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