Small Parts Organization in the Shop

Technology Workshop
Small Parts Organization in the Shop

One of the great perks of being a writer and tech reviewer is that, when I have some area of interest I want to explore, I can often wrap an article around it, pitch to to a publisher, and be paid for exploring and writing about it. Good gig, eh? So, when I finally decided that it was time to reorganize all of the parts, tools, and materials on my studio workbench, I figured I would research my options, draft up a plan, and share it here with Make: readers.

This post is the research phase on options for storing all of the small parts, materials, and supplies I now have in boxes, on shelves, and in a few random plastic and cardboard dump bins on my workbench. It’s become a tremendous and unworkable mess that I need to wrestle back under control. Here are some of the options that look interesting to me (including some things we’ve covered here in the past).

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In this very detailed reviewed, from the holiday supply retailer HolidayCoro, they run through a number of portable parts organizers, including the popular Stanley SortMaster, the Stack-On line of cases, the Harbor Freight cases, and the very expensive (and beloved by Adam Savage) Sortimo T-Boxx cases from Europe. In the end, the reviewer finds the Sortimo case clearly the best in the lot (but at a ridiculous price of $80 in the US), declares the SortMaster junk, and recommends that you go with el cheapo Harbor Freight cases if you don’t need a lot of durability in your storage system. This video might be more than you think you want to know about portable parts organizers, but it runs through all of the options you need to consider (bin sizes, case depth, removable bins, customizable compartments, overall durability, etc.). Honestly, in the end, I can’t imagine many situations where you would need to spend $80 on Sortimos case and agree with him that the Harbor Freight cases are probably just fine for the majority of applications. I’m not as sour on the Sortmaster cases as he is. I have several of them and they’ve been just fine for my purposes. But the Harbor Freight cases are at least as good and cheaper.

shopThe Harbor Freight 20-bin Portable Parts Storage Case, only US$9 each.

55-56730-cart-1388346140If you took the link to Adam’s Sortimo video above and were drooling over his rack of T-Boxx cases, check out this thread on Tested where readers discuss the cases and building homemade rack carts to store them, like this beauty by Robotguy.

This piece on electronics parts storage, excerpted from Charles Platt’s perennially best-selling book, Make: Electronics, looks at the parts storage technology that he recommends. Here’s an excerpt about the above Darice boxes:

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.

Charles suggests using a system of plastic bins in filing cabinets and on shelves, small parts in compartmentalized portable parts cases, and arranging your work area to keep as much as possible close at hand while seated at your desk (so plenty of overhead storage and storage around you).

partsbinsOne of the most common small parts solutions is, of course, the plastic parts bins, as seen here in this Harbor Freight benchtop bin rack. While these might be a solution for some, I have some of these (the interlocking stackable kind) on my bench now and I hate them.

partsdrawersNext to bins, the other common benchtop organizing solution is the plastic parts drawers. These are ubiquitous and you can get them for next-to-nothing. Like most makers, I have a number of these. I would recommend actually looking at them in a hardware store or otherwise trying them in person. I’ve found that super-cheap ones are so poorly made that the plastic drawers can be warped or have poor tolerances and not slide in and out of the cabinet very well. Using poorly made models can end up being a daily pain in the butt. I have a set of these badly manufactured drawers (which I paid like $4 for on sale) and I plan on replacing them with a better set. I haven’t tried these Harbor Freight drawers, but the customer reviews are positive.

partscaddyI am familiar with these toolboxes with removable parts caddies from some product research we did at Make: a few years ago. This looks like the exact model we tested. I’m seriously considering getting a couple of these for storing special project parts for maker activities that I don’t do very often and store them under my workbench. So, let’s say I load one up with parts for making small robots (all these parts are currently tossed into two cardboard shelf boxes above my bench), all I have to do is move it from under the desk to my benchtop, open it up, and all of my specialty parts and supplies have joined my regular electronics tools and all of the general electronics components that live in drawers on the desk.

shopRuss Bryer needed a better way to store and retrieve resistors, diodes and other small components. He had a wide, shallow flat file drawer that wasn’t very useful to him, so he routed these sorting bins out of MDF to fit inside.

binder_part_storage_03binder_part_storage_01For really small components like surface-mount, resistors, transistors, etc, 3-ring binders with plastic pocket pages and zipper pouches inside are a solution that some people are fond of. Here’s a piece we ran in 2010 about an Instructable explaining how to set up such a system.

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Our pal Linn at Darbin Orvar put together this video of her building a custom set of parts drawers out of MDF. As in Charles Platt’s schema above, she’s trying to get as many storage spaces within easy reach of her “tinker desk” (which she had previously built, with plenty of drawers).

After watching a slew of videos, perusing catalog pages, and thinking about my particular application, I’ve decided to go with 2 or 3 of the Harbor Freight Toolbox Organizers with removable drawers for under my desk, to contain specialty-area maker supplies (art and paper craft, rubber stamping, robotics, model-making, rocketry), and maybe 8 of the Harbor Freight portable parts storage cases for the shelf above my workbench to store of my general parts, materials, and supplies. I will also probably get a couple of large plastic bins for storing things like all of my electronics equipment (soldering iron, test equipment, helping hands, etc.) for when I’m doing some other type of making on the desk and want to remove all of this gear. Most of my tools will be stored in the 5-drawer IKEA rolling cart that now sits beneath my bench. Once I get everything re-organized, I’ll do a follow-up post with photos.

So, what small parts storage solutions do you use and recommend? Tell us about them in the comments.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn
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