Larry Ciesla Woodworking

Controlling Workshop Clutter

In my 1200 square foot woodworking shop, clutter can get completely out of hand without an effective strategy to control it. My current shop is my fourth in a progression of shops starting in the basement, then another basement in a different home, to an old animal barn, and finally to a dedicated, purpose-built woodworking shop. Along the way I’ve tried all kinds of strategies for keeping my shop neat and tidy, and for storing and locating tools. My earlier shops all relied on some kind of peg board system where things were hung on the walls using an assortment of (usually less than satisfactory) hanging devices designed to work with peg board. This strategy may work fine for some, but for me, it was a consistent, 30 year long battle with clutter. Woodworking shops are inherently dusty and dust seemed to settle on everything hung on the wall like a magnet. Reaching for one tool often resulted in its neighbor falling off its precarious peg board perch. But probably the worst thing was that with tools hanging on the shop walls, everything was subjected to the same moisture content as the ambient air in the shop. As seasons changed and humidity levels rose and fell, moisture attacked the metal on every tool that I hung on a wall. I resolved to fix these problems when I built my new shop and here is how I did it.

Drawers are the key

The most important decision
I made was to store my tools
in drawers and not on the wall.
The most important decision I made was to store my tools in drawers and not on the wall. I now have two major drawer centers where every tool has an assigned location in a drawer someplace. I also keep a desiccant or two in each drawer to suck up moisture. These are easy to come by and many manufactures ship products with a moisture desiccant included. Every time I buy something and find one of these desiccants I grab it and stick it in one of my shop drawers.

Mechanics tool cabinet

One of the first things I purchased when I moved into my new shop was a mechanics tool cabinet from my local Menards store. This is a classic tool cabinet consisting of three sections that stack one on top of the other with a set of wheels on the bottom cabinet. These are available in a wide variety of sizes, quality, and cost. I didn’t think I needed a “top of the line” mechanics tool chest, but I wanted one that was not cheaply made either. At the time, Menards had one that fit the bill perfectly, but Sears also carries lots of models many of which are reasonably priced and of good quality.

Even though a mechanic’s tool cabinet is primarily designed to store tools typically used by an auto mechanic, I’ve found that it is also perfect to store many of my woodworking tools. One drawer, for example, is completely dedicated to storing screwdrivers. I went on a screwdriver hunt one day and found every screwdriver I owned, each of which was hiding someplace in my home, my garage, my barn, and even in my pickup truck. You’d probably be amazed at the number of screwdrivers you own that are lurking somewhere, hiding from you and daring you to find them when you need them! I came up with at least 30 of various types and sizes. Now every screwdriver I own is stored in this one drawer in my mechanics tool cabinet.

I dedicated each drawer to a family of tools related together by the types of projects I typically need them for. For example, one drawer stores all my hand planes. Another holds my veneering hand tools. Another is dedicated to cabinet scrapers and all the paraphernalia you need to sharpen them. My chisels all live in one drawer. You get the idea. Every drawer contains at least one of those desiccants I was talking about earlier and, presto, in the five years I’ve been using this system my problems with rust have been eliminated. One other trick I’ve found to fight rust is to put a very light coat of Camilla oil on my steel tools like chisels and planes. The oil combined with the desiccant seems to do the trick in my Illinois location.

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Miter bench and storage

In one of his New Yankee Workshop episodes, Norm built a miter bench system that included lots of large drawers. I really liked that idea but did not particularly like Norm’s design, so I came up with my own. My system consists of four large cabinets, two for the left and two for the right side of the miter saw station. In each cabinet, I built three heavy duty drawers from Baltic birch plywood and used full extension heavy duty drawer slides to hang each drawer in a cabinet. That gave me a total of 12 large drawers adding up to a very large volume of storage space.

A system of drawers like this works best if each drawer is dedicated to a particular class of tools. For example, all my electric drills live in one drawer into which I built a system of dividers so each drill has its own storage place. Another drawer is totally dedicated to my collection of routers and all their associated paraphernalia like spare router plates, jigs, fixtures, etc. Another drawer is totally dedicated to storing my collection of router bits. Router bits are particularly pesky creatures that love to hide if you do not have a system to keep them from running away! My system relies on a several dedicated router bit storage boxes that either came with the router bits or that I purchased separately.

McFeely’s has a nice system of containers to store various sizes of square drive wood screws. I purchased one of these for various sizes of number six, eight, and ten wood screws and these are organized in one drawer. Now I have one place to go to find any screw I own.

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Wood storage

After all these years the thing I still struggle the most with is storing wood. Like most woodworkers, I loath throwing out that small scrap of cherry or walnut thinking some day I will find some great use for it. I have found that saving these little scraps forever fosters a hopeless situation: no matter how much space you allocate to storing scraps, you always fill it up and need more space. Accumulating more scraps than you could ever use seems to be fundamental to the nature of woodworking. Each project will always have something left over, and the more projects you do the more scrap you will have to deal with.

My solution is simple: I accumulate these scraps during the fall and winter months and every spring I take about three quarters of the scraps I’ve accumulated, select first the pieces from last year that I was sure I would use but have not, and place them in containers for camp firewood to be burned during the summer camping season. I’ve placed some very nice pieces of wood in a campfire; and sometimes it kills me to do this. But ironically, it seems that for most projects, I never really look in my scrap pile anyway!

After decades of woodworking I’ve concluded that the best place to store wood is at the lumberyard! Sure, I do from time to time purchase a pretty piece of wood that I have no current use for. These I do store in my shop where they wait for that perfect project to come along. But I try to limit myself and bring home only really, really special pieces of wood. By keeping only enough stock on hand for projects currently underway, I have greatly reduced the total amount of lumber I have to store, but there is still one more helpful thing I’ve learned I’d like to share.

Anyone who has ever attempted to work on two or more different projects at the same time has faced the issue of what to do with work pieces from one project while you’re working on another project. To solve that problem I’ve done two things. First, I purchased a very heavy duty lumber storage system originally designed for the telephone industry. I got mine from Woodcraft and I highly recommend it.  This system is made from very thick steel and is capable of supporting an enormous weight. Bolted to a wall, what makes the system work so well is that the floor really carries the load and the wall just keeps the load from toppling over. I use this lumber storage system mostly for storing lumber for work in progress. I’ve also found that using the very thin plastic stretch wrap available at any home center and wrapping related pieces of a project in a bundle, I can neatly store these bundles on the rack. I’ve found that by carefully labeling each part in the project then bundling and grouping related parts together, it is easy to put a project aside for weeks or months then come back to it later and take up where you left off. But the lumber storage rack is definitely the key to this strategy because it gives me a very handy place to keep everything organized, off the floor, and out of harms way.

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Dealing with clamps

I’ve accumulated a large number of clamps over the years. These generally fall into three categories, Bessey parallel face bar clamps, pipe clamps, and various kinds of quick grip bar clamps. I found a brilliant solution to storing my large collection of clamps in Fine Woodworking Issue 174 in the article by Gary B. Foster: ”Convertible Clamping Workstation.” As soon as I saw that article I knew I had to build one of these for my own shop. My hat’s off to Gary Foster for engineering an ingenious solution to a common problem!

To make my clamp storage system even more useful, I built a torsion box to place on top of the clamp storage system. The torsion box is very flat, much lower than my other workbench, and makes an ideal assembly table. In fact, the assembly table with clamp storage is so useful and so convenient that it gets use extensively during virtually every project I build. A double bonus is that just about every clamp I own is stored just below the assembly table so when glue up time comes, my clamps are a short reach away. When I take the project out of the clamps, it is very easy to simply slide the clamp back in its storage area.

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Ten things a day

Every morning first thing
I always put 10
things away!
In spite of everything I’ve done to keep the clutter down to a minimum in my shop, by the end of a busy day things are still left laying about. The only thing missing from my system is the fact that I’m an inherently messy guy trying to fight my basic nature and maintain a neat and clean work environment. I’ve come to believe that a clean shop and shop safety are two sides of the same coin, so the last piece of the puzzle, the only thing missing, is a dedicated time to putting things away. I’ve found that what works best for me is the first thing I do when I come into the shop in the morning is to put 10 things away. Ten things put away before I take up where I left off the night before seems to be a reasonable strategy, is not really that difficult to do, and seems to be enough to keep my shop reasonably neat, tidy, and organized.

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When the dust all settles

The best strategy is
to remove as much dust
as soon as possible
after I create it!
Dealing with workshop dust is an article in and of itself. I put a lot of effort into dust collection at the source, and each major tool is either permanently connect to my dust collection system, or can be quickly connected using Faslock quick connectors. In spite of all my best efforts, dust will find its way to the floor, on machines, and on just about every work surface in the shop. The best strategy I’ve found to deal with this is to remove as much of the dust as soon as possible after I’ve created it. I take a break, get out the push broom, the dust pan, the shop vac, and clean up! Interrupting my workflow to clean up dust may slow me down a bit, but the result is that I’m never really faced with an absolutely filthy shop. The longer I wait between these small clean up operations, the worse the cleanup I’m faced with. The bottom line is that I do not like to clean and would rather be doing something else, but I’d really rather not wait so long between cleanings that I have to devote and entire day to cleaning just to get my shop habitable again.

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