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Drawer Space

Carl Jung wrote: “Every adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem.”

Shop corollary: "Every new machine is a crisis in drawer space."

While it can be frustrating trying to find something when all of your tools are randomly crammed into drawers based on the single criterion of whether or not it will fit, this system does tend to stow a lot of cra . . . I mean, make efficient use of space. When you start separating things by type or use, a drawer in which many different kinds of things once coexisted suddenly morphs into three or four drawers.

That’s just fine, until you run out of drawers.

That’s my dream shop, wall to wall Listas. In my current shop, drawer space is limited and its allocation is requiring thought. Beyond the ongoing question of whether a thing is in a drawer because it will be used or because it won’t, the need to have tools ready to hand may be at odds with the need to keep tools safely out of the chips and dust. While a clean deck is nice, if a drawer is getting opened too often maybe the thing doesn’t belong in a drawer after all. At one extreme, I’ve seen shops where all the tools just got piled in the chip trays of the machines. Where they were more or less ready to hand, but both tools and machines were filthy and worn out and expressed resignation and defeat. The shops I admire express care and discipline. Of course, it’s probably not that simple. Most likely I have done work of the same quality whether my shop was tidy or looked like the wreck of the Hesperus.

Ok, maybe “tidy” is giving myself too much credit.

I spent a lot of time on drawers early in the pandemic and it was actually kind of pleasant, in a might-as-well-look-on-the-bright-side sort of way. But that was low hanging fruit and as the months have dragged on it has become increasingly difficult to get excited about organizing drawers.

Excited or not, the arrival of my new milling machine presented me with a choice between yet another round of organization and a return to chaos. You don’t have to be a machinist to know what I mean, you just have to be a parent. When the new baby arrives it may seem at first like you don’t need all THAT much stuff, but before long the incoming stream of accessories becomes a torrent, and if you stop putting stuff away for one SECOND you find yourself knee deep in stuffed animals and brightly colored plastic.

The first thing a milling machine needs is cutters. You have end mills, which look like drill bits but are square and sharp on the ends so that you can cut a flat surface at the bottom of a recess; shell mills, which have multiple teeth and cut a wider swath; fly cutters that spin a single sharp tool, and, well, there are more. Real machine shops have drawers upon drawers of cutters in different sizes, different geometries, different coatings, all optimized for different kinds of materials and different kinds of cuts, and they are kept stocked by a tool rep who stops in every week or so to see which bins are getting low. Being nothing like a real machine shop, I probably could have gotten by for quite a while with just a few end mills, but a machinist friend happened on an estate sale and picked up a double handful of cutters for me.

The cutters all fit in one drawer, but I can see that it’s going to take more than that in the future.

The next thing a milling machine needs is a selection of parallels — precision-ground blocks or strips of metal that allow you to clamp your work in the milling vise exactly parallel to its bottom, which should be exactly parallel to the table, to which the spindle should be aligned exactly perpendicular. Very important, parallels, and you need different heights so you can hold different size things in the vise. I bought one set and my estate sale care package included a few. I can get by for now squeezing them into the drawer with the dial indicators, but those parents who squeezed a second kid into the first kid’s bedroom know what’s coming.

Then there’s the set of R8 collets to hold cutters directly in the spindle taper rather than in a chuck (more rigid and precise), the set of hold-downs for clamping odd-shaped things directly to the table, and much more stuff that I don’t have but can see coming — planer gages, sine bars, adjustable parallels, V-blocks, angle plates, block parallels, boring heads, a rotary table . . . My plan is to wait to buy stuff until specific jobs require it, but parents will recall how their inventory of baby clothes and gear grew as older parents saw the opportunity to clear out their attics. Older machinists can be a little like that and don’t get me wrong, being on the receiving end is a great relief whether it’s a high chair or a grinding vise that you don’t have to buy (or pay full retail for) yourself, but there remains the question of where to put it.

For now, in the Kennedy tool box. Yes, the bottom box says Craftsman, but it’s a Kennedy, they used to make the better Craftsman tool boxes. I bought it used 12 years ago, and when it arrived I was able to pile pretty much all of my tools of every kind into it. Over the past year, though, machinist tools have begun elbowing out their non-machining siblings. In this latest purge, the small power tools filling the bottom drawer got moved to a rolling 3-drawer toolbox I unintentionally bought at the Kennametal online auction, followed by the drawer of soldering irons, electrical test equipment, and related miscellany. The second drawer from the bottom in the Kennedy was full of hammers, of all things, and building a wall rack for them has made it easier to pluck the correct hammer as well as clearing out a drawer. I can see myself doing something similar in the near future with the screwdrivers. Anyway, that’s three new drawers. Two of them are inconveniently deep and close to the ground, but it's what I've got.

I also built a drawer under the Logan lathe for the tool holders that used to go in the top of the Craftsman toolbox on the bench on the opposite wall. That clears space for refugees from the Kennedy toolbox and puts all of my tool holders right at my fingertips as opposed to up behind me. That's a big improvement in work flow right there, should have done it a long time ago. So, drawers are good for now. Everything that needs to be stowed is stowed and there is room for at least some incoming milling machine accessories. I could even add a few lathe tool holders. What I don’t have room for is any more machines.

I guess parents know how that goes.

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