We work in the garage a lot. And we have 3 kids. So, picture with me, if you will, the happy chaos that can ensue after a summer evening of family quality time doing both – Woodworking chisels, a buffing wheel, woodblocks, and sawdust in one corner, then kickballs, bikes, water squirters, and sidewalk chalk in another. Throw remodeling supplies into the mix when we were touching up paint and drywall, replacing strike plates and doorknobs, and an occasional electrical outlet, and – you guessed it – the place was an ab-so-lute wreck! Now, you know as well as I do, that messes as huge as this one don’t usually happen in a single go. (Although, I think I just heard my husband yell from somewhere, “Challenge accepted!”) But messes do tend to sneak up on you when distractions and self-imposed deadlines eat into your clean up time. An unhappy result followed this bad habit – our much-needed tools got misplaced. And misplaced hard. And suddenly I was standing there with a shiny new doorknob in my hand playing a very sad (and futile) game of Marco Polo to locate the necessary tools when I needed them. (Me: “Marco . . .” Screwdriver: “…”) Something needed to change, or our projects would never be finished, and the frustrating cycle of lost tools would continue. My husband and I did some research and asked fellow project enthusiasts how they kept their ratchets, gizmos, and wood clamps in order. (There are people out there who were doing this garage storage thing waaaaay better than us, and we wanted in on the secrets!) Here’s what we discovered: 

To keep a tidy toolbox and workspace, begin by inventorying what you have, then decluttering to make room for essentials, choosing storage that fits your needs, and finally, creating a routine that will help you keep it all organized. Following these steps will help streamline your workflow and decrease the stress that comes with misplaced tools. 

1. Inventory What You Have 

As our friends suggested, we started by figuring out what we had. We went through and rounded up all the tools from the four corners of the garage, the laundry room, and random drawers around the house. I won’t lie – this took some time. We didn’t have a great system in place and were usually in a hurry jumping between projects. These messy habits had done the opposite of saving time later. And when we had our tools grouped and in piles in front of us, I was amazed – simply astounded – at the number of tools (screwdrivers and Allen wrenches in particular) that we actually owned! I never seemed to be able to locate ONE let alone FIVE when I needed it! As the tools were collected and grouped by type, I already started to breathe easier. This inventory by itself affirmed that the next time we dove into a project, we were certainly well equipped for the task! My husband and I laughed and facepalmed a little at how many times we had gone to the hardware store to buy things we already had. So much time and money could have been put other places! And not to mention, with everything where we could see it, we also found that we had so many extra things that we just weren’t using. Which brings me to my next point. 

2. Declutter to Make Room for Essentials  

Clutter increases anxiety and decreases production. (It does, trust me.) When we did our inventory, we discovered that we had been hanging on to so many things that we didn’t really need to keep: Paintbrushes with bristles falling out, a rusty trowel well past its prime, and all kinds of screws and grommets that we had no use for. It can be easy to justify keeping every little thing that may seem useful. I know my granddaddy lived by this “someday” principle. But all these “little things” take up valuable toolbox space that could be used for better things NOW. Remember too, while the trash bag may be the best thing for the used up, the dried out, the broken, and the obsolete, some gently used tools may be worth selling or donating. Check out some online marketplace platforms to see if your clutter may be in demand. (Possibly making a little money on the side!) Or you can also donate to organizations that may be able to use them for humanitarian projects or something similar. Once we trimmed our tool supply, our next step was to place our tools in a place where we could find them. 

3. Choose the Right Kind of Toolbox Storage for Your Use (and Your Space!) 

As we surveyed our piles of tools, we then asked ourselves some additional questions to help us choose how to store our things. We recommend you do the same: 

  • Do your tools need to be portable? Or stationary? In other words, do you cart your tools around to job sites or your brother-in-law’s house? Or do you primarily work out of your own garage or shed? Do note: The answer to this may be a hybrid! We decided to keep a smaller tool bag that has one of everything (hammer, bullet level, tape measure, screwdrivers, etc.) that we can pick up in a flash if we are projecting elsewhere. But most of the tools do tend to stay in the garage, so we chose a larger tool chest to store them in. The good news is, there are a variety of portable and stationary toolboxes out there to choose from. For example, some mid-sized toolboxes stack nicely in a corner of a garage or closet and have wheels and handles like a rolling suitcase or an ice chest and can easily be loaded into your car trunk or truck bed. These come in all shapes and sizes as well, so start with your preference of “stay or go” and move on from there. 
  • How many tools do you own? What sizes do you need to accommodate? It’s time for a headcount: Do you have just a standard set of hammers, wrenches, files, and pliers? Or are there some larger saws, nail guns, and a smattering of other useful rachets and clamps to find homes for? If it helps, make lists of your small, medium, and large tools. Then when you browse online or visit a hardware store, you can begin to mentally move your things into the storage container you are looking at. You may discover that you need more than just a toolbox or a tool chest. Storage cabinets are also useful – you can check out this article here on how to choose them.   
  • How heavy-duty do you need your storage? Toolboxes and chests are made from all different kinds of materials. Some are made of heavy fabric, but more commonly, they are made of durable molded plastic. Other chests are crafted from metal or a heavy gauge of steel. Price and intended use can factor into your decision here. (Most of us don’t need the kind of tool chest that could withstand being scraped by a bucket loader, as awesomely durable as that sounds!) But we do need something that can sustain the weight of what we want to store or carry around without popping latches or bowing shelves.  
  • What kind of access do you need to your tools? In other words, when you are projecting, how do you like your tools laid out? One guy we talked to said that he organized all his primary tools on a pegboard above his workbench. Every tool had a specific slot and could be grabbed easily without shuffling through drawers. Another friend said that he preferred the clean look of having everything put away unless he was using it. The drawers in a tool chest worked great for him because it was organized and no trouble for him to simply open and grab. There are lots of excellent organization features that come with toolboxes, such as trays that lift out or even tackle box slots with latching lids that keep your nails and screws in order.  
  • What kind of space do you have to store things? Lastly, remember that your box or chest, while home to the tools, will also need a home for itself somewhere! This is important to consider because not all workspaces are created equal! Some of us have cars to park in our garages that make for limited storage and workspace. Measure carefully before you shop – dimensions are important! You may find that a few inches on a tool chest can make all the difference next to your car. Or that a rolling toolbox may be better, as you can stick it in a corner, or a closet.  

4. Create a Routine That Will Help You Keep It Organized. 

So, let’s say now that your tool chest has been purchased, and you’ve organized everything into drawers and shelves and trays. Your hard work is starting to yield fruit! Hooray! But before you congratulate yourself on your one-shot project, remember that there is still more to keeping things this way. Words to live by: Once everything has a home – PUT IT BACK THERE. EVERY TIME. This was our gravest mistake before we really understood what was keeping things so messy. If the hammer goes in the top drawer, put it back there after the baseboards are hammered in. Used the clamps on that wood project? When that thing is dry, the clamps go back in the bottom drawer on the left. Better yet, for ANY project, build “put away time” into the routine for when you are done with a project and you will be happy that you did! It also helps to keep things clean – wipe down your workbenches, shop vac that sawdust, dispose of the old oil correctly, thoroughly rinse your paintbrushes, and take a bar mop to the shelves. One guy we know loves wrenching on cars, changing his own oil, doing the brakes, etc. Yet, his garage is immaculate. We watched him squeegee the floor, put everything away, without hesitation, truly completing the project. This was an essential part of his hobby, not just an afterthought. We tip our hats to you, sir! Your neatness was truly inspirational! 

5. Keeping Track of Tools Outside the Box.  

There is one final suggestion we wanted to pass along, as we heard about it from more than one of our friends. As part of taking inventory of your tools, you should also keep a “sign out” list for things that people borrow. (This can be as easy as hanging up a whiteboard near the door or keeping a notebook in the top drawer of your workbench.) Taking a minute to make a note that the neighbor has your sander can save that time and frustration of trying to locate items that you are sure you have, but don’t seem to know where you put them last. Bad memories can also damage relationships. Why be resentful that your buddy took your rake last fall and now claims it’s his? Skip this irritation entirely by showing him with a dated piece of paper and a smile that, yeah, it actually does belong in your garage after all. Accountability, no hard feelings, better organization. So many benefits to something so simple!  

It took some hard work, but we did it! We truly put these suggestions into practice. We inventoried, we tossed out, we organized, and we cleaned up. We got a tool chest and some shelving that suited our needs. And the next project we worked on went flawlessly. We marveled at how little time it took to locate what we were looking for. AND we finished and cleaned up with some daylight hours to spare! Take it from us, (and the wiser people we learned from)- the peace of mind the organized tools brought was worth the effort!