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Things just seem to pile up and
often never get resolved. Here are
some methods to relieve the frustrations
of those bench and workspace accumulations.




Before the Work

Beginning the Task

Storage Suggestions

Filing the Clutter




We all do it; we drop items somewhere convenient because of various
reasons, and some stay there seemingly forever. Ultimately, clutter
reaches a point where it reduces workspace and begins to
interfere with our projects, or it blocks access to things
or areas we want at a given moment.
Why is this?

Well, some typical reasons might be:

  • Too busy to put it where it belongs
  • No designated place for the item
  • Distracted at that moment
  • Don't know where it goes
  • Don't know what it does
  • Don't know what it is
  • Procrastination
  • Not Caring
  • Laziness

    Frequently, it is the small pieces that find no home. They get thrown onto a tray, into a can or a box, and end up on some bench where they are rarely sought.

    Eventually, most become forgotten. This is particularly bothersome when something is purchased, only to realise the same item exists in one of those neglected places.

How might this disorder be rectified?


  Before the Work

  Containers and Supplies:  The way to begin decluttering is to first gather suitable containers so that after being inventoried, homeless items can be placed either where they will be most useful, or put into storage. This should be done in such a manner that each can be located when it is needed. Below is a list of containers and supplies that can fulfil this task. You may not need all of them.

  • Pill or Film Cans
  • Tins with Covers
  • Boxes with Tops
  • Stackable Bins
  • Tobacco Cans
  • Plastic Jars
  • String Tags
  • Blank Paper
  • Parts Cabinets
  • CD or DVD Cases
  • Video Tape Cases
(Image Left: Clipboard and Pencil)

  • Cleaning Supplies
  • Pen and/or Pencil
  • Sticky Notes
  • File Cabinets (Legal)
  • File Folders (Legal)
  • Envelopes (Legal)
  • Felt-Tip Markers
  • Old Newspapers
  • Vacuum Cleaner
  • Curved-Jaw Haemostats
  • Clear, Resealable Bags
  • Peel & Stick Blank Labels

  (Image Left: Analogue Clock)

  Time Estimate:  Next, set aside the time period required to attack the problem. It might be a few hours or a few days. You will have to determine the time you might need based on the enormity of the clutter. However, it is rare that one can accurately estimate the actual time that will be needed because one does not usually know the total number of items, and the required effort to deal with each. Excepting small amounts of recent clutter, dealing with what has been there for some time will typically take longer than expected. Plus, it's normal that cleaning will accompany the removal of long-term objects -- both the objects themselves and the room they had occupied. Therefore, after deciding upon the length of time you think will be needed, add 25% to it.

  A Bit at a Time?  Now, some of you may be thinking that decluttering could be done piecemeal during the regular work period. Unfortunately, interruptions caused by others working in the same area, and the hinderance likely to ensue by the decluttering process itself, will result in frustration for all affected. This means that the job will not be done properly, if at all. Even if you do slog through it to reach a fairly good conclusion, it will take longer than if the job were to be done as its own project versus doing it in concert with other projects. It is best to concentrate on the task of decluttering without pauses being introduced. This will result in a faster, more complete job -- and the other projects may flow more smoothly if all the clutter were to be removed beforehand.

  (Image Left: Newspaper Front Page)

  Newspaper:  Once you have the suggested materials together and have allotted the time, begin by moving current projects aside to give yourself a task area. Spread newspaper over your sorting surface, which might be a cleared bench or the top of a handy roadcase. The paper will make smaller parts more easily seen. Plus when cleaning up later, one will be able to dispose of any dirt left after the sorting process by folding the paper into a `V' and sliding that dirt right into the garbage. In addition, paper will absorb stains made by anything coated in oil, meaning a cleaner surface underneath.

    For the smallest parts that might be camouflaged by the printing on the newspaper, you might consider utilising blank paper for sorting these. As an economic measure, use scrap paper for this purpose -- perhaps sheets with writing on one side but plain on the other. Dig through your recycle bin.


  Beginning the Task

  (Image Left: Magnifying Glass)

  Discovery and Examination:  Take a clutter container from a workbench and empty it onto your paper to examine what was in it. Things turned up might include paperclips, pens, hardware odds & ends, small tools, coins, old batteries, notes associated with one project or another, etc. Perhaps one might find salvageable parts remaining after some equipment was repaired or was dismantled to be retired from service. Look through carefully to be sure no small items are missed. All manner of things will be discovered during this initial process -- maybe even some thought-to-be long gone or lost to the ages.

  Clusters:  Classify what you uncover by placing similar objects near one another in little clusters on top of another bench or a second roadcase. Now empty another container and do the same. Once you fill the bench and case space, start with piles that are largest and decide what to do with those objects. Regarding any hardware found, sub-sort each piece. A pair of curved-jaw haemostats work well for this as one can push aside things by keeping the jaws closed and then open them to grab the desired piece. Place each group of sorted items into the appropriate bin or parts drawer in your shop.

    If there are components belonging to dismantled equipment that has been waiting for a lengthy time to have work done to it, gather its parts and put them into a pill bottle, a box, or a resealable bag. Label as to which piece of equipment it belongs. If there are many containers and you are unsure of a category name, or you plan to resort the items into more refined categories, place a sticky note onto each as a temporary label. Now store these and the piece of equipment together in a place appointed for pending work. This frees up a work surface for current projects.


  Storage Suggestions

  (Image Left: Cardboard Box)

    Larger items can be stored in boxes, but if you need stackability with less flexible sides, use tins with snap-on covers as used for chocolates or biscuits. For more protection, tobacco cans or transparent one-litre, plastic jars are the answer. Both have large diameter screw tops and are air tight. The latter are excellent because the contents are clearly visible, yet these jars are quite robust when it comes to handling shop abuse. In our shop they have taken the place of bags of hardware, or in some cases, the bags themselves are now stored in those jars. Bags don't pack well on shelves, but the jars have flat sides, so they will. Leaving the contents in bags still keeps non-alike parts separate. Label each as you go, thinking about using sticky notes for containers that may not yet be the permanent ones.

    For a solitary item with no current home, you could make a place for it, but lay it aside to see how many others might turn up as you wade through more containers and trays. This is one of the reasons decluttering should be done as a single project; leaving things aside until the next sorting session, which might be a week away, will simply create new clutter. Resolve it now! The idea is to find or make places for those things that have stolen your work spaces. Another reason for having this be a single project is that once you have evaluated all the clutter, you will know the total quantities of each item. Thus, you can better pick the appropriate type and size of storage, and the location for each group of items as you make new residences for all.

  (Image Left: Resealable Bag)

  Parts Bags:  What about a myriad of small parts that are different? Using a drawer for each (even the small-size drawers in a parts cabinet), would be wasteful. When there are fewer numbers of like parts, the solution is to put each group into its own small, resealable bag. Because these bags are able to be opened and then resealed, they are a better storage solution for later accessibility than bags that are stapled shut. Use the locking type of clear plastic bags that hold the screws and brackets for furniture which must be assembled. These are available from electronic parts dealers or sellers of shipping supplies. Even some dollar stores carry them, although the quality is often not good enough to use for shop reasons. The cheap ones are often frustrating to use because they are difficult to open, or they tear easily. Spend a nickel more a bag; it's worth it.

    Once this classifying is done and the pieces committed to storage, multiple bags can now reside in a single drawer since the part types will stay separated. Try to bundle bags with objects that are related to one another. A negative example would be pairing miscellaneous electronics parts in a drawer with components for a fresnel fixture. These would be better stored in separate drawers.

    Small, resealable bags are best for those very tiny parts that get sifted to the bottom of a bin of larger parts. In this case, put large objects in the bin as is or in suitable boxes or tins, but place the small pieces into bags which can then be stood upright at the back of the bin. If they fall over, put all the bags into an open-topped box to serve as a holder. Then put the box at the back, or even at the front of the bin if one goes to those parts often. For just a few bags, use a binder clip to hold them together; the clip being easily spotted in amongst those larger parts.

  Labeling:  Another plus regarding these bags is that they take felt-tip marker ink well. Alternatively, one could use blank, peel & stick labels. These are useful to cover over existing bag labels or printing. If the large objects in the bin need details to accompany them, attach a string tag and print on it using a regular pen. If the tags get in the way, put them inside the bag. Trying later to remove stickers may be troublesome if they have been on too long.

  (Image Left: Large Envelope)

  Envelopes:  For groups of small, loose parts that are too big or too numerous for resealable bags, employ legal-size envelopes. Their enclosed sides will prevent loss of items down underneath the file folders in the cabinet. (This is especially likely if folders of the hanging style have been chosen.) When an envelope is removed from the drawer to peruse what is stored within, the sides retain the contents, meaning no objects lost on the floor or tumbling into inaccessible places.

  (Image Left: Video Tape Case)

  Slightly Longer Items:  If there are parts such as trim pieces, gaskets, or other things that you don't want to get bent, bags, envelopes or file folders are not the best storage solution. Try fitting these long objects into cases for CDs, DVDs or video tapes. Their hard shells will protect the contents. A nice feature of such cases is that they snap closed, and they can be stood on end for easy filing.

  Product Packaging:  Does some of your clutter consist of packaging from various purchases that no longer houses the product, but is being kept for its instructions, or to hold the product's accessories? These boxes and blister packs take up room. If they will not be needed in the future, reduce their space footprint by first removing and filing the accessories and paperwork. Then break down the boxes and packing materials for recycle, or keep them in storage for the day you sell the product. Flattened boxes take up far less room.

    For blister packs, carefully shave off the plastic and send it to recycle, or keep deeper ones for mixing glue. Place the backboards into a file for reference of the model and manufacturer, and for the instructions commonly printed thereon.

    Alternatively, cut out or photocopy the significant information and file it, while sending the unwanted cardboard and packing materials to recycle. Larger accessories can be stored in smaller boxes or in drawers. Be sure to document what you store.


  Filing the Clutter

  (Image Left: File Folder)

  Methods of Filing:  For notes, instruction manuals, and parts lists, use file folders as storage. You might even include small, bagged items, or flat, lightweight objects. Buy heavy-gauge folders; some can be hanging style if you wish, and you may want a variety of colours. Purchase one or more legal-size, medium-to-heavy gauge cabinets so that the total weight of shop items in them will not warp or buckle the drawers. Buying cheap, thin-metal cabinets for this purpose will only waste your money. Legal-size ones are recommended because the extra width is more useful for shop storage reasons.

  File Tabs:  Group similar items into categories and ready them to be placed into your file cabinet. Realise that the design of non-hanging file folders allows their label tabs to be oriented to the left hand or right hand side by turning the folder inside out. Hanging folders make use of transparent, clip-in file tabs to hold their labels. Their edges are inserted into any pair of the slots arrayed along the inside top boundary of the folder. This permits a tab to be placed into any one of a variety of positions. It is suggested that coloured tabs not be used because the colours tend to impede the reading of the labels inside. Do colour separation by the colour of the folder itself.

  Tab Alignment:  Being able to choose the location of the tab is a good feature. You can align them along one side of the drawer to provide a visual cue that these represent a single category or section. As just suggested in the previous paragraph, employing a specific colour folder can also be used to clarify the limits of that category. For the next section in line, use a different colour folder, and have its tabs go along the opposite side of the drawer. Then change back to the other side for a third section. Continue alternating tab sides and folder colours for each category.

    Because the tabs on hanging folders have more than two possible positions, one could stagger them a bit while keeping mostly to one side or the other. This slight zig-zag arrangement of tabs would improve sight lines of the labels they hold. However, such an arrangement is not recommended, as will be seen farther on.

    An alternate technique that uses only hanging folders, would be to create a third section where the tabs are centred, and place this between each left and right section. This would give three possible alignments for your categories. If you are using legal-size folders, as was suggested, you would also have enough room to put tabs either side of centre, resulting in five possible alignments. However, this will make for an overly cluttered file system (especially if employing the slight zig-zag technique just explored), and the point of this article is to not have clutter. Therefore, remain with just three alignments at the most.

  Tab Alignment Issue:  Whichever alignment style is chosen, it will make for easy perusal of file labels, but yes, an issue will occur if an entirely new section should be added. This would mean that the tab alignment of the latest one would match that of either the preceding or the following category. To lessen this possibility, complete the sorting first so that you will know all the category names required. Even if a section does later get added between two current ones, label alignment will at least remain consistent within each category, and different coloured folders will be the final delimiter, anyway. If you wish to be cautious, you could use sticky notes as temporary labels. This will allow changes to the layout of the folders and their tabs before you print permanent ones, as will be discussed next.

  Labeling:  Now begin to write the descriptions. For non-hanging folders, use a felt-tip marker to print using large, clear letters. Hanging folders allow for a card-stock label to be placed inside each moveable tab. Use a fine-tipped pen to write on these due to their small size. If needed, place two of these tabs side by side to provide more description room. Be detailed with your labels so others will know exactly what is in a file. If the information is too much to fit on a label, paper clip an inventory list to the inside back panel of the folder below a single label.

  Spoiling Your Nice Tab Alignment:  A final word regarding folder tabs: Some people make the mistake of putting the tab of every second folder on the opposite side. Or they continue to align the tabs of hanging folders slightly to one side of the preceding one until the edge of the drawer is reached, then tabs are staggered back the other way. This wide zig-zag pattern of tabs looks great and allows for easy reading of the labels, but again will cause a problem if a new file is placed in between two folders. The nice, symmetrical right-left-right layout will be spoiled. It is suggested that you make tab alignment be the same within each category, not alternating it for each individual folder.

  (Image Left: File Cabinet with Bottom Drawer Open)

  Drawer Designations:  If possible, assign each drawer to a single purpose. If that is not wanted or not possible, add tall dividers to indicate individual categories, and make the printing larger for their labels. You might use a different-colour marker as a way to provide another visual cue regarding the organisation of a given drawer. Order the folders and envelopes by first letter, and finish up by placing a sign on the outside of each cabinet and drawer that denotes its function and/or contents.

    Should an extra drawer be available, omit file folders or containers for this space; instead, store the largest objects directly inside. If divisions are desired, consider sub-compartments made from open-top, cardboard boxes cut down to fit the height of the drawer.



    For larger items that are not serving an immediate, worthwhile intention, yet they are occupying space in a work area, or on a bench or other work surface, move them to shelves or put them into long-term storage.

    Then there is the case of a certain object being where it is simply because it has always been there. How did it come to be there? Likely at one time, it was placed where it now resides for some purpose that is no longer relevant, or the purpose has moved and the item didn't. An example of the latter might be a vacuum cleaner and its accessories that are now some distance apart because at one point a better position was chosen for the vacuum, but its accessories were never moved.

    Study these orphaned items and decide upon locations where they would better suit their intended usage, or employ them for a new purpose. If any are now unnecessary, place them into storage or consider selling.

All done?  Okay, step back to view how much room you have
acquired; see how open your work spaces have become;
notice the organisation that your labour has achieved!

So now that your shop has been decluttered, you might come to think:
"Aha! This leaves room for new clutter!" A better policy though, would
be to assign a home for each potential clutter item as it comes to
be. Then no future declutter sessions need ever take place.

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