12 tips for organizing your work space

Put your cables, notebooks, and tools in order.
Binder clips
Fastened along the edge of a desk. Richard Sheppard

The following is an excerpt adapted from Tips and Tales from the Workshop: A Handy Reference for Makers by Gareth Branwyn.

Some studies suggest that organization leads to clearer, more productive thinking and creating, while others claim the opposite. You likely already have your own work and organizational style, and not much is going to change that. I’m basically a mildly messy person with periodic bursts of organizational energy. For years, I beat myself up over my chaotic ways, but then I decided that this was my basic organizational style and that I have still been able to be productive and successful.

One thing I’ve found that helps motivate me to be organized is really clever, thoughtful, and time-saving ideas. Reading a great organizational tip or about some cool organizational technology can inspire a burst of reorganizational energy. Here are a few of my favorite ideas.

1. Organize for first-order retrievability

This tip can help reduce the time it takes to find and grab your tools and materials. Arrange your workspace so that the more commonly used the tool or material is, the closer it is to you. Conversely, put more occasional tools farther away. This way, the shop is designed so that you can easily find what you need as you need it. Via Adam Savage

2. Arrange cords with binder clips

Use a row of binder clips on the edge of your desk as a cable organizer.

3. Take advantage of equipment dead space

Jay Bates shared this useful shop-organizing tip in one of his YouTube videos. For most of us, space is always at a premium. When setting up a shop, you want to carefully think of the workflow around the machines and how you can optimize operational efficiency and tool and material retrievability. Jay suggests that you plan to use the dead space of each machine (the side that you never interact with) to your advantage by grouping these edges together.

4. Keep track of small parts

small parts

Use double-sided tape to hold small parts in place while you disassemble or reassemble something. Affix the tape to a piece of paper and write where each part goes.

5. Apply stretch wrap to organize straps

If you have toe straps and ratchet straps in your shop or in your truck, you can quickly bundle them using stretch wrap. Just use a few loops of wrap and your rolled straps are good to go. You can even reuse the wrap for multiple strap-wrappings. Via Jay Bates

6. Mark your tools

From Caleb Kraft: “My grandfather was handy with tools (weren’t they all?). He had a small woodshop and a collection of miscellany that had been acquired through years of working on various machines. At some point he worked on trains; at another, he repaired vacuums.

“When you’re working in shops with other people, it is always smart to mark your tools so that you know someone else won’t end up with them. My grandpa’s mark was five little notches or slashes.

tools with five little notches

“I inherited many of grandad’s tools when he passed away. They’ve outlived many of the cheap, modern versions I’ve acquired during my workshop explorations. Those five marks have become something of a sign of quality in my mind.

“Maybe I should begin marking my favorite tools. How would a CNC mill look with five notches on the side?”

7. Label cables with bread tags

cable labels from bread-bag tags

Here’s a tried and true method of cable labeling that I have used for years: plastic bread-bag tags.

8. Make your own pocket notebooks

I’ve been using Moleskine Cahiers pocket notebooks every day since 2006. I have dozens of volumes of them filled with article ideas, design sketches, notes on my day, and various other scribblings. They’re fun to go back through to see where my mind has been over the years. I often find buried gems I can use today. As much as I love Cahiers, they aren’t cheap. And while I customize mine with cover art, stamps, and stickers, it’s just not the same as if I’d made them myself.

Bob Clagett of I Like to Make Stuff makes his own (see his Pocket Notebooks how-to on YouTube). When you make them yourself, you have something that’s infinitely customizable using your preference of cover paper stock and design, internal paper (or combination of paper types), pockets, size, and so on. I’ve made a few of my own over the years and they definitely hold a special “inspired object” status in my collection.

9. Give your notebook a keyword index

I was so thrilled when I ran across this notebook hack, allegedly from Japan, on Instagram. I fill up lots of notebooks and frequently use a single journal for work ideas, personal projects, and domestic planning (trips, meals, shopping, and so on). Finding things in makers’ notebooks across volumes, and within volumes, can be a real chore. The only real way of fixing this access problem is taking the considerable time to index everything.

The following simple approach allows you to fairly quickly build a back-of-book index of significant content as you go (you could build it in the front of the book, too).

notebook keyword index

Here’s how it works:

  1. First you start off with your content. In this example, Adam, who runs the blog High Five, is making a recipe book. Here’s his first recipe.
  2. He creates a listing of recipe types on the final page of his recipe notebook.
  3. Based on his index of recipe types, he puts the appropriate marking on the outside edge of the page for this Chinese recipe.
  4. Next, you can see that by placing corresponding marks on the edges of the pages that map to the recipe index in the back, Adam has organized his recipes for much easier access.

I’m definitely going to start doing this in all of my notebooks. Via Adam at High Five Blog

10. Order cables with toilet paper tubes

toilet paper tubes

Use empty toilet paper rolls to hold bundled personal electronics cables and other cords together.

11. Hold cables with zip ties

This trick is from Donald Bell of Maker Project Lab: “This is an easy, useful way to stand-off cables across a length of conduit using zip ties and cheap vinyl tubing. It’s a way to tidy up electrical wiring, fuel lines, data cables, pneumatic tubes, and bicycle brake lines.”

zip-tie stand-off
  1. Cut off a ¾-inch section of clear vinyl tubing. You can get this stuff cheap as aquarium air pump tubing.
  2. Run your zip tie through the small section of tube, leaving it sitting midway down the zip tie like a ring.
  3. Take the pointy end of the zip tie and wrap the smooth side around whatever you’re trying to wrangle.
  4. Shoot the pointy end back through the ring of vinyl tubing. You should now have a looped cable on one side of the tube. On the other side, you should have the two ends of your zip tie with the smooth sides facing each other.
  5. Cinch up the loop by adjusting the vinyl tubing ring toward the cable, creating enough length for the ends of your zip tie to be secured around whatever you’re fastening it to.
  6. Zip it up, trim off the extra, and repeat as needed.

Also from Donald Bell: “I came across this tip as a way to harness spark plug cables in your engine. It’s a great way to gather up any group of thick cables, while simultaneously keeping them separate from one another.”

zip-tie cable weave
  1. Lay your cables down parallel to one another and count them. The number of zip ties you’ll need is equal to the number of cables.
  2. Loosely attach one zip tie across the entire bunch of cables like a collar, leaving plenty of slack.
  3. Tie loose, perpendicular rings completely around the first zip tie between each cable, parallel to the cables.
  4. Tighten the first zip tie, and then move on to the small rings. Now, trim the excess.

12. Manage your cords

On his YouTube channel, homesteader Dirt Farmer Jay offers a tip for a superior, less kinky way to store your heavy-duty power cords.

power cord organization

The basic steps are:

  1. Plug the male end into the female end.
  2. Grab the doubled cord below the loop that marks the halfway point and flip it over so the loop is facing down.
  3. Push the doubled cord through the loop and grab it with your other hand.
  4. Repeat to form a chain.

Gareth Branwyn is a well-known writer and editor, and a pioneer of both online culture and the maker movement. He is the former editorial director of Make: Magazine, was a contributing editor to Wired for twelve years, and a senior editor of Boing Boing (in print). Gareth is the author and editor of over a dozen books, and is currently a regular contributor to Make, Boing Boing, and other online and offline publications.

This excerpt was adapted from Tips and Tales from the Workshop: A Handy Reference for Makers by Gareth Branwyn, June 2018 Maker Media. Published with permission.

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