Ask HackADay: Organization?!

Several people have been asking a similar question to,

“How do you at Hackaday keep track of and organize all your equipment?”
-[Jeff Allen] and others.

We have a variety of resources to help you keep track of your tools, equipment, parts, and supplies! Follow us after the jump for some tips for keeping your workspace clean and tidy.

First and foremost, we admit, we’re not the cleanest of bunches. We work on several projects at a time, receive ungodly amounts of mail and paperwork, struggle with dust and other allergens, all while writing wonderful articles. So please forgive us if our workspace is just a little messy.

So what can I use to help keep my parts orderly?

[Andrew Lybarger] asked us if Spice Containers would work, and was worried if the magnets would interfere with electronics. In short, we think they would work perfectly. Resistors, LEDs, etc should all be fine. We wouldn’t put our expensive ICs in there though, just to be safe.

For those that don’t want magnets, we suggest clear dividable containers. Or, my personally favorite for on-the-go hackers. A tackle box, its many holding areas for hooks and other things work great for transistors and caps. The bottom part of the boxes is usually quite roomy to fit a soldering iron (or two).

HAD writer [Devlin] prefers to keep all purchased components in the rail/tube/bag they come in, stick a label on and they’re good to go. Writer  [Mike] goes a step further by keeping the purchase order and a spreadsheet on his PC with a list of parts and supplies, all it takes is a GREP search to find the right IC.

I just have too many tools, help me HAD!

If you have one or two items that can fit in the above mentioned tackle box, you’re set. But some here might have everything from a sledge-hammer to a pair of tweezers. There is no real easy way to say this, but buy a tool chest, or better yet make one.

How do I keep my workspace clean?

First and foremost, prevention. When you’re done with a project, put your tools away! We would like to slide in a little note here to mention not only a clean work environment, but a safe one.

For a computer workspace, nothing is worse than horrible amounts of cables creating a rat’s nest. Zip ties and a little ingenuity can go a long way.

What about the ungodly amount of paper work?

Whether digital or real, find a filing system. I know several HAD writers rely on Google products. And with Gmail, Calender, Documents, and more all interlinked, I’ve never lost an important file.

Outside of the digital side though, accordion files are great! We have several around the office for articles, finances, and more. For a lot of mail, slot divided organizers work wonders (And we always know where a pen is!)

Final note:

Don’t let your desk and work area get overfilled with tools and supplies in the first place. If you clean up after you’re done every time, you’ll know where everything is and will spend less time looking and more time hacking.

Here is where the fun begins.

We get to now ask the fun questions; how do you, our readers, keep organized with your equipment, tools, parts, supplies and other necessities of hacker-dom?

Want to ask us a question instead?
Send your questions to for consideration. They will be chosen based on a complicated system of random number variation involving furry woodland creatures and how we feel at the moment that we read them. Do not get offended if you question does not get published. We get tons of questions already and we don’t intend to publish them all.

34 thoughts on “Ask HackADay: Organization?!

  1. Metal spice containers will work for IC’s, and they’re actually better than some alternatives, such as the hard clear plastic drawers, for static reasons. Best bet is to keep them in the rails or tape they come until you need them. However, for loose DIP packages and stuff, they’re fine.

    Magnets will have absolutely ZERO impact on an IC, with the possible exception of MEMS-based parts (accelerometers), and even then I think you’ll be fine.

  2. I love using tackle boxes to store my parts, although the only downside is when you tip them over. Most lids on tackle boxes don’t contact the top tray, leaving your parts all over the bottom of the box in the event you accidentally knock the box over. If you go the tackle box route, find one that the lid covers the top tray, or don’t put small parts in the top tray.

  3. Seriously… what exactly do you think a permanent magnet is going to do to an IC???

    That said it would be fine. I would try and at least keep them in their static bag (and freshly taped shut!) no matter where you put them.

  4. For tools I have been using plastic bins with
    labels “1-Tools” and “2-Tools”

    1-tools are tools with an innate One-ness:
    – Screwdrivers, allen wrenches, pointy things,
    X-Actos, files. Anything “1-like”.

    2-tools are tools with some kind of Two-ness:
    – Pliers, Tweezers, Wire cutters and strippers,
    crimpers, IC extraction tools.

    This works great for me.

  5. The hard plastic drawer racks are cheap, but they’re all too easy to accidentally spill. Fry’s has divided plastic boxes that slide into a rack that work much better. Divide the parts by category in drawers (through hole resistors, microcontrollers, LEDs, etc) and where values matter put labels on the inside of the lid to index what bin is what.

    @Alexander Rossie: Consider autodefenestration.

  6. I use a zippered cloth bag that was originally intended for fly-fishing. One compartment holds a stack of plastic divider boxes, and the other holds all my tools. Best part is, if you run low on room, just force it. Fabric can stretch; a hard-shell plastic box can’t.

  7. I’ve been ordering quite a few LED, including both Anode and Cathode RGB LEDs, which are pretty indistinguishable, and I also use the “art bin” style plastic boxes. So to differentiate, I take the shipping manifest, make a copy, cut out the model number and description and put those in the bin of the part. After burying the parts, I started using double sided tape and affixed it to the top edge of the individual bin. Now, when I open my parts box, I can see easily what is in each bin and part numbers for easy reordering when I run low.

  8. I use Plano transparent boxes (ie. 3700) with adjustable dividers AND small plastic bags.

    Each compartment has either loose parts or the small plastic bags or both.

    The older Planos I have have crappy latches, which over time loose their locking ability. The current Plano boxes may have better locks.

  9. I have a couple plastic drawer divider things, to keep all my loose parts in, divided up by type, value, etc. Since my workbench is an old cloths dresser, I keep the big stuff in the drawers, one is lined with antistatic foam I got from shipping containers, I store computer parts in there and such, another drawer for tools. All my cables and power cords, etc are stored in a large stand up plastic drawer organizer, along with documents, and a few junk drawers. I wrote a web app that stores all my digital files, notes, pictures, etc. also included a projects feature, to group files by what I’m working on. And it keeps track of inventory, so I know what I have and what I’ve used.

  10. Similar to Eddie, I also use the Plano 3700 series to store small parts, either loose or in small ziploc plastic bags (which are incredibly cheap at the craft store).

    I also use some tiny hinged latching rectangular plastic “pillboxes” which fit into and subdivide the Plano’s cells nicely. I picked up 500 at All Electronics a long time ago, wish I could find more as I’m running low!

    For larger/bulk parts that don’t fit well in the Planos or would take too much room, and aren’t likely to be damaged by bent pins, I use a system of nested ziploc bags. For example, I have a gallon bag labelled “Capacitors”, which contains quart bags each containing a type of large electrolytic; and one bag for “Assorted”. All of these bags are stored in Rubbermaid containers. I make a tiny cut in the side of every bag, this lets out excess air under the weight of other bags; since I don’t want to waste space storing air!

    BTW, I’ve never had problems with the Plano latches. But my newest ones have crappy hinges – the lid tends to fall off when in the open position. I’d rather have the faulty latches, as I’d imagine they could easily be replaced with velcro straps.

  11. Well, my hacking workbench turns 35 this year and has been re-organized at least half a dozen times.

    The best thing I’ve found for organizing individual parts is cabinets with the plastic drawers. 4 or 5 years ago I went out and mough 5 or 6 of them in the same coulour, size, style, etc. There is one for resistors, one for caps, several for ICs (more on that later), one for various assembled bits (LCD displays and the like), one for small cables, one just for connectors and adaptors.

    The plastic drawers can be death for ICs, especially CMOS, MOS, and ECL (yes, I have both of the latter in stock). Each drawer is thus lined with black anti-static foam I bought on Ebay. It was $10 for 4 2’x3′ sheets. More than I’ll ever need. Drawers containing PICs and other sampled parts (you _do_ get all your Microchip parts through the sample program, right?) are put directly in the drawer, tube and all.

    Surface mount resistors, caps, and inductors are stored in containers bought just for that purpose on ebay. $50 for enough room to store 50,000 components in ~200 values.

    Larger things are kept in one of 3 sizes of stacking tupperware style bins. (Chinese food containers are good for the smallest size if you are cheap). The largest are ~8x10x18″ and reside on shelves in the basement. Those are sorted into broad general categories.

    Teh most valuable part of all of this…The label maker that is used to put a label on _every_ drawer, even if the component are being stored temporarily.

    There are also some larger drawers that I user to hold components collected for a given project that will be gotten to someday. When I run out of those drawers, I know it’s time to sit down at the bench and actually build/finish projects.

    Tools live in an artists/draftsman’s carousel and a small box that lives on the bench for a few pens, probes, and Xacto style knives. (Another great place for small part manipulation tools is the local surgeon…)

    This leads to the whole conversation of bench design itself. Mine has shelves which hold instruments like bench dmm, power supplies, the soldering station, a few older parts bins that I can’t bear to part with, etc. The room design prohibits putting large instruments on the shelf (sloped ceiling) but that is the perfect spot for the O’scope, spectrum analyser, freq/function gen, etc. Along the front edge of the shelf is a piece of 1.5″x1.5″ angled aluminium with connectors in it that route to power supplies under the bench, audio in/out at the computer across the room, ethernet, a usb hub that goes to the computer, and the like that always seem to clutter up the workbench.

    Bench surface is also something to think about. Wood is good but gets gouged/marked/burned, etc. laminate is decent but gets scratched, Drafting board surface is great but is easily melted. A nice hunk of plate steel might be nice. Mine is all of the above in different places with holes in the wood section just the right size to hold various connectors that are soldered often. (1/8″ jack, 1/4″ jack, RCA, N, SMA, etc).

    And don’t forget to illuminate it all well. Magnifier lights are cheap @ Harbor Freight.

  12. I use a couple different systems. For small parts, I use wall mounted storage units with dozens of small plastic drawers. For larger collections like motors, I use plastic bins.

    For projects in progress, I put small parts like screws in a prescription pill bottle, then stick everything in a cheap tupperware-esque container.

    Label everything, and keep parts enclosed to prevent dust buildup.

  13. Also, I’ve found white electrical tape (get the good stuff. It’s worth the price.) makes the best labels I’ve ever used. It sticks to everything, stays for years, yet still peels of cleanly.

    Label makers fall off after a month, and masking tape becomes brittle and falls of leaving a mess. Cheap electrical tape turns to tar, but good 3M tape works wonders.

  14. @Rachel, I use a good quality Brother label maker and the only issue I’ve had is the labels turning brown after a few years outside in the sun. Never had one fall off, even when using to label cables that are outside in -40 to +110 deg F.

    But white electrical tape sounds like a good item to have in the toolkit! What do you use to write on it?

  15. Every label maker I’ve used falls off quickly, and wastes half the tape printing ridiculously wide margins. I suppose it’s more a function of the tape quality than the printer.

    My white tape stays stuck, even with splashed with hydrochloric acid or acetone. I use an ordinary sharpie permanent marker on it. Other light colours work well too. Just remember to get the good stuff.

  16. I find that the plastic divided containers work great for small components. I keep a few of them and separate out my LED’s, resistors, caps, inductors, etc. The best part is I can keep one container for factory-fresh components and another for things I’ve salvaged from dead boards. Some clear packing tape over a small piece of paper works just fine as a label.
    For my tools, I use clear plastic bins or plastic sliding drawers – I try to aim for a size that lets me keep like tools together. But, I’m not the ‘sledgehammer to tweezers’ type so tool control isn’t a huge problem for me.
    I have to laugh though – I have this organization scheme in place, but my work desk is utterly destroyed right now. I guess the key to any good scheme is following through!

  17. For repair projects when I need temporary organized storage for screws and things, I cut up 2-liter soda bottles. The bottoms let me store 5 sizes of screws each and they stack easily when not in use. The tops you can use as funnels if you decide to pour extra screws into a jar or something.

    I have two separate toolboxes. One is for “big tools”, like a hammer, cold chisels, sandpaper, and large screwdrivers. The other is for my “small tools”, including my needle files, mini screwdrivers, mini pliers, and soldering equipment. The “small tools” box has a staircase-like tackle box tray thing with three levels that I organize the tools in.

  18. @Mark.

    I find talking helps to build a better, more trusting relationship.

    @OP – I recycle any decent plastic containers. Local ASDA supermarket does cheap tupperware-ripoff tubs which are neat. I mainly use these for salvaged bits, and anything that still remains in its original packaging/anti-static bag.

    I encourage recycling, if anything else its an excuse to start keeping those little anti-moisture bags you find in your trainers and other random things that don’t mix well with water. I usually pop on of these suckers into an old jar then fill it up.

  19. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time the last couple years trying to get my parts/workspace organized. I’m still working out the workspace issue, as I’ve moved recently, but I’ve found some good storage solutions along the way.

    U-Line and Global Industrial are great sources for packaging/storing/shipping stuff. They have some of the better prices out there, but as with most industrial stuff, it’s still pricey sometimes.

    I’m a big fan of the cardboard storage bins, haven’t been able to justify spending $200+ on a fully loaded pick bin rack yet, but the cardboard bins and some shelves work well. I also picked up a number of compatibly or equally shaped cardboard boxes with the open-top flaps for larger items, which I label on one end and shelve.

    For smaller electronic parts, I mainly use the plastic drawer organizers (though I pine for the metal ones). For things like connectors that I may need to take off-site I use the plastic divider bins.

    I have yet to get those “watchmaker’s cases”/”spice bins”, but they’re on my list. Lee Valley tools has them for WAY cheaper than the ones linked above (although non-magnetic). They also have polycarbonate “Shop Storage Tubes” for a good price.

    Pro-tip: your local Big Lots may have small 9-compartment and larger 20+ compartment bins for $1.50 and $2.50, respectively, which is an awesome deal. They also have the 6-quart Sterilite 1642 for between $0.90 and $1.50 depending on the season (really). I probably have over 50 of these by this point and they hold up well and are sized to work with the other larger bins to maximize space.

    Looking forward to following this thread, I’ve been spending more time organizing than working lately.

  20. What I meant to say was: Due to the physical effects when you place a current in a magnetic field, the electrons will have a force acted upon them, and therefore there will be a so called “Hall effect voltage” present in the conductor. I was not talking about hall effect sensors.

    Due to the fact that usually you have no current running through your IC when it is stored, obviously there will be no problem storing them next to magnets, but what about when you have it up and running? Will the hall effect not have some unwanted effect on the IC?

  21. Operationally, any magnetic or electronic field will have _some_ effect on a packaged semiconductor, but if that effect is appreciable is another matter altogether.

    Physics says that if a conductor is placed in an alternating magnetic (or electric) field, there will be a current generated. In practice, these fields are minimal and not generally of concern. because they don’t alternate fast enough to generate any significant current. If they are high enough, then you as the engineer, take action to shield your components from them.

    The actual effect that a field will have on a given semi conductor will depend on many variables, frequency, strength, orientation, etc. The only components (other than the obvious sensors designed to be effected) I can recall that are even tested or rated for these things are space grade semiconductors, where large E and B fields happen sometimes.

  22. dealing with projects that have a ton of screw’s that have to be put in the same spot this is what i’ve done…

    -take a chunk of plexyglass (mine came from a old lcd monitor)
    -get a big peice of stickon magnet. ($8 @ walmart for a 8×11 sheet)
    -stick it on the plexy glass – Done

    storage, stick it on the tool chest side

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