SparkFun's Rapid Prototyping Lab (Part I)

Wondering how to organize all of the tools and materials in your workspace? Look to the pros for inspiration!

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As SparkFun's Creative Technologist, my job is to showcase our products by building cool stuff. Because our catalog is so expansive, and because I want to keep the projects fresh, I end up working with a wide field of tools and materials. Sometimes I need a set of acrylic paints, sometimes I need a ball peen hammer. At times I'll reach for a sewing kit... other times, a jug of resin.

...For a long time, this meant a mess...


The old organizational system needed work.

But as the big move approached, I saw an opportunity to cut the cruft and start from scratch with a new approach to organization. One that hopefully wouldn't involve potentially lethal stacks of heavy, teetering madness. I made a proposal, I requested a budget, I pounded my fists and screamed at the heavens... oh, and I did some research.

How do you organize a shop where you might be building flying drones on Monday and painting with thermochromatic pigment on Tuesday? If your T-handle hex wrenches are in the first drawer on your toolbox, where do your leather punches go? What about your french curve? Your multimeter?

The Savage Approach


Adam talks shop with Norm and Will on Tested's "Still Untitled" Podcast

About the time that I began seriously mulling this over, I was listening to Tested's "Still Untitled" podcast featuring Adam Savage. I don't like to invite the comparison, because it isn't flattering to me, but Adam (of Mythbusters fame and ILM lore) also faces the challenge of working in a wide array of materials. Episodes of "Still Untitled" about things like shop safety, organization and tools went a long way in helping me figure out how to spend my budget wisely and get the most out of my space. Certain things like his amazing Sortimo storage system were a little too spendy for me, but I improvised and found low(er)-budget solutions.

Adam's attitude toward the ideal workspace seems to revolve around a few core concepts:

  • Lots and lots of clean, empty workbench - One thing that Adam touts is the beauty of a big, clean work-surface. And who can blame him? Tables can very quickly collect scrap and bench-tools. Having empty horizontal space is a gamble because it's so easy to just leave stuff there, but let's be honest, if you don't have a clean workbench, you're just gonna use the floor and that can't be good for your back...

  • "First-Order Retrievability" - One of his claims to fame during his time at Industrial Light and Magic was a pair of tool boxes. Doctored-up doctors' bags which he filled with tools and put on scissor lifts. The defining quality of these signature boxes? Well besides the fact that they looked like a WWII bomber, all aluminum and rivets, they also exhibit a trait that Adam describes as "First-order Retrievability." Every tool in the box is reachable on the first order, the 'org chart' of the toolbox is flat. In other words, you don't have to move any tool in order to grab another. This has the advantage of making it easy to put tools back in place, the first challenge to any system of organization.

  • The right tool for the job - Despite his oft-cited declaration that 'every tool is a hammer,' Adam can usually be relied on to geek-out about purpose-built tools. If you're having trouble learning a new skill, check that you're using the right tools. The right tool is the one that does the hard work for you. There's no point in dropping big bucks on tools you're almost certainly not going to use, but don't be afraid to buy the cheap version of the snap-setter, or leather punch, or tamper bit before trying to jerry-rig something that will end up making your life harder.

The Studio of Tom Sachs


"Your only job is to not drop this pipe on my head, that's your only job"

Studying Adam's approach to workplace organization eventually led me to this awesome conversation between himself and Tom Sachs. Sachs is a sculptor and multimedia artist working in New York City. He's best known for his "Space Program" exhibit as well as various deadly objects sculpted from luxury-brand packaging.

A portion of the "Talking Room" conversation that I linked above concerns a series of short movies which serve as the shop handbook for Tom Sachs studio employees and visitors. Take an hour or so and consume the video at it will make you a better different person.

It's important to keep in mind that Working to Code was very specifically produced for employees of the Tom Sachs studio and that, while edicts like "Purple is forbidden, there is no excuse for purple" and "creativity is the enemy" may sound childish or totalitarian, they are an attempt to train a varied cast of artists and technicians to consistently execute one man's vision.

There are plenty of universal truths and commonsense techniques in Working to Code as well. Things like keeping a tally of your consumable materials and making notes to re-order them, or recognizing and using the correct size Phillips driver for the fastener at hand. Every time I use a table saw, I remember the words "The table saw is a witch, a witch who will take your finger."

Some of Tom Sachs' stand-out edicts from the Ten Bullets website include:

  • Keep a List - Keep a prioritized list at all times. Carry this list at all times. Notebooks, whiteboards and scratch paper are the collective memory of a workspace. They not only serve as a way of dissecting and remembering complex tasks, but also as a channel of communication among multiple people sharing a workspace.

  • Always Be Knolling - Knolling is a method of organization in which objects on a work surface are arranged in parallel or at 90 degree angles. Tom Sachs offers the following methodology for knolling: 1) Scan your environment for items that are not in use; 2) Put away everything not in use, if you're not sure, leave it out; 3) Group all like objects; 4) Align or square all objects to either the surface they rest on or the studio itself. This may not sound like useful information when you're designing your workspace, but it implies the existence of two important shop fixtures: A place for everything to be "put away" and a clean work surface to be knolled.

  • Phillips 1, 2, 3 - Sometimes the simple things are the most important. Sachs correctly points out that many people aren't aware that Phillips fasteners and drivers come in multiple sizes. This is the most basic application of the idea that you should invest in the right tool for the job. You can drive a #3 Phillips screw with a #1 bit... but it won't be pretty. Don't do it.

The Neistat Brothers


Casey Neistat shows off his awesome NYC studio

If you check the end credits for any of the wonderful Ten Bullets videos, you'll find that they're all directed by Van Neistat ("NICE-tat"). Van and his brother Casey Neistat worked with the Tom Sachs Studio in mid-2001 to make a series of short movies before eventually starring in an HBO series appropriately named The Neistat Brothers.

Casey Neistat's NYC studio was the subject of a Gizmodo video tour during the summer of 2013. Casey's unpolished, but thoroughly finished, aesthetic heavily informs his studio layout and processes. Hand-made, purpose-built jigs and organizers are key to keeping his studio clean and productive.

Here are a few bits and bobs that I pulled from the aforementioned video tour as well as Neistat's own video work:

  • Access to tools and materials - Casey's studio, in true NYC fashion, is a tall room with limited precious floor-space. To maximize his utilization of this space, he's implemented a vertical system of stratified storage. Tools and materials that he uses often are always within arm's reach. As you travel further from the floor (solidly into "get a ladder" territory) you find deeper levels of storage: tools and materials that he might need, but not often. Power tools that are used often are hung on the wall and remain plugged in and ready to go at all times. This could pose a threat to shop safety in some contexts, but it makes you fast.

  • Building a Solution - Glancing around Casey's studio, you quickly realize that a great deal of the infrastructure was actually purpose built in-place. Need a place to charge cameras? Build one out of plywood. Need a paint station? Get a handful of angle brackets and get to work! If the thing you need doesn't exist, you have an entire studio at your disposal to create it!

  • The Red Boxes - This approach to organizing dissimilar objects is probably my favorite thus far. 39 plastic boxes on 7 shelves help to "codify the chaos" in Casey's studio. He stocks these boxes according to a system he calls The Intuitive Categorization Method. If I had to describe the method in an iterative fashion, I would do it like this: 1) Grab any three objects to be sorted; 2) Choose the "odd man out"; 3) Place like objects in a pile; 4) Place "odd man" back into the universe of things to be sorted; 5) Repeat until you have several discrete piles of like things; 6) Arrange these piles in a grid so that similar piles are near to eachother. Casey does a better job of describing the method in the video that I linked above. It feels a little "soft" as a method of categorization, but in practice it's really nice. Also, plastic boxes are cheap!

Synthesizing What We've Learned

So how did all of that help me put together a functional workspace? Let's review what we've learned and decide how to apply it (in a buying stuff kind of way)

Lots and lots of clean, empty workbench: This is simple enough, we just need to ensure that we have a workbench for the shop. Oh, and enough storage for all of our things so that almost nothing has to live on the bench full-time. In fact, what we really need is two benches. One that has permanent residents like soldering stations and computers and another just for scratch space.

First-Order Retrievability: When shopping for a toolbox, it's very easy to simply buy a box into which you can put tools. In sticking with the mandate for first-order retrievability, we'll be sure to purchase toolchests which have shallow drawers so that tools can't become buried. In the case of parts, those will need to be organized in something akin to tackleboxes. And those boxes can't just be stacked, they need to be independently retrievable, too.

The right tool for the job: Now is my chance to donate some of the tools I've collected to our Dept of Education (Who else needs 15 pairs of SparkFun pliers?? Apparently I did at some point.) And also to take some of my personal tools home. The time has finally come to assess which tools I really need day-to-day and invest in a set for the workshop.

Keep a List: Having plenty of jot pads and whiteboard space is probably going to be important. A notebook for writing down consumables that need to be restocked is a professional touch and will keep me from running out of 3/8" 4-40 bolts in the middle of a project! That notebook needs a home where I can always find it, as well.

Access to tools and materials: Neistat's system of leaving power tools plugged in and ready to rock is actually a great idea in a space like mine. But it would be great to selectively power groups of tools. I think a system of rolling carts with separate power strips will do the trick. The concept of deep storage is worth exploring as well, maybe I'll carve out some space for the things I rarely use but can't part with.

Okay, So What Now?

I know you want me to ramble some more, but let's save something for Part II. Join me next time when we'll talk about how and where to shop for things like workbenches and plastic boxes. We'll also have a look at the completed workspace and I'll be happy to answer any questions!

In the meantime, go check out the links from the article above and hit the comments section below to tell me who your influences are! What's your favorite system of organization? Let's talk shop!

*Image Credit: Thumbnail image is Bullet II in Ten Bullets, 2009. CC BY-SA 3.0

Comments 37 comments

  • For anyone interested in home workshops, you should check out the forum over at Garage Journal. They have a lot of tool reviews, workshop builds, and more. Be prepared to empty your wallet and bank account though...

  • KloudVine / about 10 years ago / 2

    This is going to sound absolutely insane, but here's how my parts organization system works.

    Every part (over 400+ distinct inventory SKUs, totaling over 40k pieces) has it's own compartment or bin. Each bin or compartment is labeled and barcoded. Every item is then counted and entered into a custom excel spreadsheet.

    The barcode scanner interacts with a custom piece of java to manage the inventory status. This way I always have a count of exactly what parts and how many I have.

    Some things that make this possible include Harbor Freight 40 drawer bins, parts trays, and compartment boxes. SMD parts are cut into strips and placed into the compartment boxes or drawers. If I order a large roll I'll keep around 50-100 in the drawers for day to day usage and keep the rest on the reel. (Inventory locationing is supported).

    The excel spreadsheet contains a category, description, sku, part number, and quantity by location. What's also nice is this facilitates a personal datasheet database held by the SKU.

    Needless to say this is a work in progress and lots of little things aren't inventoried yet.

  • Build_it_Bob / about 10 years ago / 1

    This is Gold ! I have always felt that organised work areas are critical to efficiency and sanity. I LOVE to build and create ( and mostly learn! ) . I spent more than 25 years with a small bench in the Laundry room.This was the same in the 3 homes that I have lived in all my married life. Many times I was using the washer , dryer and chest freezer as work surfaces . It was time to get serious about doing what I enjoy so much! This past year I have moved my " Lab " into a spare bedroom in the basement that is no longer required. I tend to think in an abstract fashion , so I know what I want to achieve in the end it is all about building one section at a time. Bench surface was critical ...and I picked up a nice kitchen cabinet set with an " L shaped " countertop . Now I am working on other areas of the lab , namely a cutting / drilling ( messy area ) that will include built in shop vac to keep it tidy. I will be looking forward to the next installment of this and I will also be re-organising my too chests ! Love Adam's ILM tool chest build ! I always envisioned this approach I need to realize the benefits of taking the time to make it a reality. Build_it_Bob

  • Looks like I have similar you YouTube subscriptions to Nick.

  • Issyroo / about 10 years ago / 1

    A couple of pointers: Keep tasks together to prevent uprooting equipment. Move the work, but only when switching major tasks. When multiple projects converge (when don't they?) I have packed projects up in a box when it it time to work on the next one. This DOES NOT WORK! If you have the workspace, dedicate a work surface to a project when possible. These tips will help keep the mental inertia moving, while keeping it somewhat together.

  • Kjata1013 / about 10 years ago / 1

    I cannot express enough how thoroughly excited I am about this series of articles! I'm currently trying to convert a small bedroom in my apartment into a bedroom/workshop and this is just perfect timing! And it's written by one of my favs, Nick Poole, who is someone I very much admire. Thank you!

  • Pharmwelder / about 10 years ago / 1

    I have known a few very creative (makers in today's term) individuals in my lifetime and virtually all had meticulously organized work spaces. Some were as small and compact as a dedicated corner in a crowded appartment or as large as an old victorian multistory house. The largest contained a second generation Italian/American violin maker and his passion for love and care his stringed instruments. The smallest was that of a fellow GI who produced the most detailed scenes starting with off-the-shelf plastic models and his skill at transporting them into scenes reflecting the dust, dirt, wear and tear of combat. Each had their unique method of storage, indexing, cataloging and placing their tools to optimize their creative time. Thanks for the excellent topic. This article illustrates the wholistic approach to realizing the most successful creativive projects.

  • RPK2K5 / about 10 years ago / 1

    A clean, empty bench is like a blank piece of paper, or a canvas. It's just waiting to create something awesome. My favorite feeling is looking at the empty bench and saying hmmm, what now? That's my drive to keep stuff clean.

  • MetabolicCloth / about 10 years ago / 1

    What is that laptop like device. This is a great post all your sources were fantastic, and ones i also frequent.

    • urjaman / about 10 years ago / 2

      laptop like

      I think its this.

  • Have you guys seen Adam Savage man cave on google map?!? Check it out!!,-122.420676,3a,75y,225.45h,75.78t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1sY6f_G8OlXbkAAAAGOvHulw!2e0!3e2

  • Yodaob1 / about 10 years ago / 1

    I have done a Poor Mans version of Adams Sortimo system with Plano 3700 boxes. I have a Rack and Some Plano 3700 that I use to keep the Small items neat and tidy. I also have a Tackle box that allows me to store 3 of them or 1 normal 3700 and 1 Dubble hight 3700 box in the Tackle box so I can grab the boxes I need for in the Filed or take with my R2 unit for repairs.

  • Myself / about 10 years ago / 1

    I love this, it validates so much stuff we've already been doing at our hackerspace! Most of the members immediately understand the "clear workspaces completely when you're done" concept, and this article is further encouragement to nudge the others into playing nice with the shared toys.

    Here's a fairly recent panoramic shot of the lab:

    And the parts drawers themselves, this is definitely dated (we've added 4 more cabinets but things are largely in the same relative locations, even as things shift slightly):

    • Myself / about 10 years ago / 1

      Replying to myself here with a bit more detail:

      "First-order retrievability" is an even bigger deal in a shared space than a personal workshop. Because it equates to first-order-put-away-ability, which turns out to be the crucial one. People will dig to find a tool or a part, if they know where to look, but they will not dig to put things away. At least, not everyone will, and if you haven't tried to maintain resources in a shared space yet, I have some sad news about the distribution of messy jerkfaces among your idealized amazing-hacker-member population.

  • Member #260321 / about 10 years ago / 1

    Certainly such organization is vital in an area that is shared, such as a school or club.

    However, in a personal space not a showplace some slack might be in order. I can instantly locate the Jacobs Chuck wrench or any other tool that I bought 40 years ago, I use labeled shoeboxes for parts and have separate toolboxes for my most common tasks. Between my ears lies a marvelous card catalog.

    A (totally) clean desk is a sign of a diseased mind.

  • Member #403458 / about 10 years ago / 1

    We used similar boxes to Adam's in the Marines. Each shop had a certain number of boxes that were kept in the tool room. You had to check them out, and back in at the beginning and end of each shift. Each box had a specific place for each tool, and if a tool was missing the planes were grounded until it was found. Also each box was identical and specific to which shop it belonged to (I was in Avionics). Wish I had a picture to share, but you probably get the point.

  • OldFar-SeeingArt / about 10 years ago / 1

    Here's my idea of a great workbench:

  • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

    Nice overview! I've come to appreciate the "Bisley Collection Cabinets" (8 and 10 drawer) for storing a lot of my smaller tools, circuit boards, projects, etc.:

    They are a little pricey for a poor grad student, but I got them on sale and they have worked really well for me. The shallow drawers are perfect because I'm not tempted to break the "First-Order Retrievability" rule and they slide nicely. They also look pretty nice in my living room and have a place for labels in case I don't remember which drawer is which.
    Thanks for the write up, I'm looking forward to part 2!

    • Those look pretty nice, I've been wanting to get some Listas for awhile, but they're pretty spendy. I have a lot of machine tools so I need very sturdy drawers.

      • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

        Those Listas are nice. I'm not sure how the Bisley cabinets would hold up to heavy machine tools. The Bisley's don't have any bearings on the drawers and so the bottom of the aluminum drawer slides on aluminum rails inside the cabinet. I was worried about the lack of bearings at first, but I have been surprised by the ease of drawer sliding and durability thus far. I haven't loaded up the cabinet with 100 lbs of machine tools though.

        • Yeah, the drawers might get hard to open after adding some weight. I currently use this cabinet for all my machine tools, measuring and layout tools, etc. It's actually surprisingly well built. It's just a side cabinet, but I modified it to have casters. Ignore the last picture, that's my old mill ;-)

          • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

            Wow, great documentation. I've always been disappointed by the craftsman tool chests as well. And nice mill, I've got a CNC mill, but never got to use a hand powered mill and so I sort of feel like I forgot a step in my machinist development. BTW that setup looks like a great way to mill around...

            • Thanks. I actually build that stand just for that mill. Then, I converted that mill to CNC, so it could build the parts for a bigger mill, to convert to CNC :-) The smaller one is now sold and I have a much more capable CNC mill. It was all part of my grand plan. haha.

              • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

                I've often found that Yak Shaving ( is about the journey not the destination.

                • In this case, it's not so much yak shaving. there's really no other way to build some parts for a CNC conversion, other than having a CNC mill already. So I bought the cheap X2 clone off craigslist for a couple hundred bucks. Using our laser cutter and some basic hand and power tools, I was able to make really terrible motor mounts. I kept the original screws, and just used oversized motors to drive the X and Y axes. The motors eventually went on the bigger mill. Since they were so oversized, I was able to really clamp down on the ways, allowing for relatively smooth and tight motion with the original screws. I still had a lot of slop and backlash, but I designed my parts so that it didn't matter on the critical components. I ended up getting about 0.0005" backlash on the bigger mill using these parts, which is pretty good. tool deflection and other factors will be a bigger factor.

                  sometimes the shortest route between two points isn't necessarily a straight line :-)

                  • Member #403458 / about 10 years ago / 1

                    "Using our laser cutter and some basic hand and power tools, I was able to make really terrible motor mounts"

                    I thought Sparkfun had a Tormach 770? Why not make your mounts with it instead of a laser cutter and hand tools?

                    • We don't have a Tormach. I made one part on a 770, but I didn't have access to it, so I just ended up making them on my smaller mill. We only have a manual knee mill which isn't all that great.

                      • Member #403458 / about 10 years ago / 1

                        My bad. I remembered the Sparkfun Robotics 101 video Casey did awhile ago, and there was a 770 in it...I thought it belonged to Sparkfun. I'm interested in your PM-30MV-L conversion. I have a 770 in my basement, but would like a manual/2-axis CNC mill to go along with it. I'll be watching your site for updates.

                        • The PM30 seems like a good mill so far. I'm much farther along in the conversion than my site shows. It's fully converted now with a belt drive, and seems to be similar in performance to a 770. My friend has a 1100 and a PM30 as well and they seem to be similar for lighter materials.

                  • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

                    I see, Beatty robotics had the same realization (it would be great to have a CNC mill to build a CNC mill -

                    I ended up getting a shapeoko 2 ( which I have been pretty happy with. I can cut a lot of things, but not ferrous metals. It has been a great way for a biologist to get into cnc milling.

                    • Yeah, this is my 3rd conversion, so I was a bit more prepared this time. Here's a video of the new mill. I've rebuilt the spindle, so now it can do ~7500 RPM, and has better bearings too.

                      The Shapeoko is a great machine. We might have some news regarding them in the next few months...

                      • Member #341578 / about 10 years ago / 1

                        That looks like a very solid mill. I think one of the main downfalls of the shapeoko is the out of the box material clamping solutions. I've milled some platforms and clamps and added T-nuts to my machine, but your mill's clamp looks very sturdy. All this talking is making me want to mill some things :)

      • Robert, buy this for your drawers. Kaizen foam ! You will thanks me later!

        I have that in my Pelican case to hold my DJI Phantom and all my gear. It's very easy to use and cheap!! I have this 2'x4' sheet waiting to be cut to fit my drawers.

        Google it to see ton's of amazing thing people do with it. Show it to Nick.

        • Yeah, I use just basic drawer liners in my cabinets for my machine tools. it works well. I use stationary organizers (for office stuff) for my smaller tools.

      • yes Listas, I was going to say, get some Rousseau cabinets (Made in Québec, Canada). It's high end metal cabinets. Yes it's exepensive but it will last for a life time!!

        • ah yeah, I've seen that before. those are nice. I always like buying something once, especially for tools.

  • ME heat o nator / about 10 years ago / 1

    I have been looking at articles like this. Thank you!

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