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People I've seen who have garages have it made. They have a clean, dry workspace with all of their tools within arms reach. In the most organized garages, a mixture of rolling Snap-on Roll Cab with Drawers and pegboards helps create an organizational paradigm that lets the do-it-yourselfer focus on the task at hand.

One person described working on a project as "zen" and an "artful experience". A clean workspace, plenty of time, no rush. These are critical for any problem-solving roles, whether it be fixing a car or finding bugs in software. Being an engineer, I know how important it is to be organized so one can stay focused.

I'm unfortunately not at a point in my life where I have a garage. I have some tools, but they are extremely disorganized as I'm not a professional with a professional's workspace. Thus, instead of being able to seamlessly go from "car won't start" to "check the plugs" and "regap the plugs", I end up doubling or tripling the time it would take to perform these very simple tasks, just because I spend that time trying to locate the tool in question. Not only does this take time, but it also disrupts the workflow. It's the exact opposite of zen.

I realize that the solution is to get organized, but I also know it has to be sustainable. Organization depends on accessibility and needs to be part of the workflow if it's going to be maintained; otherwise, disorganization once again takes over. With a garage, it's much easier to get and stay organized, without a garage, it seems almost unachievable.

I feel like I'm a little over my head trying to both learn how my car works and concentrate on solving the real problems while at the same time dealing with the distracting problem of having an inadequate, disorganized workspace. What techniques can someone use to get tools organized without a garage? How can this be done cheaply? I was thinking of getting several small, portable toolboxes and labeling them, but I'm not sure if that will be easy to maintain. Working outdoors, how can one keep tools clean of dirt and other debris that may not be exactly friendly to your car's engine bay?

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"People I've seen who have garages have it made. They have a clean, dry workspace with all of their tools within arms reach." - We do? I just went to see if the cleaning elves and organization fairies had visited my garage: nope, still a shambles. –  Bob Cross Apr 2 '12 at 15:22
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lol, okay so maybe I'm a little over the top. Nothing is perfect for sure, and even with a garage, I realize it still takes discipline. :) –  jmort253 Apr 2 '12 at 19:20
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2 Answers

If buying one of the pre-assembled sets is not an option, the following answers will assume you will keep your tools in some form of carry bag...

  • You can begin by alienating all your sockets, and sorting them. Purchase a couple of socket rails, which can be had for cheap, and snap them on. Insert these into your bag.
  • Next, alienate your wrenches and sort them. They sell holders that, once all wrenches are in place, can be rolled and stored. You can have a couple of these for all your wrenches.
  • Screwdrivers are a bit tricky, as the holders vary, but it can still be achieved in the same fashion. I recommend a small magnetic tray or rack.
  • The rest of the items will likely lay in the bag, and you can just pull as need it.
  • Finally, the best thing to get when working in small spaces is a magnetic tray.

This will allow you to store your tools in a small place, and once you know what you need you can simply lay it on your tray, and stick the tray near your work area. I worked as a BMW mechanic, and loved my tool cart. It was set up similarly, but instead of a bag, I had a cart. I decided to return to school for my degree, but worked aviation maintenance over night for 3 years. I used to carry a small bag with me when I went to do jobs inside of the hull, or APU bay. They can be time savers. Also, magnetic boards :-) Extreme time savers, as they also help prevent lost tools. Hope this helps.

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+1 - Great suggestion. I got a magnetic tray after I almost lost a distributor bolt inside the engine! I figure the cost of the bowl is cheaper than a rebuild. I'll also get the rails. Plus, I think I need an old table I can keep outside so I don't have to sit tools on the ground. I find all kinds of stuff on the ground that just gets left out there... –  jmort253 Apr 3 '12 at 3:44
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I strongly support PetroEkos's suggestion of a tool bag. I'll go even further and suggest that you invest in a separate job bag: i.e., take some time before the task to reach into your (now nicely organized) selection of tools and make a good guess as to which tools you're definitely going to need. You usually won't get the inventory exactly right but you'll have reduced the wrong-tool-curse-walk-back-to-other-bag frequency significantly.

To address the outdoor point:

Working outdoors, how can one keep tools clean of dirt and other debris that may not be exactly friendly to your car's engine bay?

I have a few suggestions:

  1. Don't be a shade-tree mechanic: the trees in my yard drop acorns with accuracy and malice. Unless you have better behaved trees, stay out from under them.
  2. Buy some cheap blankets or carpet remnants to put down on your work area and keep down the dirt and dust. This has the added benefit of making it harder to lose tools in the tall grass.
  3. Pick up some cheap magnetic knife racks. This will give you a good place to slap a tool and make you feel like it's not going to roll or get kicked away.

Finally, a safety requirement: never ever jack up the car unless you are certain of the material bearing the load. The soil where I live is approximately 50% rocks, with new stones sprouting each winter. If I were to put the car on jack stands in my yard, there's a good chance that one stand would slowly sink, tilting on a rock and drop the car on me with little or no warning.

In situations when I didn't have a nice concrete surface to support the jack stands, I've had good luck with 2x12s of pressure-treated wood. They hold the stand steady and spread the load over a large area (so they don't immediately sink into the dirt). As always with personal safety, you have to make the call.

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+1 - The focus on safety is important and is never overstated. I think I'm going to look for magnetic knife racks and attach them to my outdoor table. It won't be perfect, but I don't expect to solve this problem overnight. –  jmort253 Apr 3 '12 at 3:46
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@jmort253, with respect to "perfect", I'm a big believer in good enough. The magnetic trays and tool racks increase the chance that you'll be able to put a tool or bolt down and it will probably be there later when you go look for it. As a result, the total number of hissy fits that you throw per day will drop.... ;-) –  Bob Cross Apr 3 '12 at 14:14
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I like the "fits per day" metric. That is going to be a great way to measure the results! :) –  jmort253 Apr 3 '12 at 14:26
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