My basement workshop is so crammed full of stuff I literally can’t use it. My workbench, a sturdy hardwood library table, is covered in junk to the point that I couldn’t find a square foot that didn’t have two layers of detritus on it — the top layer is big things like old projects that no longer work, boxes of stuff, fragile but light things perched on top. Underneath is the magma of bent resistors, snippets of LED strip, #4 screws, mystery fasteners I’ll never use, purple circuit boards from old versions of projects, and a surprising number of SparkFun and Adafruit breakouts that have filtered down from higher up in the heap.
When work on something I bring the parts up to the dining room and work on the table, which is great for many reasons — more space, better light, and superior noms access top the list. The down side is that I don’t devote any time to making my real shop into a viable working place, and it becomes a cluttered store room by default.
I am therefore focusing on a four-part plan to reclaim my work space from heaps of junk.
1. Have a System, Not a Gimmick Fix
Most workshop clutter articles involve “clever tricks” category, you know, grandpa’s jam jars on the ceiling kind of thing. It usually boils down to, what’s a cute and fun way to store the stuff currently in your workshop?
In short, it presupposes that one system will be all that it takes to get your work area in order. I am reminded of those old-school pegboards where the owner drew outlines for the saw, hammer, clamp, and so on. Inevitably old tools were lost and new ones added, and from that point forward, the pegboard sucks. You get to look at a saw outline with a hammer hanging in front of it, barring repainting. No one would blame you for zeroing out at that point.
This is not to say that those organization ideas can’t be used — they’re just not a panacea. A few months ago I wrote a piece on using peanut butter jars to store LEGO and metal hardware, with laser-cut wooden trays allowing me to stack up a bunch of jars in a relatively small amount of floor space.
I tried to build that in with modularity, the trays can accommodate seven small or four big jars each. More to the point, I definitely need multiple shifting, flexible solutions so that my system doesn’t become a hindrance.
2. Only Work Goes on the Bench
There’s a reason why it’s called the workbench, because I work on it. When people talk about clutter they shouldn’t be referring to the stuff one’s currently working on. That’s not clutter, that’s just work. But it becomes clutter when I’m not working on anything on the bench and it’s still messy. Then the bench has become storage, and that is a dangerous and fraught path, at least within the realm of cleanliness.
If you have to set a project aside, either for reasons of time, parts, or boredom, box that project up. If nothing else it will save your stuff from getting dusty or damp.
It never hurts to maximize your real estate by take advantage of Z-space. I have a bunch of old 2x6s in my garage and I had an idea for a low shelf along the back of my table, and I could put my meter, adjustable power supply, power strip, and so on there. But in the end, the more stuff that’s not the project, the worse off I’ll be.
3. Set Up an Overflow Area
There will always be stuff that ends up in my workshop that doesn’t have a place. Most of the time it ends up on top of the workbench. Putting it there is supposed to make me want to work on it, but instead it prevents me from using the bench as effectively, and contributes to it becoming an intriguing but frustrating junk heap.
I want to set up a backup storage area — a shelf, maybe — where I can put stuff temporarily. Nothing will stay on that shelf stays longer than a year. That way I can hold on to something interesting while still recognizing that it’s on borrowed time, and either it gets used in a period of time or it gets donated or recycled.
Not coincidentally, the local hackerspace has a wonderful junk shelf — though much neater than it used to be. Now it has strict policy for not letting anything stay forever, no matter how juicy. Sometimes you just have to be ruthless.
4. Give it Away, Now
I’ve come to accept that I’m totally a ‘tronics and tool hoarder. I have 25 DC motors right next to me, but I’ll still spend two hours disassembling a broken toy to harvest yet another. I have to acknowledge that I have too much stuff, and I need to get rid of it, and that’s really at the heart of all clutter problems, a surplus of crap.
I experiment in areas outside of my core interests and acquire the infrastructure for it, but sometimes it never takes hold. For instance, I have a fairly robust set of chemistry glasswork on my desk, but haven’t had time to play with it in forever. Some of it is left over from my gunpowder-making youth, so there is a nostalgia factor as well. If I don’t think I’m going to use it in the next year or two, why not just donate it? All those DC motors could do some elementary schools some good. If I haven’t used it in a year then it goes on the free shelf at the hackerspace.
Please share some ideas you have for keeping your hackin’ game in order. How much does a cluttered house connote an uncluttered mind?