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Volume 11 Issue
Toolsmanship For the Disorganized
Issues | Linux
Productivity Magazine ]
Make your toolchest an exclusive club. No tool may join unless it's nonredundant and incredibly useful.
-- Steve Litt.
By Steve Litt
Toolsmanship's easy for neatfreaks, but what about the disorganized
among us? The January 2003 and July 2004 Troubleshooting Professional
Magazines extolled the necessity to keep tools organized, available,
and in a known location. For some of us, that's a little like telling
an alcoholic he must quit drinking. The alcoholic's response: "Duh, now
tell me how!"
A spectacular toolsman named Aaron works at a spectacular radiator shop
called Young's Automotive. Aaron inspired the July 2004 Troubleshooting
Professional Magazine, and indirectly he inspired this one too. To make
a long story short, when beginning a repair, Aaron goes back to the
tool cabinet and brings out the tools he thinks he'll need for the
repair. He keeps the tools in the engine compartment. If another tool
is needed, he'll walk back to the tool cabinet and get it. At the end
of the repair he puts away all the tools.
Seeing Aaron handle his tools, I was both inspired and jealous. He's
organized enough to pull it off, but I'll never be. Nevertheless, since
seeing Aaron in action I've been on the lookout for ways to improve my
Maybe, just maybe, I've discovered how to be a better toolsman. Interestingly, my new methods look almost identical to Aaron's.
This Troubleshooting Professional Magazine is devoted to the
possibility that we mere mortals can learn to handle tools like our
So kick back, relax, and enjoy this issue of Troubleshooting
Professional Magazine. Remember, if you're a Troubleshooter,
this is your magazine.
My New System
By Steve Litt
Mid-November 2007 a Sears TV ad mentioned a huge tool chest at a
spectacular price during a one day sale the next day. I'd wanted a
professional tool chest for several years but didn't want to spend
$800.00, and also my office has limited room for a tool chest. The next
day at Sears I plunked down $300.00 for a professional combo of two
chests -- a big rolling one underneath with a smaller one sitting on
top of it. Together they stand five feet tall, and each drawer can hold
up to 50 pounds of tools. An additional forty dollars was spent for non-slip drawer
liners so my tools wouldn't slide when the drawers were opened and
There was one additional purchase -- a ten dollar plastic toolbox. This
toolbox was inspired by Aaron at Young's Automotive. At the start of a repair
I can select the needed tools from the toolchest, place them in the
toolbox, and bring the toolbox to the repair.
I rolled out my old toolchest, which was really an antique nightstand
with about 6 drawers, into our family room, assembled the new toolchest
in the family room, and transferred the tools from the nightstand to
the professional tool chest. My long tools were transferred from their former residence, a 50
pound powdered chlorine container, to the new toolchest. Likewise, the
tools from my 2 cubic foot clear plastic bicycle tool container were
moved to a special bicycle tool drawer in the new toolchest. Once the
toolchest was loaded, I wheeled it into its assigned place in my
office. My ten dollar plastic toolbox was placed, empty, on top of the
Would it work? Would it make me a better toolsman, or had I just wasted close to four hundred dollars?
My next job happened a few days later -- installing lights on my
bicycle. With the bicycle in the family room, I loaded the necessary
tools into the plastic tools and headed out to the family room.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE!!!!!
Most of the necessary tools were available, and those that weren't were
quickly locatable in the toolchest. The plastic toolbox provided a
place to rest tools not in my hand, so tools weren't scattered all over
It's amazing how much time I used to waste looking for tools. Five,
ten, twenty minutes to locate a tool. Sometimes it couldn't be found at
all, resulting in use of a suboptimal tool. With this new system it
will never again be necessary to round a spoke nipple using an
adjustable wrench instead of a misplaced spoke wrench.
Two nights ago I replaced a broken spoke on my bike and trued the
wheels, trued the wheels on my son's bike, repaired a broken brake on
my daughter's bike and trued the wheels and then installed lights on
her bike, and installed lights on my other daughter's bike. Four
repairs in four hours -- a long way from a world record, but not bad
for a guy without a repair stand, doing some fairly substantial
repairs. I was exhausted toward the end, but the exhaustion was as much
due to an earlier 40 mile bikeride as the marathon repair.
One thing that didn't contribute to the exhaustion was missing tools.
Before my new
toolchest, misplaced tools always caused exhaustion and frustration.
I'd need a tool, spend 10 minutes looking for it, and forget
what I was doing in the first place. It was horrid. Those days are gone.
Exhaustion made me leave the plastic toolchest, full of tools from the
repairs, on the floor until the next day. Waking up well rested the
next day, it took five minutes to put every tool back in its right
place in its right drawer.
\ o /
I T W O R K E D !
/ \ _
Challenges to My New System
By Steve Litt
My new system works well, but there are significant challenges. This
new toolchest, which is roughly four times the volume of the nightstand
that preceded it, is already almost full. Meanwhile, many of my tools
haven't yet transferred to the new toolchest. I'd wanted to get a
complete set of box wrenches to decrease dependency on adjustable
wrenches, and avoid rounding nuts. But there isn't room on the
After two weeks of using the new system, it's obvious that much of the
productivity is due to the fact that tools are instantly locatable.
That means each drawer has only one layer of tools in it, as opposed to
the two or three layers in my old nightstand or probably ten layers in
one of my typical toolboxes. Toolchest room is dear indeed.
Part of the problem is former tool hoarding. When I couldn't find a
tool I bought another one. I now have an entire drawer of #1 and #2
phillips screwdrivers and flathead screwdrivers. There are 21
screwdrivers when 4 to 6 would suffice. There are 4 identical
ratcheting socket drives. The file drawer contains 12 files. True, some
have very different abrasive surfaces and are used for very different
tasks, but many are redundant.
There are things that couldn't possibly fit in the toolchest. Boxes of
drywall screws from 3/4 inch to 3 inch. Boxes of nails. Wood glue and
wood stain. Hand saws, fence post diggers, shovels, machetes. Deciding
what goes in and what stays out of your toolchest is difficult.
Tool scattering is a huge problem. In the decades I've had tools,
they've gotten buried various places. Slowly they're being discovered
and put in the toolchest. It will take time, however.
A final challenge occurs when the toolchest is more than a minute away
from the worksite. In that case extra care must be taken to bring the
necessary tools to the worksite the first time, because going back to
retrieve additional tools takes time, and can also leave your existing
tools subject to theft.
Speaking of theft, the toolchest needs to be reasonably protected. Lock
it when not in use. Store it indoors, where it's not easily accessible.
Don't make it visible.
In terms of dollars, floor space and cubic feet in a room, tool
cabinets are very expensive. This is even more true given the fact that
they're worthless if drawers are indiscriminately piled with layers of
tools such that tools aren't findable. The challenge is to keep
necessary tools quickly findable. What you don't put in the toolchest is as important as what you do.
Implementing the System
By Steve Litt
As discussed in the preceding article,
implementing a toolchest and toolbox system presents several
challenges. Unless you have space and money to spare, the toughest
challenge is limited space in the toolchest.
When you first set up this system, tools crawl out of the woodwork.
Tools not seen for years. Duplicates of duplicates bought hastily for a
project when the right tool was temporarily misplaced. Tools seeming so
handy on the store shelf that turned out to be strictly redundant with
what you already had. Whole sets of tools: Sockets, box wrenches, allen
wrenches, and of course those "247 piece mechanics tool set" that
seemed like such a great deal when you bought them.
There are two excess tool issues: Excesses built up before the new system, and ongoing excesses.
Excesses Built Up Before the New System
You're turning over a new leaf. This isn't the time to blame yourself
for your past bad habits. With cheap duplicate tools, give away
or throw away the lowest quality duplicates. Store the rest of the
duplicates in heavy duty boxes, crates or whatever, and write down their location in case you lose one of your main tools. The best place to record this information is on your computer.
By storing and recording the location, you make sure that the next time
you lose or wear out a tool from your main toolset, you'll get a
replacement from the box instead of buying yet another duplicate.
Not all unnecessary tools are duplicates. Some are tools you just don't
need. Perhaps that tricky wrench with the quadruple flexing head and
ultra-ergonomic handle isn't necessary. Sell it or give it away. Some
tools are needed once a year. Store them in a box and write down the
box number so you can find them when necessary.
Be VERY careful when you buy a new tool. A tool costs much more than
its purchase price. The tool will consume valuable space in your tool
chest. It will make your other tools harder to get to. It will slow you
down on repairs not requiring it. Before purchasing a tool, VERY
carefully consider whether it will really speed your work. If so, get
the tool, but if not, leave it be.
This is also true at garage sales. Even
that perfectly functioning two dollar garage sale drill is a bad deal
if you already have two drills and don't need a third. Impulse buys are
the kiss of death for the toolsman.
On an ongoing basis, be aware of what tools you need and be on the lookout for them, but no impulse buys.
Carefully consider the need for specialty tools. Specialty tools can
speed repairs immensely, but if you have metric and English sets of
boxes, sockets, and in-the-wrench ratchets, that could easily gobble up
a couple of drawers. If speed is the only issue, an adjustable wrench
might be a better option. Of course if the adjustable wrench runs the
risk of rounding a hex-head, at least some box end wrenches are
Perhaps you try out the latest new-fangled wrench that instantly
adjusts to the nut, and perhaps you find it doesn't fill your needs.
Don't throw good money after bad -- if it doesn't work for you, give it
away. Don't compound the monitary loss by having the useless tool
obstruct your access to tools you really need.
Toolsmanship Isn't Magic
By Steve Litt
In the old days it seemed like expert toolsmen had some personality
aspect I lacked. They quickly retrieved and replaced tools in an
Now it's obvious my lacking aspect of personality was the right tool
system. For years all my tools were jammed helter skelter in a couple
toolboxes. Later there were separate containers for bicycle tools. In
all cases, finding a tool required rummaging through layers of heaped
tools inside a box. Often tools were left out to prevent them again
getting mixed with the mess, and such tools had a way of disappearing
for years. So more tools were bought to take their place.
Every repair was an exercise in frustration as the correct tool disappeared and was replaced by a suboptimal tool.
Now I know. Have enough storage to display every tool prominently, so
there's never a need to rummage. Have the tool container sparse enough
to facilitate quick tool replacement.
Have a small container
(like my plastic toolbox) to use at the repair itself. The small container should be easy to tote so you can bring
the small continer with you. That way tools aren't scattered all
around the work area.
One other thing: Be kind to yourself. If, after adopting these
techniques, your toolsmanship still isn't perfect, don't be hard on
yourself -- just make a note to figure out how to do it better next
Steve Litt teaches courses on troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.
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