Cool Tool Tuesday #6: How to store and organise your tools
Like Marie Kondo, but for bike nerds.
Like Marie Kondo, but for bike nerds.
There are a few inevitable outcomes when working on bikes. Often time moves faster when a hex key is in hand. You’re bound to waste time, that you already don’t have, looking for that tiny spare part you stashed away a year ago. And forever progressing technology ensures that at some point you’ll need a new tool, and therefore, your tool collection is never complete.
A well-organised workshop or toolbox can help you manage or mitigate many of these issues. Not rummaging through a messy toolbox for that rusty cassette locking socket is time saved, while being able to easily locate a part you already own means you’re not forced to buy another one.
And so with that, this Cool Tool Tuesday is a continuation of the previous part one and part two in building your cycling toolkit articles. Here I’ll give an overview of tool storage and organisation, my theory around efficient working, and throw in a few specific tips, too. It’s certainly a big topic about something that always offers room for improvement, so consider this just a starting place.
Tool organisation is a surprisingly broad topic with multiple different facets to spin off into. Fundamentally it can be split into two key areas: permanent workspace versus the need for portability and/or packability.
Those fortunate enough to have a garage, basement, or other dedicated space will be able to pursue a permanent workspace. Greater efficiencies can be had with a dedicated space, and of course, you’re likely to have room to grow your tool collection and repair capability with far less limitation. For many who enjoy working bikes, this dedicated space can be therapeutic and a place to destress as your brain focuses on the tasks at hand. There’s no doubt about it, the workshop is my happy place.
Meanwhile, portability is the way if you lack a dedicated workspace and need to store away all of your tools when you’re done. Perhaps you often find yourself on cycling trips or cycling events with your toolkit in tow – again, portability matters.
Or maybe you’re just a fellow tool nerd and feel the need to have both a permanent workshop and then a number of portable toolkits at your disposal. You certainly won’t get any judgement here.
This article covers the basics of both permanent and portable tool organisations. First, let’s talk about permanent workshop settings.
Exactly how much space you require is a matter of opinion, how efficient you want to be, and how much of an area you can actually justify dedicating to your passion (clue: all of it!) I bet you’ll almost certainly find a way to use whatever space you have.
At a minimum, a good workshop setting should have space for a bicycle mounted in a repair stand with room to move safely around at least one side of it. And you should be able to access your tools without having to move the bike.
A workbench (with a vice securely mounted) should always be the base of a workshop. A large work surface gives you room to pull things apart, perform more intricate repairs, and make a mess of tools. And beneath that work surface should sit plenty of storage. The workbench itself is a topic that has books dedicated to it and I’m not going to get into such intricacies, but just know that you don’t really have a permanent workspace until you have one.
Look to many professional bicycle workshops or well-equipped home shops and you’ll find a wall of tools behind the workbench. The theory here is that you can easily see what tools are where, you have easy access to them, and most importantly, using wall space for storage is pretty cost-effective (unless you have no walls).
By contrast, drawer-style tool chests, tool trolleys, and tool cabinets are the common choice amongst professional automotive and aeronautical mechanics because many of those industries expect workers to provide their own tools. And as those tools are personal property, the workers keep them safe and secure in a lockable tool chest.
A number of professional bike shops have moved away from wall-based tool storage in recent years, and often this has more to do with creating a high-end image and a customer-inviting open plan feel than it does with workshop efficiency.
So assuming that you have a secure workspace where you don’t need to keep tools under lock and key, then my vote is to put your most used and/or awkwardly sized tools on a tool wall. It truly is the most efficient way of working with bicycle tools. I would then recommend drawers for the overflow of lesser-used tools and for storing small parts.
I’m not one to mount all of my tools on the wall. I find that doing so creates clutter, causes one to have to stretch for things, and just generally does not spark joy. Instead, I prefer to keep lesser-used tools, delicate tools, and small parts in drawers beneath the workbench or in my case, a nearby tool chest (or three).
That tool wall should be arranged in a way that has the most-used tools in the easiest reach position. For me, this means hex keys, pliers, and screwdrivers are placed centrally and at chest or torso height.
From there I try to group tools based on their purpose. The chain whip should be directly next to the cassette lockring tool. The chain breaker should be near the chain quick link pliers. And the pipe wrench should be nowhere near your bike.
A further pro trick is to place these commonly used cycling tools at the shortest distance possible from where you’ll be using them – for example, the chain breaker should be inline with where the back of the bike sits when mounted in your repair stand. To be honest, my setup breaks this rule because I chose to go with width instead of height, but I digress.
As mentioned wall storage can be a pretty effective means for storing tools, so it may make sense to put some of the bulkier and more awkwardly shaped cycling tools on the wall, too. My advice here is just to put them in a place that isn’t in the way of your most commonly used tools. Put these up higher or to the far side.
Tool walls that stack tools on one another annoy the heck out of me, and likewise, you should avoid having tools that are too near each other and force you to accidentally drop things. Each tool should have a dedicated hook or hanger, and you should be able to grab it one-handed.
Yep, the CyclingTips tool wall used in James Huang’s tech video studio triggers the heck out of me. It’s comforting to know that it’s more than a day’s travel away from me.
The general go-to for tool walls is pegboard; after all, it’s well priced and designed for this very task. I’m going to go against the grain and say that while the modular nature of pegboard carries big advantages, it also carries major disadvantages in that you’re often fighting against tool holders falling out (yes, there are solutions for this) or pre-drilled holes that are not ideally distanced for the tools you’re mounting. Instead, my preference is to take the time and create your own tool wall with screws or nails to hold the tools.
There are many ways to approach a custom tool wall, and even repurposing the wood from old pallets is a proven option. Personally, my current setup is sheets of pre-coated black marine ply mounted to the wall. I then used carefully placed screws to hold specific tools in their respective places. The exposed threads of those screws are covered with silicon rubber insulation tubing for extra grip and protection for the tools. And while not really needed, some of those tools have stealthy countersunk magnets helping to hold them straight. No doubt it took some time to plan out, but it works perfectly, has proven durable, and brings happiness to this nerd.
I will add that it’s worth taking the time and perhaps spending money to optimise access to your most-used tools. Over the years I’ve tried a myriad of homemade options, but I’ve never bested the function of Park Tool’s HXH hex key holders which fan out the tools in an easy-to-reach fashion. Just know that hex keys with sleeve protectors or oversized shafts such as Wera Rainbow, Pedro’s Pro T/Ls, and PB Swiss Knurled keys don’t fit in these holders.
Another great option is the spring-loaded tool holders sold by PB Swiss (PB 505) and Hazet. I use these for my hex screwdrivers and regular screwdrivers. The genius of these holders is that you can pull the tool out from any angle, whereas most holders require you to lift the tool up and then out. These replaced some homemade holders that were based on custom-drilled square tubing which were functional but far less efficient in use.
Another nice addition is a magnetic knife holder that’s designed for kitchen walls. I use this for holding a few different poker tools, some small bit ratchets, a Shimano Hollowtech crank bolt tool, common sizes of stubby hex keys, and more. You can use these to hold any steel tools, although just be warned that you’re likely to drop a few if they’re tightly packed together.
Of course, I have a lot of tools that don’t fit on the wall, and therefore I have a few tool chests and rolling tool cabinets to store them. Tool cabinets (the base part) and tool chests (the top section) are an incredibly space-efficient way to keep tools well organised, but they need to be chosen based on budget, your available space, and your storage needs. It’s perfectly fine to buy tool chests from Costco, Harbor Freight, Home Depot, or similar discount outlets – just avoid the very cheapest option. And if you’re handy with a little carpentry or joinery, you can absolutely make your own drawer tool chests.
Durability is a good reason not to buy the cheapest tool storage options, but practical sizing is the better reason. Those bottom-dollar budget options tend to be very shallow in depth and lack height in the drawers. As a result, you’re forced to flat-lay every tool and place longer tools from left to right. The result is that you’ll quickly be screaming for more space. Ideally, you should look for a tool chest and/or trolley with at least 460 mm depth (external) and drawer heights no shallower than 40 mm.
It can be tempting to buy a tool chest/cabinet that suits your existing tool collection but believe me, you’ll always fill the drawer space you have. On the assumption that budget and space allow, then get a bigger tool chest than what you think you might need. You may end up only using the excess drawers for hoarding old parts and that’s perfectly fine.
If you have a more minimalist tool collection then you may be able to make do with just the top tool chest, something that’s designed to sit on top of a bench, on a shelf, or stacked on a rolling tool cabinet. However, if space allows, my advice is to keep your workbench space free from tool storage and start with the base cabinet.
Here the organisation theory is much the same as tool walls, with similar tools grouped together and your most-used tools placed in the drawers that are most easily accessed (typically waist height). For example, my pliers that aren’t mounted on the tool wall have a dedicated drawer in prime position. My measurement tools, including digital calipers, have another drawer that is well away from tools that may get covered in fluids or metal shavings. My bearing removal/service/press tools are organised together (across three separate drawers, but that’s a whole other article). And then my cutting guides, files, and hacksaws sit in another dedicated drawer, one where metal shavings won’t do any harm to the stored tools.
There are multiple approaches to organising those individual tools within their dedicated drawers, and I use a mixture of solutions to optimise space, keep things where I want them, and help protect other tools.
The trendiest solution is cut-out foam, where each tool has a dedicated spot. No doubt such a system looks fantastic and can be a joy to use. It also helps to identify when a tool is missing, which is exactly why it’s the status-quo amongst aeronautical mechanics.
I use custom cut foam layouts for storing my delicate measurement calipers and preventing scratches to my fancy bearing presses. However foam layouts force your tools to be more spread out, and the result is that you often need more drawer space for a given collection. They also tend to lock you into those tool choices and that arrangement, and so you’re often forced to redo the whole panel if a particular tool breaks, gets upgraded, or you add a new one to the family.
It’s because of these limitations that I tend to keep the foam for my most prized tools, and then use more space-efficient methods for others. I look to the automotive industry for inspiration here.
For example, my plier draw keeps the contents stacked partially upright with homemade racks made from cut-up wire dish-drying racks to maximise space. Commercial versions or other DIY versions of such pliers racks also exist but just be warned that many store the pliers in a tall position which also happens to be a perfect example of why I don’t recommend toolboxes with low-height drawers.
The spanners that aren’t hanging on the wall sit in spanner racks that work much like those plier racks. And then my sockets sit in specially organised socket rails where each socket has a dedicated prong. There are a few different styles of such socket rails, and my favourite is the Ernst Manufacturing Socket Boss (they offer other smaller versions, too).
Meanwhile, my selection of bearing press drifts is somewhat out of control and so a few years back I devised a system where all the drifts of a single bearing size get their own small plastic tub with a label. Such small plastic tubs are great for storing all sorts of things, Schaller is the original source, but now a 3D printer is a window to creating such things.
A more compact solution for a smaller collection of bearing drifts is to use a bit of scrap ply and dowels to hold each respective size (this worked for me until I fed my bearing drift collection after midnight). Whatever you do, just know there are better methods than stacking them along the press rod and having to spill them out across the workbench with each use.
Alright, that’s enough rambling about permanent setups. Let’s talk portable.
So all of the above probably has you pining for a dedicated work area. But what if that’s either simply not possible, not practical, or you just need something portable? No stress – this is where more compact and packable solutions come in.
I don’t doubt that a number of you currently have your tools pilled up in a large unorganised plastic toolbox or a bucket. And while that’s arguably both portable and packable, you’re also certainly wasting plenty of time digging through looking for each tool while removing yourself from the flow of the work.
There are many ways to approach portable tool kits, and while ToolBoxWars offers endless inspiration for getting fancy, you don’t have to spend a huge amount of time or money to be organised.
Of course, your chosen method needs to be practical for the number of tools you’re hoping to stash. Squeezing the equivalent of a bike shop into a handheld bag isn’t likely to work out. Meanwhile using a hard case to store just a few essential tools is arguably less space-efficient, heavier, and more expensive than it needs to be.
A tool roll is one of the most space-efficient and easily carried portable options. Generally, each tool has its own respective sleeve or zippered pocket, and it all rolls together for easy carrying. The likes of Pedro’s, Unior and Wolf Tooth offer cycling-specific tool rolls of various sizes, while other niche adventure brands such as Soul Run and Adventure Tool Company have larger and more premium options.
Generally speaking, tool rolls are great for carrying smaller hand tools but aren’t the best option if you have a number of larger workshop-sized tools to store. You’ll also need to account for the space of rolling them out. Either way, a tool roll is what I keep in the car and I pack a smaller one when I’m flying with a bike somewhere.
A tool wallet is another option that folds out rather than rolls out. Feedback Sports produces a good example of this that can be hung from a repair stand, and there are a few electrical trade brands that offer something similar, too. In either case, tool wallets are best for minimalist tool kits and don’t offer room for anything bulky.
With space for bigger tools, an organised tool bag or tool backpack is something you’ll commonly see amongst electricians, plumbers, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and other trades. Many of these tool bags offer similar organisation to a tool roll, but do so without having to take up the bench space or floor space. The big downside to such a bag is that it can be hard to keep a larger number of hand tools organised and at easy access. Meanwhile you may be up for some re-organisation if you tip the bag over.
And that leads us to hardshell toolboxes and tool cases. At the entry level is the basic empty toolbox with little internal storage. Yes it works, but also, this is Cool Tool Tuesday, so *shrug*. Meanwhile, boxes designed for fishing tackle can be good, but often the organiser compartments are a little too small for most cycling tools.
Classic-style cantilever boxes have come back into popularity recently and offer a system that’s easy to unpack, takes little space, and offers vastly better organisation than a hollow box. Unfortunately, these boxes can be quite heavy to transport once filled to the brim. Similarly they’re not a great choice if you have a bunch of larger tools that carry height. Still, I think they’re cool.
There’s also the emerging category of modular plastic tool boxes aimed at tradesmen. The Milwaukee PackOut series is the most prolific example, but many of the big power tool companies are now releasing their own versions. These could be a worthy option if you’re looking for a solution to use in a permanent workshop but can take it places if needed.
Just be warned that they’re not perfect. As Michael Cawley, the owner of the box below warns, “the Packout has a lot of wasted space and was a pain to move around outside the shop. If you can leave it on a bench or floor then it’s decent but the connecting mechanism wastes a lot of vertical space.”
Finally, we get to hard-sided safe case boxes which are the most common choice amongst travelling race mechanics. These boxes are designed to be lockable, thrown around by baggage handlers, and still provide an efficient work area. And because they’re made with impact-resistant plastics, they’re typically light enough to easily lift, too.
Most of these cases are based around smaller Pelican (#1560 is a common choice) or Nanuk hardshell cases, however, the latest trend that I don’t fully understand (from a space point of view) involves massive rifle cases that let you stash most tools across one or two layers. Another option involves larger-wheeled versions of such cases. However, how these safe case boxes are customised and internally organised is much of what ToolBoxWars was founded on. Generally, you’ll see tools organised with either tool storage pallets or custom cut foam.
The likes of Unior, Park Tool, Pedro’s, B&W, and Chicago all offer examples of ready-to-fill tool pallet type boxes. These keep tools organised in respective holders, elastic webbing, and slots, but do so while giving more freedom to adjust what goes where. Many of these boxes are designed to be a workstation that once open, offer full access to the tools within for you to work from. This style of box is typically preferred by professional road mechanics as they often work from a small area of a team truck – an applicable scenario to working from the back of a car trunk/boot.
The other popular option involves foam layers, and this is undoubtedly the trendy choice as it has been popularised by ToolBoxWars on Instagram. Before ToolBoxWars, the idea of foam-layered boxes became a thing amongst a select number of professional mountain bike race mechanics wanting to keep TSA agents honest by having a specific spot for every single tool. If they opened their case to find a tool missing, they knew the airline was responsible.
That foam layer approach has other merits, including keeping each tool protected from the others, preventing rattling while you drive, and just looking bad-ass in the carpark. However, I will argue that so many going down this path haven’t actually considered how inefficient it may be for non-professional use.
The biggest issue with layered foam toolboxes is that you’ll likely need a fair amount of bench or table space to access all layers of tools – pulling a box apart or having to assemble tool tray shelves to quickly grab a pair of pliers just seems a little silly to me. Additionally, it can be rather tricky, time-consuming, or just costly to build layers that can withstand regular use of pulling them out and placing them back. And it’s for this reason that the best foam layer boxes often use sheets of ABS or carbon fibre to reinforce the foam.
The art of dialling in a box can be a hobby in itself, and I won’t discourage that, but I think it’s worth spending time to think about how you commonly use tools and how a toolbox will enhance that.
With that said, my current portable toolbox is a mix of tool pallets and foam. Toolbox setup is of course personal and my own needs are perhaps slightly unique given that I’m constantly making small adjustments to a wide variety of bikes. For this reason, I wanted a toolkit that gave me quick and easy access to whatever tools I needed for a specific task. Layers of stacked foam were certainly not an option, and even rolling out a tool roll tends to feel like a waste of time.
The base of my toolbox is a B&W Jet 6000 with a few customisations. I like the stock tool pallets that let me access the vast majority of tools without having to pull anything out or move anything. On the bottom pallet I’ve put some rings that let me hang it from the front of the box (something I liked about my old Park Tool BX-2). And then I tore out the bottom organiser and replaced it with Kaizen foam that has been cut for a variety of larger and lesser-used tools. Small parts are stored in plastic organiser boxes.
If you do decide to go with foam, then there are options for cutting it yourself or having it professionally done. The original option amongst the DIY foams is FastCap Kaizen while ShadowFoam is a newer entrant to the market – both offer a high-density foam with thin layers that you can tear out for the desired depth. A simple box-cutter can cut this foam with good results, but the best results are had by cutting with the heat of a foam cutter, hot knife, or customised soldering iron.
On the professional side of foam organisation, you can have your tools scanned or use photographs, which then lets the professionals make a digital file for an automated router or CNC to make some truly clean cuts. There are a number of companies now offering such a service, with Guard Dog Inserts being an example that does some cycling stuff.
There is no best way to approach toolbox personalisation, however, I do have a few thoughts on what I commonly see as mistakes. My advice is to buy a box that’s sized just slightly bigger than the longest tool you’re wanting to carry – this is commonly a derailleur hanger gauge, pedal wrench, large torque wrench or similar. I’ll often see such large tools running diagonally across someone’s box in order for it to fit, and that just limits the placement of everything else.
On that last point, seriously consider what tools you want to carry, how they’ll fit, and if they’re a practical choice for a compact tool kit. Do you really need a full-sized hammer when a smaller model will do the job? How many different styles of hex wrench will you actually use? And rather than spending extra on a larger toolbox and more foam to fit that workshop-style derailleur hanger gauge, perhaps it may be better to just buy a more portable version that doesn’t require disassembly for storage?
And the panel in the toolbox lid is another big decision where I see many go wrong, especially if using a panel of foam. Using foam in the lid means you need to find a balance between secure tool holding and easy removal – not so easy. Because of this, you’ll often see pros using boxes where the tools in the lid are held in with spring clips, magnets, or a mixture of both. Such customised lids can be extremely time-consuming to create but the results can be worth it. And of course, the pallet-style organisation makes a lot of sense in this scenario.
Everything suggested above is a combination of popular methods and what I’ve found works well for me. However, the space you have (or share), the types of bikes you work on, your repair style, and of course budget will all factor into what’s best for you.
For more inspiration on portable toolboxes and drawer layouts be sure to take a scroll through ToolBoxWars on Instagram (just be mindful of how practical some of the setups may be for you how work). And for inspiration on home workshops then join the conversation on the CyclingTips forum.
Note: A number of the tools mentioned in Cool Tool Tuesday are not sold through traditional cycling channels and can be hard to find, which is also kind of the point of the series. Access to the tools covered will be easy for those in Europe and the United States. Use a search engine to find the products mentioned.
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