2016 February 17     Tech   Shop Tips


If you're working on anything that has small fasteners, gears, washers, or that sort of thing, it's only a matter of time until you drop one of those on the floor.  

From there, it will bounce unseen and unknown, according to its own physics that scoff at Isaac Newton.  It knows you don't have the means to map its trajectory and show that it couldn't have just done what you know it just did.

Next thing you know, you're having to go find a whole 'nother parts camera just to get a single Unobtainium part.

In this Shop Tips article, we'll look at four ways to avoid losing small parts.  

A Quick Note

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In This Article

Shop Tip #1:  Work Table Mod

Shop Tip #2:  Kinetic Absorber

Shop Tip #3:  Parts Tray

Shop Tip #4:  Containers


1.  Work Table Mod

In the Camera Maintenance article, I suggested nailing strips of wood around the edge of the workbench.   You'll be creating a lip or miniature "wall" that keeps small objects from rolling off the tabletop. 

The top of this mini-wall should stand 1/2 to 1 inch above the table surface.

Find a board of the same thickness as the wall's height above the table.  Look at the table and decide where your arms will usually rest, and place the board there.  Nail it or glue it if you want.

Then you won't have a narrow strip of wood digging into your arms every time you use the table.

Don't do any of this to a finely-finished table, obviously.   We're talking about work tables here.  But you knew that.

This method has some drawbacks, to be sure.   If you leave any gaps, the parts will probably find those and roll off the table anyway.  If parts fall on the arm-rest, they'll roll of the table anyway.

Or, they could just bounce out.   It seems they acquire energy from some unseen dimension that doles out force and velocity vectors freely.

2.  Kinetic Absorber

Probably, many people have thought of this one independently.   I remember hearing this one many years ago, and I'm sure that a number of people use it.

Since we all know that parts like to fall onto the carpet anyway, then why not just bring the carpet up onto the work table?

Get a scrap of high-pile carpet, perhaps 2 x 3 feet.  Use it as a mat to hold the workpiece.  If you drop something, the carpet will absorb the kinetic energy so it won't bounce off into the wild blue yonder. 

If you don't have a piece of carpet, try using an old terry-cloth towel.  Stretch it out flat, then duct-tape the edges to the workbench (or tack them down).  This will keep the towel from bunching up.

3.  Trays!

Aluminum baking trays are great for working on cameras, electronics, etc.    That's where they belong:  in the workshop, while the stainless steel is for cooking.

Some people glue magnets to the underside of a tray, marking the exact spots where the magnets are.  Then, use each magnet to hold a different group of fasteners.  Brilliant idea, actually. 

Or, line the tray with felt to prevent bounce-out.

Wooden trays lined with carpet would be useful, but there you'd probably have to custom-build them.  Thin plywood, finished on one side, would make nice trays if you're good at basic carpentry.  There again:  carpet lining.  Small parts tend to bounce when they hit wooden surfaces.

If you buy meat that's packaged in foam trays, save the trays and wash them.      The larger trays could be used as work surfaces that hold parts;  however there's the problem of static electricity.

4.  Containers

This isn't a way to corral dropped stuff;  it's a way to keep from dropping parts in the first place. 

Simply put the parts into containers ASAP.   (Don't set them down thinking you'll just organize them later...)

Aluminum-foil pie pans are useful for parts.  Only problem is, these pans flip over too easily.  (It seems if you get near one of these things, it instantly overturns, sending small parts off into the stratosphere.)  Here's how to fix that.  Degrease the metal on the underside of the pie pan, then glue it down to a piece of plywood, MDF, or paneling.  Construction adhesive or caulk should work well enough. 

Even easier:  use double-sided tape or mounting tape to affix the pan to the plywood (etc).

Egg cartons have the advantage that if you have to put the work aside for a while, everything stays organized in its own compartment for next time.   I prefer the cardboard ones.

You could even label each compartment.

Here again, egg cartons get flipped over easily, so you'll have to anchor them.  Use double-sided tape or thumbtacks to hold them to the work bench.

Film Canisters are useful.  They're nearly unbreakable.  You could even build a small rack to hold all the canisters.   A few dowels and some scrap wood:  almost like a mini spice-rack for parts.

If you're taking apart a camera or something, put each parts group into its own film canister.

Label each canister, of course.

Ready-Made Organizer.  There's no substitute for a proper organizer.  Electronics, camera repair, crafting, home repairs, you name it:  these little multi-drawer units make life easier.

When you're done at the worktable, you can set the whole thing on a shelf somewhere. 

That was always the drawback with other containers:  storing them can be a nuisance. They end up in a five-gallon bucket, then something gets set on top of them, and you can't find what you need.

Small parts cabinets are incredibly handy.  This one is a popular choice.  I think you'll wonder how you ever did without one, or three.

Another one I would consider is this scoop box, made of steel.  It's not transparent, but you can always label what's what.  And being steel, it's going to last.   I've used this general type of container and found it very convenient. 


There you go:  four "shop tips" on How Not To Lose Small Parts.   It may not be fancy, but you've got to start somewhere.  And organizing your workspace is one of the first things to do.

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