A place for everything, and everything in its place
May 1, 2017 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Are you someone who used to have a messy workshop, craft room, or shed, but now reliably keeps it organized? How did you make the switch to being organized, and, most importantly, how did you learn to maintain it? Do you have any secrets or lessons learned? I keep my kitchen organized but my workshop is a mess.
posted by OmieWise to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My goal is to never have to move one thing out of the way to get to the thing I want. This greatly helps with efficiency and ensures that I always have access to the right tool for the job and thus I'm less likely to use the wrong tool.

Know this: drawers are an awful way to organize things. Drawers are just bottomless pits filled with stuff that you have to remove to get to the thing you need. With the exception of a few drawers filled with rarely-used miscellaneous tools, the only tool drawers I have are small, shallow drawers that contain one thing, or a few things in a single layer. Stuff like measuring tools (small squares, calipers) that don't easily go onto my pegboard. Which leads me to:

Pegboard! As much as possible, all my tools are on pegboard. This makes it easy to access what I need when I need it, and more importantly makes all my tools visible. I can just look up from my bench and instantly find what I need.

Everyone will tell you that their grandfather would take a magic marker and draw an outline of each tool onto the pegboard so that he knew where each tool goes, but I find I often acquire new tools and/or re-organize my pegboard every six months, so I don't really think outlining things is a good idea unless you have every tool you'll ever need and never plan to move anything.

Tools of course should be arranged in some logical order. All measuring things together, all screwdrivers together, wood tools separate from mechanical tools, etc. Arrange either by task or by type of tool.

For the stuff that isn't tools. Supplies, fasteners, and other expendable stuff, you want an assortment of bins and other containers to put them in. Large things get large bins, etc. I really like the shoebox sized Rubbermaid-type containers. They stack easily on shelves and only cost a couple of bucks each.

For things like screws I have a few of those organizers with the little plastic drawers. Drawers are ok in this case because each drawer only contains a single type of fastener. I label each drawer with what's in there and I also hot glue one of the same type of fastener to the front of the drawer. This makes it really easy to find the right size or type of screw I need and also makes it easy to find where to put screws back.

Which brings me to: labeling!

Get yourself a Brother P-Touch label maker and a few extra label cartridges. And then, LABEL EVERYTHING. If you can't find a thing then you don't own that thing. It's ok to have a drawer or two marked "miscellaneous" but for the most part every drawer, every bin, every container that has things in it needs to be clearly labeled. Don't assume you'll know what is where because you will forget. Label your workspace as if a stranger was going to come in and needed to know where things are.

I don't label the tools on the pegboard because a) I can easily see what is where and b) that thing I said about re-arranging it every six months.

Maintaining it is tricky. I try to clean the shop and put things back before I start a new project, or occasionally as it's getting out of hand. Having a place to put each tool on the pegboard really helps make this easy.

Also, try not to beat yourself up if it's not perfect. A messy workspace is a workspace that is getting used and that's what a workspace is for. Get it organized, try to maintain it, but accept that sometimes you're going to have a tool or a box of shit and there's no place for it to go but right on the back of the bench with the other random stuff that doesn't have a home.
posted by bondcliff at 10:26 AM on May 1, 2017 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I keep my kitchen organized but my workshop is a mess.

The key to what's going to work for you is in this statement. How do you keep your kitchen organized? I'll bet it's the most effective way: clean-as-you-go plus routine maintenance, and you probably have a place for everything, and those places are practical.

The problem with non-food projects is that an incomplete project doesn't rot or get ants, so it seems practical to just stop working and walk off when you run out of time. It helps me (and I am a horribly messy human being if left unattended) to just plan to spend maybe 5 minutes up front getting shit out and 10 on the back end to put away and clean up (also, I have trash cans everywhere, and for some especially scrap-intensive crafts I'll use a garbage bowl just like when I'm cooking). It really doesn't take much longer than that, if you don't let it build up.

I also try to make my work areas as easily cleanable as possible - a sheet of parchment paper on a clipboard is a good place to set down sticky/painty things, for example - so that doing that work is fast and efficient. I use a lot of zip-top bags to keep project materials together so it's not fatal to toss them into a storage space together (cross-stitch projects, for example, travel in a gallon ziploc so I can take it to the bed or to the couch or wherever and everything stays together and clean, and my pattern is slid into the bag facing out so I can reference it without taking it out).

Having places for things is a critical issue for me. I use clear-pouch over-door hanging shoe storage for tools and some supplies (you can clip a piece of fabric over it to hide the mess in the pouches, and just pull it aside while you work), I use those plastic Sterilite drawers that can roll underneath my work table, and I use those Michael's photo boxes that are always on sale for storing supplies on a bookshelf.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:44 AM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get yourself a Brother P-Touch label maker and a few extra label cartridges. And then, LABEL EVERYTHING

Truth. The important thing for me when I moved from a big house with a ton of space to a smaller apartment where I really did have to store/retrieve stuff was a few major things

1. LABEL THE STUFF (this also means that other people can help you clean up which is useful) and think about the granularity of the labels. Do you have enough batteries where you need to label individual types? Or no? Same for nails? People tend to over- or under-label. No shame in that but see if you can, through trial and error, see what type of person you are and make adjustments.

2. HAVE A PLAN FOR PARTS My dremel has a wrench that needs to not be lost. The humidifier has spare filters. My saw has a different wrench. There are different ways to manage the extra parts that go with a thing but it's good to know what your system is and use it. Do all the spare parts go together? Or do they stay with the item? Can you use the item without moving all its parts? Do you have an inventory system so you know when you are out of spares?

3. BUILD IN CLEAN UP TIME For a lot of people I know, they think a project takes about as long as the project takes to DO and then wind up out of time for clean up and treat it as a discrete unfun project that they never get around to. Think about the time spent cleaning up as part of the whole project and don't check off a project as "done" (however you do that) until stuff is put away, tools are cleaned, and inventory is checked.

4. REASSESS This is both for individual things (like come back after a project is done and think "Did I clean this up?") but also at the systems that you have in place. Are they serving you? Do they work? Do they work for you AND whoever else you share space with? It's okay to have like "workshop cleanup" once a week and then not have to clean everything totally after every project, but you have to 1. have a plan and also 2. have a working plan 3. have a feedback loop to see if 1 is 2 and if not what the plan is for getting it there

And totally agree with bondcliff, totally ok to be messy as long as it mostly works but basically see if it's working for you. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 10:54 AM on May 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm with bondcliff on everything. Pegboard and labels changed my life.

Remind yourself that your working surface is for work and not storage. A good kitchen habit - cleaning as you go - can absolutely be applied to the workshop.

Try keeping 3 dedicated containers within reach (I'm a leatherworker, so here's what I personally use):
1) Trash (kitchen bag in a trashcan)
2) Useable scrap (banker's box)
3) Temporary staging for tools/supplies (a small basket for tools + small parts case for hardware )

Make using these containers habit, and empty them as soon as you're done working.

I also have a "works in progress" cart (a raskog from ikea) I use to store *only* what I need for an active project - it's usually all the seperate little parts and pieces for a bag or whatnot. If I'm not working on the project anymore, everything gets put away. If I only need to step away for a few days, the cart goes in a closet.

All this combined gives me a tidier studio and a workspace that is mostly dedicated to work.
posted by Wossname at 11:00 AM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, also, if there are things that you use all the time but can never find, things like pencils, tape measure, scissors, the key is to own a ton of them. I have pen/pencil holders every five feet on my bench filled with a dozen or so of each type of writing utensil, including Sharpies, #2 pencils, mechanical pencils, pens, wood crayons, etc. There are scissors/box cutters/scrapers on each end of the pegboard and a couple extra pairs of scissors near where I often need scissors. Same with tape measures. Two living on the pegboard in addition to one I keep by my chop saw and a small one that lives in the pocket of my shop apron.

Things like that are very inexpensive to buy lots of and it really helps my sanity and efficiency when I don't have to keep searching for where I put my pencil. I just grab another one.
posted by bondcliff at 11:09 AM on May 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Don't keep parts that don't have a specific use at a specific time in the future. "Oh, I might use that some day." Haha, no. The options are Specific Project and Timeline, or Trash. (You can only donate if hou have already packed it up and have a place to donate it to. "But someone might want this!" NOPE.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:10 AM on May 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: All fantastic organization tips. Yes! to the labeler. I'm older and cant read the labeler labels and now write in White-Out pen on all my bins.
And FUCK drawers. Of course sometimes drawers are necessary, so I buy clear plastic freezer bins from amazon, and clear plastic makeup organizers and drawer sets for tiny things.
Bondcliff's first sentence is my primary organizing philosophy: First Order Retrievability. For all tools that get regular usage. It allows one to think as fast as they work (at least it does this for me).

I finally realized that I dedicate about 20% of my time in my shop to organization: monitoring my work patterns and adjusting to them. Putting stuff away. Sorting out the junk bin. I just bought some clear bins for my leatherworking tools, as they have, in their totality, outgrown their dedicated space in the craftsman toolbox they've lived in for a decade. This is totally an ongoing process: as I gain new skills in my space, I get new tools, and slowly, the old way of doing things needs an update.

On the cheap organization side: I love using foamcore and hot glue to make a drawer fit everything exactly just so. This is the drawer equivalent of drawing a line around tools on pegboard. I look at everything I need to put into a drawer, and then draw my outlines so that everything gets a dedicated space, and then I glue a small 1" foamcore fence around all of it. This has been a radical sea change for blades. I have many bladed tools and they were formally just all jumbled together. Also foamcore is white and makes things easy to see.

I used to be a messy shop guy. Now I clean up every night before I turn off the lights and between each project. It clears my head. I never want to do it. But it's always a conversation between present me and future me. I know that walking into a clean shop tomorrow morning will energize me and make me want to work.

It's a constantly ongoing process. I've had shops for 35 years now, and I'm STILL figuring out the optimal arrangement of things.
posted by asavage at 11:29 AM on May 1, 2017 [17 favorites]

Best answer: We've become good at minimizing how many things we have. We've gotten to this point after a decade or so of moving apartment to apartment and city to city and coast to coast (too) many times. I guess we've ended up with a permanent "moving mentality," in which every possible new acquisition is judged against the difficulty it'll add to a future move (even when we're not planning to move). It's been hugely helpful, and a byproduct is that we're now pretty much uncluttered. We observe a 1-in-1-out rule, for instance: if a new bookshelf or table wants to come into the house, we must get rid of the existing bookshelf or table (or some other bulky piece of furniture) first. We avoid having duplicates of most things: we have one soup ladle, not three, so as things accumulate we periodically prune what we have to get back to the baseline (sort of like Inbox Zero, but for stuff). And as close to every Sunday as we can muster, we spend 2-3 hours straightening up and putting things back in their dedicated places (which also gets us doing laundry, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning up after the week).

We find that that last bit--making a flexible routine out of tidying up--has really been the magic element. I couldn't muster the energy or interest to do that daily, and that seems to make me more committed to doing it on a punctuated schedule.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:47 PM on May 1, 2017

Best answer: Maybe you are like me, and terrible. Probably not because you keep a kitchen organized. But there are three kinds of people:

1) People great at organizing
2) People not, but have a One Thing One Spot method, and labels, and ways to achieve #1
3) People who strive for #2 but fail often

I am #3 and in case you feel like that for your workshop:

1) Yes, buy duplicates of stupid stuff like scissors and tape because you will always somehow lose some there is a black hole in your shed and it defies reality yet thus lo is truth.
2) Spend one yucky day aiming for Person 1 and: take everything apart, reorganize based on topic, create labels, and donate what you don't need.
3) Buy a big plastic bucket. This bucket is the savior of Person 3. Because this system in step 2 will fall apart no matter your efforts to clean and organize after each project. No matter your intentions and awesomeness. And then it becomes messy and you have to re-deep-clean and you cry.
4) In Savior Bucket goes everything you're like "huh?" or "ugh I am tired". Just drop this in Bucket. Accept Bucket. You need Bucket even though it is a mess.
5) On the start of each month, clean out Bucket. Reorganize according to step 2. If you can't fit it somewhere, keep it in the Bucket.
6) Celebrate your greatness that involves Bucket of Weirdness.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 7:32 PM on May 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Get a permanent marker, and, very importantly, permanent marker remover. The remover is actually key, because it means you can label things temporarily. This is vital to getting over the perfectionist tendencies that require the storage system to be optimised before labelling can begin.

Start labelling. Start with the definites. So if you absolutely always put tool A in drawer B, label it. Once the easy stuff is labelled, start making decisions about the detritus. I read a great suggestion on Metafilter that the place to store something is where you would look for it. So if you would look for screws in the nail drawer, then store them in there, or in the next drawer down. The removeability of the labels means that if you realise that you'd prefer that the screws and the nails be closer to the hammer, you can move them without having to live with the shame of not getting it right the first time.

Have spare containers and spare cupboard space. This is really useful, and makes the storage system more flexible and efficient. If you're out of space, that's probably part of your problem. Get more storage, or get rid of stuff.

As hapaxes.legomenon says above, have a bucket. This is a pre-sorting inbox, and reduces the possiblilities of where something is, because it's either in use, in storage, or in the bucket of weirdness (or someone's borrowed it and forgotten to give it back - grr).
posted by kjs4 at 8:20 PM on May 1, 2017

Best answer: Echoing much of the above:

Step 1 - cull to bare minimum of things

Step 2 - employ an organisational system e.g. Plano boxes or the equivalent for smaller things (though any reputable office supply or hardware store will have tons and tons of storage options for all shapes and sizes of thing)

Step 3 - labels

Step 4 - the all-important "second culling". As you go through your workshop unearthing and organising stuff, take a good long hard look at all those piles of shit. Do you honestly really need it? Are you honestly really ever going to use it, for anything, ever? Did you even know or remember you had it?
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:21 PM on May 1, 2017

Best answer: organizing is easy tho perhaps time consuming (depending on the depths of the mess).

Use the clock method. Declare some random point 12 o'clock, then move clockwise through the moon, dealing with everything as it comes. This works. You may only get to one o'clock on day one, but at least you can see it -- one-twelfth of the problem dealt with.

As for maintaining "order" -- don't sweat it too much. Just go back to the clock method maybe once a month.
posted by philip-random at 1:07 AM on May 2, 2017

Best answer: My dad was a woodworker. His trick was that the workroom got cleaned EVERY night, and everything except the current project was put away (and yes, that included the tools being used on that project). Unlike bondcliff and asavage, he was (and I am) a big fan of drawers -- they're essential if you don't have a lot of wallspace. But they need to be the right sized drawers.

Dad's workshop had pegboards and shallow drawers. Lots and lots of shallow drawers, each with slots for the tools, so no sliding around/getting buried (and it was easy to see where the file/wrench/chisel you had in your hand went). Bigger drawers at the bottom held small powertools, and had sliding trays for any wrenches/screwdrivers/clutch keys associated with those tools. The hammers and screwdrivers and pliers and small hand saws hung on the pegboard. There was a lovely set of pullouts that held blades for the table and radial arm saws and hand clamps and the small (under 24") pipe clamps. There was a shallow drawer for measuring devices (tapes, rulers, folding rules, micrometers), and another one with pencil grooves in it for all the pencil shaped things. He bought fasteners by the box, and built shelves that were *one* box high to keep them on, etc. He had another set of tools in the barn, specific to what he did there (small engine repair/maintenance, welding, etc). It took him 10 years to get the workroom where he wanted it, but he kept it for another 40.

My workroom is overrun with fabric and yarn, but I know where every tool and notion I need is. (Some of them might be "in that small drawer, let me dig", but that's stuff I don't use very often (like the leather hole-punch or the snapsetter), and I know which drawer.) And I don't leave tools out overnight. Even if I've just gone down to wind a skein of yarn, the swift and ballwinder get put away before I leave.

Now, how to get there? Be honest with yourself about how much room you have and how many tools/supplies you actually need. And then you need to think. Think about why you keep your kitchen organized. Then think about how -- is it drawers? cabinets? shelves? a combination? Do you 'clean as you go' in the kitchen, or do you leave it til the end? Then think about how you can apply that to your workroom. Figure out where things go.

And then (this is the really hard part), you need to DO IT. Do not leave tools out. Ever. If you go to bed at 11pm, stop working at 10:30 to allow time to put everything away. When you finish a project, before you go and revel in it, Put The Tools Away and clean the workroom. I find that doing that means that I'm rarely faced with a day-long cleaning project. (MrR is perpetually facing a weekend project of cleaning the workroom because he doesn't put tools away when he's done.)

If you have a basket/bin for things-to-be-put-away, clear it on a regular basis, and DON'T add another one. If it gets full, it's time to empty it.
posted by jlkr at 6:47 AM on May 2, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, a lot of these things are very very good suggestions. Lyn Never's first framing to make me think about what I do successfully in the kitchen (yes, it's clean as I go) was particularly helpful as a new way to think about it.

In the course of reading these, I remembered something a sculptor friend told me years ago: "about half of being an artist is just getting high and cleaning my studio." That might not work for me exactly, but it also helps to reframe how I think about the tasks.
posted by OmieWise at 8:34 AM on May 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

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