Introduction: MakerCube: Modular Workbench for Small Spaces
My Space to Make Stuff...
While I'd bet that none of us are completely satisfied with our workbench or workshop the one sure way to appreciate what we have now is to move, especially if that move is to a small apartment with no space for a dedicated workshop.
This is the situation I'm in now, I live in a small apartment and really miss my old home workshop where I had space for several workbenches and lots of storage space. In the apartment my workshop is the living room, spare parts and projects are stashed away in the closet, and tools are stored anywhere I can find room. What's worse is that I'm now working on projects in multiple locations: in the basement or parking of my building, at friends' shops, or at my local maker space which is about a 40 minute drive. As a result the trunk of my car sometimes serves as a temporary workshop and storage space.
A Solution Comes to Mind
All of these limitations and annoyances related to my current workshop situation simmered in the back of my mind for a long time then one day while I was volunteering at a local maker group fir kid, I had a revelation. This group had something of the same problem but much worse. We both needed a way to organize a bunch of tools and parts related to current projects and a way to swap out those tools and parts as the current project changed.
Over the next few weeks I imagined several ways to solve this problem and did some quick sketches to help me think things thorough. What I came up with is a modular storage solution for tools, parts, and projects in progress. I designed the MakerCube around several modular storage containers I already use to allow me to quickly switch out containers as my needs change. The MakerCube is currently attached to a roll-around tool cabinet so it is portable enough for me to move from room to room, or even to take down the elevator to work outside.
In short, the MakerCube is:
- Easy to deploy & store
I Know, It's Not a Cube
I call this the MakerCube even though I know it's actually not a cube. It started as a cube in my mind but eventually morphed into a rectangular shape as I refined the design. I kept the name since MakerRightRectangularCuboid didn't sound as catchy.
If you're interested in learning more, continue to check out my Instructable...
Step 1: Inspiration From Other Sources...
I'm not the first person to search for a better way to organize projects, pats, and tools or to build a portable workstation and I won't be the last. With that in mind I looked at other solutions for inspiration.
Ben Heck's Portable Workbench
One of my favorite portable workstations was Ben Heck's fold out portable workbench, both the original and improved version. Ben's concept was just plain cool with parts folding out in different directions. Check out the video if you haven't already seen it. It's like a Transformer ate your dad's tackle box. As much as I liked Ben's idea, it lacked the re-configurable capability I was looking for. So I moved on, after of course stealing a few great ideas. For one, I wanted a design that folded up to hide the contents and save space.
Modular Tool Pallets
Many years ago in a different job I had a toolkit with several removable tool pallets. Each pallet had many tool holders, each designed to fit a specific tool. This made it easy to find any missing tools before wrapping up a job. I really liked this concept but when I tried to implement something similar I found it difficult to adapt the pallets to fit new tools and the kit didn't have any provision for staring parts or projects in progress.
The Shadow Knows
My friends who were aircraft mechanics in the military learned to set their toolboxes up with each tool 'shadowed' in foam drawer inserts. The main reason for this was to make missing tools quickly visible just as with my old toolkit. Unlike my old kit, loosing a tool wasn't just an expense for my employer to replace. A missing tool left inside a turbine engine would make an expensive mess. Shadowing tool boxes and inventorying tools after every job was done for different reasons but still had the benefits already mentioned to prevent loosing tools. In addition, the foam inserts made transporting a toolbox across rough pavement less likely to 'shuffle' the contents of the box. When you got the tools to the job you didn't have to take time to separate out and reorganize your wrenches, screwdrivers, and whatnot's.
Rocket Surgeon's Toolkit
I knew I was on the right track with the foam insert idea when I saw these pictures of the International Space Station Tool Boxes, I figure if the idea is good enough for those rocket surgeons then it's good enough for me. I'd love to paste pictures here but rules are rules so you'll just have to click on the link to see this cosmic awesomeness.
Step 2: Modular Units
As I mentioned back in Step 1, it was key that I design the MakerCube to be modular and easily re-configurable. This was important to me to allow quickly switching from one type of project to another. Without sufficient space to have every possible tool and part right at hand I wanted to be able to store some of them away but still be able to quickly stock up my MakerCube when they were needed.
Also important to me was for MakerCube to use some of the same modular storage units that I already use. I designed it around a few of these modular units so I wouldn't have to buy all new storage bins. If you already have your own favorite modular storage units you can certainly redesign MakerCube around those but at least take a quick peek at what works for me.
Another storage unit I've been using for many years is the Stanley Professional Organizer which is widely available and has even been copied by a few other suppliers. The Stanley Organizer has removable storage bins (they call them 'cups') that are held in a case with clear cover. I started using these years ago to organize screws and other hardware. For example, I have one organizer with a variety of different sized wood screws. If I'm working on a project that needs 3 different size screws, I can just take those three bins out of the organizer and put the rest of the unit away. The bins come in a coupe of sizes but are modular so you can mix small and large bins depending on your needs. I have a large collection of these organizers collected over the past 10 years and I intend to use them as part of MakerCube.
I've been looking for inexpensive drawer modules for several years until my friends at GarageJournal.com tipped me off to a mall company that makes something nearly perfect. Dandy Drawers are molded plastic drawer modules that come in 3 sizes and can easily be fitted into shelves or cabinets since they slide on plastic tabs molded into the drawer. All that's needed is to cut grooves into the cabinet side to quickly create a bank of drawers. The plastic used is durable and flexible enough to prevent cracking. Purchased in quantity the small size (4-1/2" x 7-1/4" x 1-1/2") costs less than $1.50 US per drawer. They also sell partitions that allow you to subdivide each drawer. Check out their web site for more information I don't have nay connection to the company beyond being a satisfied customer.
Tool Box Drawers
I have several roll around tool boxes in my storage unit. These are the typical mechanics type tool box with a bank of shallow drawers. Since I have several with matching drawer sizes I got the idea to use this 22-3/4" drawer width as a standard module.
I'm in the process of reorganizing my tools to match this scheme using foam inserts. Instead of having a drawer full of screwdrivers I'm creating job-specific drawers. I have an electrical drawer that has electrical screwdrivers, crimping tools, pliers. test equipment, and related tools all grouped together with a specific place for each item carved out of the foam inserts mentioned in a previous step. As I get more of these task-specific drawer modules created it should be much easier for me to quickly grab everything needed for a job and have it all in one place. As mentioned this is a new tack for me so I'm still feeling my way through it. Next on my list are drawer modules for Arduino & Electronic projects. Eventually, I plan on creating a modular box for the back of my truck to fit these same modules.
For the MakerCube, I'm trying something new: using the foam drawer modules vertically. I'm not sure if the foam will have enough of a grip on each tool to keep them from falling out. This is the biggest uncertainty of this design and I'll only know after using the MakerCube for a few weeks.
Step 3: Design Refinement
After thinking through many different design concepts and sketching out my ideas I began leaning towards a simplified hinged box design with 4 box sections set up in two sets of two boxes with opposing hinges. Each box would be a different depth to accommodate the different modules I wanted to use. I'd have:
- 8" deep box for a project storage module and a drawer module to store parts and tools.
- 5" deep box to fit the removable storage bins from Stanley organizer boxes.
- 3" deep box to fit a 2-1/4" (57mm) thick foam module for storage of cordless power tools and other larger tools.
- 2" deep box to fit a 1-1/8" (28.5mm) thick foam module for storage of hand tools.
When closed, the MakerCube folds up to less than 2' x 2' x 1.5' (about 60cm x 60cm x 45cm) When fully extended it folds out to 8' x 2' (240cm x 60cm) but can be used in smaller configurations.
Now that I had a clear design concept in mind I decided it wise to build a scale model mock-up of my idea.
Step 4: Build Scale Mockup
The main reason I wanted to build a mock-up was to verify that the folding box concept would work. Since I had 1/4" foam core board available I decided to make a scale model from that. The mock-up was glued and taped together with additional tape used to simulate the hinges.
I didn't bother to mock-up the storage modules as I was pretty well convinced that the full-scale version would work well. As you can imagine from reading my long-winded introduction I had already spent too much time thinking this idea through. I was eager to just build it...
Step 5: Construct Case Boxes
The first construction step is to build the four boxes that make up the backbone of the MakerCube.
NOTE: Building these 4 boxes is probably the most exacting part of this Instructable. All 4 need to be the same size and must be perfectly square. If you don't have an accurate table saw this may be difficult to accomplish. Check with your local maker space, TechShop, or your friends to see if they can help
If you can't build the boxes yourself there's another option since these boxes are identical to "drawer boxes" used in kitchen cabinetry. There are many companies online that sell custom built drawer boxes. I'd say you could have these made for around $150 US plus shipping
I wanted strength with relatively low weight so I chose 12mm (1/2") Baltic Birch plywood for the box sides. The bottom would be made of 3mm (1/4") plywood set in grooves cut in the box side. Since this was my first MakerCube I wanted quick construction so I elected for simple butt joints held together with pocket screws and glue. The next MakerCubes I build will probably use finger joints at the corners for improved strength.
Cutting Box Sides
Using a table saw, I cut 4 sides for each of the 4 boxes. As I cut these from 24" wide panels, all ended up being 24" long. The widths were 8", 5", 3", & 2".
After cutting the 16 sides, I set the blade to cut a 1/4" deep groove about 1/4" from the fence and ran a groove along one face of each part.
Finally, I cut the sides to final length needed to end up with the correct inside dimension I needed. For my design the inside of the boxes needed to be 22-3/4"
NOTE: Because I was using butt joints, two sides of each box needed to be 24mm (twice the thickness of the plywood or about 1" ) longer than the other 2 to end up with a square box. The shorter side pieces will end up defining the inside dimension of the boxes. If using box joints, dovetails, or other joinery you'd have different final measurements.
To ensure all 4 boxes ended up the same size I ganged the parts together while cutting to length and used a stop block on my table saw sled.
The final box sides are shown in the first photo.
Using a Kreg pocket hole jig I drilled pocket holes in the two shorter pieces from each set of sides.
To verify the size needed for each box bottom I test assembled each box using corner clamps and measured the inside of each box, adding 3/16" which is a bit less than the depth of both grooves. This ensured the bottoms wouldn't end up too large.
After measuring all 4 boxes, I confirmed each was the same size as they will need to match up when hinged together. I was aiming for less than 1/8" variance and ended up within 1/16".
As mentioned above, I used glue and screws to assemble the boxes. The pocket hole screws made assembly easy but I made sure I used lots of clamps to keep things square as I was driving the screws in.
The final assembly step is to stack the boxes and screw the piano hinges in place.
The correct order to stack the boxes is:
- 5" box, bottom facing down
- 8" box bottom facing up
- 3" box bottom facing down
- 2" box bottom facing up
I measured the width of my piano hinges and scribed a line half this distance mark the position of the hinges across the entire width of the boxes to ensure they get screwed on perfectly straight and are centered over the joint between boxes. You should use clamps to ensure they don't move as you screw them on.
The 3 piano hinges alternate left side, right side, left side. The photos provide a clear explanation of how the inges are placed.
Step 6: Fit Interior Storage Modules
Since I wanted to use my standard storage drawer and bin modules in the top section of the two largest boxes, I needed to cut and install dividers to hold everything in place. This work is a little bit fussy, my advice is to go slow and check your work frequently.
One huge benefit of the Dandy Drawers is how easy they are to install. Each plastic drawer unit has a molded-in tab that acts as a drawer slide. This slide is thin enough to ride in a saw kerf so no dado blade is needed. The slide is also wide enough that exact precision isn't required. I knew from the design process that I could fit 4 drawers across the box with about 3/8" between each drawer. Once the MakerCube boxes were assembled I verified this by mocking up the fit. I wanted to use the top 1/3rd for the Dandy Drawers and the bottom 2/3rd for test equipment and project storage. Measuring the Dandy Drawers I saw that 5 drawers stacked would take up about 8-1/2". I cut a piece of 18mm Baltic Birch plywood to this 8-1/2" width in order to cut the grooves for each drawer. By cutting all the grooves first I would be sure that they would be identical after I crosscut the plywood into the 5 pieces needed. See the photos to better understand the process:
- Cut 5 3/8" deep grooves 1-3/4" inches apart on both sides of the 18mm (3/4") plywood. The grooves go the full 30" width of the plywood (photo 1)
- Crosscut the grooved plywood into 5 pieces each just under 6" wide (photo 2)
- Rather than measure each piece use the first part to set each cut. (photo 3)
- Ensure all separators are equal width (photo 4)
- Turn the deep box upside down and test fit the plywood separators and drawers. (photo 5)
To get an exact fit of the drawers inside the box I chiseled off the unused grooves on the back of the outside two separators I also cut a 3mm (1/4") piece of plywood to fit across the bottom of the separators below the bottom row of drawers.
For the two bin shelves, I cut a piece of 12mm (1/2") plywood just long enough to fit snugly inside the box and twice the width of my bins. Once I was happy with the length, I cut two grooves in across the piece for the 3mm (1/4") plywood dividers then ripped the board in half to make two shelves. The dividers are probably unnecessary but the fitting was going pretty well so I thought I should complicate things a bit. (photo 6)
Note that me giving you exact dimensions would not be of much use here since your box may be slightly different. My boxes ended up being 22-11/16" wide, yours could end up being 22-3/4 or something not even close. The best way to fit your box is to mark cut lines directly on your piece as you hold it in place. Extend the cut mark with a square and make your cuts.
Drop Down Work Area
The last bit of fitting was to add a hinged drop-down work area that folds up just below the bottom of the drawers. Using a piece of 12mm (1/2") plywood held in place next to the box I marked the inside dimensions of width and height on the plywood and cut it to size. This ended up being 22-11/16" x 14-3/16" to fit exactly below the drawer module and inside the box. I'm listing that odd dimension only to illustrate that it's easier and more exact to mark using the actual box and cut to fit rather then depending on your ability to measure and transfer those measurements to your work piece
Have a Fit
Fitting partitions into a drawer or box is a useful skill even if you don't build your own MakerCube. Think of a drawer in your workshop or kitchen that needs organizing. Building a custom set of drawer dividers would be a quick but useful project for a rainy day.
Step 7: Fit Tools to Foam Inserts
Now that the front two modules of the MakerCube are fitted, it's time to turn to the rear modules which will hold tools in custom-cut foam sheets. I'm using FastCap Kaizen Foam for this project as it's fairly easy to work with and is available in a variety of thicknesses and is sold in 2'x4' sheets at reasonable cost, less than $20 for the two modules.
If you've never worked with this material I suggest checking out one of the many YouTube how-to videos. The basic idea is to lay out the tools on the foam sheet and trace around each with a marker. Using a razor knife you cut into the foam along the marked line then tear out the foam to create a recess for the tool. There's a bit more involved but a bit of practice is all it takes to master the technique.
Because the tools will be standing vertically it's necessary to cut a very deep recess and be sure to keep the foam tight to the tool.
Once both tool modules were cut and all tools fitted I used heavy duty Velcro to attach the foam panels to the last two boxes.