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Nuts & Bolts: Help for a Cluttered Garage

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on September 19, 2016
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Garage Organization
How does one keep, stow away, and retrieve many years' worth of choice vehicle-specific stuff for projects? How detailed or specific do you need to be when it comes to the nuts and bolts and washers? And what about my spare hinges and wiper arms and suspension parts? Oh, and wires and lights and all those little parts that aren't garbage (at least to the illustrious 1 percent of us)? I've got 20 shelves to work with, and I'm tired of my shop looking like a tornado landed here.
Jeff via

Asking us this question is like asking a fat kid in a candy store for dieting advice. All of the magazine staff (especially Technical Editor Verne Simons) and most of the contributors have garages that look like they belong on an episode of Extreme Hoarders. In our hobby, clean work areas are about as rare as CJ-7 Dana 44s, but they do exist. One of the few guys around here who does manage to keep a lid on the chaos is frequent contributor Harry Wagner, so we turned to him to see what he had to say.

"I don't know what the ‘right' answer is," says Harry, "but I can tell you what works for me. I have little plastic bins with metric nuts in one, standard nuts in another, metric bolts, and so on. They aren't sorted by size but are sorted well enough that I can usually find what I need. For larger parts I make sure and clean them and then I put them in plastic totes that are labeled by vehicle. Larger items are just on the shelf. I ask myself how easy a part is to replace (if easy, I don't keep it) rather than how much it is worth. I don't keep wires or lights (at least bulbs) because they are pretty easy to replace."

Here are some of our own tips. On a day-to-day basis, try to spend the last 15 minutes you have cleaning up and putting tools away, even if you're only partway through a project. This really helps reduce clutter and frustration because you rarely pick up exactly where you left off the previous day, and it's far easier to pull that wrench you were using back out of the toolbox than it is to figure out where you put it down the day before. Next, organize stuff as much as possible. Put all the plumbing parts in one place, including fittings, hoses, and even special tools that might be needed to work with plumbing projects. Same goes for wiring, trim pieces, suspension bits, fasteners, fabrication equipment, and so on. Storage totes are much better than cardboard boxes because they nest better and can be more clearly labeled. You can find fairly sturdy ones at home improvement centers. You can never have too much shelving, and you can get creative with creating more storage space, such as that dead space between the ceiling and the garage door when it's open. Even if it's just a few inches, that's enough for sticks of tubing and just about anything else that's long and skinny. Also, prioritize access to tools and equipment you tend to use more often and make them more accessible than stuff you only use occasionally. For example, Verne does a lot of fabrication work, so he tends to keep grinders, welders, and steel more handy than, say, gear pullers and other stuff he would use for engine and axle work. Try and think in terms of the equipment needed for a specific project and keep that stuff together so you aren't pulling out parts and tools from a dozen places. Put everything you can on wheels so it can be made easily accessible or stored out of the way in a few minutes. That shop press you spent 30 minutes uncovering? It would have taken just a couple minutes if the 15 things in front of it could simply be wheeled out of the way.

As for all of those parts and pieces you are saving for "someday," it's a slippery slope. While of course you should hang on to that very rare transmission bit or that one-year-only piece of trim, only do so if you have plans to actually use it someday. Otherwise you should strongly consider letting it go to someone who will use it so that you in turn can use the proceeds to fund the projects on-hand. We've also heard of guys having a strict 12-month rule, meaning if they haven't touched it in a year they get rid of it. Another helpful rule is one-in, one-out, which is especially handy when talking about entire vehicles and bulky components. It can be hard to let go, but often letting go is better than tripping over it for years and then letting it go. If you've moved three times in 10 years and only ever touched a box to move it to the next place, it's probably time to get rid of that box and its contents.

Don't think adding more space will make things better. If you're not careful, more space only leads to more clutter. The most important thing, however, is diligence. Clutter starts in corners and creeps out until it takes over entire garages; only regular cleaning, organizing, and purging can keep it at bay.

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