Philosophy of Shop Organization

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About: Hacker. Dad. Foodie. Software Engineer.

"A place for everything and everything in its place."

It's a great thought, but for it to work, you have a place for everything - every tool, every loose piece of hardware and still have places to build active projects or stage in-progress projects. And you'll want to have places for future tools, hardware pieces and projects.

This Instructable will examine the process behind getting a shop organized from establishing a new shop through a well organized shop. And, along the way the shop will still be usable for projects after the first clean up. All the tools will be ready to use and organized from the beginning. This is the system I am using to fine tune the organization of my shop and I've built projects using this system over the last year.

Step 1: Disorganization - the Horizontal Surface

In this phase of organization, the shop is disorganized, cluttered, and possibly unsafe. Any horizontal surface has been given the same status as other organization areas. In other words, horizontal work surfaces aren't reserved, special places for temporary creative work. They are the storage space.

Begin by cleaning up horizontal surfaces, throwing away garbage and tidying up. But how do you put things away if they don't have a home? Things without a home will end up back on another horizontal surface.

Step 2: The Box of Random Stuff

In this phase, items that may or may not be related are gathered in boxes. Labeled boxes can be a great long-term storage solution, but are not very useful for regularly used items. This is the state of a shop after a move. Tools, hardware and other materials need to be unpacked into their final homes. But how do you decide where to put items in your new shop?

Step 3: Transition: Pegboard

Some folks really like pegboard. It's really affordable, easy to install and very modular. But the tool density per square foot of wall space is quite low. Pegboard hardware also has the tendency to fall out after pulling off your tools. They do have the little clips to hold the metal hardware, and I've found mixed success with those clips. Pegboard also doesn't hold anything that doesn't have some kind of hole or cranny for the hardware. Larger items can be hard to hang or may stress the pegboard and damage it. After using an item, it can be difficult to find where it was if it is not marked. This is especially true when using several items from the same pegboard.

I had thought a great remedy to this would be to paint the pegboard one color, then place contact paper or sticky back vinyl over the pegboard of a contrasting color. When you had settled on the final location of everything, cut out the outline with an Exacto knife and peel out the voids. Then you would see what was missing at a glance.

Pegboard is great for getting everything you possibly can hung up in the beginning. Just hang it all up, get it in the open. Group it and organize it a little bit, but generally right after unboxing your shop, just hang it all up. This provides the visual of knowing what you have, what you use frequently, and what you don't use regularly to have in the open view.

Unpack everything and get it visible but tidy. Hang it up on pegboard, lay it out neatly on your worktables and toss anything you don't really need. The shop should not stay in this state, or you'll never have space to do any projects. This is temporary only to expose you to the tools you forgot you had, and to form in your mind how you will group your tools.

Next you will find more permanent homes for everything and continue to get rid of unneeded items.

Step 4: Semi-Permanent Labeled Homes

After you literally get surrounded by your tools, hardware and everything in your shop, identify which 10 tools you use the most frequently. These all should be able to see without moving anything, retrievable with one hand (unless it's a heavy 2-handed tool) and able to get out and put back quickly.

These tools need a home that is visible and accessible. Leave them on the pegboard for now, but consolidate them to the pegboard nearest your work areas.

In the pictures above, I have begun to remove hardware items with their original store hanger tags from a 'poster rack' style pegboard. The pegboard was a salvaged item from a retail job I once had - destined for the trash, I upcycled it and gave it new life. It allows me to put the most used items in the front and the remaining items are accessible via the pivoting pegboards. This also increases the density of the tools/hardware per square foot of wall space.

The items hanging on this pegboard get labeled homes in some salvaged metal storage drawers. These drawers have label holders and standard sized drawers, so I can slip a label in the front, and if I want to swap the location of two drawers, I can do it without changing the contents and the label - simply swap them out.

Every time an item moves in the shop, it is getting closer to its permanent home, so give thought to where you want items to live at this stage. There's room to move, reorganize and reorder items in this phase, but many things will begin to find their permanent homes.

The downside to moving items regularly is you might forget where you put them, or reach for them in the old place. Make sure you use labels if you put them in a non-visible place like a drawer or box.

Step 5: Get Rid of Unneeded Items

Throw away that which is garbage. Donate to the thrift store that which is usable but unneeded. If you end up getting rid of something you need later, you can likely replace it then.

Step 6: Build Custom Fixtures

Building custom fixtures, tool and hardware holders is a great way to organize things into their permanent homes. It's also a great project to hone your making skills. Here, I've taken some scrap 1/2 inch and 1/4 inch plywood sheets and made some very high density tool, hardware and supply storage rack. It allows me to see everything in one place, get the specific tool or item I need retrieved and returned quickly and the density of items is very high. Despite the high density, the items are not over-cluttered, do not fall out when retrieving things (as in pegboard) and everything has a home. The items are stacked by height in individual cubby boxes, with the high items in back and short in front.

But even these fixtures are not permanent for some items. My larger paints and stains, for example have since moved to their own shelf to provide more room for other items and group them with similar cans of paint and stain.

These fixtures were inspired by Adam Savage's Tested shop, notably these videos:

Step 7: Sort Out the Small Things

Every tiny little screw, nut, bolt, spring, washer needs its own space. Start with cheap, temporary solutions then move to more permanent solutions. you'll find that as you go along that you may not like how you have sorted and organized small parts. Spending a lot of money and time on sorting systems only to abandon them is costly and wasteful.

In my labeled hardware drawers, I've added some egg crate. This cost me nothing extra; as we buy our eggs in bulk. I can sort out what I have and see it while in transition to its final home. Eventually, I will arrive at a more permanent sorting system. But for my driver bits, this actually may remain the permanent solution. I can see them all, and they all fit nicely in egg crate.

There are many options for small part storage. Open hanging bins, drawer systems, jars, clam-shell divider boxes. I think a little bit of each is a good approach honestly. My larger electronics parts fit in the red open bins, but smaller items like resistors I like to put in mini-drawers.

A lunch tray is a very handy tool when sorting out a large amount of aggregated parts. In the early phase, it's okay to dump all the screws into one drawer or jar labeled "screws" and come back later to sort them out individually. Remember that a shop is constantly changing and always keep improving your organizational workflow.

Step 8: The Labeled Box of Random Stuff

Boxes, whether cardboard, plastic wood or metal are great to store items that don't get much use, are bulky or do well grouped together.

Here, I've stuffed a cardboard box full of rags, which is a great solution for bulky items like rags.

My sandpaper is all put in the same plastic tub, and being clear does not warrant a label.

Cables, put in bags, labeled and then put in a cardboard box are a great way to store tangle-prone items that aren't needed often.

For my tools that I rarely use - sheet rocking supplies, wall painting supplies, and other home remodel sundries, I opted to put them all in one large box and store them on the top shelf out of the way. I still have them if I need them, but since they are used infrequently they are stored out of the way leaving room for my other tools. And, I know if I can't find something, to check there second and I will likely find it quickly.

I've labeled my solvents and finishes on the Spanish side of the bottle - leaving the English instructions and warnings intact. Hablas Espanol? Escribir en la Ingles. Then I place them on a shelf out of child reach and I can still see what is available when needed.

Step 9: Continue to Find Permanent Homes

Iterate this process of getting tools out into visible temporary places, then moving them to their semi-permanent homes, and as you use them, move them to their permanent homes. Don't be afraid to make drastic changes either. For example, I was nervous about cutting off the excess packaging on my socket set to fit in a drawer. I mulled it over for a day or two and then hacked it off. The socket is happily living in its drawer and I've had no regrets. But if I did, I could have just screwed the plastic to a board, drilled a new hole and hung it right back up.

My extension cord sits on a magnetic chalkboard eraser holder, at the side of my steel drawers. It holds the weight, but eventually, I'll give it and all other coiled items a permanent plywood fixture.

Right now all my handheld power tools get tossed in the bay under my workbench. Soon they will have their own plywood cubbies. I'm waiting to build it because I want to possibly make it modular, and I haven't set on a final design yet.

I keep my scraps in buckets right now. It works, but eventually I'll build a nice rolling scrap rack. Probably inspired by this one from Steve Ramsey:

Someday, all my pegboards will come down. I'll hang cabinets with pegboard doors. Then I can have shelving in the cabinets for less used items and still see the items on the pegboards.

Just relax and iterate. If a tool ends up someplace awkward and you don't like it there, move it. Build a better fixture. A shop should be a neat place to spend time building things and having fun. Not a cluttered mess.

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    23 Discussions

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    monkm

    2 months ago

    I re-use various clear plastic jars - mayonnaise, peanut butter, spices, etc. - and fill each with the same size nail or screw. Instead of labels, I tape a sample to the outside, which is also handy to measure exact length or thickness without having to open the jar. I can look down the row of jars and see what I have and if a supply is getting low. The jars keep everything clean and dry, and I also drop in a couple of those "do not eat" silica packets.

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    3leftturnsDDW_OR

    Reply 6 months ago

    Wow! That's pretty intense. Thanks for sharing that. I liked a lot of his ideas to combine work areas into one work table.

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    Kink Jarfold

    6 months ago

    I'm setting up a new shop. I didn't realize how many of your suggestions I'm incorporating into the set up. Since my space is limited I'm building rolling carts for my various tools. I'm grouping similar tools together and labeling the containers. I was pleased to see that video of Steve Ramsey's lumber cart. I built mine after watching his video and it has been very useful.

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    3leftturnsKink Jarfold

    Reply 6 months ago

    Right on! I've always had a small shop so these methods work for me. I love watching Steve Ramsey too, he's a big inspiration for me as a Maker. Thanks for the comments!

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    TimB16

    6 months ago

    Thanks! I just finished building a shop and figuring out how I want to organize it - most helpful!

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    3leftturnsTimB16

    Reply 6 months ago

    Glad it helped you. I tend to think in processes and this method of optimization works for me. Good luck with your new shop, when you get it organized post up some pictures!

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    brainmedley

    6 months ago

    I find it useful to organize my shop like a hardware store: I have the “paint department”, the “fasteners aisle”, etc.

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    3leftturnsbrainmedley

    Reply 6 months ago

    That's a great idea - I hadn't thought of modeling the hardware store. I do a little bit for my parts storage, but this opens my mind to a new perspective on how to group things. Thanks for the comment!

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    DDW_OR

    6 months ago

    I use file cabinets to store my hand power tools.

    I like the 4 drawer leagle size

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    3leftturnsDDW_OR

    Reply 6 months ago

    Yeah totally! Usually you can pick them up cheap too. Sometimes schools and businesses have surplus sales, and you can get those really nice HON brand ones for dirt cheap. I want to build a new platform for our washer & dryer. Once I do, I'm taking the pedestals for tool drawers.

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    3leftturnssubrotos

    Reply 6 months ago

    Wow thank you so much! I'm really blown away by how much folks love this. It was just a few of my thoughts getting my things unpacked and organized. Appreciate the vote!

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    jongscx

    6 months ago

    I was stuck on Step 2 for about a year after we moved to our new house.

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    3leftturnsjongscx

    Reply 6 months ago

    After move in, the first priority was unpacking the kitchen, the second was planting the garden and the third was unpacking my tools. ;-)

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    pgs070947

    6 months ago

    If you are lucky enough to have single large space like a barn with some benches, shelving and a decent floor, organising a workshop is straightforward. If you are stuck with a garage and a bedroom or two, it's a lot more difficult.

    Hanging tools on loops of thin cord maximises hook usage. Magnets can hold loads of small tools. Test tubes (plastic) and TicTac cartons can hold small bits and pieces and tubs used for coleslaw etc. stack well and you can see the contents. Tin cans, plastic waste pipe can take nails and screws and long items. Even plastic guttering comes in useful for long rods etc. For temporary sorting, manilla money envelopes are handy. Take a look in the supermarket rubbish bins for molded transit cases etc.

    If the memory isn't too good, keep a note of where you last used tools.

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    3leftturnspgs070947

    Reply 6 months ago

    Yes, I would love a barn. Moving to a farm or ranch wasn't in the cards. I use memory tricks sometimes too - my Irwin QuickGrip clamps look like a manta ray when one is flipped the other way. So I hang them on pegboards as manta ray shapes, and I always remember where they go. Plus, manta rays are pretty cool. Good tip on the loops of rope and magnets. Thanks!

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    dymondclay

    6 months ago on Step 9

    This is a great idea! A little at a time is a great way to attack the problem without becoming overwhelmed. Things have a tendency to find their home after you use them a few times.

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    3leftturnsdymondclay

    Reply 6 months ago

    Yeah. I like to get everything visible and then group and move things to their most functional places. Everything is changing in my shop. Eventually I'll get there. Thanks for the comments!

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    seamster

    6 months ago

    A lot of good tips here, thank you. Half the fun of having a little workshop (to me) is continually organizing and making the space more efficient. Good instructable!