Sunday, November 11, 2012

Machinist Box Loadout

Every machinist likes to think they have a pretty good working setup in their tool boxes and I'm no exception. Its amazing to me that some guys don't spend any time optimizing the layout and workflow through the lowly tool box load out. The productivity gains from simple tool access are considerable. I have worked with several lightning fast machinists and I strongly believe that their toolbox setups contributed to their productivity in a big way. If you cant lay your hand on the tool or gage you want in a snap then you fritter away your productive hours looking for things all day long. It takes discipline to put things back in the same place each time and spent some time optimizing.

This optimization discussion is way, way beyond drawers with contents labels on them. If you don't develop the muscle memory to reach for your one inch micrometer without thinking about which drawer its in your doomed. If you have to read a label to find your tools then make sure the wheels are good on your rollaway because they will be getting a lot of use in the parking lot.

For me there are two basic setups. The first is the guys that have to lock their tool boxes every night. These guys have to wedge everything back into the box at the end of the shift. The exception might be some setup still in the machine. Even crooks rarely steal your tools that are bolted down inside a machine. The lockup setup is less dense so you can close the lid and have a little extra room for loose items like aprons and coffee cups.

The second setup is open box. I have the most experience with open box. Its where you can leave your box open at night and trust your workmates to respect your stuff. Its the only way I will work in a shop. You can walk through almost any shop and read what type it is by looking at the setups.

Three of the really fast guys I have worked with were open box guys. Mike had spent some time with his setup. He had end mill stands for all the common sizes that he left out on his bench so he could grab one in a second. He also had all the standard taps set up in individual blocks with the tap, tap drill and the body clearance drill in the same block. Need a number ten, grab the block and you have everything you need in one swoop.
One of the other really fast guys was, is Joel. His speed came more from competitiveness than a good tool layout. His style was to leave all the tools he used over and over again laid out on the front apron of his toolbox. Taps, drills, reamers, gage pins. Whatever he was using was laid out in piles. It looked disorganized but the guy could really make time in the machine shop. The picture above is a nickname my toolmaker friend Charlie got. These old German guys he worked with nicknamed him Mr hurry up. This is his spin on the nickname on some special tools he made for himself.

Two of the guys I learned from had a similar system that I adapted and made my own. It actually allows you to close your tool box if you wanted to at the end of the day. I have this funny syndrome where I get anxious when I have too many tools out of my box. Many times I have to just stop and do what I call a soft reset. This is where I just put everything away quickly even if I know I might use in in a few minutes. I find that it clears my brain with a little break and puts everything back where I don't have to remember too hard where I laid it.

Fred was the main role model for many of my machinist tendencies. He was super fast and worked very neatly and did the highest class work in the shop. Nothing like a tool and die apprenticeship to get you started off on the right track. And if your going to model yourself after somebody then make it a good one. When Fred was a young man and was going to school and doing his tool and die apprenticeship. The students were asked to come up with a toolmaker project to be graded on. Fred told the instructor that he wanted to make a large sine plate for himself. The instructor was a little skeptical and challenged him that it was maybe too ambitious a project for an early apprentice. When Fred went home that night and told his dad what the instructor had said. His dad said. "Your going to make a sine bar? Humm, go ahead and make two, I need one too" You see Fred grew up in a machine shop that his grandfather started. He was running all the machines in the shop doing customer work before he finished high school. Needless to say he went ahead and made two sine bars in his tool and die class. When Fred died his wife gave me the one he made in his tool and die class and used his entire career. I can say he is the one that sold me on the simplicity and accuracy of sine bars and what many people reserve only for special work. This is a tool that should be used often for that very reason.
Fred always advised me to keep a pretty complete personal kit of most things you could possibly need. This way you always know the whereabouts and condition of all your tools.There is nothing worse than having to chase all around the shop looking for one parallel that's missing from the beat up company set or share some 1-2-3 blocks with the welding department.

Most of these small improvements in efficiency don't amount to much time on their own. But add these all together over a full day or better yet a year and your talking major time improvement. The devil is in the details and these small things are what separate the good and the bad and the ugly. Ever wonder how these old dudes get so much work done without breaking a sweat? This is one of the secrets.

So now I will take you on a tour of my machinist tool box and rollaway and highlight some of the finer points of the layout.
Here is the setup in work mode. I would normally leave it for the night just the way it is in the picture. From the outside there are a couple of important items. On the left under the side table is the trusty optivisor hanging from a hook within easy reach. Right next to it is a wide opening Diamond brand adjustable wrench. It will open to inch and a half  which handles any strap clamp nuts or most anything hexagonal I have bumped into in the machine shop. On the right we have a file assortment right out in the open and out of the way within easy reach. When you square blocks and parts in the mill you are constantly knocking burrs off for the next setup. Why dig through a drawer for these items. You are using them over and over during a typical workday in the shop.
Jumping up to the top tray. This is a major action area. Its all open and easy to grab. Starting on the left side, are a set of 1/8 parallels. I hate having to open a drawer to pick these out. You change sizes so often these should be close at hand. Invariably you grab a set one size too short or tall and need to get another pair. On top of that is my Interapid test indicator on an Indicol holder. I have tried lots of indicators and this one is the cats meow. If you don't have an indicator set up all the time you get lazy and don't indicate things you really should be indicating.

Next are the drill and tap indexes. I keep a set of fractional and wire size stub length drill right in the top tray. This covers most of the common tap hole sizes and the stub length helps me in two ways. I don't need to move the knee of the mill as much, and for most classes of work I can skip the spot drilling for starting a hole because of the increased stiffness of the screw machine length drill. Next over are tap indexes for taps from 0 up to 1/2. This covers most of the real common day to day tapping ops. Next are all my deburring tools. A machinist life is full of burrs so having those tools close at hand is important. Last in the tray are two sets of hex wrenches. One inch and one metric. Seems like every set screw, fastener or adjuster uses hex drivers. In the lid are a twenty four inch combo square for rough layout for sawing or squaring, tap guide block and magnet base for indicator.
First drawer on the right. Small hole gages, round and flat bottom, and telescoping gage set.Also in there but I don't use them much are pin vises, and a short ruler set and holder. Telescoping gages are fast and compact for checking bored holes. They take a bit of practice to use consistently but they are simple and reliable. Typically you measure them with the same tool you use on the mating part so any calibration issues come out in the wash by using the same measuring tool.
Second drawer on the right. Small Kant Twist clamps and parallel clamps. I use the parallel clamps to hold my v blocks or angle plates to the Kurt jaws. Also in there are threading and thread pitch gages, and one of the most important tools in the entire set, my Uncle Bills tweezers. You know how you can tell they are the most important tool? Because no matter what the work deadline is, all work stops when you get a metal sliver in your hand. Small tap wrench lives here also so it doesn't get swallowed up in one of the deeper drawers.
This is the third drawer on the right. It has all the my common taps I have modified and made special for extra clearance or deep holes. Its also a place to put a decent tap that still has some life left in it that can be modified or used on something you don't want to use your nice ones for.  I have been of the mind to thin this drawer out since I don't go in it that much and in the picture its looking kinda full.
Fourth drawer on the right. This is an important one. Edge finders, pointers, small punches scribers, tooling balls and tweezers other than for splinters. My small vise stop  lives in here also but was out on the mill when I took the picture. A set of really small hex drivers lives here also. .028 and .035 for those size zero screws and really small set screw sockets.
Moving over to the left side now this is the first drawer on the top left. In here we find adjustable parallels small angle plates, a couple of extra tee nuts and various tee slot stops. Every machinist needs two 5/8 dowel pins for tee slot stops. In addition there are some quoins borrowed from the printmaking trade that I use when I want a longer surface to butt a part against or when the dowel pins are too tall.
I also use the heck out of adjustable parallels. I don't know where I picked up the habit but they seem to be in and out of my box all the time. I think because I have at least three of each size it makes them more useful for special setups where you need multiple odd sizes.
Second drawer on the left has all my india and diamond stones for touching up tools and cutters. Looks like there is a stray cutting wheel for a tubing cutter floating around in there also.
Third drawer on the left. Chuck-e-chuck is a deep drawer with drill chucks, a small surface gage and my radius gages underneath. The little silver thing next to the smaller Albrecht is a adjustable stop for the tailstock in the lathe. I use it when I have to part off multiples of a part and want the lengths to be consistent.
Normally this is called the handbook drawer. Its sized so a Machinery's handbook fits. I use it for all my printed reference material. Thread specs, keyseat depths and tolerances, surface finish comparator, and my old HP calculator. The red case is a set of jewelers pry bars, I mean screwdrivers. There is a great little handy book from the Morse tool company that I like for quick feeds and speeds info.
Another one of the major drawers. This is the first long drawer in the box and its where I have the day to day in and out measuring tools. Micrometers up to two inches, depth mics, multi anvil mike, calipers, four and six inch, solid squares, and a couple of dividers. I'm in and out of this drawer all day long. I only want the stuff in here that gets used all the time. It should only be a single layer deep to keep you from having to strip mine to find the tool you need. If the left corner is a small round magnet base with a Last word indicator on it for certain lathe centering and indicating jobs. Its smaller than the Interapid setup is and works well in those tight spaces.
This is the second full width drawer of the top box. It holds the basic non measuring hand tools that get used over and over. Smaller adjustable wrench, hammers, multi screwdriver, tap wrench, thread files, spotting and center drills, and a pair of long chip pliers. In the red case is a universal indicator I like for tramming the head of the mill or indicating over holes and slots. It has a wide button on it that glides right over small imperfections. It also has a much larger range than any test indicator which is handy for setting up stuff that is pretty far out like weldments.
The largest and last drawer of the top chest is all setup stuff. 1-2-3 blocks, sine bars and plates, small insert vises, and a selection of v-blocks. In the back out of view are extensions for tramming large machines and a tool height setting device I made.
 One of the v-blocks I cut down so its close to the same height as the Kurt vise jaws. I have found this handy at times where I didn't want the part sitting up so high. The piece that I cut off got reground at the same time and has come in handy for a few things. Its still pretty easy to buy a mismatched single v-block off e-bay for this. Everybody wants a matched pair of v-blocks for some reason. I find I rarely use them in pairs anyway. I would guess that if you inspected a mismatched pair of the same make and model you would find them very close if not near perfect.

Not that long ago my box went on a major weight reduction. At work I don't really machine all day long anymore and needed the tools and tooling at my home shop. Once the box was home I cleared out some of the heavier setup tooling and dispersed it near the appropriate machines. It all started with looking for an end mill I knew I had. After digging in the drawer for a while I decided to take out all the common stuff and arrange it in a smaller box I had that has been sitting around my home office with pens and pencils in it. As it was the stuff barely fit in it. The upshot is that its all nicely organized now and I can find things quickly. I adopted some of Joel's methods, one of them is leaving the common stuff out for quick access. I don't really want to dig for a 1/2 two flute end mill to knock the end off a part so why not leave some common stuff out. It seems to be working out fine.
No need to scroll through all these drawers. Just like my concession to labels says, bunch of milling cutters. This box sits right next to the mill and saves a few steps to grab a tool. Its just high enough and out of range of the rooster tail of chips off a flycutter or inserted tool.
The bottom rollaway box is for deeper storage. That is stuff that you don't use every five minutes. The drawers are larger and deeper so typically heavier things seem to end up in the bottom box. So here is the first drawer in the roll away. Here are large micrometers up to nine inches, abandoned and large dial calipers, special mics like disc, and thread. Bore micrometers, and a groove mic is hiding in there somewhere. Miscellaneous random stuff like a big solid square and my thread wire set.
I'll be the first to admit that this drawer needs some help. The primary thing I access in here is countersinks. They are segregated by angles. The plastic box is all 82 degree tools. Second thing that I go in after the countersinks are the long aircraft drills and third I don't know what. Looking at it here and trying to write some clever description of the contents just falls on its face. Next.
This is my homage to the lathe. This drawer probably weighs a hundred pounds all by itself. Thirty plus years and you end up with a lot of custom tool bits. Since moving into CNC stuff I have tried to be a more inserted lathe kind of a guy but I still find myself digging around in here pretty often. So the layout is from left to right, threading, brazed carbide, turning and grooving, boring, and then tools with radii.
All those end mills that filled the small Kennedy box used to be in this drawer. When I bought my most recent milling machine it came with a bunch of tooling that sent this drawer into a gastric fit. It was time to organize the mess and consolidate. I ended up giving away twenty pounds to a young struggling machinist I know that works like a monkey and could use the duplicates more than me. All that's left in here is special stuff and all the inserts for everything I have. I figure in a few years there will be no daylight visible again in this drawer.
This drawer has the remaining sets of drills in it. The A-Z stubs, metric and a full set of jobber length drills for those holes that the stubs wont reach. A throwback to the olden days is a mechanical tachometer and next door to that is a set of shop grade gage blocks. I think there is a spring dynamometer in the wood box on the left which I should find another home for. There are some fly cutters which I don't use too often anymore once I sprung for a Shear Hog.
Moving on toward the basement we find more wood boxes. Small four inch rotary table is in the light colored box, to the left of than is a set of Hoke gage blocks that I like because they go to a large size. Large radius gages up to one inch radius. Some indicator boxes and a hardness tester. The box marked Patterson is a Blake Co-ax indicator that has all kinds of uses. This one was resurrected from the tool morgue where I found it for a fraction of the price of a new one by sending it back to the Blake factory. I could never justify the cost for one since I already had a half dozen indicators that do almost the same thing.
We have finally arrived at the basement. I know your wondering why this drawer seems so unpacked with open space all around. Well that's because it went to Weight Watchers when I brought my box home. This drawer was so heavy that the front of the drawer would often times bend just opening it. What the hell did you have in there you might ask?
Why all of this of course. Two Taft Pierce box parallels, three angle plates, a matched pair of large Taft Pierce v-blocks and two massive tool steel v-blocks that Charlie gave me. Oh and a ball vise for the surface grinder.

If you have any questions about any tools you see in the pictures that I didn't mention in the text be sure to throw up a comment and I'll do my best to answer you. This was a good exersise for me also since I don't really think about what all is in these two boxes much. I am seeing it again in the light of describing it to all of you. I see a couple of areas that need some additional work and optimization. I'm not getting any younger so any time I can save hunting for tools is more time I can work in the shop.

Thanks for looking.


  1. I realize this is an old post, but do you still have the very large V-block?

    1. Hey Adam,

      Thanks for the comment. I do still have that vee block. Thanks for asking.

      All the best,


  2. Hi Tom,

    Did you have a separate spot for the more mechanical tools, like combo wrenches, screwdrivers, or hex keys? Did you find that you could get by with the combo screwdriver and the adjustable wrenches?



    1. Hi Duncan,

      I generally keep an entire separate box for mechanic tools. It will really depend on the flavor of the shop. For most tasks in the machine shop you will not need a lot of mechanic tools. If your shop works on custom equipment and the machinists are doing fitting and assembly the toolbox grows considerably. Thanks for the comment.



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