Adam Savage’s First Order Of Retrievability Tool Boxes

Let’s face it, we’re all a bit obsessed with tools. Whether it’s an oscilloscope or a screwdriver, having just the right tool can be the difference between loving what you are doing, or dreading it. But oddly enough, not much is talked about tool organization. We tend to think that how you organize your tools is just as import as the tools themselves.

[Adam Savage] of Mythbusters fame might just be the king of tool organization. In this thread on the Replica Props Forum, [Adam] shares the design and construction of two sets of mobile tool boxes he built while working at Industrial Light and Magic. The idea is simple: First Order Retrievability. That is, you should never have to move one tool to get to another. That in turn affords the fastest, most efficient way of working.

The evolution of this idea started with medical bags (the kind doctors would use, back in the day when doctors still made house calls), but as [Adam’s] tool collection grew, the leather was no match for 50 pounds of tools. So, he stepped up to two aluminum tool boxes. Adding wheels and a scissor lift allowed for a moveable set, at just the right height, that are always in reach. Perfect for model making, where being able to move to different parts of a model, and taking your tools with you is key. If you’re looking for a list of what’s inside [Adam]’s box of wonder, here you go.

What are some of your favorite ways of organizing your tools? What tips or tricks do you have? Post a picture or description in the comments.  I’m sure we all could learn a bit from one another.

28 thoughts on “Adam Savage’s First Order Of Retrievability Tool Boxes

  1. I remember digging through that thread and his stuff on tested and marvelling at how well his tool collection is organised. I guess it’s a result of him adding tools and thinking of improvements pretty much his whole life. Adam really is an inspiration to the next gen of makers out there :)
    My personal collection of tools is so small right now that anything but first order accessibility would be ridiculous, but as it grows I will definitely invest some time getting it all organised properly.

    1. Me Too – makes putting a “repair kit” together easy to find/do, and means carrying one or two 10 pound toolboxes and a bucket full of material/fasteners/or spare parts, instead of a ginormous 80 pound box. Plus limits what can get lost (or borrowed). Usually it’s the general tools kit plus the special tools kit (i.e. plumbing, electrical, network, car, etc).

  2. The scissor lift part makes me nervous! Especially with some items placed where you have to purposely stick your hand in the danger zone. I am sure he addressed that danger somehow. The list of tools he fits in there is staggering, holy crap!

          1. When I was 10 or 11 I very innocently taught a good friend of mine you could strip copper bell wire using your front teeth. After many years apart we reunited and he recalled that I was the one who put that misguided idea in his head, leading him to later split one of his teeth in half from tip to root. A costly and painful repair and apparently his dentist was not impressed.

      1. I got the Klein automatic strippers a little bit more than a year ago. They work great so far. Reading the wire sizes on stripping die is a little awkward since the size of the hole depends on whether you’re stripping stranded or solid gauge wire. I usually take a guess which hole is the right one and test it on a scrap piece. I think you can buy replacement dies for different sizes of wire, too.

  3. I found the best way to keep my tools within reach is to simply keep them in the drawer-type tool boxes that are commonly used by auto mechanics. Everything is in easy reach, and each drawer is organized by what type of tools go in it. For example, my wrenches are all in one drawer, organized by size, metric on the left and standard (aka Imperial) on the right.

    1. Yep,
      Same here draws all the way. And multiple “roll cabs”
      One for “industrial” (brazing torches filler wire house electrical type stuff
      One for “auto” spanners sockets wrenches etc
      One for “electronics” breadboards progmers wire strippers small screwdrivers soldering irons etc
      Then a bunch of “office draws” the Bisley a4 sized ones for normal screw drivers, clamps, filers pliers lathe tools welding supplies etc they have the benefit of having labels on the draws…
      And everything has “formed” liners (make a frame as big as the draw. Lay your tools in the frame, put a bit of stretchy Jersey material on it. Apply canned expanding foam. A sheet of paper over than them the heaviest thing that you can find on top (so that the foam expands around the tools instead of out and around)
      (The roll cabs have “aero style” draw lines a base of a bright blue foam yoga mat. With a dark blue yoga mat with cutouts in the shape of the tools glued to that…
      Then a bunch of miscellaneous breifcase style toolboxes, one for electronics (PC scope leads and laptop in one) a couple of chemistry ones with foam cut to protect glassware…
      It’s easy to find everything, provided I actually put stuff away Because everything has a place…
      (All these things were bought on clearance sales, closing down sales or from free cycle)

    2. I think that works if you memorize what drawer holds what family of tool. I once went to a famous tool barn in Maine while on vacation and quickly discovered why some people hate drawers.

      The people running the store apparently had a great deal of available storage consisting of chests filled with drawers. Open an close a couple of hundred drawers just to see what’s inside them and you will also begin to dislike them. If I had actually opened every drawer, I think the number would have been north of 700 drawers. It’s time consuming and inefficient.

      This doesn’t apply if you know that the third drawer from the top always contains wrenches, for instance. ymmv.

    3. That’s the way I do it now. I’m spending a lot of time opening and closing drawers and have started designing a first order retrieval system that involves moving my arm and picking up a tool with my fingers.

  4. I think this depends on the application and the workspace you’re using it in. If you’re a pro set/prop builder (or auto mechanic, aviation tech, network installer etc), per the referenced post (from 2010), you’ll have to have anything you need at hand and work quickly, but space won’t be as much at a premium because you’re often working at someone else’s site.

    Near the other end of the spectrum, If you’re home and not doing it for a living, you may not have all the workspace (or time) you’d like, but you’ll have the ability to store things more or less securely for long periods and fish out what you need. These organizations are often less cognitive and more evolutionary – items aggregate as they’re used and may be centered around methods (saws, welders), tasks (cutting wood, polishing metal) or devices (cars, boats, bicycles). An extreme example might be someone with a tiny apartment who has a Leatherman and a small hammer, but no more. The other extreme might be someone who keeps his pet Beechcraft Staggerwing in showroom condition by lining the hangar with toolboxes.

    Since I do a bit of prototyping, I’m sort of at the high end of the latter category. I have a small tool box in the laundry room that I use for simple household things, big rolling tool chests properly laid out with wrenches and other hand tools in the garage along with a homemade “drawer” unit that relies on restaurant “bus tubs” (those sturdy rectangular grey tubs they use in every food service operation everywhere to carry loose stuff) to hold intermediate-sized power tools and fixtures, and a couple of specialized boxes – one for the boat (which doubles as my “hey, come over and fix my….” kit since you can fix just about anything with it), one with specialized tools for the bikes, one with small torch/welding equipment, and a portable electrical one with multimeter/wire/soldering irons/wire strippers etc. This works pretty well – faced with a task I can usually put together the tools that I need in a few minutes, and most of this stuff is out of the way the rest of the time.

  5. My shop has four 2’x3′ pegboards. Two on the two facing walls, one at each end of the walls. I also have the machine tools in my shop spaced out around the room, so each one has at least one pegboard near it. So, in addition to “pegboard friendly tools (wrenches, mallets, etc), I also have machine-specific tools like tools for the mill near the mill, bandsaw blades hung near the bandsaw, etc. In addition, I have a rolling mechanic’s toolchest. I used to have two of the cheaper ones that Canadian Tire seems to have on sale from time to time, but Home Depot had such an amazing deal on a big 3-section Husky chest that I couldn’t pass it up (now the smaller two are in my electronics area). I also have wooden cabinets that I built & put up over my work bench recently with my own little innovation: the outer surfaces of the cabinet doors are covered in dry-erase board.

    I’ll admit, a lot of what I’ve typed is a bit (?) of a humble-brag, but my point is that there is no one solution to the tool storage problem. Like most robust solutions, the better ones tend to be mixes of lots of diverse ideas.

  6. I’m a fan of shadow boxes and pegboards. They take up a lot of space, though. For a visual person (ie. someone who doesn’t memorize), it’s quick and easy to see what you need when you need it. ALSO, though, they’re good for when you aren’t quite sure what you need. When I have to share tools with other people, a tool box is the worst possible solution. Shadow foam and other things greatly reduce the tool box’s useful space, which sort-of defeats the point. And, no one ever puts something back exactly where they found it.

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