Introduction: Break Pack Toolboxes

About: Furniture hacker. Author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now. Find me on Twitter and Instagram @objectguerilla.

We live in a containerized world. Manufactured goods are loaded onto pallets, then shipped all over the world in standardized corrugated metal boxes. Once they've landed on the other side of the world, pallets disembark into trucks and trains to run the last miles to their destinations. No matter where they end up -- grocery stores, big box retailers, urban pharmacies -- pallets face the same problem: the last 100 feet.

Break packs are the backbone of the modern retail economy. Also called round trip totes, they are sturdy, standardized plastic crates that are engineered with a stackable geometry that is modular to a standard 48" pallet. Slightly sloping sides combine with an integral two-flap, fold-flat lid that create a structurally sound box that is easy to rummage around in. Handles with finger grooves are molded into each end. Smaller quantities of merchandise are shipped loose in break packs. Workers -- often part-timers working overnight -- then manually restock store shelves one box at a time.

I've used adapted off-the-shelf break packs (available cheap!) as toolboxes for years now. They have been an easy, modular, portable tool box system that was customizable to my needs. Last year, with a new old house on my hands and a long list of renovations to work through, I pushed fixing up the basement to the bottom of the to-do list. Now, I've built a permanent landing place for my break pack collection, with better lighting, separate fastener storage and full first-order retrievability.

Best of all, it hardly cost anything to make -- I used scrap from cleaning out the basement to build all of it.

You'll need these tools:

- Circular saw

- Pencil

- Tape measure

- Square

- Drill

- Driver

- All the tools you need to store

You'll need these materials:

- Plywood, particle board, dimensional 1"x12", or similar

- Break pack totes

- 3" drywall or deck screws

- 1-1/4" x #8 Spax cabinet screws

Step 1: Demo!

The first order of business was cleaning up. Boxes and furniture were gradually redistributed to the rooms they belonged in. Old shelves and a small, closet-like room were demo-ed. I saved most of the studs and lumber and threw out the drywall. Paint cans, varnish, blinds, and other leftovers from the previous owner were thrown out.

I then de-nailed and stacked all of the salvage-able lumber for later use.

Step 2: Framing

To make the break packs more accessible, it is critical to lift them off the floor and tilt them at a slight angle so they are easy to see into.The totes I used have a 21" x 15" footprint and are 12" high. I had a pile of approximately 1" x 12" material from breaking down old shelves, a mix of particle board with plastic veneer and solid (though heavily cupped) pine.

I cut 6 plate that were 26" on the long side, tapering to 24-1/2" on the short side. This gave me an approximately 5-degree angle across the 11-1/4" width of the board. I used a circular saw without a guide -- it's not critical the the cuts are 100% accurate.

Our house was built around 1915. The foundation is natural stone. A few random studs still run along the southern wall of the room. They are full 2"x4s", old-growth pine that is probably original to the house. However, they have all twisted and buckled over time.

To keep the structure relatively straight, I struck a line 21" away and parallel to the base plate of the studs. I screwed each plate to the face of a stud with 1-1/2" drywall screws as shown, bringing the bottom front edge of the plate to the line I had struck on the floor.

I didn't have enough scrap to run a solid shelf across the top of the plates, so I just ran overlapping long boards on the top and two boards along most of the front. This locked all of the ribs together and made a solid structure.

A little lip of scrap along the front edges will keep the totes from slipping off.

Step 3: Customization

I have acquired these boxes over several years now, so some of them had already been cut into compartments. To subdivide the totes, I inserted ribs made out 3/4" plywood, cut with a 5-degree taper where the ribs met the outside wall of the break packs. A few pan-head screws through the plastic and into the ribs secures everything.

I also left three of of seven crates undivided for larger tools, like a circular saw or an angle grinder.

Step 4: Sortin'

Everyone works differently. Everyone sorts their tools differently. Everyone needs to find things in a different order to complete their work.

The first step to mapping out the organization of my toolboxes was to knoll everything. This is the only way to make a mass of dissimilar things intelligible. It allowed me to quickly identify duplicated, broken things, trash, or items that were tool-like but did not belong in a tool box (i.e. duct tape.) In that way (ruthless organization), this project is about working to code: these boxes are an expression of pure function, and any dilution of their core purpose is detrimental to the work to be produced out of them.

Once the tools had been laid out, and purged, I built out my seven boxes:

- Hand Tools 1

- Hand Tools 2

- Drills

- Saws

- Shaping

- Painting/Finishing

Each follows the core principle of first-order accessibility: nothing needs ot be displaced to find anythign else.

The boxes follow that order from right to left as you face them. The most frequently used tools begin at the right, since that is closest my workbench, the stairs, and the door to the backyard -- the three places the tools are most likely to be employed. Over time, I built a shelf above for other storage, and clipped studio lights underneath so I could see everything.

Each box is labeled with permanent marker on the lid -- this is relatively permanent, and will not wear off. However, it can be removed with acetone if the boxes change purpose or need to be re-labeled.

Last, remember that entropy is a core physical rule of the universe. Everything tends to chaos. Organization is only as good as its ongoing practice. Always work to code.

Box Contest 2017

Participated in the
Box Contest 2017