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Building a Small Parts Cabinet

February 12, 2016

I have been trying to clean and organize my shop lately. I quickly discovered I had lots of small parts stored all over the garage. In recent years I have been using portable multiple compartment parts organizers like those from Stanley and Dewalt. These are nice when you need to take an assortment of screws or nails to a project with you, but the vast majority of my small parts are things I only use in the shop or home anyway. I don't need the portability, and the large parts organizers are expensive and difficult to store. Once I had several organizers, I also found it difficult to remember which container had the exact part I needed. So, I decided to switch to individual containers and built a dedicated cabinet to store them in.

Choosing The Containers

I looked at a lot of different containers to store my small parts in. I quickly realized one size does not fit all. I needed long containers to store things like long bolts, tall containers to store electrical and plumbing parts, and small containers for the basic nuts, washers, and crimp connectors. I also didn't want to waste a lot of space between each container, which ruled out things like coffee cans or baby food jars (I didn't have any of these anyway). Most of the inexpensive storage boxes have sloped sides that waste space, or have cheap lids that wouldn't stay on. Ironically, some of the best modular storage containers are made for kitchen storage, but these tend to be very expensive.

I finally settled on Really Useful Boxes as my storage containers. They are "relatively" affordable, come in a variety of sizes, are strong with snap lock lids, and are widely available at Office Depot, Office Max, or online at Amazon. After looking at the various items I needed to store, I chose the 1.75 liter and 3 liter boxes for my mid-size parts, and the .3 liter for my smallest parts. I also grabbed a few 2.5 liter boxes to hold my longer bolts and whatnot. One of the reasons I chose these sizes is because they are close to the same dimensions and stack nicely. This came in handy when it was time to design the cabinet.

Designing the Cabinet

Once I had selected my containers, I could design the cabinet around them. I wanted to keep the cabinet as slim as possible, and it needed to fit between my electrical outlets that are spaced four feet apart. So I lined up a few containers with their shortest dimensions front to back to see what would fit in that space. I added about a half inch to the interior width, and about an inch to the height to allow room for my fingers. That gave me the size for each shelf, which I could then use to determine how many shelves I could fit vertically. I could have just built some simple shelves to store the boxes on, but I knew dust would be an issue in a woodworking shop. So I decided early on to build doors for the cabinet.

Since I was cleaning out my shop anyway, I tried to make use of any supplies I already had on hand. The main carcass is made from a sheet of birch plywood I've had sitting in the garage for a year or two. The door panels are made from 1x6 tongue and groove siding I've been hanging onto for years. The back is made with 1/4 inch plywood cutoff's leftover from other projects. I found brand new hinges and knobs in my parts bin that I must have bought for a project I never built. So, I used these for the cabinet doors.

Building the Cabinet

I ripped the plywood into strips then cut them to length for the sides and shelves. I used a simple jig to cut dado's in the sides with my router. Unfortunately, my jig was sized for new plywood from the home center. The plywood I used was slightly thicker, probably from collecting moisture in the garage. So the shelves were a really tight fit in the dado's I cut. I should have done a dry assembly first to make sure everything would fit right, but I didn't. So I had to resort to clamps and hammers to get things to fit during glue up. I had a similar problem when I went to assemble the doors. My panels were just slightly too thick to fit in the grooves nicely. It all worked out in the end, but it would have been smarter to do a dry assembly first to make sure everything fit correctly. Live and learn.

Once the cabinet was built I used a flush trim bit to clean up the solid banding on the front. Then I gave everything a quick sanding and applied two coats of gloss polyurethane. I screwed the cabinet to the wall, and started loading it up with the parts boxes. As I filled them up I made several trips to the local office supply stores to get more containers. I bought out the inventory at two different stores and had to wait till they restocked to get more. I could have ordered them online, but the boxes are actually cheaper in the store than they are online.

storage boxes in parts cabinet

Final Thoughts

I am really happy with my new parts cabinet. As I was cleaning the shop I discovered many small parts I didn't know I had. So it's nice to have everything in a single location. Since the containers are clear I didn't bother labeling most of them. However, some items like nuts and bolts are difficult to identify by sight, so I added labels to those containers. I bought several extra containers so I have room to grow in the future.

While the parts cabinet takes care of the majority of my small parts, I do need to work away from the shop on occasion. It's easy enough to grab a few of the containers if I need to take them with me. The snap lock lids ensure that the parts won't spill all over if the box should get bumped over. However, I do have a few of the Dewalt TStak line of containers to store my tools, cordless drills, and a small assortment of screws, nails, and electrical connectors.