Tutorial on organizing a shop

Mike Davis

Corporate Member
Can somebody help me?

I'm a clutter bug, things just multiply around me. I have too many tools, can't find what I have and don't know how or where to put things so I can find them. I can't seem to let things go.

I know some people just naturally organize, some learn, some force it on themselves or have it forced on them.

I can't.

I try, I build shelves, buy tool chests, sort things out and make places for them, but they seem to migrate away from there and end up somewhere else. I try to clean up and put things away as I go, when I finish, anytime I go in the shop. But it's just not enough. I still can't find my tools and everything is a mess.

How do you do it?

Are you just a clean freak, everything has to be spotless and every tool has to be in its place or you can't function?

I'm just the opposite, out of chaos I see things coming together, things being built, things I can make... If only I could find that tool.

Maybe it's just the way I am and I'll never change?

My mind is the same as my shop, thoughts scattered around, half finished or on a list to be considered.
Odd things tossed together, old and new mixed up, not sure what to do or where to start.


It may sound silly, but I try and limit the amount of flat surfaces. Flat surfaces are just asking to collect clutter.

If all else fails...move to a new shop. Nothing like a clean start.


Corporate Member
My place becomes cluttered all the time, I have very limited space and being organized is as important as breathing. So keeping things in order is as important as your sharpening routine. Keep it short and sweet, do the task and get back to what is important to you. I guess what I'm getting at it's the same as house cleaning. You don't want to do it but you have to. So keep it short sweet and to the point, if you do it enough then it becomes a habit and then it's not so hard. It still sucks, but it's not so hard.
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Corporate Member
You'll never be a good organizer because that's just you the scatterbrain! You've said it before on NCWW and you probably won't change.


Corporate Member
For me neatness is a constant activity that demands I put things away each and every time I use them. Neatness also requires a certain amount of open space. In other words, the more stuff you have the bigger the space needs to be to start with. Inversely, workinging out of a small space requires specialization. Every different type of activity or interest is going to require its own set of stuff you have to store when not in use. Stationary power tools take up space that cannot really be shared with hand tools. Woodworking tools can't take up the same space as mechanic's tools. Carving has its own tools. Welding has electric welders, torches and tanks. The more diverse your interests the more space you need. Eventually it doesn't matter how neat you try to be, not enough space is not enough space. Working on or building large items requires more space than working on small items. And I'm not even counting materials storage.

All that seems obvious I know.

The only truly neat woodworking shops I've ever seen are dedicated to one or two types of woodworking activities, and large to begin with. I'm not counting the fantasy shops on the TV shows either. Those aren't really shops for the most part - they are sets.

Once you reach the critical mass of tools and interests that prevent you from working easily and need to contantly move stuff around to work then you basically have 2 choices. Get a bigger space or downsize and specialize. For me it's going to have to be downsizing. And pretty soon. Plus I'm getting old enough that my wife is already making noises about not wanting to have to deal with all my stuff in the shop.

Jeremy Scuteri

Staff member
Corporate Member
As you already know, everyone is different. I like Richard's analogy to house cleaning.

For us, once the house starts to get messy, it gets much messier in a hurry. After all, what is one more dirty plate in a sink full of dishes, just add it to the pile and go on with life.....

On the other hand, a dirty dish in an otherwise very clean kitchen sticks right out at you and it just begs to be put away.

Maybe you need to clean that shop like it has never been cleaned before in order for it to stay that way (for a while at least, entropy has a way of creeping in).


Corporate Member
By the way the 5S system works, however, you have to buy in whole heartedly and like going on a diet you have to become the system. And example is, if you haven't used in let's say a year then.... guess what... you don't need it and never did. So it's gone! It doesn't matter how, it's gone. That is 5S in a nut shell.
By the way, I'm black belt qualified in 5S.


Board of Directors, Treasurer
Staff member
Corporate Member
I have the same problem Mike. As my shop space expands so does the clutter that it contains.

I think though that if I could work on a single project until it is complete and not start multiple projects that all need to be on cabinets and work spaces while they're being completed, I'd be better off.

My mind wanders a lot and I go in different directions as the latest thing strikes my fancy. It seems to be a focus thing with me.

I envy people like Charlie that have a fixed focus and can organize around that one thing and make everything in their life structured around that goal - it works very well for him. I'm just not that focused, I wish I was, I would get a lot more accomplished.

But I am what I am, a scattered brain worker with a scattered workshop - still trying to get more organized. I make progress occasionally, then start two or three more projects and get scattered again.

I do sometimes get a project done - occasionally.

Phil S

Board of Directors, President
Phil Soper
Staff member
Corporate Member
I am so similar. I rarely draw plans or write notes - I just lose the notes. Right now I have no less than ten projects in process and I am thinking about three more. If I can not find a tool I can get a bit frustrated, so I just start something else that does not need that tool, I will eventually run across the tool and shift back to the other project. Sort sounds crazy as I type this but I am who I am and I doubt I will change much.

PS. just mentally did a project recount - I stopped at 30

Pop Golden

My shop operates like a navy ship. A place for everything and everything in it's place. If you buy that I've got a really nice piece of land in the Everglades I would like to sell you..

Pop :cool:


Corporate Member
After hanging around Charlie's shop, my goal has been to be more like Charlie i.e. "when you finish with something, put it up!" I have tried, I really have tried...but what comes as second nature to him, just doesn't seem to take root in me. That said, my typical pattern is to clean the shop and put everything where it belongs at the completion of each project; but, when the piles of stuff get so messy that I can't find what I am looking for (which is often right in front of me), I'll take a few minutes to try and bring some order to the chaos. I still want to be more like Charlie!

Mike Wilkins

Senior User
Wall mounted storage cabinets. Base cabinets similar to kitchen base cabinets. Putting things away after you use them.
For me, the best organizing activity is getting rid of seldom used items, such as old magazines and scraps of wood, plywood shorts and tools that I know have no life left in them.


The one goal that's helped me most over the years is to have a place to store every tool. Until I get there maintaining a tidy workspace is almost impossible. Homeless tools tend to wander around the shop taking up space because they're never completely out of the way. They just get moved around.

I tend to clean up in spurts, usually when I've finished a particular activity or have to start something else. Until that time I figure I'm just going to keep using the same set of tools so why bother putting them away.

In the end you have to find the system that is the best balance for you -- somewhere between complete chaos and absolute neatness. That leaves a lot of room. The important thing is that it works. You have to know where a tool is when you need it and it should be a safe space to work.

The other observation is that this applies to "virtual workshops" as well. I'm a computer programmer who works in an open office space where I can see other programmers' screens (we all have 2-3 monitors). Everyone has their own system for how they organize the applications (tools) they're using. Some like nice, tidy, even rectangular windows organized on their monitors with no part of one window overlapping another. If they can't maintain this they close an application to make space. Me, I'm the opposite. I have layers of windows of all sizes. I can, however, find the one I need when I need it. The important part is we all get our work done.

Very interesting thread to read through. Thanks for starting it, Mike.


Corporate Member
Folks I am going to go out on a limb here. I don't want to be like Charlie. Charlie as you read this please do not take this as directed at you it is not. I have a little more sense than to insult another member of the site -especially one so admired. So with the floor open to debate here goes.

There is a big difference between chaos and multi-tasking on different projects. I for one have never walked out to my shop and had less than 3 things going on that I can continue working. I do not stand around waiting for glue to dry on project 1 and not work on something else in the mean time.

My shop that I built is a reflection of the direction I am going in these days. I don't do timber-framing and other heavy wood moving any longer. I work on smaller projects and I don't need a big TS with a giant outfeed table for the occasional bookcase build.

I spent 20 years in the USAF and much of it was in the test flight evaluation section and rebuild facilities. As the pilot who would fly these long term rebuilds, accountability for tools was not up for discussion. How the mechanics stored and used their tools was another matter.

We had over 300 general and specialize personnel evaluated to get them to work more efficiently and in some cases to use as a role model for others who seemed to just walk in circles.

Some were incredibly neat but.. they did not get much done in weeks of work. Makes you wonder?
Some were not neat. Where's my tools? FOD or foreign object damage potential.

In the end all fell in one of 2 categories:
- had to have a drawer and a place for their tools.
- had to have their tools on the wall with an outline so they could inventory at a glance.

After my evaluation is was clear I fell in the group needing tools on the wall where I work. Unlike some others here on the site that are more narrowly focused on what they enjoy doing, I go from tomahawks to chairs in the same week. This is confusing to some viewers but I just could never be that specialist that can't even build a drawer for his cabinet. I know lots of specialists and I have never aspired to join their ranks.

Mike I think you should just box up what you don't use and put it aside. Put the tools you need right up on the wall and see if it works for you. If not start looking for the cabinets that you might need.

Like Jim and Jim said, in the end are you getting it done?



Here is my bench. All the tools I need I can reach easily.


This looks like a little bit of a mess but I can rock and roll here. The table is just 2 steps from my bench.


Notice I don't have a big TS? its gone and I don't need it anymore. It was a big junk pile all the time. Remember I built a guideboat here.
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Mike Davis

Corporate Member
Thanks Dan, I do admire your shop and the work you do. I also have a wide range of interests and my wife brings some very interesting projects to my bench regularly. All my kids make things as well. Just last week my oldest daughter came home and showed us the copper box, bracelets, rings, and necklace she made at her local community center. They have shops set up for various crafts and guest instructors come several times a year. The problem for her is that shop won't be open til another instructor comes to teach. Dad to the rescue, and I unloaded gifted a big box of tools that I probably wouldn't use again. Now she is basically set to work at home, I even had three sheets of 22 gauge copper, silver solder, a propane torch, jewelers saw, blades, files, sandpaper, hammers, drill bits, clamps, wire/sheetmetal gage, jewelers rouge, a hand crank grinder/buffer, Starrett 12 inch adjustable square, and I don't even miss it. Plenty more left for me to use. So, yeah I need to clear out in a big way.

Roy G

Senior User
I remember going in my FIL's shop and admiring all the pegboard on the wall with pictures painted of all the tools in their respective places. Note I said pictures, because there was not a tool in sight. My next door neighbor was walking around his backyard one day looking at the ground. Asked what he was up to, he replied, "Looking for my hammer." His son had a habit of borrowing tools and dropping them when he was done with them, wherever that may be. I spent years resisting buying a radial arm saw, but when one came up locally I went to look at it and bought it. Man, the table was bigger than my table saw's table and comes in handy for storage of stuff. I think this is why so many woodworkers have multiple chisels and planes-can't find the 1/4" so use the 5/16"-it's not rocket science, after all.

Roy G

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