Introduction: Modular Parts Storage

I'm sure there are many makers out there who, like me, have accumulated hundreds of small parts and components for use in their projects. It's great having all those parts available, but I have found that without good organization, it can be very frustrating actually finding that particular part when it's needed.
Over the years, I've gravitated to plastic storage boxes as my organization solution. They come in varying depths, and most of them have configurable dividers to accommodate a variety of different size parts. If you browse through any home center, hobby, sporting goods or department store you can usually find these containers. Surprisingly, the footprint is generally pretty standard between brands with many of them measuring around 14" x 8.5". I started out using the old Plano 3700 series, but now also have "new" Plano 3700, Flambeau, Jawbone and Creative Options brands (among others).

I started out keeping most of these on a shelf over my workbench, but quickly ran out of room. Other boxes ended up being stacked in random places around the shop which partially defeated the "organization" scheme. Additionally, it seemed that the one I needed was always on the bottom of the stack. I never pulled the whole stack off the shelf onto a delicate project, but I had some very close calls.

I started looking for a solution with a few goals in mind:

  • Inexpensive
  • Flexible internal configuration for the various size boxes
  • Flexible external configuration for the areas used to keep them
  • Modular construction with readily available parts to accommodate future expansion
  • Simple construction - large power tools not necessary
  • Inexpensive

I looked at a number of ready-made and home-made solutions but none of them would satisfy all my goals. While thinking about the modularity concept, I hit on the idea of using those stackable storage crates sold at home and office stores. To my dismay, all of the brands I found were just a bit too wide for my purposes. However, during my search I found the "Sterlite Aquarium Storage Crate". It was a near perfect fit for all the 14" x 8.5" storage boxes I had. I got mine on sale at my local home center for $3.50 each.

Next, how to make the slides. 1" aluminum angle was the first thing that came to mind, but aside from the sticker shock I discovered that even 1/16" material thickness might make the fit a bit tight on some of the boxes. The solution turned out to be wall angle used on drop ceiling grids. It's very thin, rigid, easy to cut and relatively inexpensive. At the same home center, I spent $3.46 for a 12' section during their 11% off sale. Depending on how many boxes you use per module, you can get 3-4 sets of rails per 12' section.

In this Instructable, I'll detail my method for making an individual module and then later talk about some ideas for joining them together. Let's get started...

Step 1: Materials & Tools

For the basic storage module, you will need:


  • Sterlite Aquarium Storage Crate
  • 1" Galvanized Ceiling Grid Wall Angle
  • 1/8" x 1/8" Aluminum Pop Rivets
  • 1/8" Aluminum Rivet Washers
  • Construction Adhesive
  • Shim Material
  • Misc Hardware as needed


  • Metal Shears
  • Metal File
  • Drill with 1/8" bit
  • Pop Riveter
  • Spring Clamps

Step 2: Assembly Method

Cut the rails

To fit the Sterlite crate, I cut the wall angle pieces to 9.75" in length. Cut off any sharp edges as you think best. I angled off the rear edge, but just took a bit of the corner on the front so as to keep more of the edge bead. Keep in mind that this will create a left and right piece, so make an equal number of each. Mark and drill 1/8" holes at each end, keeping in mind where they will fall on the crate. You will need a bit of room in the back for the pop rivet tool to reach in. Make sure you put the holes on the side of the angle that goes against the crate. Finally, file any sharp edges and remove burrs from the holes that would keep them from fitting tightly against the crate.

Trial fit the boxes

It's best if you can use the actual (or largest) boxes you plan to store in the crate for the actual setup. Even though they LOOK the same size, there will be small differences between the brands. I found the Flambeau boxes were ever so slightly taller than the Plano so I used them to ensure I could fit any other style in the same slot. Stack them in the crate to see how many will fit, keeping in mind that you will need to allow for the thickness of the slide rails and a little bit of space between each level. For the extra space, I cut some shims out of various materials. This will allow for easy setup, with no measuring involved.

Make your stack

The first box sits on the bottom, followed by a shim on each side and a side rail. Lightly mark where the rail contacts the crate. Remove the rail and put a dab of construction adhesive on each spot. Carefully replace the rails and repeat the process on the next level. When you have finished adding all the boxes then clamp each end of the rail securely so it is tight against the crate. The boxes help hold the rails on the sides, but you may need to push them forward slightly to get a clamp on the back. Alternatively, you can stick a shim between the box and the rail to keep it tight while the glue sets. By waiting until you have the whole stack complete, you will allow the rails to "float" a little bit to find their perfect position. I learned from experience that if you try to clamp as you go, you could inadvertently compress the boxes below which will introduce small misalignments. These may compound themselves by the time you reach the top and things may not fit like you would expect. The purpose of the adhesive is mainly to hold the rails in position until you can drill and rivet them.

Secure the rails

After the glue has had a chance to set for several hours, you can carefully remove the boxes and shims and drill the crate through the holes you put in the rails. Secure each end of the rail with a pop rivet. The rail side will easily back the rivet, but the crate side will need a washer to keep it from pulling back through the soft plastic. You may have to cut the edges off the washers or trim some of the plastic on the crate to accommodate the rivets depending on your layout. Once the rivets are in, your storage module is ready to use.

Step 3: Taking It One Step Further

Using the Sterlite crate was a trade-off. They were just the right width, but they don't stack and snap together on their sides like some others do. However, they will stack and keep level, you just have to keep them from slipping off the edges. If you have a shelf or cabinet, the modules could be used as-is and placed or stacked as needed. I elected to go with a free standing approach and it eventually evolved to the final form you see in my final version.

At this point, it's going to depart a bit from my first and last goals listed in the introduction. Building materials are pretty pricey these days unless you have some scrap or salvaged materials to work with.

To start with, I had some 3' sections of 3/4" particle board shelving that were cut offs from a previous project. The crate modules easily stacked with the shelves in between. Soon it became apparent that I might have to move these around at some point and I also wanted to get them up off the floor a bit. A base with casters was the obvious solution.

To keep the whole thing rigid, it needed some kind of framework. I discovered that the crates had exactly 3/4" space between them when stacked on their mating edges. By cutting down the shelving to the width of the internal space, the modules could be stacked with no wood showing between. The fronts of the crates were then held in alignment with a small wood block cut to the width of the gap in the center and secured with pan-head screws The backs were joined using some PVC lattice material and sheet metal screws.

The outer frame was constructed from 3/4" plywood with screen door moulding attached to the front edges to cover the end grain. The entire assembly was built from a 2' x 8' sheet of material (about $25). Four 2" rubber casters (about $10) were bolted to the bottom and screws went through the sides into the particle board shelving between the crates to secure everything snugly. Finally, I added two handles to the sides to facilitate moving the assembly around the shop.

I hope this project is helpful or at least provides you with inspiration for your own version of small parts storage.