Wednesday, April 24, 2013

SHOPTALK: Making a bike workshop toolboard

My toolboard
For you mechanics out there, here's a popular subject I covered in my Jim's Tech Talk column in RoadBikeRider. It's on toolboards and tool organization, so it's great for dialing in your home shop for more efficient bicycle maintenance and repair.

It came to mind as a good topic because recently I was working in our remote office instead of my home office here in Santa Cruz, California. I was there to set up a bicycle workshop.

Over the years in that office we collected a good basic assortment of bike tools, and those that fit are neatly stored in a variety of different size toolboxes. For a workbench, we’ve been using a giant oval table made for staff meetings. It’s plenty big enough for any bicycle project but not the best approach since it has to stay clear for meetings and office work. We have a few bicycle workstands.

Fortunately, we found a corner to turn into a pro bicycle work area and I got to design it. This was one of my responsibilities at the bike shops I managed and also at Bicycling magazine, so I enjoy it. Self-promotion alert: I even wrote a popular e-Book that’s sold in RBR’s bookstore about how to create your own shop at home titled Your Home Bicycle Workshop.

Advantages of toolboards
As I was building our new shop I was thinking how useful even a basic toolboard is, and thought I would explain more how to make one. Step-by-step instructions follow. But first, let me list a few reasons why so many bike shops use toolboards.

Convenient and efficient bike repair: a good toolboard holds frequently used tools right at hand; you never have to search to find the right one

Helps prevent lost tools: as long as you put them back, your tools are always right there, and at a glance you can tell what’s missing and go look for it

Keeps the workbench clean: again, as long as you put the tools back, your bench stays available for whatever you’re working on

Protects tools: bike tools can be costly, and hanging them on a board prevents them from getting beat up by other tools in a box or a sliding drawer

A nice toolboard impresses your cycling buddies: just beware the tool borrower - better to fix it in your cool shop than let them take your tools with them

Concept and location
A toolboard is just a place to hang your tools. Common materials are plywood and pegboard, and anything that makes it easy to hang tools. You only need a size large enough for your FUTs (Frequently Used Tools). The rarely used items should stay in a drawer or toolbox so as not to clutter your board, making it more difficult to select the right tool and/or take up all your space.

Typically, your toolboard will be placed on the wall close to where you work on your bike. Or, if you have a work surface, table or workbench, it can be attached to the wall above it. It’s best for it not to be any taller than you can easily reach, and not too long, to avoid having to walk, or stretch, or stand on something to reach the tools. Remember, these are FUTs, so you’ll be retrieving and replacing them often during your bike work.

Plywood is my preference
For materials, I much prefer plywood to pegboard. With plywood, you hang your tools on 6-penny finishing nails that you drive into the wood wherever it works to hang and space your tools.

With pegboard you buy the appropriate pegs and tool holder gizmos to hang your tools. Plus, you have to follow the pegboard spacing, which means you can’t end up with perfect spacing for oddly shaped tools, which nicely sums up many bike tools.

Note that the step-by-step instructions below assume you’re using plywood and nails, but I do describe at the end how pegboard differs.

Making your toolboard - by the numbers
Anyone can make a toolboard and benefit from having one. You don’t need to be an expert mechanic or even have lots of tools. This approach to toolboard design will work for anyone. If you don’t have lots of tools to hang right now, you can easily follow these directions to update your toolboard as your tool collection grows.

1. Lay it out. Place a large piece of sturdy cardboard on top of your table/bench (even if you only use a makeshift table as a workbench, it will work for this step). Most bike shops will give you a bike box, and cutting one side off will work for this. Or use what have you. It only needs to be large enough to lay out the tools you own currently (read on).

2. Find and lay out your tools. Dig through your garage, basement, car, bicycle bags, etc., and find all the tools you use for your bike. This includes bicycle-specific tools and regularly used household tools, like pliers, screwdrivers and scissors. For now, lay these tools flat on the piece of cardboard you placed on your workbench/table.

3. Try it out. Over a few days/weeks, do some bike repairs/maintenance using the tools on your cardboard-covered bench. As you work on your bike(s), pay attention to which tools you use, and how often you use them. Refine your tool selection by removing any that you never use and moving tools that you use together near each other (like pliers next to cable cutters, adjustable wrench next to cassette lockring remover, crankarm remover next to bottom-bracket tools, etc.). Also, place the tools and groups of tools used together -- that you find you use most often -- toward the center of your workbench. For example, 4, 5 and 6mm allen wrenches or a folding allen wrench set should go toward the center, since allens are used so often on modern bikes.

4. Commit to it. Once you know what tools you like and feel good about how you’ve organized them on the cardboard, take a little time to lay them out so they’re spaced nicely. Then think about if the cardboard was held against a wall, where nails would need to be driven for the tool to hang straight and not fall off. You can hold the nail and try the tool on it and figure it out pretty quickly. Once you know, mark the nail locations on the cardboard to hold each tool. Then, either draw a quick outline around each tool on your cardboard tool template, or take a photo of the entire cardboard toolboard with tools in place, to refer to later.

5. Finish your toolboard. All that’s needed now is to remove the tools from your cardboard template. Next, hold the template against the plywood piece that’s to become your toolboard. It needs to be secure because you’re going to drive nails into it. Now, simply drive the nails through your nail marks in the template, pull the template off your plywood toolboard and follow your digital “map” or look at the tool outlines on the template to hang your tools in the right places. So that you know where every tool hangs, you can outline them with a marker on the plywood toolboard now. Or just refer to your photo. (I prefer to memorize mine to keep the toolboard cleaner looking.)

Tip: A simple and handy tool holder can be made from a section of 2 x 4 lumber. You can see these in my toolboard photo on the right and left. Drilling different diameter holes across the edge lets you easily hang tools that don’t hang well on nails, like pliers, ratchet handles, individual allen wrenches or sets, etc. Notice that I also use the front of the 2 x 4 to hang 3 1/4-inch drive ratchet handles with a 4mm, 5mm and 6mm allen sockets, respectively, since those tools are so frequently used.

Pegboard notes: If you choose pegboard, you don’t need to drive any nails through your template. Instead, use it as a reference for figuring out where to place the pegs, and which types of pegboard holders to use to place the tools on the pegboard where you want them. I find that pegboard and pegs/holders for it take more experimentation but you can always get it right eventually. You can also use custom holders on pegboard, like my 2 x 4 special holders mentioned above. So think outside the box and don’t feel restricted by what’s available from the pegboard makers.

What to do if you don't have room for a big shop and toolboard
Not everyone has the space for a full bike-repair station. Take, for example, RoadBikeRider owner/publisher John Marsh. I envisioned him enjoying a spacious workshop in the 3-car garage of his Georgia plantation. But, no. It turns out he has neither a plantation, nor a garage!

John emailed: “I’m completely jealous of you and all other riders who have a good spot for a workshop. I have a carport, not a garage, and a too-small shed in my backyard, at least 100 feet from my back door. I do my maintenance in my office, where I keep my bike. Not at all ideal, but it’s the best I can do.”

Alan’s toolbox approach
Another RoadBikeRider author, Alan Canfield wrote me about his space crunch. He said, “As an amateur woodworker, I appreciate good tools and tool organization. I've unfortunately covered the garage wall space with shelves and have to keep my bike tools in a small Craftsman drawer toolbox that’s packed full!

I appreciate the suggestion for using plywood and nails to maximize the spacing on tools. I might try to adapt and make a plywood toolboard that spans the back of my workbench below the overhanging shelf.”

Toolbox tips
Alan’s use of a toolbox for a tight workshop is one way to work efficiently in a small space. It also lets you easily move the tools if your workspace is constantly changing. That’s essentially the setup pro mechanics use at races. So you can use some of their tricks to make working this way even more practical.

Here are some toolbox toolkits that get you started with a box and an assortment of bicycle tools:
Park Tool Home Mechanic Starter Kit
Park Tool Advanced Mechanic Kit

The pros often use a special electrician-type suitcase for toolboxes. These actually have miniature toolboards inside called palettes, and usually two or three of them on top of each other. You slip your tools into the holders on the palettes and they stay organized and easy to access. Larger tools go in the main toolbox compartment in the bottom.

That's Park Tool’s Tool Case in the photo.
Here's Pedro's Master Tool Kit, a mechanic's case packed with tools.

Color coding
To make a drawer-type toolbox more efficient to work out of, I recommend marking the drawers and tools. First, organize your tools the way you would for a toolboard, putting tools that are used together in the same drawer, putting the most frequently used ones in the easiest to access part of the toolbox and making sure every tool is easy to get at and put away (don’t jam the box so full it’s hard to open/close it or the drawers).

Once everything is in the box, mark each drawer with a different color and then each tool that goes in the drawer the same way. I do this with colored electrical tape, putting a strip on the outside of the drawer and then I wrap a band of tape around the tools. That way, after even the most complicated repair, it only takes a minute or two to put every tool back in the right drawer. Plus, you quickly learn which tool is in which drawer, which makes working with them easier.

Tip: I love those monster double-wide, almost ceiling-high toolboxes the TV car guys have, like Edd China's on Wheeler Dealers, but they take up a lot of space, cost a small fortune and are much larger than you need for bicycle repair tools. I recommend sticking with a toolbox that fits your space and that you can carry when it’s full of tools.

Smaller toolboards
If you commit to a toolbox for some of your tools, you can often design a small toolboard that’s just right to keep your most commonly used tools readily at hand. It can be tiny and still provide a nice workspace that looks professional and makes it more fun to work on your bikes.

At one of my bike shops, I had more mechanics than workbenches, and I had to put one of them in a corner in the attic (she liked it - honest!). For this, I used one of those butcher-block-top rolling kitchen carts for her bench, attached a piece of plywood to the back as the toolboard, and put a small toolbox on the bottom shelf of the cart for larger tools. Park Tool makes a folding portable workbench that's handy when you can't leave your home shop setup for long and for when you want to take your shop on the road to bike events.

There are all kinds of ways to fit toolboards in small spaces like this. I’ve seen some that slide or fold out of the way, for example. This isn’t hard to engineer since the tools and board are almost flat, and the tools will stay in place as the board is moved. So think about your space and be creative to find a fun solution.

Tom Anderson’s workshop
Speaking of creative solutions, here are a couple of photos Tom Anderson of Portland, Oregon, shared of his compact workshop and toolboard.

Tom explained, “I live in a high-rise condo building so there’s no workshop space in our garage. However, each unit has a storage room on the top floor, which is where my workbench is located. The rest of the limited space is jam packed with years of accumulation and resembles Fibber McGee’s closet on steroids. See the second photo.

The workbench is a 4.5-foot-long Sears metal bench with a fiberboard top. I doubled the height of the metal pegboard section. The white foam block contains small flat, Phillips, and Torx screwdrivers that are color-coded by type.

“I mostly work on my own bikes (six and counting) and occasionally bikes of friends and neighbors. I got a mechanic certification from UBI several years ago and worked summers in a friend’s bike shop for four years. I also volunteer at a local non-profit shop, the Community Cycling Center. We just had our annual Holiday Bike Drive where we provide 500 helmets and refurbished bikes to kids from low-income families.”

Thanks for sharing your workshop tips, Tom, and great job fitting such a fully functional shop in such a cramped spot, and volunteering your skills to help out your community.

Masi bicycles' setup
In closing, here's a photo of Alberto Masi's workbench, of Masi bicycles. No toolboard here. Instead there are only the tools and lubricants needed; laid out for easy, fast access. Note the drawer's beneath the bench for stored and organized tools used less often, but still right there, nearby. On another bench is a Campagnolo toolbox with more tools neatly organized and stored. I assume that his shop is organized in stations, with separate benches and tool assortments for each step of the bicycle build process. So, this bench is probably for final adjustments and another is for frame preparation, etc.

This photo is from the vintage road bicycle website Classic Rendezvous.
Alberto Masi's tidy tool layout
Have fun!


Anonymous said...

Brilliant article, as I have a rather small workshop the advice is just what I need, I must show this to the wife as she thinks my workshop is also her storage space!
Thanks for a great article.

Jim Langley said...

My friend David offered a few of his bicycle workshop/toolboard tips, which I have pasted below. He writes,
"What I have done is to use pegboard and that is attached with some 2x4 framework. Since my bench is in the open I can access both sides so I use both sides of the pegboard. I had thought of using some doors on the backside enabling me to have pegboard fronts and again, when open, to also use the backside. I have not done this yet. The 2x4 frame on the back of the toolboard gives me a 3.5 inch shelf for lube cans etc.
The pegboard also allowed me to buy some joined rings for screwdrivers, pliers etc.
A messy bench is an advantage as you keep stumbling over stuff that comes to mind next time you need it. Also, The 2x4 frame also allows me to use the very top.
This can lead to avalanches when shaking the bench. Again more stuff found!!!!

Thanks a lot, David!
Jim Langley

Jack said...

I'm going to have to try to make one of these, my entire garage is a little messy, and I'm always misplacing tools.

the german catt said...

Hey Jim, i love the workshop tips. i am just getting ready to put something together for myself and this helps alot. really enjoy your insights and comments from the world of cycling.


Jim Langley said...

Thanks for the kind words, German Catt!

Greg said...

The picture of your tool board appears to have hooks of some sort as opposed to straight nails. Can you elaborate on this?

Jim Langley said...

Greg, I used stainless-steel screw-in hooks with ball ends. I got these from the amazing online hardware store McMaster-Carr If you search on "screw in hooks" and search you'll find them. Check their dimensional drawings on every item they sell to make sure the hooks you order are right for your board and tools.