat the building . . . otherwise, it’s hard to
justify the expense and labor involved in pouring a
concrete slab. Concrete columns spaced every six or eight
feet along the load-bearing walls will support the
structure just as well as a slab will and at a fraction of
the cost. (In fact, a mix consisting of cement, stones,
sand, and water should keep the cost of each pier to a very
reasonable three or four dollars.)

The holes for your columns should be two feet in diameter
and deep enough to penetrate the frost line (which–in
the northeastern U.S.–lies three to four feet below
the surface). Once you’ve filled each hole to within a
couple inches of the top with mix, check the piers for
level by the following procedure:

[1] Set an identical wide-bottomed block or container (I
used inverted plastic buckets) on each of two adjacent
piers, [2] lay a beam across the two upside-down pails, and
[3] take a reading with a level along the top of the beam.
If the beam is not level, add cement to the hole on the low
side, and repeat the procedure. Do this for each pair of
adjacent piers (making sure, as you go around the building,
that you check every pier to both the one “behind”
and the one “ahead”) and you can be reasonably certain of
ending up with a level foundation.

If you like, you can make a form into which concrete can be
poured so that the top of each foundation pier is built up
six to ten inches above the ground. Or you can simply leave
every poured column flush with the earth’s surface and lay
a concrete block down (with its holes pointed up) atop each
wet concrete piling. It’s then easy to poke the hook end of
a threaded tiedown bolt down through one of the holes in
the block until the hook is embedded in the freshly poured
concrete below. The holes in the block itself can also be
filled with concrete at the same time. Result: A solid,
substantial pier that extends to below frost line and to
which (because of the tiedown bolt) one of the structural
members of the building’s frame can be quickly and securely
attached.

Sound Structural Advice

Because the shed’s sills carry whatever load is not borne
by the foundation columns, pick something husky when you’re
deciding what size lumber to use here. For total peace of
mind, I used double 2 X 8’s. (If wood-nibbling insects
inhabit your neck of the woods, be sure to coat the sills
with preservative . . . no matter how big the
beams are.)

Likewise, since your framing lumber is what holds the whole
shebang up, you’ll want to use only clear, dry,
construction-grade beams for the skeleton of your storage
building. Remember, this isn’t the place to skimp on
quality . . . so don’t let cost considerations interfere
with common sense. (When I built my shed, which is to say, in
the spring of 1974-good-quality framing beams sold for
between 22¢ and 30¢ per board foot. And as a
result, a major portion of my total expense went into the
building’s structural lumber.)

Something you should keep in mind is that the use of
collar beams (Fig. 2) will almost double the
load-bearing capacity of your shed’s rafters. The strength
of these beams is almost entirely a function of their depth
(rather than width) . . . thus, there’s no need to use
thick material here. Put thin (but deep) collar beams under
your rafters, and you’ll not only save money on the beams
themselves, but you’ll also be able to use less rafter
material.

As mentioned earlier, rough-sawn (green) boards can be used
for the storage shed’s roof decking and siding. You’re
right, of course, if you say that plywood goes on a lot
faster . . . but the last time I checked, 3/4″ plywood was
selling for about 334 per square foot and rising, compared
to the 11¢ to 16¢ per board foot being fetched by
sawmill-fresh, random-length pine boards. A price
difference like that translates into a whopping big savings
in the final cost of this building. Why spend when you can
save?

When you nail the vertical siding on, by the way, take care
to butt each rough-sawn board tightly against the preceding
one to keep the effects of shrinkage to a minimum.
Naturally, the green boards will shrink a little as they
dry out, and this will produce visible gaps. If the gaps
bother you (or if you must have weather tight
walls), shiplap the openings with thin furring strips. 

Finishing Touches

Finishing a building can be expensive . . . as anyone who’s
built a house, barn, garage, shop, etc., knows. And
probably the most expensive “finishing touch” of all is the
weatherproofing that you’ll surely want to add.

To weatherproof my shed’s roof, I applied asphalt
shingles–which cost $12 per square (one square equals
100 square feet)–over black roofing paper. By
comparison, roll asphalt roofing runs about two-thirds the
cost and cedar shakes are almost twice as expensive as
asphalt shingles.

Yes, you can simply let the walls of the shed weather.
You’ll find, however, that uncured pine tends to turn a
blotchy black if left untreated (in contrast to cedar,
which becomes silver-gray with time). Thus, it
pays–if you plan to leave any siding and/or roofing
exposed to the elements–to protect the wood with some
sort of finish. I treated my shed with a semi-transparent
preservative/stain.

The dirt floor can be covered with a couple of inches of
3/4″ stones (about $4.00 per yard, delivered) to keep it
looking neat and to prevent grass from growing inside the
building. Pea stone is fancier . . . but, then again, it’s
also more expensive. (Caution: DON’T allow the stones to
spread outside the confines of the shed if you intend to
use a snow blower–rather than a snowplow–to
clear snow from around the building during the winter.)

And Remember…

Whether you build a closet-sized tool shed or a
5,000-square-foot warehouse, the most important work you do
on the building will be done in its planning and design. Do
a sloppy job of charting out the construction, and you can
look forward to huge cost (and time) overruns. Do an
adequate job of preparation, however, and–like
me–you’ll be able to have all the storage space you
need . . . for little more than $1.00 per square foot!