For many of us wrench turners, one of the only other things which comes as close to our hearts as our rides are those wrenches we slave over to make them stay running (or often get running!) We all have a few tools here and there, some have a few more, and some have arguable far too many. The moment you become a tool junkie like my self - obsessing over ratchets, extractors, specialty pullers, drills, or sockets - you find yourself at a loss: "Where the hell do I put all this S&!#!”. This is a quick write up going over some basic tool storage ideas which can help you work faster, easier, and if nothing else, help your garage look that much better.
“I don't believe in renting tools, why save money, when it’s another tool I could add to the collection?” “Oh that new ratchet looks so cool, I know I have a 12 inch one, but this is a 12.5 inch handle!” Those are the excuses many of us, including myself, use on a daily basis when we are looking at tools. I see each tool purchase as more of an addition to my collection rather than a means to getting my car, boat, bike, or whatever it is, running! It’s an addiction which should be treated like a drug, but at least this won’t kill us, right? Well, let’s put these tool away until we actually find an excuse to use them why don’t we?
The first thing I always recommend is having enough drawers. Many people buy one small chest and throw anything and everything in there. I understand there are issues such as space and financial ability when talking big purchases such as chest. You do not need five full size Snap-On 80” Epiq tool boxes, but one little Husky travel bag will not play nice with your patience when trying to find that 12mm socket late at night. I like to have enough storage that every tool in the box has a home and no other tool is forced to lay on top of another when all said and done. Obviously, the more tools you buy, the larger surface area you’re are going to eventually need to hold everything. A quick side note: cheap tool chest have many downsides, but one of the largest in my opinion is drawer depth and height. Because large, deep drawers use more material and require heavier quality sliders to hold the extra weight they are only found on higher end tool chests. Higher end chests also have thinner drawers, and more of them, than many cheap chests. You only need a two inch thick drawer to hold a set of wrenches, were many cheap chest force you to put your wrenches in drawers intended for power tools, hello wasted volume. This means one small to mid-size chest of decent quality can hold much more than an inferior budget priced chest which appears to be twice as big. Sometimes knowing this can actually save you money in the long run since buying one chest at $1400 can hold as much as five at $300 apiece. Tool chest themselves are a very extensive conversation, which we will write about in the future, but for now, just know you need surface area, and volume density utilization, not size! Now on to the tools inside the box. There are two thing to keep in mind. Where do you put them and what will keep them there. You’re generally want to put your more commonly used tools near the top. This means you’re going to want ratchets, screwdrivers, sockets, wrenches, and pliers up high and power tools, extractors, pullers, and large specialty tools can be put at the bottom of your box. The primary reason for this strategy is simple: You don’t want to be bending over all day when rebuilding your engine since you keep swapping between two difference size screwdrivers. Most tool box manufactures reflect this mentality in their designs, so drawers at the top are generally thinner to suit smaller hand tools, while the lower levels are for these tools used less.
Sockets, sockets, sockets. Sockets are probably the king of all tools to the wrenching mechanic. They are the most used tool when working on an engine and they see a lot of abuse. Thankfully, unlike chests and power tools, socket quality is less elastic relative to price. Budget priced socket sets which run you $10 at the store around the corner will often work just as well and for just as long as a $200 set of a truck. This is where money can be saved when purchasing your tools. Whatever you buy, remember you need to put them somewhere! Those thin drawers I just talked about on chest, however nice they are, can be a hassle for sockets. You can lay your sockets flat, but hey, that takes up room and it a waist once you start getting a large set of sockets in your collection. I prefer to have all my sockets stand up, making it easy to take them in and out, along with saving space. The little socket holder trays are probably the number one way in keeping sockets organized, as well as looking good. Many of these holders also display the size of the socket on the end of the little post making it super easy to find the size you need. Nothing is worse than standing at the drawer and guessing which socket is the 9/16” out of a pile when you could grab it in under a second. The second best option are clip in trays. They save even more room, but are not as nice as the posts for putting everything back at the end of the day. Having to clip everything in place is often a pain compared to just sliding a socket over a little stick. I use these clip on trays for less common sockets and those which do not have space in the middle for those posts to go through such as torx, allen, and screw sockets. Once last thing about sockets is that ease of access I talk about. I find myself going to the sockets on my tool box every few minutes, so opening drawers can take up time and you’ll probably wear out those drawers quickly. This is a great use of chest lids and those flip up compartments. Having the sockets always exposed means I always have access to what I need and will always be able to quickly get at everything.
As for almost any other tool the job is simple: Custom or universal trays. The only tools in the business which seem to be happy laying around without something holding it down seem to be pliers. Go ahead and just lay them out in an order where you know you can go to and grab them.
As for other tools such as wrenches and screw drivers, left unrestrained, they will go for a ride every time a tool box is bumped or you open and shut the drawers. Many higher end tools come with preformed tool trays. These are the easiest way to keep everything in place and ensure your tools will stay put. For those set which don’t come with custom trays universal designs are out there. You can see in the photo below the comparison between a Craftsman set and Snap-On. The Snap-On set has its own organizer, while the Craftsman need a universal holder to achieve similar results.
Wrenches also have a few interesting options. Most commonly, wrench trays, which hold spanners at an angle allow more wrenches to be store ins a confined space, saving you room, and they make it easy to ready the size on the handle. These trays are my favorite choice when storing spanners, especially when there are a lot laying around. Many companies also make universal trays and organizers which are perfect for holding little bits and bobs in your drawers. Things like drill bits and screw driver attachments are notorious for getting lost and stuck in hard to find places. Keep them locked up like pigs in a pen and they won’t run off! Also, get creative. Almost any bowl, basket, or tray can be used for holding things. In our tap and die drawer, we have a few different little trays than came from some far distant land- not from a tool store. They do the job just fine!
Then there are those large tools. Those pesky things which don’t fit anywhere and just cause a pain. I sympathize. The best thing I have found is make sure you utilize features built in on many tools to your advantage. For example, my Makita drills, which I love dearly, all have tool belt hangers on them which are invaluable when working on a job were you need two hands but still need the drill on call at any minutes. I simply put these hangers to work the rest of the time I am not holding them. Clipping them on the back of my chest lid means I can get to them easily and they stay off the floor, and out of valuable draw space. Some cored power tools can be hung by wrapping the cords around the tool, and then using the cable as a make-shift strap. Hammers, pry bars, and pullers often lend themselves to being hung above benches or work stations to free up drawer space and make access even easier.
Finally, how about storing your tools mid-projects? If your stripping and engine down and are forced to change between two size sockets, a wrench and a pair of plies, your only options are walking back to the tool chest every 20 seconds or perform a balancing act of the decade by piling hundreds of tools on the edge of your fender, only to drop them and you’re your perfect paint job. Luckily, for those of us who drive cars like the Toyota MR2, we have some sort of built in tool shelf on the trunk of our cars. You simply throw down a towel, or protective work mat and you have a great place to store your tools. For those of you who do not have this blessed life, having a portable tool shelf or tray is a must. These can be had for fairly cheap online and are a great way to keep those tool right at arm’s length while shoulders deep on a leaky oil pump.
However you do it, make sure you have some sort of system for organizing your tools means your work time will be reduced and your happiness will be spared as you will never have to hunt down lost screw drivers or missing sockets again. This, I can say, is the best thing to do to help all projects go by smoothly and easily.