A good friend of mine recently invited me over to help him perform a few basic maintenance tasks on the nice, classic car he had just purchased. I asked: “Do you need me to bring any tools?” to which he responded, “No worries, I’ve got everything I need”. So I went over empty handed.
We had a pleasant day working together on his convertible, and accomplished what we had set out to do. True to his word, the tools we needed were in his garage. However, all of them were piled up, on top of one another, on a metal utility shelf. My buddy had a small metal portable toolbox, but instead of tools, it was full of old parts from previous projects. The tools were out in the open, and each time we needed one, we first had to wade through the pile to find what we were looking for. The repetitive tool hunt was an exercise in futility, and caused us to spend that much more time on the tasks at hand.
Whether you are in the classic car hobby, or are performing some DIY maintenance on your daily driver, or even are expanding the tool collection in order to take care of all your household projects, good tool storage and organization become a necessity for your home workshop. You will likely find that as your skills and confidence grow, so does your tool collection. But stacking the tools in one open location (or worse, several locations) doesn’t get the job done, literally.
We divide the different choices in tool storage like this: there are the portable solutions, traditionally metal, but now also made of plastic or canvas, which hold few tools, but can easily be carried to the job site. Next are tool carts, which we think are better suited for production or remote service environments, where needed tools are loaded onto a wheeled cart, rolled to the job, then brought back to a central location. Stationary lockers and cabinets have their advantages, but more as storage for supplies and consumables. Finally, the tool
chest/cabinet combination has long been held as the mechanic’s “standard”, offering significant capacity and organization. These are the large, metal, multi-drawer tool boxes you’ll find inside automotive service departments, and they are the ones we recommend for the serious DIYer.
Certainly, the attraction of the smaller portable carriers is cost, and at the same time, the larger initial outlay for a tool chest or cabinet can be a detriment. The cliché “you get what you pay for” comes to mind here. If you’re serious about tool storage, and are thinking long-term with the expectation that your tool collection will grow, then this is not an area in which to skimp. Quality steel construction, with lockable drawers that can open and close while holding up to 100 pounds
each, are features which give you the assurance that these boxes will last for decades. (I’m still using my first tool chest that was purchased in 1978.) Think of a high-quality toolbox as a life-long investment.
When shopping for tool boxes, you’ll see terms you may not be familiar with. Here are the industry-accepted definitions of the different kinds of tool boxes:
A “tool chest”, also called a “top box”, is a multi-drawer tool cabinet with a hinged lid. It can be used either on its own, or on top of a roller cabinet (see that definition below). Tool chests do not come with wheels, and are not intended to be placed on the floor; rather, they are designed to sit at waist height. If used by themselves, they are best placed on a sturdy table or bench.
A roller cabinet, also called a bottom box, is a multi-drawer tool cabinet, usually supplied with caster wheels (hence the name “roller”). It is intended to be used either by itself, or, as the base for a tool chest/top box. If used on its own, the top
surface can be used as a work area, and might offer the option of rubber or wooden work surfaces.
A combination box (also known as a combo box or combo unit) is simply the combination of a top box and bottom box (tool chest and roller cabinet). Frequently,
manufacturers will offer these for sale together. The advantages are a better price along with the guarantee that the two pieces will fit together.
A middle cabinet, or intermediate box, allows you to expand your tool capacity without replacing your existing set-up. Middle cabinets neatly fit between top and bottom boxes. Just make sure that the width of the components match.
A side cabinet is a small tool box not intended to be used on its own. Rather, it mounts onto one side of a roller cabinet, to provide incremental additional storage.
A pit box at first glance can be mistaken for a roller cabinet. However, the design
concept is different, as a pit box is more intended to travel from location to location. A pit box uses significantly larger caster wheels, as well as an extended handle, allowing it to roll manually, or even be pulled at low speed by a motorized vehicle.
Are you now closer to making a decision to purchase? These are the factors you must take into consideration:
- How much storage do you need today, and how much will you need down the road? You don’t need to buy everything at once, but think about how your initial purchase can be expanded in the future. Inventory your current tools, and consider near-term and long-term future purchases.
- Where will the tool boxes reside? In the garage? Basement? Perhaps you have a set-up which will allow you to roll the box from one location to another. Think this through before you make the purchase. A critical measurement to know is the WIDTH of the available space. You may want a 72” wide bottom box, but may only have the room for one that’s 41” wide. Typically, you have room to go up, but measure that too!
- You may first be attracted to boxes with deep drawers, as they give the impression that they hold a lot. However, remember that the vast majority of hand tools take up little space (screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets, pliers, etc.). For this reason, we recommend tool boxes with a greater number of shallow drawers instead of a fewer number of deeper drawers. The greater drawer count allows you better organization, as more drawers can be dedicated to specific tools.
- If the initial purchase is limited to just one tool box, the choice will be between a tool chest (top box) or a roller cabinet (bottom box). Our recommendation: if you have room on a work bench, get the tool chest (remember that once it’s loaded, you will not be able to lift it). If you have room on the floor, say, next to a work bench, get the roller cabinet.
Our best advice is to purchase the highest quality tool box you can afford. Once you have it in place and loaded, you will be amazed at how much easier it will be to find the right tool in the shortest time. Your ability to get jobs done will happen even faster, and you’ll enjoy the work more. (Don’t be shy about labeling the drawers as we did; there’s no shame in reminding yourself where you put the 1/2” drive sockets.) The investment in a mechanic’s quality tool box will pay itself back many times over, and will last a lifetime.