Shop Talk: Building a Storage System to Fit Your Shop

Rick Williams says that time spent organizing your shop is time well-invested.

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Sign shop organization is an ongoing effort, that’s for sure. The old saying goes, “a place for everything, and everything in its place,” and this phrase is in the right order. First, you must have a place, an easily accessible and easily located place … for everything.

Shop organization has been on my mind lately because we have been on a bit of a mission to improve our shop and make a place for every single thing, and then be able to locate what we need and keep an accurate assessment of shop hardware inventory all the time.

We sure need to, as we basically have our own hardware store under our commercial sign shop roof. This is how I like it because frequent trips to the home center or hardware store are significant wastes of time. An organized shop is an efficient shop, and with the cost of everything these days we have to make the most of the work hours at our disposal and fight inefficiency each day.

One of the simple storage systems we have at the shop, located in a couple of handy places in our work areas, are a type of shelving cut from colored aluminum, which have cutouts for the inexpensive food storage containers that are readily available at grocery stores and super centers today. In these I keep many variations of wood and metal screws in a logical order and I can see when I need to restock in advance of a real need or crisis.

The container we use is approximately a pint in size, and these are perfect for 100 to 300 screws or something close to that. I really like having such easy access to the regular used items and being able to keep my eye on our supplies instantly.

But, we keep all kinds of screws, machine bolts, carriage head bolts, anchors and so forth, and to make an organized place for all of these it takes a lot of containers. The best source I have found for these is a supply company called Uline, an organization that sends out catalogues more often that any business I know of, but they stock a great supply of all kinds of containers, shipping supplies and lots more.

We keep on hand plastic jars of many sizes, from one-quart size down to as small as two ounces. These are great for taking a supply of a certain hardware item out on a job, or even a bit of touch-up paint, but we mostly use them for organizing the considerable inventory of all our stock hardware items.

The best system for displaying them I adopted from something my wife has in her pantry, and that is a stair step-like row of small shelves made from sheet metal formed like a stair case. Matching ends are made to support and stiffen the unit, and this really is a simple and easy-to-view display unit that works with our containers perfectly.

Even simpler than that is our shelf system for stock signs, made from strips of 2″ lumber and scrap MDO for the shelves. Speed limit signs, handicap parking signs, stop signs and even just colored 18″ x 24″ sign blanks and other sizes of sign blanks are easily organized with several of these compact shelving units.

For all these things and more, we recently built a large shelf unit, approximately 6 feet tall and 14 feet across, which was a fairly large undertaking for a part-time effort, but we now have a great improved area for managing everything from hardware to spray paint to hand-powered tools. Our unit was made from 1″ x 1″ steel tubing, 11-gauge wall, and shelving we cut from ½”-thick BC plywood. The steel units were powder-coated dark bronze and the shelves were painted with satin finish latex paint (not gloss or even semi-gloss latex as that tends to become sticky in high-humidity conditions).

But, we were still pressed for having enough storage units for keeping our full-sized (4′ x 8′, 4′ x 10′, or even 5′ x 10′) sheet materials straight and easily accessed. We had several racks with slots in them for aluminum sheet, corrugated plastic sheets, PVC and polystyrene, etc. Still, we were stacking MDO and aluminum laminate against a wall next to all these racks, as well as many partial sheets of all kinds of materials. The weight of this multitude of sheets made accessing any of them, except for the ones at the front of the stack, very annoying indeed.

So, last weekend we assembled one more rack that was a slight improvement to any of the other ones we have had for years, and the assembly of that rack is shown here. It was made from yellow pine 2 x 4 lumber, some long deck screws and lag screws, and two end pieces that defined the structure. They were cut from 3/16″ diamond-plate aluminum (because we had a scrap of material to work with).

Five dividers were made from 2 x 4s laid flat and assembled like a rectangle frame about 4′ x 6′ with little stubby legs. The metal end pieces had pre-cut holes in them, which spaced these dividers one 2 x 4 widthwise apart. The photos will show how this unit went together. Pilot holes were used so the lag screws (3/8″ and 5/16″ diameter by 3″ long) would not split the lumber.

The system was assembled upside down, using a square to get the outside frames true and square with the metal ends, and blocks of 2 x 4s to space the inside frames. After pulling these frames tightly together with a furniture clamp, two strips of MDO scraps were used to hold them forever snug and secure so no warping of the boards could cause cracks between the floor boards of the unit, which thin sheet materials could lodge into.

Any small cracks still evident were completely eliminated by filling with auto body filler (Bondo). The unit was flipped over and pushed into place between our other racks, and finally we had a place for every type of sheet material we try to stock (for the first time in 40 years).

Well, I did say that sign shop organization is an ongoing effort, didn’t I? And I am sure there will be some further improvements in the shop as time goes on. But, it feels good to have made a lot of progress on our storage system requirements.

You may have better ideas, and if so I would love to hear about them. The reason these Shop Talk articles have been popular over the years is we all seem to fight the same battles, including some mundane ones that seem to plague the best of commercial sign shops. But, with a diligent effort, sign shop hardware and supply organization doesn’t have to be one of them.  

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick's Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

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