The journey of a thousand miles starts with just one step. Deciding what new tool storage system you want can feel like that kind of journey. As the single largest purchase you are ever likely to make in your career as a technician, it is an important one! In fact, other than your home and vehicles, your toolbox could very well be the largest financial decision you will make.
There are several similarities between buying a home and buying a new tool storage system. Just like when buying a new home, financing will come up as one of the very first things you need to consider. If you are like most people, buying a house or a new toolbox with cash is not an option. You’ll also need to consider things such as how much room do you need? Instead of square feet for rooms, you’ll need to think in terms of cubic inches. Instead of number of bedrooms, bathrooms and such, you will need to think about storage spaces. You need to be concerned with number of drawers, cabinets, the width and depth of these and weight capacity.
Maybe the reason there are so many similarities is because you essentially are buying a house. It just happens to be a house for tools instead of people. Just like a home, you will have to do some planning about where you will put the new toolbox and how you will use it.
The primary location of your new toolbox should be taken into consideration before you make your purchase. Are there any restrictions on the size of box you can have at your work station? Maybe you work in a small shop that just doesn’t have the room for a mega cruiser box. Does the new box you want have outlets for power? Getting power can be an issue to consider. How about computers? Do you use a PC or a laptop? You will need to make sure to have space for the computer (and its monitor) you want to use.
Hey, Good Lookin’
Manufacturers continue to improve the quality of a toolbox’s finish and construction. While we all take pride in our shiny, good-looking toolboxes, the finish is important for the life of the box as well. The shop environment can be a hostile one to anything made of metal. Many a toolbox over the years has fallen victim to rust. One of the very first questions you need to ask your dealer is: “What is the finish on the box?”
Today, the standard of quality for box finishes is powder coating. Powder coating provides the best of all worlds. For the consumer, the finishes are great looking, incredibly tough and resistant to fading, chipping and all the other maladies that paint is susceptible to. For the manufacturer, the benefits are great also. Powder coating is applied dry using an electrostatic charge. The product is then baked, which causes the powder to melt and flow to a smooth and durable finish. Without the hassles and burdens of handling solvents such as thinners, reducers and hardeners, the process is more manageable and cleaner than paint.
Now I’m not saying that all powder coating is good and all traditional paint finishes are bad. Like everything it depends on quality control, attention to preparation and a host of other things. I will tell you that the largest OEM provider of toolboxes to the automotive trade is using powder coating almost exclusively. Be sure to look at examples of boxes from the suppliers you are considering. If you are a refinish technician or a painter, you are definitely going to be pickier about the quality of paint and finish than others!
Construction is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to toolboxes. You are likely to put several hundred (or thousand) pounds (and dollars) of steel in that nice shiny box. The main issues to consider are steel gauge and quality, assembly method (welded, bolted, riveted, bonded), components such as casters, locks, hardware and, finally, actual construction.
As you know, steel is measured in terms of gauge. Gauge is a universal method of measuring steel based on standards of thickness. Steel gauge is one of those funny specifications that can fall victim to what I call the “Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor” syndrome. What I mean is, like a lot of things, the specification by itself isn’t the whole story. In the case of steel, the smaller the number, the bigger or, more accurately, the thicker the steel is. Generally speaking, logic would tell you that the bigger and thicker you make something the better, right? Well… maybe! There is a fine balance between strength of steel versus total weight of the item.
In many cases, good manufacturing processes and design can yield a box with a higher capacity and overall strength while using a thinner (think lighter) gauge of steel. My point is, don’t get completely hung up on this one specification when shopping for your new box. Just as important as the gauge of the steel is the consistency of the steel. Low-cost steel providers don’t have as strong a quality control during the manufacturing process. This can yield steel that is thinner in some places than others, which translates to a weaker piece of steel.
There also can be significant variations between the center and side portions of rolled steel. High-quality toolbox manufacturers are aware of this and demand that only certain parts of the roll be used for specific parts of the product they make. In addition to thickness variations, poor-grade steels can have a higher concentration of trash or contaminates. While there is always some small percentage of this in steel, the purer the steel, the stronger it will be. Steel is an incredibly complex product and unless you spend years studying it, you’re left depending on the manufacturer to have partnered with good steel suppliers. Your best defense is to work with reputable dealers, ask a lot of questions and make sure that there is a warranty that specifically addresses both finish and structural failure.
There are several different ways to stick two pieces of metal together. When shopping, whether it’s for a big box or a service cart, you want to pay special attention to this issue. Common sense tells you, the technician, that welded assemblies are the strongest. Generally speaking, weld quantity and quality are two great indicators of the quality of a toolbox. Luckily, as a technician, even if you don’t weld, you are constantly exposed to high-quality welding on the vehicles that you work on every day.
Welds should be consistent in width, thickness and spacing. By spacing I mean that if you imagine that weld to be a stack of coins that has been fanned out, the space between the coins should be the same distance. This is a great indicator of weld speed, which translates into penetration. The most skilled welders will create a weld that looks like a perfect row of shiny dimes. Be very critical of any toolboxes that have rough welds, which can include spatter, bubbles, rough edges or any combination of these. Also pay special attention to the paint on the welds. This is where rust will start if the product wasn’t cleaned well enough prior to final coating.
Hardware & Components
As a professional technician, this is an area you will be very familiar with. How many times have you seen pattern failures on new cars based on the OEM trying to save a few cents on every car? While the reason this happens is understandable, the results sometimes are far more expensive to correct than the original savings. The same thing can happen to toolbox manufacturers.
I’ve seen really fantastic toolboxes that are ruined because the manufacturer chose to outfit them with substandard hardware. To me, hardware and components are almost as important as the construction of the “shell” of the box. Casters, slides, hinges, locks — these are the things that are most likely to cause you problems down the road.
A big area of concern is casters. Technicians are moving their boxes more than ever before. In the old days, the only time a tech moved a box was when he got hired and when he got fired or quit. Nowadays, with bigger shops and fast-changing business, you need to be able to roll that beast across the floor without fear of snapping off the wheels or damaging the floor. Many high-end suppliers now offer casters with a soft composition. This does a couple of things: the softer wheels act as insulators or shock absorbers while rolling over uneven concrete or pavement. These synthetic blends also are non-marring, which is important if you are working in a facility with a painted floor. (It’s a bad career move to scratch up the floor on your first day at the shop!) Another development that is becoming more common is actual suspensions on the larger-sized boxes. These cantilever springs act to reduce jarring and assist in rolling across airlines, cracks, service managers and other obstructions. This is an expensive upgrade only found on the high-end boxes, but well worth the extra dollars if you plan on moving that beast now and then.
Drawer slides are another component on boxes that get a lot of conversation. Back in the day, the big divider between high-end boxes and economy boxes was roller slides. There are two main types of slides for drawers: Friction slides, which use insulators made of plastic, nylon or other synthetic plastics between the two metal sections; and roller slides or ball bearing slides, which use metal bearings captured between the two sections. The weight of the drawers and all the tools in them rests on these slides. As a technician, you know how important bearings are. They make the world go round (pun intended!).
Today, roller slides are pretty much expected as a minimum requirement, just like ABS used to be an upgrade feature on luxury vehicles and today it is found on a majority of new cars regardless of the vehicle’s cost. While it will be unlikely to find many toolboxes or service carts with friction slides, it would definitely be a red light on that particular box or cabinet.
Security has become more of an issue as technicians are forced to own more expensive tools and especially electronics. There has been a move to the use of more barrel-style locks. Once only used for safe deposit boxes and expensive lock boxes, these locks are becoming more common on tool storage systems. These locks are extremely durable, nearly impossible to pick, and the keys are relatively bullet-proof. This is a feature definitely worth asking for when shopping for your new storage solution. One of the large manufacturers offers a program where you can key or re-key an entire system to one key in a relatively short amount of time. Not having to look for keys all the time is a great time saver.
An excellent indicator of component quality is finish. Just like on the cars you work on, the hinges, fittings and hardware should have high-quality finishes. If the finish is inconsistent, you can bet the strength and durability are questionable.
While you may not be an engineer or toolbox designer, you know how things should be made. You see the sheet metal on bodies of cars and trucks every day. You know where to expect to see reinforcements, gussets, brackets, double layers of steel, ribbing etc. It’s just a matter of looking very closely at the equipment you are considering purchasing. Things like drawer rack or sag in a brand new box are serious warning signs of trouble to come. Panels that flex or “oil can” are a big no-no. If the box looks like it has problems empty, imagine how it will look when you load it down!
One change in the tool storage sector is the need for more mobility. As I mentioned above, many technicians are being asked to work in various places, whether in a large dealership, a big manufacturing facility or factory or just to move to different bays. The need to be able to effectively work in different spots without having to make a million trips back and forth to the box has made service carts more important than ever before.
The early service carts were really nothing more than adapted carts from either medical or food service type applications. The problem was that these carts were not strong enough to stand up to the abuse we gave them. Many a service cart collapsed due to weight and hitting the occasional pot hole. Stability has been a problem also as the wheel base on many early carts were narrow to allow them to be wheeled in aisles, around tables, hallways in hospitals, etc.
Today’s carts offer an incredible array of options. Locking drawers and tops, multiple drawer configurations, better casters, holders for long tools such as pry bars, foam cutouts for tools are just a few things that the new carts offer. As competition continues to increase, the technicians are the beneficiaries. The quality and features on service carts has improved dramatically in a very short time and it is in direct response to feedback from techs!
One of the most innovative and interesting design changes I’ve heard about recently is a feature where the lid can be opened two different ways. It opens conventionally by lifting up the front edge of the top with the hinge at the back of the cart. This design is just fine unless you put any parts or tools on top of the lid. (Who would ever do that, right?) The old solution to this problem was to take everything off the top of the cart, open the lid, find what you needed and then put everything back. The lid on this new cart can also slide back 11” toward the rear of the service cart, allowing the technician to reach inside for that socket or wrench they need. All of this while the parts, fasteners and tools are still on top of the lid! Cool, huh?
Get an Agent
At the beginning of this article I compared buying a toolbox system to buying a house. In many cases, people hire a real estate agent to help them through the complicated process of buying a house. I think you should treat the purchase of your new box the same way. Find an agent (tool distributor) who is willing to go the extra mile to help you figure out what you need and want. A good dealer can help you figure out financing options, as well as help you configure a box to suit your needs.
Remember that you need to plan not just for your needs today, but for the next several years as well. This is too important a purchase to feel rushed or uncertain about what you want to do. If your dealer is not patient or willing to slow down on a sale of this size, you need to look around for one who is. There are many great resources online to help you learn about boxes, as well as the newest features and benefits available. Some manufacturers even offer an online computer program that lets you actually configure the box to suit your needs. From drawer count and size to colors, these programs let you “test drive” the boxes before you sign on the dotted line.
Just remember, after you get your new box, invite all your neighbors over for a house-warming party — and tell them to bring tools!
Love Your Chest!
The award-winning Hand Tool Institute Safety Education Program develops and distributes videos, booklets, wall charts and other safety materials and promotes hand tool safety. Here, the institute offers a few tips on safe care and keeping of your tool storage equipment.
Proper Use and Care
Lightly oil all moving parts such as drawers, trays and hinges at regular intervals.
Use graphite, not oil, on locks and padlocks.
Touch up all rusted spots, paying particular attention to the bottom of toolboxes.
Ensure that handles are firmly attached to the toolbox.
Drawers and trays that hold sharp-edged tools such as chisels, screwdrivers, etc. should be lined with cork, felt or scrap carpeting.
Set the brakes on the locking casters after you have rolled the cabinet to your work area.
Make sure that the wheels on tool cabinets are turning freely.
Keep your toolbox or chest locked when not in use.
Sand or file down any sharp edges that may cause damage to clothes or fingers. Such sharp edges are usually caused by dropping the tool box to the floor instead of placing it on the floor.
Wipe away all grease and moisture from tools before storing them in the toolbox, chest or cabinet.
Tool cabinets should be pushed and not pulled.
Close all drawers before moving a tool cabinet.
Push the tool cabinet not the chest.
Secure the tool chest to the cabinet, if possible.
Open only one drawer at a time.
Read and follow all safety messages that are affixed to, or that accompany, toolboxes.
Avoiding Abuse and Misuse
Never use a toolbox for an anvil, workbench, ladder or similar purpose.
Do not overload a tool cabinet with too many extra chests or tool trays; it may tip over.
Do not open more than one drawer at a time.
Do not move a tool cabinet before locking all drawers.
Do not roll a tool cabinet with loose tools or parts on top of the cabinet or with a tool chest that is not properly fastened.