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Get your bench organized!

Create some DIY tool storage systems and increase your efficiency.
Workbench article 1a
Have you seen an auto mechanic’s tool chest, or a chef’s station at a restaurant? Maybe you’ve watched a mason, carpenter, or electrician at work. How about a tailor? If so, you’ve more than likely seen an organized approach to task-specific job performance in action. The quality of the work they produce is proportional to the organization they bring to the job. Even if you don’t practice one of these skilled trades, that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the obvious advantages of the same professional approach.
Organization equals efficiency
Some might be resistant to the mention of organization; I suspect the loudest objections come from those who work in disorder and chaos. That old excuse of a messy environment being the evidence of a creative mind at work most often indicates something else — dare I say, lack of discipline?

Ponder this: How easy is it to get dressed for an event when none of your wardrobe is folded or hung up? How easy is the task of finding your attire, let alone selecting it? Yes, you can still get dressed, but it will certainly take longer to put your outfit together, and the process will involve more rummaging than necessary.

So, why settle for less efficiency at the bench when you can improve the quality of your work with a bit of organizational improvisation? Studio organization does not have to be an angst-ridden task or an expensive pursuit. With a few odds and ends of scrap materials and a bit of “can do” attitude, you’ll be on your way to a more enjoyable and rewarding jewelry-making experience.
Organized tool storage
The tools you use most often need to be easily accessible. If they are also organized and orderly, that’s even better. When the tool you need is where it’s supposed to be, you can maintain your focus rather than taking a mental detour. Searching for something disengages you from the task at hand, diminishes your concentration, negatively impacts the quality of your work ­— and is entirely avoidable.

Not everyone works at a standard jeweler’s bench with drawers for storage. In the absence of drawers, the typical storage alternative is the top of the bench. There are a couple of considerations for bench-top placement and staging; the tools need to be within easy reach without occupying too much of the work area. If your bench space is limited, you need storage systems that are compact and convenient, purposeful, and user friendly. For me, this means going vertical!

Some of the tools I use most are pliers, files, hammers, and chisels. I seldom keep these tools in drawers: I prefer to have them readily accessible on my bench top. Additionally, since I frequently travel to teach and work on location, there’s an advantage to having simple staging and storing options that are easy to set up and will work in virtually any setting.

With these requirements in mind, I devised some simple benchtop storage systems. These are mobile, functional, lightweight, and are easy to make with inexpensive, readily available materials.
DIY tool storage options

The five storage systems depicted hold the majority of my most frequently-used goldsmithing tools. I designed them to fit comfortably on a small benchtop the size of the student benches in my studio: 20 x 18 in. (50.8 x 45.7 cm). This allows me to stage my tools on top of the bench and keep my lap drawer and bench tray open for materials and work in progress.

What I used in all of these projects:

  • Copper wire (4-gauge [5.12 mm] and 6-gauge [4.11 mm])
  • 1⁄2-in. (13 mm) PVC pipe
  • scrap wood
  • glass jars
  • tin cans
  • finish nails 
Workbench article 6a
Pliers rack

Pliers rack

I like to store and organize my pliers upright and ready for action. I made my pliers rack from 4-gauge (5.16 mm) copper wire and a single piece of scrap lumber. The rack is 8 in. (20.3 cm) across, holds up to 20 pliers, and cost about $3.00 to make. Overall dimensions: 10 in. (25.4 cm) long, 6 in. (15.2 cm) high, and 2 in. (51 mm) deep.

To make a basic pliers rack, cut a 20-in. (50.8 cm) piece of wire and bend it into a U-shape, leaving 6-in. (15.2 cm) legs at each end. Fold the bends into 1/2 in. (13 mm) uprights to keep the pliers from sliding off the rack. (I use a vise to make my bends; with the heavier wire, it’s easier than using pliers.) Cut the legs to equal length. Use a #6 (5.18 mm/0.204-in.) drill bit to drill two holes the same distance apart as the copper wire legs in a piece of scrap wood. (The exact depth of the holes isn’t important, as long as they’re deep enough so that the wire doesn’t lever out of them when it is laden with tools, but don’t extend all the way through the wood.) Insert the legs of the copper wire into the drilled holes.

Workbench article 2a
Hammer rack
Hammer rack

My hammer hanger is a modified version of my pliers rack. It takes two wires to make a carriage for hammers (picture a gymnast’s parallel bars).

For this project, I used thinner 6-gauge (4.11 mm) copper wire, so the structure isn’t too heavy, and three pieces of scrap lumber. I added an extra wire with a hook at each end of the rack to hang my saw frames, and I added a bracing wire on each side of the wooden base to keep the rack from tipping over. Again, about $3.00 in materials. Overall dimensions: 12 in. (30.5 cm) tall, 9 in. (22.9 cm) wide, and 6 in. (15.2 cm) deep. I used finish nails to connect the wooden pieces, and a #20 (4.11 mm/0.182 in.) drill bit to drill the holes for the wire.

Both the pliers and hammer racks are stable and lightweight. They’re also collapsible for travel; the copper wires pull out of the bases, allowing them to be packed flat.
Container caddy

Another simple storage solution for small tools is glass jars and tin cans. These are perfect for organizing and separating chisels, punches, stamps, dowels, and dapping tools. This serves a dual purpose; organizing tools, and repurposing objects that would otherwise go to the recycler.

I had a collection of thick-walled glass jars of matching size that kept getting cluttered into a corner when I wasn’t using them. To make them more user friendly, I made an open box from scraps of thin wood and a few finish nails. Now I have a caddy that keeps the jars aligned in a handy compact unit, and I can slide the whole assortment to the side when I’m not using them. When I need to find a punch or stamp or chisel, I pull the box forward or take out the specific jar with just the tools I want.

Taller, narrow containers are perfect for longer tools (I’m fond of the 5 oz. jars from green olives), but tall and narrow also equals a tendency to tip over. I like the small tin cans from tomato paste, but they are lightweight and easily knocked over. A container caddy keeps both of these containers upright and aligned. For an even quicker fix: Bundle small containers in units of three for increased stability, and bind them together using tape, elastic bands, zip ties, or scrap wire. The triangular bundles nest well for compact storage.
Workbench article 3a
Container caddy
Tip!
Watch out for the tool trap!

There is a vast array of tools and products available to the modern jewelry maker that claim all kinds of things. Often, new tools and gadgets come with the promise that you’ll become a better jewelry maker by purchasing these new, specialized (often expensive) items. Many of these products are specifically designed for recreational jewelry makers; they aren’t intended to increase the user’s skill as much as they are designed to lighten the buyer’s wallet.

The lure of making things faster and easier catches many, but real fulfillment in jewelry making isn’t about faster or easier — it’s about doing things correctly and skillfully. Doing anything skillfully takes practice, repetition, and the desire to improve. Many gadgets and gimmicks are not only not necessary, but are the exact opposite of helpful. Circumventing skill by using an “it’s-so-easy-anyone-can-do-it” approach is heading in the opposite direction from becoming a better practitioner. Believing that having more tools will make you a better jewelry maker is most often just a detour onto the side road of becoming a tool collector.

In handmade jewelry, it’s still the hand that does the work. Simple, quality tools combined with skillfull work is still the most reliable route to success.
Workbench article 5a
Needle file block

Needle-file block

I use needle files extensively. When they accumulate into a pile on the bench, I waste a lot of time rifling through the pile, just to find a specific file. The answer to this is, again, verticality — storing files upright, ready for use.

Cut a scrap piece of ½-in. (13 mm) lumber into three staggered heights. Drill 6.25 mm (0.2461-in.) holes, connect the three pieces of wood with finish nails, and voilà! — a stepped vertical file rack. I organize my files in sequence by shape and cut, so I know just where to reach for the file I need.

SAFETY NOTE: Store your files point down, handle/tang up. You don’t want to accidentally skewer yourself when you’re reaching for a file.

Workbench article 4a
Hand file can
Hand file can

There’s an advantage to vertical storage for larger files, too. Hand files (with or without handles) are much longer than needle files, and laying them out on the bench takes up valuable real estate. To solve this, I used a tin can and a piece of 1⁄2-in. (13 mm) PVC pipe to make what is essentially a cylindrical vertical file cabinet. Five pieces of the PVC pipe fit perfectly into the can. I cut the tops at a slight angle for improved visibility, and now each file has its own compartment. Open spaces between the pipes provide storage for a few other tools that don’t fit easily in a category: ruler, tweezers, and bench knife.

But I didn’t stop there! I added a special bonus feature to my tin can — a copper wire lasso, bent into a series of loops, slid down over the PVC pipe at the top of the can makes an add-on rack for a few odds and ends that won’t fit into any of my storage racks: a prong pusher, gravers, burnisher, dividers, and a couple pairs of parallel pliers. The whole assembly is lightweight, and it cost next to nothing. Plus, bonus points for repurposing two materials that had been bound for the recycle bin or landfill.
DIY equals money saved, and more
In addition to the practicality of transforming cast-off materials into storage devices, there’s the added benefit of the satisfaction that comes with making do with what is at hand and being self-reliant. These are important aspects of the goldsmith’s aesthetic, alongside our tendency toward frugality. Our materials are expensive, and finding a bit of DIY savings enables us to buy a little extra metal! And, who doesn’t love a little extra metal?
FIND MORE: metal

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