Ten Tips for Organizing and Optimizing Workshops

Technology Woodworking Workshop
Ten Tips for Organizing and Optimizing Workshops

I have set up workshops in many different places and for many different applications. The process of organizing your workshop is both personal and organic. Setups vary wildly depending on one’s specialty, while organization and workflow are often an organic process that can take months or years to fine-tune.

Along the way I’ve come across and devised some ways to improve efficiency and arrangement in many different types of workshops. Here are ten that I hope will help. Please sound off in the comment section if you have some tips of your own.

40 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Organizing and Optimizing Workshops

  1. chuck says:

    Good set of tips! Component drawers changed my life.
    I’d also recommend the 12 gallon plastic bins with the attached hinged lids. They are see through, stackable and you never lose the lid. I use them to store salvaged bits and bulkier stuff I don’t want to keep on the bench.
    I’ve made screwdriver holders similar to the ones in your peg board picture out of milk crates. I cut a basic narrow shelf from the bottom and side of a crate and screw it to the wall with the bottom facing up. It’s good DIY storage for screwdrivers, chisels and any other shafted tools and you can get two from one crate.
    Thanks for clearing up the slide show issues. This one worked perfectly.

  2. asciimation says:

    Sometimes it is better to put tools away after each use otherwise you end up with EVERY tool out in a huge heap. It also makes it less likely you’ll lose things (like small sockets or drill bits say) in the clutter. It is slower but I find it helps keeps me focused on what I am doing and what I will be doing next. You think right, I need this tool to do these jobs so if I do all those jobs now I can put it away and move onto the next one. It also helps in preventing your work area becoming a giant pile of mess with no room to work in.

    Definitely agree with cleaning up at the end of the day.It’s nice to go back to something you’re in the middle of making the next day and be able to start clean.


    1. Michael Colombo says:

      Those are good points. Small (and delicate!) stuff should be taken care of. Also, my point with that tip was one of speed. If so many tools are out that it’s slowing you down, by all means do a little clean-up!

      1. asciimation says:

        It also depends on what you are making too of course.Some jobs you just need a lot of tools to hand all at once. My experience is in restoring/building cars. When doing an engine say it is better to use something then put it back so you can find it easily again.Spanners for example. With tools in their place it’s easier to grab the correct size right away rather than hunting in the pile. Less likely to leave something in the crankcase that way too!

  3. DaveW says:

    Buy your milk crates. “Picking them up” from behind stores, etc., is theft – they aren’t out there for the taking. It may not be something the FBI will hunt you down for, but the stores pay a deposit on them and while it might not hurt the big guys too much, but it adds up for the small mom-and-pop stores (US dairies lose about $80 million annually to milk crate theft) . Besides, the quality of the crates these days isn’t any better than the ones for sale at Walmart of Target.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      Right. Though just to clarify, when I said they’re easily picked up by the roadside, I meant those that are put to the curb for trash.

  4. James Patrick says:

    Gah! I can’t believe you recommended peg boards! Those cheap things start to disintegrate after just a few summers in a humid garage. And the hangers constantly fall out of their holes and get lost behind the workbench. 3/4″ plywood and decking screws make for a much better, durable organizer.

    I do however favor the 2×4 screwdriver holder.

    1. SuperUnknown says:

      Agreed. Pegboard is for chumps. Hooks constantly falling out… hasle!

      1. Michael Colombo says:

        Interesting. I guess I always used pegboard indoors so it was never an issue for me. I think the stuff is made out of MDF so I can see how it would wear down. When I was ITP we had stamped steel pegboard. Definitely more expensive, but that stuff would probably last a lifetime.

        1. James Patrick says:

          Yeah it’s usually MDF. I’ve seen the diamond-plate pegboard and I’m sure it would last forever, but still doesn’t fix the issue of the pesky hangers. There are probably a dozen still behind my workbench.

          1. Dave M says:

            I too gave up on peg board. Not only do the hooks fall out, it is just plain ugly. Instead, I make my own peg board by mounting luan plywood to the wall using 1/2″ spacers and simply drill holes for the peg board hooks where I need them. To identify what tool goes where, I put the tools on my scanner and make a color copy which I cut out and glue onto the tool wall. It takes a lot more time than just using standard peg board, but it sure looks great and it’s easy to remember where to replace the tools.

  5. SuperUnknown says:

    Label Maker = Life Changing

    1. James Patrick says:

      +1 on the label-maker.
      Also I’m in love with these generic wire shelving units:
      I have some from multiple manufacturers and they are built like tanks. If you get ones with rollers(all will accept rollers), you can move them around the workshop if needed and there’s no need to mount shelves to walls. Plus, since they’re wire, they can’t accumulate sawdust or misc. clutter(behavioral engineering at its finest).

      1. chuck says:

        YES! These are great. When I was in Hawaii a hardware store called City Mill carried these and all kinds of accessories like pot racks and swing out towel bars and stuff. They also sold individual shelves and poles in various sizes and shapes. I replaced some kitchen cabinets with a custom wire rack system for a client and it came out awesome and made the kitchen feel a lot more open. I used appropriately sized chrome flanges to attach to the ceiling and counter tops.

        1. Matt says:

          Black electrical tape with a white poster paint marker is fast becoming my new standard. It is high contrast and great for bigger drawers. I like the thermal labels too, but mostly for smaller stuff.

  6. Andrew Terranova says:

    I saved a lot of plastic buckets from pool chemicals, cat litter, and other products. These got cleaned and labeled and used to store various tools and accessories. I have one for plumbing, one for my orbital sander, one for my belt sander, one for my pop-rivet and masonry gun, one for other masonry tools, one for drywall tool… You get the idea.
    Each is clearly labeled, easily portable, stackable, and (since my basement has flooded a few times) is water tight with the lid on!

    1. Nick Normal says:

      +1 for cat litter buckets!

      1. Michael Colombo says:

        +2 for cat litter buckets, though Scoop Away has now switched to bags. :( Check out my litter bucket electric fence controller enclosure. http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4070/4667756206_039de9c6fc_b.jpg

        1. Andrew Terranova says:

          I didn’t know that. I haven’t had a cat in a little while.
          Good thing I have quite a few of those buckets saved up. They’re like GOLD, I tell you!

          1. Michael Colombo says:

            They are, but what I learned from that enclosure I linked to is that UV destroys them. So brittle you can break them just by squeezing with your hand. So keep em indoors!

  7. Patrick Carroll says:

    Great ideas, comforting to know I have already implemented many of them! My shop is more of a closet so I have to (try) and be as organized as possible. Here’s a couple of things I do. I found clear tubs with lids at my big box hardware store in two sizes, one about shoe box size and another twice as tall, but with the same footprint. I adjusted a shelving unit’s height to fit 2 small or one large tub. I keep common parts and such in them like sprinkler fittings, bike parts, etc. They keep the parts organized and clean. I also upsized my toolbox recently and now I have separate toolboxes for different functions – one for bike tools, one for mechanical, one for woodworking. I also mounted two screw-in ladder hooks up high to hold longer pieces of pipe and trim. To keep things cleaner, I keep a plastic cottage cheese type container on my workbench as a trashcan to keep those small pieces of trash from accumulating on the bench or floor. Finally, I like to put down a big pad of paper on my workbench to work on when feasible. It keeps the bench in better shape, I can jot down notes or do calculations right on it, and when I’m done, it helps gather up the trash and debris and readies the area for my next project.

  8. George says:

    Not only putting tools away at the end of the day…make sure they are clean also and make sure you clean up your work area.

  9. Mike says:

    Take an old Mason or spaghetti sauce jar and nail the lid to the bottom of cabinet. Then keep stuff in the jars and just screw them onto the lid for easy storage. Learned this from my grandfather many years ago.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      I like this but I would use plastic jars. My Dad used that trick with glass and accidentally broke a bunch of them while working on something. Not so safe.

  10. woodshopcowboy says:

    Castors. I have a home workshop, a work workshop, a work area at a local hackspace, and soon-to-be workspace in my fathers’s shop. All I have to say is…castors. Put it on castors and don’t look back. I’ve built tool stands (http://woodshopcowboy.com/2013/03/14/this-week-in-the-shop-the-tool-stand/) and tool chests (http://woodshopcowboy.com/2012/02/06/updated-the-tool-chest/). Big fat castors.

  11. climate controlled storage springfield mo says:

    Pegboards are just so versatile and convenient. It will make your garage/workshop the envy of your neighbors.


  12. Rick Estep says:

    Michael, Thanks for the tips.
    My problem is trying to figure something out for my one-bedroom apartment.
    My dining table is ALWAYS cluttered! lol

  13. The One True Stickman says:

    +1 for plywood instead of pegboard. Way more rugged and more versatile – you can screw in custom holders for heavier stuff way easier than pegboard and aren’t limited to the grid and sloppy pegs.

    I also find tackle boxes or the Plano storage bins are far better in the long run than normal drawer storage. I’ve moved my component drawers three times now and something *always* gets mixed up or dumped upside down. The plano boxes are modular, easily portable, and don’t easily dump open or cross-pollinate between compartments. That is worth the money if you need to haul stuff around as much as I do.

    1. Andrew Terranova says:

      I definitely second the suggestion of Plano storage boxes. I use their fishing box carrying cases, each of which can hold four storage drawers and has a large storage area on top. All the drawers and the lid snap shut and there is a good carrying handle on top. I have three and use them to hold small electronics and robotics parts.

  14. olfried says:

    I wouldn’t store adhesive tapes just on a rope, try to get plastic bags (zipable) punch a hole in them (for the rope) and put the adhesive tape in there. Otherwise these tapes will eat/glue all dust they can get, making them unusable. Or do you like tapes having woolen edges? ;-)

  15. Jody Brown says:

    Great job! I’m remodeling my garage. One of the many tasks is putting up sturdy wall shelving to hold heavy tools and tool boxes. My toolbox has been upsized and now I have separate toolboxes for different functions – one for bike tools, one for mechanical, one for woodworking.

  16. Matt Dart says:

    Storage is always an issue around the house, especially at the garage. Tools and equipment are usually seen strewn all over the place due to poor organizing techniques and lack of storage space. Shelves and rackings are a very good storage solution which often only use up the wall space, leaving the floor area untouched and looking tidy. This pegboard concept looks really useful with an abundance of space to hang any types of tools.

  17. boisebk says:

    But if I’m not messy, no one will know how creative I am.

  18. yetanothermike says:

    Milk crates are the property of the dairies, and non-authorized use is a misdemeanor in some states, such as Pennsylvania. Best to purchase the ‘look- alike creates.

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  23. Bogdan says:

    are you seriously calling these “tips” ?????

  24. Kevin Moody says:

    Wow, great ideas all, sadly I’m currently using every one except the Yaffa blocks (no room to implement) and my office still looks like a hurricane zone.

Comments are closed.


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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