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A Tour of Mike Callihan's Shop
Preparing For Retirement
Building the shop of a lifetime.

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I have always been a tinkerer and a hobbyist. As a result, I have spent a good portion of my life holed away in one basement or another. As I got closer to retirement a started thinking about having a shop that was actually above ground.

About 10 years ago my wife and I moved to the Milwaukee, WI area where I started a new business. Budget and time constraints kept us from building any dream homes or shops. The second winter we were here, there was a 8" blizzard the first week in May. That was enough to convince us that a warmer climate needed to be part of our retirement plans--where, we didn't know. We still wanted three seasons, but the winters had to be milder and warmer.

One of my many hobbies over the years was pottery. About six years ago, I enrolled in a two-week pottery course--my wife referred to it as "clay camp"--at Penland Craft College. Penland is located about one hour north of Asheville, NC, in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains. After spending two weeks in this little piece of heaven on earth, I knew where I wanted to retire, too. I told my wife about the area, and I said that I hoped she would consider joining me.

Pearly Gates

After several trips from Milwaukee to the area, we found just what we were looking for. A piece of land that was scenic and remote enough to offer privacy, while still being accessible to a reasonable-sized city. We called it "Callihan's mountain."

Since we had a livable home on the property, we decided that my dream shop would come first. The grand plan is that I will retire July 1, 2000. The shop needs to be completed prior to that so that I can clean the tools and wood out of the basement of our current home before putting it on the market. Suffice to say, prospective buyers might feel like the basement is a trifle cluttered today.

Since this was to be my dream shop and I knew there would be no second chance, I approached the design phase of this project with more than a little bit of trepidation. I wanted a building that would:

  • Be aesthetically pleasing in its surroundings
  • Take advantage of the view.
  • Offer lots of natural light
  • Have plenty of room for my collection of tools
  • Have low exterior maintenance
  • Make Norm jealous

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

1920 sq. ft. (48' X 40') was arbitrarily decided upon as the footprint, from that I developed the elevations. I have always liked the appearance of carriage barns: The elevated center section provided an opportunity for windows to let in additional natural lighting; the side sections were natural dividers for breaking up the interior space; and a 24' clear-span center section was ideal for the main shop area. So, a carriage barn design it would be.

After I completed the elevations, I proceeded to lay out the available floor space, adding windows (32 in all) and doors as I progressed. I took time to create icons for each piece of major machinery I needed to find a home for. I also added to the icons the required clearance space around each piece of equipment for material handling. Thank God for AutoCAD. Without it, I have no idea how I could have created the design for this building.

After completion of the initial layout, I e-mailed the design to a number of my woodworking friends for critique and general comments. It was very fortunate that I did, I had worked on it for so long that I had lost sight of some very basic principles of workflow and logistics. Oh well, back to the drawing boards. A couple of weeks later a much better layout emerged. After a quick blessing by my friends, the construction began.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

Since I had little actual construction experience, I contracted with a couple of friends and neighbors to build the shop in my absence. I was however fortunate to be able take the month of July off and work with them during the initial construction phase.

Goin' up?

Building in a rural mountainous area has its challenges, the top of Callihan's mountain had no power, water, waste disposal or fuel source. These were all solvable problems, but they required attention. Since a number of my machines are 3 phase, I was very fortunate to have 3 phase power available about a quarter of a mile away. Not having to deal with phase converters will be a huge blessing.

More studs and such

I wish I could move the project along more rapidly, but since my friends hold full time jobs, this project is being built in their spare time. My timetable is to have the building ready for wiring during Thanksgiving week. I hope to do most of that myself, then have it insulated and ready for finishing the interior the week after Christmas. The bottom line is that the building must be heated and ready to receive my equipment in February, 2000. I will keep you posted.

Another View

The most frustrating part of trying to build something long-distance is not being there to work out the many details and not being able to see the day-to-day progress.

North End View

When my wife, Christine and I returned to the shop site in Asheville, NC, from our home in Milwaukee, I was most pleased with the progress my two friend Gary and Dennis had made getting the metal on the building. While I want the care free maintenance metal offers, I did not want it to look like a typical metal utility building. Gary has paid a lot of attention to the details of the building's trim. I think it looks good. The crowning touch will be a couple of cupolas, a detail I still have to work out. I think they will have to wait until after I move my shop to NC.


Some of the details are coming together. We now have a septic system to service the workshop and eventually the house. We have a new well, looking for water on top of a mountain is an adventure that can cause severe damage to your pocket book. We were pleased with a 10 gallon per minute well that came in at only 425 feet.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

My intention is to do most the wiring myself Thanksgiving week. While I know a fair amount about the basics, I have been scrambling learn more details about wiring a building to code. There are a lot of details that are not necessarily apparent.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

Well, Thanksgiving arrived. It was the moment of truth for this amateur electrician. I had done my homework with regard to electrical code. I had consulted with my plant electrician so many times he tried to hide when he saw me coming. I even checked with the local inspectors to clear up some, in my mind at least, some ambiguous code issues. I even went out and tooled up, purchasing a selection of Klein electrician tools including an electrician's tool pouch. Boy, I was ready now.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

The electrical drawings had been carefully prepared, and changed, and redone again. A material list had been sent out for bid, a supplier selected and after recovering from sticker shock, most supplies were purchased. At least I thought most supplies had been purchased; little did I know how much was yet to come.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

Armed with my new professional tools, an overwhelming stack of supplies I attack the wiring in my shop. My plan was to knock out the wiring the week I was off over Thanksgiving. That's what you call naiveté. I was fortunate enough to be able to employ a helper, a young man moving to the area and still looking for a job. Without him I wouldn't have gotten 20% of the job done, as it was I figured that I was about half done after the week of 10-12 hour days had passed. It was back to Wisconsin frustrated by the fact that I hadn't even approached my goal.

Mike Callihan's Dream Shop

The main problem was that any further progress such as insulation, putting up ceiling and wall board, heating, and final plumbing hinged on completion of the wiring. I got yet another setback when talking to my plant electrician in Milwaukee, I had failed to take into account that 1/3 of the breaker positions in my load center were the high leg of the 3 phase power I was bring in. I had a number of 110 volt breakers positioned in 208 V slots. Moving the breakers to another position would be easy enough, the real problem was that I didn't have enough 110 volt breaker slots in the load center and now a sub panel would be required.


I was fortunate that the owner of my company wanted to check out the new management we had put in place for my pending retirement. He suggested that I get out of Dodge for a couple of months after Christmas, he wanted me to be gone long enough that the plant would have to function without my inputs. I said no don't throw me in the briar patch. I arrived in NC the day after Christmas and stayed until mid February.

Main Panel

During that time I installed a sub panel, finished all the rough wiring, got all the 110 and 220-v single-phase as well as the lighting circuits up and running. I pulled over a mile of 12/3 romex, installed 72 outlets, 19 8-foot fluorescent lighting fixtures, 500 feet of 14-gauge monster wire for speakers and volume controls in every room. Five home runs of telephone wire, a couple of 30-amp 220 volt circuits as well as a half dozen 3-phase circuits. It was a lot more work than I had expected, especially by myself, pulling long runs of wire alone is a lot of up and down the ladder. Every time I thought I was done I thought of something else to do. The clerks at Home Depot were starting to call me by my first name.

Wires Everywhere!

After passing the electrical inspection the first time through, (hooray for me) the insulation crew came in and knocked out the walls in a single day. I had priced the materials to do it myself before having it quoted. I figured I could save less than $300 doing it myself. After careful consideration I decided that I really didn't want to spend a week or so playing with irritating glass wool. The actual consideration took all of about 1 millisecond.

Mike Callihan

Posted 25 February 2003

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Presented courtesy of Ellis Walentine, Wood Central Publishing