How to DIY When You Live in an Apartment (Without a Garage or Workshop)

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Being a DIY weekend warrior is a bit easier when you have fresh ventilation, room to spread out, and a place to put all that sawdust. But if you don’t have a garage, workshop, backyard, or driveway at home, don’t say goodbye to DIY. It’s possible to get crafty, even if you’re a renter living in a multi-unit building. Need proof? Jess Goodwin filled her stylish small apartment in the middle of Chicago with hand-made projects — no garage, no problem.

In Jess’ house tour, she listed her two favorite DIY projects as her bed frame and dining table:

I designed the bed down to every part in the computer program SketchUp and did some reading to understand how other people built similar beds. The construction aspect of it was nothing new to me, but I did have to get creative with some areas of the frame and how to make it work for my design.

The bed frame went pretty smoothly once I got started, but the dining table was a new element for me. I had to teach myself a lot about the construction for the table. I ran into a lot of issues… If I had the right tools and space, I would have gotten the wood cut to the exact correct size and sent each piece through a planer. Then I would have used a router to make the holes for the biscuits. But I didn’t have a planer or a router or any other equipment to make a table that way. So I did some research and found out about pocket screws and got the right KREG jig for my wood thickness and went to town.

Both pieces were the start of my major DIYing and I’m only getting started!

Consider noise and neighbors:

I used an old thick knotted jute rug to work over. It helped absorb the noise for my downstairs neighbors. For the dining table, when I was drilling lots of pocket holes, I would limit myself to only the weekend during the day…and drill only so many holes every few hours. Due to my drill bit breaking so much, the drilling got pushed out over a span of a few weekends, so that probably helped the noise amount each day.

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

The loudest part was the sanding of the table, which I pushed off forever because I was so worried about the noise. I figured for sure someone would complain about the long loud sanding, so finally a friend that lived in my building came over and did it for me. I sat in my living room waiting for someone to complain biting my nails because I felt so bad, but nobody complained.

Jess’ commandments for apartment DIYing:

1) Get creative

2) Be patient

3) Think things through

4) Don’t give up

5) Don’t be a perfectionist (most people won’t notice the mistakes you know about)

6) Think about how you’ll take your project apart when you move (so you can take it with you!)

I wonder sometimes if I should have been that nice courteous neighbor and alerted my neighbors before I started each project, but I was too afraid they would complain and I wouldn’t be able to even start the project. In hindsight I don’t even know if they noticed the sound as much as I was worried about it.

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Clean super well when you’re done:

I tried to contain my mess during the bed frame project, which I built first. The bed frame I built in one weekend, so I didn’t live in the mess for as long. The dining table took a couple weeks to build and there was sawdust EVERYWHERE. I tried to clean up as I went but it always felt like the dust was piling up. The mess quickly became an issue, but I just lived with it. After a while I gave up, and once I was done I gave my apartment a super cleaning job.

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Maintain a sawdust-free sleep space:

I made sure to keep the bedroom doors closed to keep the dust out of my bedroom, so at least where I was sleeping was separated from the sawdust.

“If you feel like you can’t do it, that’s not going to get you anywhere. Give it a shot.”

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Give it a shot:

If you feel like you can’t do it, that’s not going to get you anywhere. Give it a shot. Don’t be a perfectionist. You’ve got to be able to do what you can within your “wood shop.”

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Thanks Jess!

See all of her beautiful Chicago home and more of her DIY skills → A City Dweller Aces DIY & Design in a Chicago Apartment

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.