I’m now 71 years old, and I have had a toolbox ever since my dad helped me build my first one when I was about 12. He cut all the parts on a homemade tablesaw that he had built out of an old washing machine motor and plywood. He showed me how to nail the parts together and paint it. It was a simple tray-style toolbox; one side had room for pliers, a hammer, screwdriver and the other side had partitions for hardware. My mother’s diary records that I liked to build things at an early age, I still do.
My folks moved from the farm to town a year before I was born. On the farm my Dad either improvised the tools he needed, paid a visit to the blacksmith shop or waited several weeks for the Sears-Roebuck catalog order to arrive. That didn’t change much in town where he had a workshop in the basement with the table saw and a wall mounted tool cabinet made out of plywood painted gray to make it look like metal. He had places in that cabinet for screwdrivers, saws, pliers, hammers, etc. He organized hardware, little brads and screws, by containing them in jars whose lids were attached to a strip of wood under a shelf and the jar contents would be accessed by twisting the jar off. This was a very common tip in 1950s and 1960s Popular Mechanics magazines.
Because I was a city boy, I bought my tools from a Sears-Roebuck store several miles away, which at that time was where you went to buy tools. And at first the only tools I needed were to work on my vehicles, therefore wrenches was all that I had. My first power tool was a Stanley 3×21 belt sander for $65 that I bought with my paperboy income when I was in high school. For many years one 16” gray metal Craftsman toolbox with a red handled tray served me well. I didn’t begin to acquire a lot of tools until my job as a cabinetmaker required that I have my own tools. Those were left at work but when we bought a house that was in need of massive restoration, I began to acquire a vast number of tools in various categories.
As I acquired more tools and toolboxes I sorely needed a system of organizing it all that could adapt to ongoing expansion. New tools coming in and defunct tools leaving can change toolbox contents either a little or sometimes quite a bit. When my plumber’s toolbox acquired new tools it split into two boxes, one for wrench projects, the other for soldering. Accommodating for the change is necessary to keep order.
By organized I don’t mean just having a place for everything and everything in it’s place; but to also know where that place happens to be. A tool that you can’t locate is a tool you can’t use, and throughout the years there have been many tools that I knew I had somewhere, but if it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, I didn’t know where that somewhere was. The only reason my tools aren’t where they belong is because I don’t return them. To correct that behavior I needed to examine why am I not returning tools to where they are supposed to be.
A big reason I don’t return a tool to the place where it belongs is simply for not having a clear idea of where it should be, and that might be because there isn’t one. Generally I organize the tools according to their function in a suitable storage system for them. There are many ways to organize tools. Given the same tools and the same toolbox options there would be as many different ways of organizing them as there would be people organizing them. And over time each one of those would evolve and change. There are more toolbox designs and toolbox organizers today than would fit in a 1950’s Sears catalog. Ammo cans, 5 gallon buckets, a kitchen drawer all serve the purpose.
Keep Burglary Tools Hidden
I have the tools of a cabinetmaker, of a typical homeowner and a Saturday afternoon auto mechanic because I am all of those. I have toolbox locations for files and rasps, chisels, hammers, crowbars, screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets, wrenches and soldering tools for plumbing, firearms work, electrical, woodcarving, saws, measuring rulers & tapes, and so on. (Lest they be used against me, I don’t keep burglary tools in view, especially in the vicinity of security boxes or gun cabinets. My toolboxes of crowbars, sledge hammers, hacksaws are not kept in the house or in sight.)
I have observed that my tradesman toolbox was always in a state of high organization, everything was where it should be, easily found and in good working order. Not so with all my non-tradesman toolboxes, homeowner stuff. Obvious reasons for that is that my tradesman’s toolbox was in constant use, every hour of the working day I had to have have access to it and to have everything in it’s place. Nothing can be faulty, broken, rusty, dull or unusable because my livelihood depended upon them. This is how I should keep my homeowner tool boxes because my survival might depend upon them.
Since familiarity from constant use makes me very confident where my often used tools are, I have made it a practice of routinely taking inventory of all my tools including my less often used tools. Inventory consists of simply going through my tools and taking note of what I have and where I have them. From this practice I have found tools that are misplaced, rusty, broken, and dull. I have designated one location to place tools in need of care and doing that is part of my routine. So this routine review gives me a good idea where each tool belongs and where they should be returned to.
Put It Back!
As I work on a project I will be using tools from these various toolboxes. When I have numerous projects in progress some tools I’m using on one project are needed on another, so in the course of my work tools migrate from one place to another. At the end of the day those tools all need to be returned to their proper location. So the question is: why doesn’t that happen?
What doesn’t work: Postponing the task is not a good idea and perhaps my biggest fault; “I’ll do it some other time”, which is always the worst time. Or sometimes I grab a tool from one box and drop it off forgetfully somewhere it doesn’t belong. If I have three tools in my hand and two of them belong in one drawer and the other in another drawer they often all get tossed in the one drawer because I’m not paying attention.
The tool toss doesn’t work any better than the hamper toss; some of the clothes end up in the hamper, but most do not. I make myself to just walk over there and put it where it belongs. The hamper toss is a good skill to practice so I’ll keep that up.
Sometimes I give up looking for a lost tool thinking that “I’ll find it when I’m not looking for it”. But that doesn’t work any better than watching a pot of water to boil. Sometimes I blame a thief for a missing tool as an excuse for not making the effort to find it by retracing my footsteps back to where I left it. Doing that would be easier than making unnecessary trips to the hardware store to buy hammers, glue and hardware that I’ve already got, somewhere.
The “Return Here” Area
What does work: I have borrowed a technique from the hardware store where they have a little basket where you can drop off items that you can’t remember where you got them from. This prevents all sorts of items being placed in all the wrong places or not at all. So I have such a “return here” location for tools and hardware to be returned to their proper location.
For all the astronauts reading this who have taken a spacewalk to do some repair work on the ship, they will recognize the concept of my spacewalk toolbag. This can be anything from a roller tool chest to a toolbelt; any portable means of transporting and containing the tools you need to do a job outside the workshop.
The way this works is like so: when I need tools from various toolboxes I will collect them in a portable canvas tool bag, a bucket or toolbelt. Often these will have tools commonly used kept in it like screwdrivers, pliers, tape measures, and so on. This will prevent the need to go back and forth over and over to the mother ship to retrieve a tool. It does take a little foresight and planning. When the project is completed the collected tools and hardware will be returned to their proper locations, or placed in the “return here” basket.
Dedicated Vehicle Toolkit
The toolbox that stays in my truck is a dedicated vehicle toolbox with wrenches, fuses, lubricants, and so on. It stays in the truck and its’ contents only are removed if upgraded, never to be used elsewhere. If I work on the vehicles at home I use the home-based tools for that, but not the ones from the toolbox in the truck. The reason being is that I don’t want to be on the road in need of tool that I forgot to return to the mobile toolbox.
The other toolbox that helps in keeping order is the orphan toolbox; redundant pliers, screwdrivers, chisels.. anything that has been gleaned out of other toolboxes as those are updated. This goes on camping trips and is handy in the event of a repair job on the road. The next stop for the tools in this collection would be a garage sale or a giveaway, or for the neighbor who wants to borrow a tool that you can afford to lose. Which brings up the next issue.
I Don’t Lend or Borrow Tools
Yard tools, automotive equipment and any tools that are kept in toolboxes are subject to my tool loaning policy. When someone wants to borrow a tool from me I tell them “no”. The choice is between keeping your tools, friends and neighbors or losing your tools, friends and neighbors.
Likewise I do not ask to borrow tools but will accept their use if offered and if I am willing to reimburse them for any harm done to them. And I also will lend out tools to neighbors that I trust with the acceptance of the possibility that it might be a gift if for some reason it is damaged or not returned. I might be doing this because I genuinely want to help, or it might be because I am showing off my tools. Whatever it takes to make a man a giver, I’m okay with that.
And if that sounds like I’m being an ogre, consider the rejection I received the first time I tried to borrow an old boy’s chainsaw: “There are three things I do not lend to anyone, my chainsaw, my dog and my wife, and in that order”. I heard him tell the next guy that asked if he could borrow his wheelbarrow: “There are three things I do not lend to anyone, my wheelbarrow…..”.
Everything that I do to keep my toolboxes organized that I have explained here is very simple. You don’t need to make lists, color-code anything, take photos, buy or sell anything. You can start right now, but you do have to start, and never stop. This is a routine that is continuous and should be part of your schedule. Once you start you will discover better ways to organize, you’ll find unnecessary redundancy, and you will build a sense of self-confidence well earned. You might even come up with a gift list or enough for a garage sale.
Inventory & Organize
Here’s my suggestion: start by taking a visual inventory of your toolboxes. Organize your tools in a way that makes sense to you. Cull out any tools in need of maintenance and set them aside in a location for that purpose. Remove tools that are overly redundant, (some redundancy is a good idea) broken, or of no use to you. As new tools are acquired avoid overcrowding, expand into new boxes as need be. Have a “return here” location for tools to be put away and use a portable toolbox for around the house projects away from the workshop. Develop a tool lending policy and stick to it. Make this procedure a routine; and if you often find yourself asking “I wonder where that tool is”, don’t make fun of women who lose items in their purses until you take care of yours.
Knowing that I can retrieve a particular tool without hesitation provides a significant satisfaction and confidence that I am able to do what I need to do. But at days end, I still keep the lids on most of my toolboxes open so they are readily accessible for the next days’ work. Someday when all my work is done the lids on my toolboxes will be closed and there will be a toolbox for me that will be closed when all my work is done. But until then I’ve got too many projects to do yet, so the lids are staying open.