Anarchist’s Tool chests. Tool rolls. Boxes. Fitted cases. Open shelves. Fitted cabinets. Milk crates. The original cardboard box it came in. Pegboard. Chests of drawers. Just left where you used it last. Piled up in the corner…. There must be at least as many ways to deal with organizing tools as there are people using tools. For me there have to be different strategies for different situations. I use almost all of the above. Some are used inside of others, and some of those are inside yet others…

I really like tools. I like them for what they do for me, as representations of an idea or an intention, as historical objects,  even as things of beauty in their own right. I like finding and rehabbing antiques and returning them to work, I like designing and making them, I like analyzing and troubleshooting them. I like organizing them.

They get grouped by various kinds of logic. By trade, say electrical work. By function, say knives. By association, where glue and clamps need to be near each other. Sometimes by size- I have a cabinet with lots of flat drawers for small tools that don’t leave the shop. A long toolbox for wrenches and prybars and such too big to fit in the other places those things live
  When a box gets too full to be useful it’s time to split the category. Maybe I need to separate the house electrical tools from the electronics tools, or the flat jointery chisels from the carving gouges, or the twist drills from the spade bits. Dump the box, sort them out, find new boxes for the resulting piles. Eventually I’ll need to split the framing butt chisels from the socket firmers. Then I’ll be doing it all over again.

Tools seem to find me. They show up at yard sales and thrift stores, sometimes in surprisingly good condition and for a fraction of their new price. Sometimes under a layer of rust or grime peeks out a tool of exceptional quality, needing only to be revealed, bearing price tags representing less than the cost of a single cup of coffee. They show up on retail shelves at prices that can be readily justified to fulfil a role completing a contract on time and within budget. They show up in the middle of the road, fugitives from some other toolbox, seeking me out. I take them home, clean and sharpen them, make them feel welcome. I find a category of their siblings and settle them in.

one of my favorite strategies is to group tools into kits by process of use. The things that I use for hanging doors go together and should be kept together. That way when I need to work on a door I just have to grab one toolkit and I’m ready. Except the 6′ level. That’s too big to fit in the box. And the jointer plane, because I also use it to flatten big panels. And the drill, because it goes along with too many other tools to live permanently in any one kit. Besides, doorhanging requires more than one drill, usually. And the drill bits get used for other holemaking purposes too. In fact, almost all of the doorhanging tools have other lives in between doors. And not all doors need the same toolset to hang. Sometimes a router gets a serious workout in the process of making a door swing, other times I don’t even bring one along.

I have what I call my grab and go box. It has an assortment of tools in it that don’t conform to any organizational principles other than that I find myself needing them frequently and that the box remain light enough for me to be willing to haul it around. Almost everything in that box is duplicated elsewhere in my shop.

I have boxes of tools that all have similar function. I rarely need more than one size of tap or die at a time, but I know where to find the one I need because they are all stored in the same place. Except for the ones in the antique set in the big flat wooden box. That won’t fit with the rest. Or the ratcheting dies that fit the long handle. Those are plumbing tools, so they go in the plumbing tool box. Or the special size die for stanley plane screws. It lives with plane tools. Wouldn’t want to mix it up.

At one time I had a plastic bucket bristling with pockets inside and out. The pockets rarely were the right size and shape for the tools I needed at hand. Things fell out of them, either into the bucket where an ever increasingly chaotic pile accumulated in the bottom, or out onto the floor of wherever I happened to be. Maybe I caught it in time, or not. The bucket idea didn’t last long.

Pegboard is the lowest common denominator of tool storage. I just can’t abide by pegboard. It’s sloppy. It’s generic. It provides no protection. It maximizes visual clutter.

On an aesthetic level I really like fitted cases. They say: “this tool or set of tools is valuable and worth protecting. It’s important enough to have organized in one place where at a single glance you can tell if everything got put away properly and just by feel you can find exactly the part you were looking for”. Unfortunately, fitted cases also prevent you from easily upgrading, adding accessories, having multiples or rearranging on the fly. Fitted cases are for mature sets of tools. It’s a static system.

Anarchist’s tool chest. This is an admirable system. It allows for a practical amount of upgrading and rearranging. It enforces restraint. It’s just not for me. I operate in a world where I’m called on to use the tools, materials and technologies of the past hundred years or so as well as modern high tech wizardry. When I’m in the shop I have to have a range of tools at hand that could not possibly be fit into a single chest, or a dozen. When I work away from the shop the toolkit I bring is tailored to the job at hand. It might not have much at all in common with the toolkit I packed yesterday.

I like tool rolls. They protect things and keep them all together in one place. They don’t waste space, at least not as long as the tools in them aren’t too awkwardly shaped. They create a tidy bundle of things that you can pick up and take with you, or roll out on the bench. I keep trying to use tool rolls. The problem seems to be outgrowing them.

Open shelves. Freedom… put things wherever you want. Put things in whatever you want, fitted cases, rolls, boxes or just heaps, just as long as they fit on the shelf. Make the shelves adjustable and the possibilities are practically endless. It’s all there in plain sight, easy to find and to get at. It’s also exposed to dust, exposed to atmospheric moisture, even exposed to light. Shelves full of assorted stuff create a kind of visual clutter that creates a working environment either dynamic or unsettling, depending how your brain works.

Some things are just too oddly shaped to fit nicely with the other tools they are used with. I have an 8′ long level. It gets used almost exclusively away from the shop. It gets used for framing carpentry, where it is accompanied by saws, drills, hammers and nails. It gets used for installing cabinets where it is accompanied by a completely different set of saws, drills, hammers and nails. It gets called on to be a straightedge. It gets used for hanging really big doors.  It’s a nice level. It’s worth protecting. If I made a case for it the case would take up more space than it does when I take the level out. Sometimes I use it with other levels, some almost as long as it is. It defies being organized into a case, or into a kit. It’s too big and too expensive for me to want to have multiples of it for different situations. It stands alone. It just IS.

Drawers are great. In a few square feet of floor space you can store dozens of square feet worth of tools, all laid out neatly before you, easily rearranged, protected from dust, prevented from ending up at the bottom of a pile (as long as the drawer isn’t too deep). Add dividers for even more organizational fun. And you still have the top of the case to put something else on. Close the drawers and all you see is the drawer fronts, a neat geometric pattern covering up all of the chaos and complexity of the things inside. Get enough drawers and you start forgetting what’s inside any particular drawer. Pretty soon you’re spending a lot of time opening and closing drawers, hunting and rummaging for things.

Milk crates. The post-industrial, semi-illegal, standardized, indestructible, stackable miracle of modern commerce. You don’t even have to steal your own. They just show up, full of somebody else’s clutter. Fill them with whatever you want. Unless you’re an ingot collector you can’t make them too heavy to lift. You can see what’s inside, at least well enough to pick the right crate out of the stack. Somehow they end up being just the right depth for things in standardized cans and jugs. How’d that happen? Just remember, no small parts. They’ll just fall out the bottom. And crates don’t give any protection from dust or rust. And to actually get to that thing in the crate at the bottom of the stack you have to unstack the crates on top of it. While that is happening you have two stacks. Then when you’re done you have to do the same thing in reverse unless you have the luxury of an excess of floorspace for randomly placed stacks of crates.

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