How to organize DIY clutter
December 8, 2010 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Handypeople and DIYers, how do you organize all the small stuff you accumulate so that you can find it later?

I've read this thread, but my question is more about the small stuff than actual tools. I have bowls and buckets and paint trays and toolboxes all over my house, each filled with an assortment of nails of various sizes, machine and drywall and wood screws, nuts and bolts and washers, drill bits (I don't know anymore if they are for wood or masonry or whatever), and other endless miscellaneous electrical and plumbing and carpentry ARRGH. Yet whenever I want to work on something, I have no idea where to go to find the things I need (our house has two floors plus attic, basement, and garage, which doesn't help). I end up going to the hardware store and just buying whatever I need new. Which just leaves me with more unidentified leftover dribs & drabs.

Do I need to sort all these out and organize them in one of those toolboxes with all the tiny drawers? How would I label them (I can't see opening all the drawers every time I need a certain size screw)?

In addition to wanting to be able to use the stuff we already have, I want to get rid of all the clutter, as it's depressing to live with and demoralizing when I want to do a project. I'd be so happy if we had as they say "a place for everything and everything in its place," but I guess my question is, how do I make "a place for everything"? And then how do I identify and sort everything out?

posted by torticat to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
At work we use Zag Boxes to make kits for different jobs. Something like Stanley makes (model 014725R) is similar and can be found at your local hardware store.

Your best course of action is to get all your stuff in one place and sort it into general categories. Machine screws / wood screws / self tapping etc.. same with the drill bits. Recycle or sharpen the worn ones and start sorting things into kits. If zag boxes don't do it, then tackle boxes, or sewing boxes are probably your best bet.

To figure out what you're looking at, just take a stroll through the hardware store or consult wikipedia.
posted by BishopFistwick at 12:15 PM on December 8, 2010

For nails and screws and the like, I have them stored in old muffin pan (each type in its own well). Its organized, I can visually glance at what I have and I was proud that I found a way to reuse something for a new purpose. It probably also helps that our house came with a "workshop" like room in the basement that the countless owners before me had outfitted with some shelves and a workbench where I can keep my pan of metal.

In short, I think finding one place for your stuff is the best solution and then add shelving or other types of organizational solutions to store the minutiae. Personally if I don't put things back where they belong I loose track of things. The only things I like keeping upstairs is a couple of screwdrivers and a multipurpose tool like a leatherman.
posted by mmascolino at 12:19 PM on December 8, 2010

Artist here. I like those little toolboxes for small stuff like screws, beads and the like - labeled. I have a dresser in my studio with labeled drawers for things like tape, glue, etc and separate, labeled, drawers and bins for drawing materials, paint, etc. I use an old dishwasher silverware compartment to hold some brushes - organized by color and a kitchen tool caddy for paintbrushes. When our local university library got rid of its card catalogs I thought seriously about buying one of the drawer units for just that sort of use - ended up not doing so because they were too big for my studio but looking for something of that ilk might serve your needs well. Now if the rest of my house was as organized as my (messy! but organized) studio I'd be in great shape... I think the key is to think about how you use stuff and make it easy to find and to remember where you put it.
posted by leslies at 12:20 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: I think you've got it backwards, to some degree.

From my own semi-pack-rat perspective, it's easier to sort first, so you can see what you have and what the variety within each category looks like. You can also figure out how much space you'll need, or other specialized requirements (e.g. does it need to keep the dust out? is it easy to store it with this similar thing, or do I need to keep them separate?) once you have everything in front of you. Finally, the best reason to do so is to really weed out those duplicates or things you haven't used in forever.

When you're done with that, have ONE HOME. Or if it's something that migrates a lot (books, maybe?), maybe you can designate a particular place in each room of use where you pile up similar things.

Absolutely consider one of those things with the tiny drawers. Another tried-and-true method is baby food jars. You shouldn't have labeling problems if you get one like this, where you can see the stuff directly.

Keeping stuff visible, if you can, is a great technique to both make sure you keep things in order/know where things go and remember that you have something instead of assuming that you have to go buy it.

And I realize that I invoke him in every comment I make about organization (he's like the Beetlejuice of the green, here), but Peter Walsh, Peter Walsh, Peter Walsh.
posted by Madamina at 12:21 PM on December 8, 2010

This is a big challenge for me too. I collect those sets of drawers with little plastic shelves and label them as much as I can. I also use small glass jars. I've tried using printers trays to sort, but then the sorting takes as much time as anything else. Drawers that are big enough that allow most of the materials to be on a single layer are pretty effective, though they take up more space.

It sounds as though you need a dedicated workshop and enough time in it to know what you've got and where. At least then you don't have to wander all over the house.
posted by mearls at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2010

I found a bunch of empty peanut butter jars at a yard sale, they're great for nails and screws. These fit in a coffee can, great for small parts. My library had an old card catalog they were throwing away, it's great for small tools.

Please, please, please don't use glass jars!
posted by Marky at 12:27 PM on December 8, 2010

My grandfather nailed jar lids to the beams in his workshop and just unscrewed the jars when he needed something. That way you could see them. The smaller things he had on shelves or in drawers in baby-food jars.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:29 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just bought a cheap tackle box for this at Wal-Mart. it was like $8 and has plenty of compartments and a big compartment at the bottom for boxes of nails etc. I can definitely see myself outgrowing this but it is great for now, easy to pack up and carry too.
posted by Busmick at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2010

Also seconding mearls on some kind of dedicated least to get everything in one placeso you know where to look. A workbench in the garage or basement would be perfect. Then you could build your storage solution around that.
posted by Busmick at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2010

I take various sizes of peeled babyfood and jelly jars and tack the lids on a couple of 1x3 boards on both sides. Then I hang the boards from the rafters between two other lengths of the leftover 1x3 with a single screw on either end. Voila, a clear, rotating hardware organizer.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: As you've discovered, if you can't find it, you don't own it.


1) Sort by category, rather than object - make an electrical toolbox, a carpentry toolbox, etc, with the basic things you need for that particular task. Bigger stuff can go in a cabinet, or in a bin under a bench - I like cheapo tool cabinets, but each to their own.

2) Organize by upcoming projects. Figure out the consumables you need for a project, and chuck it in a labelled bag.

Jars and cans are fine for fasteners - just check carefully when you're finally using them.
Get a thread gauge / bolt size chart if you're feeling really keen on sorting things out.
posted by zamboni at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sort the stuff that I use often and have a lot of, like various wood or machine screws. But for each category I also have a miscellaneous container. I can never seem to throw out the extra screws I get with Ikea shelves or light fixtures or whatever else, so I just toss them into an "odd screw" box.

Non fastener stuff, like those extra metal brackets you get with a bike rack, I sort by material. So I have "odd metal stuff", "odd plastic stuff", "odd electronic stuff" bins which is great when I'm working on an something and need Just The Right Thing to make it work.

Whatever you use to organize things doesn't really matter. People use old jars, or plastic bins, or those drawer things. It's all good. Just make sure whatever you sort them in can be made portable when you need to go work on something somewhere. You want to be able to take, say, the whole drawer of wood screws with you.

Home Depot sells those orange buckets for $3.00 or so and they also sell these round containers that fit inside them. I use that for my nails.

Even if you don't sort things perfectly, at least try to separate the different types of screws because most of the time you're only going to need one type of thing. If you're working with wood you'll need wood screws. Metal, machine screws, etc.
posted by bondcliff at 12:39 PM on December 8, 2010

For lots of small items and a few larger items, I think tackle boxes work beautifully. The things with lots of drawers don't let me see clearly what's inside, and any unfortunate tipping ends up with your floor full of a huge mess. Also, when bought from a hardware store, tackle boxes are usually cheaper than the similar/same product you'll find at an art store.
posted by sub-culture at 1:34 PM on December 8, 2010

If your items aren't bulky, the craft boxes work as well as tackle boxes and they're more see-through. Beading box. Craft supply storage. A bigger craft supply box.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:01 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops. A bigger craft supply box.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:02 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I bought 1000 straight gauge 150ml glass test tubes and a bunch of racks and corks, 200+ 150ml test tubes with screw lids (utterly infuriating that no one makes those other than with constricted openings) several hundred 50ml polytop glass vials (same complaint), uncounted mason jars of all sizes (did you know they once made 125 ml wide mouth jars?), 50 1Gal. stacking ink cans with metal lids (not fully airtight, unfortunately), 120 Ropak 5gal. square HDPE buckets w/lids (also not airtight), 250+ Ropak 7gal. round HDPE buckets w/lids (wonderfully airtight-- an extremely superior storage medium), and 5 or 6 60gal rainbarrels w/lids.

All this and a bunch more over a number of years.

I still have great difficulty finding things, and often find myself in the position of knowing that the thing I'm looking for is no more than 5 ft. away from my eager fingers, but could take as much as another hour to actually come up with.
posted by jamjam at 2:25 PM on December 8, 2010

Please, please, please don't use glass jars!

Why? I'm so curious. I love the idea of the glass jars screwed into nailed-on lids.
posted by lvanshima at 2:27 PM on December 8, 2010

I like glass jars and metal lids last forever without stripping out, but those plastic peanut butter jars really do work well, and they're lighter.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:37 PM on December 8, 2010

Well, in practice I have things a bit more scattered than this, but:

I try to keep related items together, everything for sweat soldering copper pipe together and that kept with some other various plumbing items, for example.

I use plastic jars from some nuts and candies I bought at costco for nails and screws in larger quantities. Smaller quantities of wood screws are in one of those boxes with all the little compartments. One jar has random metal bits of various types.

I've never gotten into the idea of attaching the lids of jars to things, it's nice to have a lid on the jar when taking to places in the car or up a ladder, no need to worry about which end is up. Glass breaks, so I prefer to use other things for storage. If I had a vast supply of baby food jars I might do something else though.

Drill bits I keep in the box they come in. Have you been buying them individually? It's much cheaper to get an assortment. Don't throw the box away.

In theory I put what I'll need to use for a project in a separate box so it is easy to carry and put things away when I'm done, in practice I have a mix of things in a pile to put away but most of them are in one spot. I think the first thing you need to do is find your one spot so you know at least what level of your house to start looking on.
posted by yohko at 4:21 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks much, all! I haven't marked as many answers "best" as I'd like to, because I want to look into some of these ideas.

I think the first thing you need to do is find your one spot so you know at least what level of your house to start looking on.

Several people mentioned this general idea, and I think it's where I have to start. Unfortunately our entire building is a work in progress, so it takes discipline to get things back to the main workbench or whatever and then to sort things into the places where they belong. Especially when a job takes several days, stuff ends up dumped into the nearest bowl or drawer. (Ha--convenient use of the passive voice there.)

Definitely I need to sort by category, at the very least. Good idea. Also, I ordered the Walsh book.
posted by torticat at 7:06 PM on December 8, 2010

If you can find one, a vintage card catalogue is great option! If you check craigslist or ebay, there are often some smaller ones available. However, since they tend to be heavy, you usually need to be able to pick it up yourself rather than have it send. Plus, if it's the right height, it can even double as a coffee table or catch-all table!
posted by faeuboulanger at 7:49 PM on December 8, 2010

Those wall-mountable plastic drawers work nicely for screws and other fasteners. For stuff that gets used a lot, like for a larger work-in-progress I like using a portable organizer. I've got double-sided ones with 3" x 3" sized sections. I've found the ones with adjustable compartments are a bit more trouble than they're worth. Not unless you hit the compartment dividers with a bead of hot glue to keep 'em in place. They're good for holding a bunch of nails, drywall screws, tile spacers, electrical staples, wire nuts, etc. I went so far as to make one that had just electrical stuff for use just during the process of wiring. That way you've got a 'supply' of the stuff nearby without having a whole box of each. Easier to put away too.
posted by wkearney99 at 7:06 AM on December 9, 2010

Seconding the stanley carryable sorting box. I adore these. Harbor Freight has some slightly cheaper knock-offs that are pretty good, but the plastic on the Stanley model is clearer and easier to see through.
posted by BleachBypass at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2010

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