A Guide To Shop Equipment Nobody Thinks About: Clean, Organized, And Efficient

When planning out a workspace at home, the job, or at a makerspace, we all tend to focus on the fun parts. Where the equipment will go, how you’ll power it, what kind of lights you’ll get, etc, etc. It’s easy to devote all your attention to these high-level concepts, which often means the little details end up getting addressed on the fly. If they get addressed at all.

But whether we want to admit it or not, an organized workspace tends to be more efficient. That’s why [Eric Weinhoffer] has put together a blog post that details all those mundane details that we tend to forget about. It’s not exactly exciting stuff, and contains precisely as much discussion about whiteboards as you probably expect. That said, it’s thorough and clearly comes from folks who’ve had more than a little experience with setting up an efficient shop.

So what’s the first thing most shops don’t have enough of? Labels. [Eric] says you should put labels on everything, parts bins, tools, machines, if it’s something you need to keep track of, then stick a label on it. This does mean you’ll likely have to buy a label maker, but hey, at least that means a new gadget to play with.

Of course, those self-stick labels don’t work on everything. That’s why [Eric] always has a few rolls of masking tape (such as the blue 3M tape you might be using on your 3D printer bed) and some quality markers on hand to make arbitrary labels. Apparently there’s even such a thing as dry erase tape, which lets you throw an impromptu writing surface anywhere you want.

[Eric] also suggests investing in some collapsible cardboard bins which can be broken down and stored flat when not in use. If you’ve got the kind of situation where you’ll always have more or less the same amount of stuff then plastic is probably your best bet, but in a more dynamic environment, being able to collapse the bins when they aren’t in use is a capability we never even realized we needed until now.

As you might imagine, the post also touches on the issues of keeping sufficient safety gear available. We’ve talked about this in the past, but it’s one of those things that really can’t be said too many times. Having a wall of meticulously labeled storage bins is great, but it’s going to be the last thing on your mind if you manage to get an eye full of superglue.

27 thoughts on “A Guide To Shop Equipment Nobody Thinks About: Clean, Organized, And Efficient

  1. I will colour sort my equipment/tools/spare parts/half done projects immediately! Only problem is… where did i put the automated rubiks cube. The red,green,blue,orange,yelow or white pile of stuff :P

  2. When it comes to printed labels, there’s good ones and bad ones. The professional ones are great and stick like tick. The cheaper ones (Like from the cheap DYNO labelprinters) fall off after 3 weeks and are worse than not having a label at all.

    I prefer labels to be in a holder, not stick on, since that means they don’t just fall off and disappear behind a cabinet or into the dustbin.

    Another great one for temporary marking on metallic surfaces is magnetic tape with a smooth plastic coating. It can be written on with permanent or whiteboard markers, and moved around at will but stay put much better over time than stickers in my experience, especially in more greasy environments.

    1. Label adhesive’s generally made to suit the application. Not sticking after three weeks really is a feature!

      That might be their only product, which admittedly sucks, but rest assured it’s intentional.

      1. This. There is a wide variety of labels available with more or less sticky glues for permanent, semi-permanent and temporary applications. For my webshop I use labels that are easy to remove for stock and permanent labels for shipping packages.

    2. Cheap labels + cheap clear tape = relatively premium experience. For demanding or dirty environments, add several layers of tape. When label becomes unreadable pull off top layer of tape to reveal pristine under layers. Learned that one in Iraq, where the dust would scratch the top layer to unreadable every few months.

    1. Yea, I spend at least 30% of my shop time organizing stuff, building new shelf, sorting parts, printing labels and so on. And I consider it as some kind of fun. There is a certain satisfaction standing in front of a new well organizes shelf at the end of a day.

  3. Even in my kitchen I’ve gone down the route of writing on things (luckily most storage container are plastic so dry-wipe pens work well and can be updated).

    The one thing I wish I’d done in my workshop is starting early!
    Now I’ve got lots of stuff in there, it’s hard to put it right now without clearing it all out (not really practical) in order to organise it. If only I’d started with the labelling and organising when I had fewer parts! (Although back then it was easy to find items because there weren’t so many, which meant this sort of thing didn’t cross my mind.)

  4. Philosophically, I can’t agree enough with this post. When you go from having a single-person workshop to having a two-person workshop, your head is no longer an appropriate place to keep information about where things are stored. It has to be labeled, and things have to be put back where the other person will expect them. It’s a huge step, a lot of mental work for people who are used to working solo. But then going from a two-person workshop to a two-hundred-person workshop is actually a smaller step, IMHO.

    Around the i3Detroit hackerspace, we standardized pretty early on Painter’s Mate Green masking tape, which has an odd color that’s really not present elsewhere in the indoor environment. It makes labels really stand out, and it’s light enough to provide good contrast with simple Sharpie markings. It’s available in a ton of widths and I can’t say enough nice things about it. Locally I find it at Menard’s, or mail-order from Zoro.

    For high quality label-printer labels, I hate to love the Brady BMP21, because it has an abominable ABC keyboard and it eats batteries like candy even when powered off, but I’m willing to live with those antifeatures because the label tape itself is second-to-none. Tenaciously sticky, flexible enough to not pry itself off the substrate, and available in a variety of materials and colors. They even make printable heat-shrink tube for the thing, if you’re made of money.

  5. You may want to go get yourself a capable second hand thermal transfer printer on Ebay or from a business closing.

    They come in a variety of sizes, you get to pick the label material, adhesive, and thermal material for your needs, and it’s just kinda awesome. Usually for shipping or thereabouts.

      1. Thermal paper receipts are a far cry from thermal transfer printed labels. As described by Brian J Monaghan below, it’s basically transfer of a plastic coating from a “ribbon” to the label where the lettering needs to go. I’ve seen these labels last (so far) for 5 years in pretty adverse conditions(flag style, on flex cable, in the output of a quite toasty electronics cabinet) without fading, changing color or showing even the slightest hint of wanting to fall off.

    1. Thermal transfer labels also almost exclusively use a coating of powdered BPA to work. Not nice stuff to touch or handle at all. Also, since its a fine powder coating it transfers by touch quite readily.

      1. Thermal transfer doesn’t use BPA, that’s direct thermal printing. Thermal transfer printing needs a ribbon coated with a low temp wax or plastic that is physically transferred to the paper. It’ll last nearly forever, even if it is heated, although if you get it hot enough to melt it will smear when rubbed.

  6. Agree with the previous comment about personal shops vs multi-user industrial stuff, where the latter has labels for labels to satisfy the always angry ISO9001 gods. Shop and lab ‘organization’ is an over-sold image. Rules and regulations for my kingdom (8m x 8m space) are simple:

    1. if it is not my project, mark it and put it in a box and clear it from horizontal spaces when not in-work.
    2. do not use electronic test instruments on benches intended for wood or metal work.
    3. do not use wood or metal working tools in the electronic lab area.
    4. do not ever ‘organize’ my stuff.

  7. I remember reading a couple years ago, about a woodworker, who had over a 100 drawers throughout his shop. Each drawer was numbered, and each partition in each drawer (if partitioned) was also designated. He had a database listing the contents of each drawer/partition.

  8. After a fair bit of deliberation over label makers, I went with a Brother P-Touch D600, as it A) has a full QWERTY keyboard, B) has DOZENS of different tape (and heat shrink tubing!, though not for this printe) types, colours, and widths (from 3.5mm to 24mm), C) can be plugged into a computer running Windows where you can use the (fairly decent) P-Touch Editor to design and print labels (and templates), including pictures., and D) comes from a well-known company that has a solid reputation for quality and product support. (Right after entering this comment, I plan to print out a couple of permanent labels with my–and my wife’s–pictures and contact info to go on our Contigo mugs, for in case we forget them somewhere. Again. :sigh: )

  9. I guess I can see it in a multi person shop, but in my own shop, labels would be crazy. Also, as many of you no doubt have discovered, one of the most efficient ways of storing something is in as near it’s assembled form as you can. A 3.5″ hard drive is a great example. It has a lot of nice, generally metric hardware, some nice magnets, some interesting coils, small bearings etc. And it fits in a nice little space. You take it apart and somehow it takes up a box 4x bigger and it is hard to find the piece you are after. So I tend to keep things together and only gut out what I need, when I need it. Could you fathom putting a label on a little disk drive or an old microwave listing all the parts that lie within?

    Different people work differently, but I have always been one to work in a near total state of chaos. I see clean benches on you tube and I wonder if those people ever actually build anything.. Richard Feynman, from what I gathered from his writings had somewhat the same habits, so apparently I am in good company.

  10. No need to label my storage as I know where everything is
    No labels stops people from being able to easily steal the valuable bits should they find themselves in my workshop alone.

    The problem with things like the 5S process: https://quality-one.com/5s/ is that they aim to make people confirm.
    They dont recognise individualism nor that objects and the need for storage out grow their space.
    In business you end up with 5S experts running around telling people how to change their way of working and storing so they can be more efficent.

    In reality you piss off most people that are willing to take some of the guidance but not all of it and they actively rebel making the whole exercise worthless.

    Hence no labels cos it works for me but annoys everyone else.

  11. I am a confirmed 5S guy. “Hey dude, have you seen the __? I just spent 25 minutes looking for it and have no idea where it could be because nobody is currently using it and it isn’t in any of its 5 most frequented locations.”
    I have a small shop that goes from productive to entirely unsafe when things aren’t organized. I have also never seen a well running shop that didn’t keep a policy of cleaning up the last 15 min of the day.
    And all you chaos loving soloists, I can go ahead and start a tally now of how many times I hear it from someone that doesn’t share their things. Organized chaos is a contradiction, you either start your day with a bench/shop that’s ready to work or you start your day by clearing out the crap from the day before.

  12. Are those drawers that illustrate the Ikea drawer organizer also Ikea? They look more like a cheap Vidmar knockoff. But if they are cheap enough, I want to know!

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