MAKE Asks: Cable Management

MAKE Asks: Cable Management

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: When working with a lot of components in a physical computing project, there are bound to be tons of wires. To avoid having your project look like a bird’s nest, what methods do you employ to tidy things up?

To secure wires to wood, I go for chicken wire nails They hammer into wood easily and allow you to get just the right amount of tension. I tried a staple gun once but it did not end well — pinched two wires together and shorted them out. I’ve yet to find a good fastener that can manage cables and stay secure on a plastic substrate. Any ideas?

Post your responses in the comments section.

40 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Cable Management

  1. big hairy says:

    Make has already covered this. If you want it done right take the time and learn how to lace the cables.

    1. jamesbx says:

      I’ll have to get some waxed dental floss and give that a try. It looks like a tidy way to manage cables, particularly inside a chassis.

      1. Redvers Davies says:

        If you’re going to do cable-lacing then do yourself a favor and use the real lacing twine. I get mine from Tectra.

        If you try to use waxed floss then you’ll have a really hard time achieving running knots like the kansas city stitch as the stitch has to hold its shape in order to function. If the thread is micro-thin that doesn’t happen.

  2. joelfinkle says:

    Even classic phone wire staples, that have a cardboardy insulator, can cut through cable. I’ve previously used two-nail fasteners with a bridge of plastic between, but getting two nails into the wood evenly can be a pain.
    Just before new years I had a small cabling project to bring a wired net to a room in the house just a bit too far/too interfered from the WiFi router. I found a package of fasteners at Home Despot (sic) which looks sort of like the letter F: a nail through a narrow U-shaped piece of plastic. It’s really designed for flat cable than round, but it will clip one Cat5e/6 cable nicely.

  3. jamesbx says:

    At work I use a cable chase with flexible fingers. In my garage I put black corrugated sleeves (from the auto parts store) over all my exposed wires: speaker wire for the room above the garage, garage door opener power, sattelite coax, etc. With all the other mechanicals painted black it looks nice. I’ll use zip-ties for underbody automotive wiring, often in combination with the corrugated covers. For my CNC machine and plating tanks, I use a combination of plastic P-clips, hammer-in plastic cable retainers, corrugated covers, and zip-ties. Sometimes, depending on how visible it is, I’ll hammer two nails side by side, then cross them in an X, to hold cables.

  4. Jeff Jukes says:

    I’ve grown very fond of double sided Velcro, you can nail, glue, or use double sided tape to fix it in place. Another favourite is the slit plastic tube like Rabalber from Ikea but I have made my own from plastic hose. To straighten the plastic hang a weight on one end, hang it up by the other and use a hair dryer or heat gun to gently warm it.

    1. Jeff Jukes says:

      Comb binders used for making books, manuals and pamphlets, can be recycled as trunking. They come in various sizes, are easily cut.

  5. Mr.Miz says:

    I personally think well placed cable trays are best… I absolutely have to see a large length of cables tied together because I’m always the one that will have to replace just one out of a bundle of 50. On a micro lvl medium or lower temp hot glue.

  6. Mr.Miz says:

    oh and remember to bring the glue to the wires… not the heated tip of the glue gun to the wire… for the obvious reasons.

  7. Arno Jansen says:

    When I need a flexible solution I like the corrugated sleeves jamesbx also mentioned. For my current virtual pinball build, I use Hager HA6 cable channels (not sure what they are “officially” called in english), but you can see them in the pictures with the PC components attached to this post:

    They are great because they can hold many strands of cable, and the openings allow for cable to be going in or out of the cable-channel every centimeter or so. There are various sizes for your projects.

  8. rocketguy1701 says:

    Words of wisdom from a professional: Don’t use cable ties. Just don’t. Velcro straps are your friend, not only can you maintain the bundle better, they don’t pinch and damage cables, even if it’s a “permanent” bundle. We generally use the plain tape type (fuzzy top, plastic bottom) for ease of use, comes in a roll from Panduit I think. There are also ones with a strap-through-hole arrangement, those are good for coiling power cords, as they stay on when you undo them to use the cord. I’ll see if I can find the part numbers and comment them in.

  9. bu6ter says:

    I use cable ties and the assorted clips/clamps designed for use with cable ties. These are available with screw holes and adhesive. To keep the wires neat I use a plastic tube mesh and run the wire through the tube. By expanding the mesh by pushing it together I can even pull wire(s) through the mesh where I need it.

  10. Rob Cruickshank says:

    Good suggestions so far. (I’m particularly partial to lacing!) One thing that should be mentioned is that cables get out of hand if you use pre-made cables. if you run the cables, and *then* put the ends on them, you can cut everything to length. Otherwise you have to bury the slack somewhere, and it always looks gross. Professional installers have a golden rule that two cables in a bundle should never cross more than once. (This goes for for the lines on a well drawn schematic or flow diagram, too!) As for plastic substrates, the sticky pads made to secure cable ties work well, unless by “plastic” you mean polyethylene, in which case something will stick. if you can, it’s better to use the kind that screw into place, as the adhesive on the pads will eventually wear out.

    1. Rob Cruickshank says:

      For “something” read: “nothing”.

  11. Rob Cruickshank says:

    Also, if you do use cable ties, cut the ends properly. Use the actual tool that’s made for installing ties, if you can afford one. I’ve seen some really horrible injuries inflicted by the sharp ends of ties. I’ve also seen the long, uncut end of a releasable tie go right into someones eye socket, and around to the back part of the eye. So tuck those in.

    1. chuck says:

      Okaaaay… I’m just going to sit here with my eyes closed for a while and try o get that image out of my mind.

  12. chuck says:

    I’ve tackled the external wire problem. I design my instruments to run on NiMH rechargables instead of wall warts. I’ve also started to incorporate internal speakers and amps (thanks for the 386 monobox plans). At least the outside looks neat and clean.
    As for internal bird nests I try to keep it neat with properly routed wires but it’s an uphill battle. The biggest tip I can give is to plan your project well enough that internal wiring and component placement is efficient. Keep your wire runs as short as possible and color code everything. Components that don’t require a specific alignment can be twisted to the most convenient position, i.e. pots, LED holders, round panel mount push button switches, etc. Building a prototype first wll also help you figure out the neatest layout.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      Also in the interest of keeping things tidy (especially when running wires to an Arduino or something similar) is jumping power and ground wires from component to component when its convenient rather than snaking individual wires to their termination point. This takes some forethought but saves some headaches in the end.

  13. Michael Stephens says:

    I secure wires to things by taking a zip tie and stapling the tie to something like wood. I then use the zip tie to secure the cable. This protects the cable for any direct stapling.

    To keep large cables wrapped I buy the 2 sided velcro from a discount store.. cut it in half and then cut it into small 3″ lengths. You can make a ton of it and and it works great!

    I’ve also stapled the velcro and used it to secure wires.. hard to get it tight but its the ultimate in cheap and changeable without harming the wires.

  14. David says:

    If you like chicken mesh staples also try larger “field fence” staples.

    Twist ties of insulated solid wire.

    Split black corrugated tubing is nice but also try split garden hose.

    Extra length on a cable can be good if the component later needs replacing. Loop the extra near the end or form a coil around a rod to look neat.

    Cable-lacing can be easier and neater with two needle-nose pliers as hemostats; pretend to be Hawkeye Pierce putting in stitches. The harness can be premade on a bread-board using a paper drawing of the physical layout as pattern and nails at the bends.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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