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In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, or refurbish.


In this installment of Toolbox, we excerpt a section from Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics book. Throughout the book, there’s a lot of really useful information on buying tools, supplies and materials, components, and on setting up a home electronics workshop. The material below is from Chapter 5, from the section on “Customizing Your Work Area.” The bulk of it deals with parts storage technologies. As anyone who’s gotten even half-serious about electronics knows, very quickly, you end up with a lot of tiny little parts that need to be organized in some sensible fashion, otherwise, working on a project amount to spending half your time frustratingly looking through your parts jumble for the components you need.

Excerpt from:
Customizing Your Work Area

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Many hobby electronics books want you to go shopping for 2x4s and plywood, as if a workbench has to be custom-fabricated to satisfy strict criteria about size and shape. I find this puzzling. To me, the exact size and shape of a bench is not very important. I think the most important issue is storage. I want tools and parts to be easily accessible, whether they’re tiny transistors or big spools of wire. I certainly don’t want to go digging around on shelves that require me to get up and walk across the room.

This leads me to two conclusions:

1. You need storage above the workbench.
2. You need storage below the workbench.

Many DIY workbench projects allow little or no storage underneath. Or, they suggest open shelves, which will be vulnerable to dust. My minimum configuration would be a pair of two-drawer file cabinets with a slab of 3/4-inch plywood or a Formica-clad kitchen countertop placed across them. File cabinets are ideal for storing all kinds of objects, not just files. Of all the workbenches I’ve used, the one I liked best was an old-fashioned steel office desk–the kind of monster that dates back to the 1950s. They’re difficult to move (because of their weight) and don’t look beautiful, but you can buy them cheaply from used office furniture dealers, they’re generous in size, they withstand abuse, and they last forever. The drawers are deep and usually slide in and out smoothly, like good file-cabinet drawers. Best of all, the desk has so much steel in it that you can use it to ground yourself before touching components that are sensitive to static electricity. If you use an antistatic
wrist strap, you can simply attach it to a sheet-metal screw that you drive into one corner of the desk.

What will you put in the deep drawers of your desk or file cabinets? Some paperwork may be useful, perhaps including the following documents:

• Product data sheets
• Parts catalogs
• Sketches and plans that you draw yourself

The remaining capacity of each drawer can be filled with plastic storage boxes. The boxes can contain tools that you don’t use so often (such as a heat gun or a high-capacity soldering iron), and larger-sized components (such as loudspeakers, AC adapters, project boxes, and circuit boards). You should look for storage boxes that measure around 11″ long, 8″ wide, and 5″ deep, with straight sides. Boxes that you can buy at Wal-Mart will be cheaper, but they often have tapering sides (which are not space-efficient).

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Figure 5-2. Akro-Grid boxes contain grooves allowing them to be partitioned into numerous compartments for convenient parts storage.

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Figure 5-3. Lids are sold separately for Akro-Grid boxes to keep the contents dust-free. The height of the box in Figure 5-2 allows three to be stacked in a typical file-cabinet drawer. The box shown here allows two to be stacked.

The boxes that I like best are Akro-Grids, made by Akro-Mils (see Figures 5-2 and 5-3 above). These are very rugged, straight-sided, with optional transparent snap-on lids. You can download the full Akro-Mills catalog from http://www.akro-mils.com and then search online for retail suppliers. You’ll find that Akro-Mils also sells an incredible variety of parts bins, but I don’t like open bins because their contents are vulnerable to dust and dirt.

For medium-size components, such as potentiometers, power connectors, control knobs, and toggle switches, I like storage containers measuring about 11″ long, 8″ wide, and 2″ deep , divided into four to six sections. You can buy these from Michaels (the craft store), but I prefer to shop online for the Plano brand, as they seem more durably constructed. The Plano products that are most suitable for medium-size electronic parts are classified as fishing-tackle boxes, and you’ll see them at http://www.planomolding.com/tackle/products.asp.

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Figure 5-4. This Plano brand box is undivided, making it useful for storing spools of wire or medium-size tools. When stacked upright on its long edge, three will fit precisely in a file-cabinet drawer.

For undivided, flat-format storage boxes, the Prolatch 23600-00 is ideally sized to fit a file-cabinet drawer, and the latches are sufficiently secure that you could stack a series of them on their long edges. See Figure 5-4.

Plano also sells some really nicely designed toolboxes, one of which you can place on your desktop. It will have small drawers for easy access to screwdrivers, pliers, and other basics. Because you need a work area that’s only about three feet square for most electronics projects, surrendering some desk space to a toolbox is not a big sacrifice.

If you have a steel desk with relatively shallow drawers, one of them can be allocated
for printed catalogs. Don’t underrate the usefulness of hard copy, just because you can buy everything online. The Mouser catalog, for instance, has an index, which is better in some ways than their online search feature, and the catalog is divided into helpful categories. Many times I’ve found useful parts that I never knew existed, just by browsing, which is much quicker than flipping through PDF pages online, even with a broadband connection. Currently, Mouser is still quite generous about sending out their catalogs, which contain over 2,000 pages. McMaster-Carr will also send you a catalog, but only after you’ve ordered from them, and only once a year.

Now, the big question: how to store all those dinky little parts, such as resistors, capacitors, and chips? I’ve tried various solutions to this problem. The most obvious
is to buy a case of small drawers, each of which is removable, so you can place it on your desk while you access its contents. But I don’t like this system, for two reasons. First, for very small components, you need to subdivide the drawers, and the dividers are never secure. And second, the removability of the drawers creates the risk of accidentally emptying the contents on the floor. Maybe you’re too careful to allow this to happen, but I’m not!

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Figure 5-5. Darice Mini-Storage boxes are ideal for components such as resistors, capacitors, and semiconductors. The boxes can be stacked stably or stored on shelves, with their ends labeled. The brand sticker is easily removed after being warmed with a heat gun.

My personal preference is to use Darice Mini-Storage boxes, shown in Figure 5-5. You can find these at Michaels in small quantities, or buy them more economically in bulk online from suppliers such as http://www.craftamerica.com. The blue boxes are subdivided into five compartments that are exactly the right size and shape for resistors. The yellow boxes are subdivided into ten compartments, which are ideal for semiconductors. The purple boxes aren’t divided at all, and the red boxes have a mix of divisions.

The dividers are molded into the boxes, so you don’t have the annoyance associated
with removable dividers that slip out of position, allowing components to mix together. The box lids fit tightly, so that even if you drop one of the boxes, it probably won’t open. The lids have metal hinges, and a ridge around the edge that makes the boxes securely stackable.

I keep my little storage boxes on a set of shelves above the desk, with a gap of 3″ between one shelf and the next, allowing two boxes to be stacked on each shelf. If I want to work with a particular subset of boxes, I shift them onto the desktop and stack them there.

Labeling
No matter which way you choose to store your parts, labeling them is essential. Any ink-jet printer will produce neat-looking labels, and if you use peelable (nonpermanent) labels, you’ll be able to reorganize your parts in the future, as always seems to become necessary. I use color-coded labels for my collection of resistors, so that I can compare the stripes on a resistor with the code on the label, and see immediately if the resistor has been put in the wrong place. See Figure 5-6 below.

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Figure 5-6. To check that resistors are not placed in the wrong compartments, print the color code on each label.

Even more important: you need to place a second (non-adhesive) label inside each compartment with the components. This label tells you the manufacturer’s part number and the source, so that reordering is easy. I buy a lot of items from Mouser, and whenever I open their little plastic bags of parts, I snip out the section of the bag that has the identifying label on it, and slide it into the compartment of my parts box before I put the parts on top of it. This saves frustration later.

If I were really well organized, I would also keep a database on my computer listing everything that I buy, including the date, the source, the type of component, and the quantity. But I’m not that well organized.

More:

In the Maker Shed:
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9780596153748 2T Toolbox: Parts storage (excerpt from Make: Electronics)
Make: Electronics
Our Price: $34.99
Want to learn the fundamentals of electronics in a fun and experiential way? Start working on some excellent projects as soon as you crack open this unique, hands-on book. Build the circuits first, then learn the theory behind them! With Make: Electronics, you’ll learn all of the basic components and important principles through a series of “learn by discovery” experiments. And you don’t need to know a thing about electricity to get started.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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