Toolbox: Shop tips and show-offs

Toolbox: Shop tips and show-offs

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus 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, refurbish, etc.

Last week, I did a posting called Show us your shop!. The idea was to encourage people to share pictures of their workspaces and tell us about them. To provide some incentive, I offered a Maker’s Notebook and the choice of Best of Instructables or Best of MAKE to our favorite post. The piece got a really nice response, with some seriously cool, well thought out (and tricked out) spaces on display. It was actually hard to choose a winner. Jeff Duntemann’s shop was probably my fave, and his shop tips were so good, I turned them into a separate post. But Jennifer Elaan’s electronics shop is also pretty spectacular. And others were worth crowing about too, so much so, I decided to do this week’s column on some of what I’ve leaned from looking at these fine workspaces.

Oh, and I decided to give a Maker’s Notebook and choice of books to both Jeff and Jennifer. I’ll be sending you both emails. Congrats.

Check out the previous post I did about Jeff’s shop and tips, and check out his original article. Here’s another tip from it:


Build a Rotating “Wire Tower”

If you work in electronics, you have to deal with wire. Lots of wire. If you’re going to build radios or other equipment that operates at RF, you will need lots of kinds of wire: Bare tinned “bus wire,” tinned hookup wire, and many sizes of enameled “magnet wire” which is not often used for magnets but is essential for winding RF coils. At some point you’ll end up with a ratty cardboard box full of spools, all of different sizes, and (predictably; this must be Somebody’s Law) you’ll have to dig all the way to the bottom of the bin to find the spool you want.

So manage your wire. Build a rotating wire tower.


Jennifer Elaan’s workspace is like an electronic geek’s dreamspace. Check out the desk above (one of several). That looks like an analog and a digital scope, a signal generator, three DMMs, a benchtop power supply, a logic probe, and lots of test leads. Check out the magnetized helping hands made out of machine shop cooling hose to the left. Not shown in this picture is a separate test lead rack, filled with leads. The second picture is her tool drawer. Looks like she doesn’t skimp on tools (and neither should you!).

Herbie is a CNC Machine with his own blog. Hey, we didn’t say that MAKE readers weren’t weird. Herbie’s… owner sent us a link to Herbie’s blog, which included the above walkthrough of Herbie’s… ah… new baby brother, an XY table and cam-lock vise and new drill press. Herbie must be leaking lubricant in numerically-controlled sibling rage!

Here’s what Herbie’s owner says of his shop:

I am a hobby machinist and physical computing tinkerer working out of a very compact shop in my NYC (Manhattan) apartment! My workshop is only about 85 sq ft but I have a CNC mill, 7×14 lathe, multiple pieces of sheetmetal working equipment (notcher, shear, three finger brakes), grinder, buffing wheel, punch press, air compressor, workshop computer, soldering station/EE bench, bandsaw, drill press, and more! I do not do ‘for profit’ work but rather do rapid-prototyping and similar stuff for myself, friends, and fellow hackers. Check out my website/blog.

Read full story



Chris Palmer posted a link to pics of his very serviceable, and enviably tidy, garage workshop. Note the directable table fan mounted on the back wall to help circulate fumes.


CircuitGizmo Labs was inspired by my piece to post pictures of their workspace on their blog. I always tell people that you can’t have enough storage bins — that you should look at home stores, bed and bath stores, and craft stores for plastic bin sales and buy them out. This guy seems to have taken similar advice to heart. I’ve never seen so many storage bins in my life! Four bins of zip ties, three bins of tape. Yoiks! Nice monitor array. Please tell me you cleaned up for this pic and your desk is not usually that tidy.


I have to admit, I got a little choked up when Angry Cider posted a link to these pics of his deceased grandfather’s old workshop. He writes:

My Grandpa passed away in 2003 and these photos were taken just after. He made his living as a television and radio repairman. I can’t tell you how many old radios, test equipment, and parts are buried in this garage. It’s not the most organized shop, but it’s still pretty neat.

It’s been six years and we are still sorting through it all. Since I took these photos, I’ve learned quite a bit about electronics and have a new appreciation for most of the things I find in the shop.

His shop has a very distinct smell that brings back lots of memories watching him tinker around. The cool part is that I’m trying to use as much as I can in my own shop and projects, so that smell is starting to take over my garage.

His mentioning of the distinct smell, and seeing that old-style wooden bench vise, reminded me of my grandfather’s workshop. His house in Framingham, MA sat on bedrock. He’d literally chiseled and picked out his workshop below the house. It was so cool (ah literally) — stone steps and basically a cave for a workspace. He had that same bench down there, and that same shelf of jars filled with every imaginable screw, nut, and bolt. And it had the ever-present smell of metal stock, oily rags, old electronics, and well… granddad. The place was magical to me and I think it was there that I became a maker. It seemed as though my grandfather could do anything, that he actually understood how the world worked, and how to fix it. He would go to Goodwill and get all sorts of appliances and machines and mash them up into his own crazy inventions. He also had a still down there where he made Arak, Arabic booze, so there was a mad science/lab feel to one corner of the basement.

On Angry Cider’s website, I found this novel use of a tool chest. He used it as a CNC control electronics project box.


LostMachine sent us a link to his Flickr pool of shop images and these awesome action shots. Sparks fly, robots die. He also sent us a link to this charming little video tour of his shop he did for his mom and dad.


B_Light Design posted a link to his backyard garden shed woodworking shop. Below is the type of work he produces there and sells online.

20 thoughts on “Toolbox: Shop tips and show-offs

  1. Spikenzie says:

    I made a set of stackable solder spools holders, but after seeing the wire spools at the top of this entry I have found another use for them.

    Here is flickr photo of the solder spool holder (that could be used for wire also!)

  2. Aud1073cH says:

    I’ve had my workbench in the MAKE photopool for a while:

  3. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Nice set up, Aud1073cH! I have an Ikea special, too. It’s one of their cheap workstations. With the shelf unit (2 shelves) it was about 100 buncks. I love it. Perfect for my needs.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “you can’t have enough storage bins”

    The small bins (on the shelves shoebox size) were $1 at Big Lots, the bigger ones (below bench and counter tops – more can be seen in the other pictures on the blog at were $2. I have a stack of empty bins that await contents as needed.

    There are more bins not pictured. I find a bin + label is even a great way to temporarily set a project aside. I have, for example, an AVR-based project that was put on hold – the prototype, spare parts, and AVR programmer all sit in a bin awaiting resurrection.

    “I’ve never seen so many storage bins in my life!” One of the bins says “Cool Beans”. I thought it would elicit comment, but I guess it isn’t readable.

    “Please tell me you cleaned up for this pic and your desk is not usually that tidy.”

    My desk top is cleaned nightly. The most that will survive from day to day is a small stack of papers.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      >My desk top is cleaned nightly. The most that will
      >survive from day to day is a small stack of papers.

      Well then, I hate you. :-)

  5. Gizmo says:

    Everyone hates me. Take a number! :-P

    I got into the habit of cleaning before I left at the end of the day because it makes mornings tolerable. Coming into an office/cube devoid of the dregs of the problems I worked on the day before helps me start my new day better. I get a “fresh start” every day.

    At night all papers are sorted. I make note of what I’ve done and what I intend to do in the morning. Then when morning comes I can start up the process without the “downer” of walking in to a messy cube.

    The downside? A decade ago I came to work one morning and my cube was filled. With a new employee. The [moronic] manager assumed it was an unused cube because it wasn’t filled with papers and stuck the new guy in there.


  6. Gizmo says:

    More about my desk, if anyone is interested.

    The center wide monitors are my Windows desktop, two monitors. The right-most monitor is Ubuntu, the left-most monitor is OSX. I use “synergy” to keep 1 keyboard and mouse on my desktop and the mouse moves over all 3 machines.

    The area to the immediate left has the embedded system that I’m working on on the static mats (behind chair back). That counter top and my desk surface are new counter tops (kitchen-type) from Home Depot. The “wall” behind the monitors is a trimmed 4 by 8 sheet of melamine-coated particle board, also from HD.

    The outer two monitors are on swing arms (left one I move to load paper in the printer) and the center two are fixed. I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted for monitor brackets, so I made my own from aluminum stock; flat bar, u-tube, and square tube.

    The black strip on the front of my desk is a static strip.

  7. Gareth Branwyn says:

    >Everyone hates me. Take a number! :-P

    Because of your fastidiousness, or just in general :-)

    And thanks for the additional info about your set-up.

    1. Gizmo says:

      And thanks for the nod!

  8. Stone Kitchen Benchtops says:

    nice video

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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