Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Troubleshooting Professional Magazine

Volume 11 Issue 4, Autumn, 2007
  Toolsmanship For the Disorganized
Copyright (C) 2007 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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Make your toolchest an exclusive club. No tool may join unless it's nonredundant and incredibly useful. -- Steve Litt.


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
Toolsmanship's easy for neatfreaks, but what about the disorganized among us? The January 2003 and July 2004 Troubleshooting Professional Magazines extolled the necessity to keep tools organized, available, and in a known location. For some of us, that's a little like telling an alcoholic he must quit drinking. The alcoholic's response: "Duh, now tell me how!"

A spectacular toolsman named Aaron works at a spectacular radiator shop called Young's Automotive. Aaron inspired the July 2004 Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, and indirectly he inspired this one too. To make a long story short, when beginning a repair, Aaron goes back to the tool cabinet and brings out the tools he thinks he'll need for the repair. He keeps the tools in the engine compartment. If another tool is needed, he'll walk back to the tool cabinet and get it. At the end of the repair he puts away all the tools.

Seeing Aaron handle his tools, I was both inspired and jealous. He's organized enough to pull it off, but I'll never be. Nevertheless, since seeing Aaron in action I've been on the lookout for ways to improve my toolsmanship.

Maybe, just maybe, I've discovered how to be a better toolsman. Interestingly, my new methods look almost identical to Aaron's.

This Troubleshooting Professional Magazine is devoted to the possibility that we mere mortals can learn to handle tools like our ultra-organized brethren.

So kick back, relax, and enjoy this issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. Remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.  You can email Steve here.

My New System

By Steve Litt
Mid-November 2007 a Sears TV ad mentioned a huge tool chest at a spectacular price during a one day sale the next day. I'd wanted a professional tool chest for several years but didn't want to spend $800.00, and also my office has limited room for a tool chest. The next day at Sears I plunked down $300.00 for a professional combo of two chests -- a big rolling one underneath with a smaller one sitting on top of it. Together they stand five feet tall, and each drawer can hold up to 50 pounds of tools. An additional forty dollars was spent for non-slip drawer liners so my tools wouldn't slide when the drawers were opened and closed.

There was one additional purchase -- a ten dollar plastic toolbox. This toolbox was inspired by Aaron at Young's Automotive. At the start of a repair I can select the needed tools from the toolchest, place them in the toolbox, and bring the toolbox to the repair.

I rolled out my old toolchest, which was really an antique nightstand with about 6 drawers, into our family room, assembled the new toolchest in the family room, and transferred the tools from the nightstand to the professional tool chest. My long tools were transferred from their former residence, a 50 pound powdered chlorine container, to the new toolchest. Likewise, the tools from my 2 cubic foot clear plastic bicycle tool container were moved to a special bicycle tool drawer in the new toolchest. Once the toolchest was loaded, I wheeled it into its assigned place in my office. My ten dollar plastic toolbox was placed, empty, on top of the toolchest.

Would it work? Would it make me a better toolsman, or had I just wasted close to four hundred dollars?

My next job happened a few days later -- installing lights on my bicycle. With the bicycle in the family room, I loaded the necessary tools into the plastic tools and headed out to the family room.


Most of the necessary tools were available, and those that weren't were quickly locatable in the toolchest. The plastic toolbox provided a place to rest tools not in my hand, so tools weren't scattered all over the place.

It's amazing how much time I used to waste looking for tools. Five, ten, twenty minutes to locate a tool. Sometimes it couldn't be found at all, resulting in use of a suboptimal tool. With this new system it will never again be necessary to round a spoke nipple using an adjustable wrench instead of a misplaced spoke wrench.

Two nights ago I replaced a broken spoke on my bike and trued the wheels, trued the wheels on my son's bike, repaired a broken brake on my daughter's bike and trued the wheels and then installed lights on her bike, and installed lights on my other daughter's bike. Four repairs in four hours -- a long way from a world record, but not bad for a guy without a repair stand, doing some fairly substantial repairs. I was exhausted toward the end, but the exhaustion was as much due to an earlier 40 mile bikeride as the marathon repair.

One thing that didn't contribute to the exhaustion was missing tools. Before my new toolchest, misplaced tools always caused exhaustion and frustration. I'd need a tool, spend 10 minutes looking for it, and forget what I was doing in the first place. It was horrid. Those days are gone.

Exhaustion made me leave the plastic toolchest, full of tools from the repairs, on the floor until the next day. Waking up well rested the next day, it took five minutes to put every tool back in its right place in its right drawer.

       *     *
        \ o /
          |               I T   W O R K E D !
         / \  _ 
        /   \/
Steve Litt is the creator of the Universal Troubleshooting Process. You can email Steve here.

Challenges to My New System

By Steve Litt
My new system works well, but there are significant challenges. This new toolchest, which is roughly four times the volume of the nightstand that preceded it, is already almost full. Meanwhile, many of my tools haven't yet transferred to the new toolchest. I'd wanted to get a complete set of box wrenches to decrease dependency on adjustable wrenches, and avoid rounding nuts. But there isn't room on the toolchest.

After two weeks of using the new system, it's obvious that much of the productivity is due to the fact that tools are instantly locatable. That means each drawer has only one layer of tools in it, as opposed to the two or three layers in my old nightstand or probably ten layers in one of my typical toolboxes. Toolchest room is dear indeed.

Part of the problem is former tool hoarding. When I couldn't find a tool I bought another one. I now have an entire drawer of #1 and #2 phillips screwdrivers and flathead screwdrivers. There are 21 screwdrivers when 4 to 6 would suffice. There are 4 identical ratcheting socket drives. The file drawer contains 12 files. True, some have very different abrasive surfaces and are used for very different tasks, but many are redundant.

There are things that couldn't possibly fit in the toolchest. Boxes of drywall screws from 3/4 inch to 3 inch. Boxes of nails. Wood glue and wood stain. Hand saws, fence post diggers, shovels, machetes. Deciding what goes in and what stays out of your toolchest is difficult.

Tool scattering is a huge problem. In the decades I've had tools, they've gotten buried various places. Slowly they're being discovered and put in the toolchest. It will take time, however.

A final challenge occurs when the toolchest is more than a minute away from the worksite. In that case extra care must be taken to bring the necessary tools to the worksite the first time, because going back to retrieve additional tools takes time, and can also leave your existing tools subject to theft.

Speaking of theft, the toolchest needs to be reasonably protected. Lock it when not in use. Store it indoors, where it's not easily accessible. Don't make it visible.

In terms of dollars, floor space and cubic feet in a room, tool cabinets are very expensive. This is even more true given the fact that they're worthless if drawers are indiscriminately piled with layers of tools such that tools aren't findable. The challenge is to keep necessary tools quickly findable. What you don't put in the toolchest is as important as what you do.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware.  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Implementing the System

By Steve Litt
As discussed in the preceding article, implementing a toolchest and toolbox system presents several challenges. Unless you have space and money to spare, the toughest challenge is limited space in the toolchest.

When you first set up this system, tools crawl out of the woodwork. Tools not seen for years. Duplicates of duplicates bought hastily for a project when the right tool was temporarily misplaced. Tools seeming so handy on the store shelf that turned out to be strictly redundant with what you already had. Whole sets of tools: Sockets, box wrenches, allen wrenches, and of course those "247 piece mechanics tool set" that seemed like such a great deal when you bought them.

There are two excess tool issues: Excesses built up before the new system, and ongoing excesses.

Excesses Built Up Before the New System

You're turning over a new leaf. This isn't the time to blame yourself for your past bad habits. With cheap duplicate tools,  give away or throw away the lowest quality duplicates. Store the rest of the duplicates in heavy duty boxes, crates or whatever, and write down their location in case you lose one of your main tools. The best place to record this information is on your computer.

By storing and recording the location, you make sure that the next time you lose or wear out a tool from your main toolset, you'll get a replacement from the box instead of buying yet another duplicate.

Not all unnecessary tools are duplicates. Some are tools you just don't need. Perhaps that tricky wrench with the quadruple flexing head and ultra-ergonomic handle isn't necessary. Sell it or give it away. Some tools are needed once a year. Store them in a box and write down the box number so you can find them when necessary.

Ongoing Excesses

Be VERY careful when you buy a new tool. A tool costs much more than its purchase price. The tool will consume valuable space in your tool chest. It will make your other tools harder to get to. It will slow you down on repairs not requiring it. Before purchasing a tool, VERY carefully consider whether it will really speed your work. If so, get the tool, but if not, leave it be.

This is also true at garage sales. Even that perfectly functioning two dollar garage sale drill is a bad deal if you already have two drills and don't need a third. Impulse buys are the kiss of death for the toolsman.

On an ongoing basis, be aware of what tools you need and be on the lookout for them, but no impulse buys.

Carefully consider the need for specialty tools. Specialty tools can speed repairs immensely, but if you have metric and English sets of boxes, sockets, and in-the-wrench ratchets, that could easily gobble up a couple of drawers. If speed is the only issue, an adjustable wrench might be a better option. Of course if the adjustable wrench runs the risk of rounding a hex-head, at least some box end wrenches are necessary.

Perhaps you try out the latest new-fangled wrench that instantly adjusts to the nut, and perhaps you find it doesn't fill your needs. Don't throw good money after bad -- if it doesn't work for you, give it away. Don't compound the monitary loss by having the useless tool obstruct your access to tools you really need.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware.  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Toolsmanship Isn't Magic

By Steve Litt
In the old days it seemed like expert toolsmen had some personality aspect I lacked. They quickly retrieved and replaced tools in an organized way.

Now it's obvious my lacking aspect of personality was the right tool system. For years all my tools were jammed helter skelter in a couple toolboxes. Later there were separate containers for bicycle tools. In all cases, finding a tool required rummaging through layers of heaped tools inside a box. Often tools were left out to prevent them again getting mixed with the mess, and such tools had a way of disappearing for years. So more tools were bought to take their place.

Every repair was an exercise in frustration as the correct tool disappeared and was replaced by a suboptimal tool.

Now I know. Have enough storage to display every tool prominently, so there's never a need to rummage. Have the tool container sparse enough to facilitate quick tool replacement.

Have a small container (like my plastic toolbox) to use at the repair itself. The small container should be easy to tote so you can bring the small continer with you. That way tools aren't scattered all around the work area.

One other thing: Be kind to yourself. If, after adopting these techniques, your toolsmanship still isn't perfect, don't be hard on yourself -- just make a note to figure out how to do it better next time.
Steve Litt teaches courses on troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.

Letters to the Editor

All letters become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), and may be edited for clarity or brevity. We especially welcome additions, clarifications, corrections or flames from vendors whose products have been reviewed in this magazine. We reserve the right to not publish letters we deem in bad taste (bad language, obscenity, hate, lewd, violence, etc.).
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