If you own tools, you need a place to store them. Most technicians own thousands of dollars worth of tools and equipment, and require a cabinet or chest with lots of storage capacity to hold the tools of their trade. Shallow drawers are a must for wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers and pliers, and larger drawers are necessary to store bulky items such as handheld diagnostic equipment, pneumatic and power tools. There also needs to be drawers or compartments for special tools such as pry bars, cutting tools, drill bits, taps, gear pullers, spring compressors, you-name-it.
The tool cabinet or chest should be large enough so your tools can be well organized rather than jammed into the drawers. You can’t be productive if you’re constantly wasting time hunting for tools. Your tools need to be right at your fingertips when you need them.
Drawer dividers, trays and organizers that hold sockets and wrenches in size order mean you won’t have to rummage through a whole drawer full of loose wrenches or sockets to find the one you want. Keeping your tools organized also helps you keep track of your tools, too. If you forgot to replace a tool after finishing a job, the empty space for the missing socket or wrench should be obvious.
If you’re shopping for a new tool cabinet or chest, it should be large enough to hold not only the tools you own now, but also any additional tools you may acquire in the years ahead. A technician who is just starting out will probably double or triple his tool collection within five years. An older technician can’t assume he owns everything he’ll ever need, because automotive technology is constantly changing which means buying more special tools and equipment to keep up-to-date. So look at the storage space you think you need now, then add 25 to 50% to come up with a realistic estimate of how much storage space you will actually need a few years from now.
Tool cabinet storage capacity is usually specified in cubic inches. Bigger is usually better. However, comparing the total storage volume of one toolbox versus another doesn’t tell the whole story. Two tool cabinets that have the same volume can have different configurations and construction that affect how well that space is utilized. Consequently, one cabinet may provide better utilization of the available volume inside the cabinet than another.
Another consideration to keep in mind when choosing a particular size cabinet or tool storage system is how well it will fit in an existing service bay or other location. Maybe you want and need a gigantic tool cabinet, but just don’t have the space to accommodate it. If that’s the case, you need to pick a size and configuration that will give you the most utilization for the space available. For many technicians, that means a moderate-sized combination roller cabinet with a separate tool chest on top, and maybe a small portable service cart to hold tools temporarily while working on vehicles.
According to one tool cabinet manufacturer, the 41-inch roller cabinet is one of the most popular sizes for working technicians. The cabinet is available in various configurations, ranging from eight to 13 drawers. This usually provides adequate storage capacity for hand tools and handheld testers. Larger cabinets such as those that come in 46 to 56-inch widths, provide even more storage capacity. Some of these larger cabinets are available with a triple bank of drawers (18 total). Additional storage can be added on with end cabinets, peg boards, hooks, or tool chests or additional compartments mounted on top.
The large, flat top of a tool cabinet, either fixed or roller, can also double as a workbench if it is about 32 to 44 inches above the floor. If used as a workbench, the top should have some type of covering that can withstand pounding and abuse, as well as oil, grease and other liquids. Choices typically include stainless steel, molded plastic or hard maple wood.
If the top of a tool cabinet will also be used as a workbench, choose a top that has a raised lip or trough around the edges. This will keep liquids from spilling down the sides of the cabinet or into the drawers.
Strength & Durability
A tool cabinet is a major investment that should last a lifetime, or at least as long as you’re in the automotive repair business. You can find tool storage cabinets in almost any price range, and you usually get what you pay for. Cheaper cabinets are usually made of thinner gauge steel and typically have much lower load capacity ratings for the drawers than those made with heavier gauge steel and stronger construction.
Nothing is worse than a flimsy toolbox with hard to open or sticky drawers. The heavier the load rating of the drawers, the better. Quality toolboxes typically have drawer ratings that range from 80 up to 200 pounds.
Drawers that carry significant weight should always have ball bearing slides. Friction slides should only be used on small drawers that hold lightweight tools. All drawers should open easily with minimal effort even when fully loaded with tools.
The overall weight rating of the tool cabinet is also important if it is a roller cabinet that may be moved frequently. Ratings of up to several thousand pounds may seem like overkill, but the weight rating is also a reflection of the rigidity and durability of the cabinet.
On roller cabinets, the size of the wheels is also important for easy mobility. Four-inch rollers are adequate for a small portable cabinet, but for larger roller cabinets five or even six-inch wheels are best. A larger wheel will distribute the load over a larger surface area, and offer less rolling resistance when moving a heavy toolbox.
A tool storage cabinet or chest also needs to be secure to protect your investment. You don’t want tools walking off when you’re not around, so make sure the drawers and cabinets have secure locking mechanisms that can’t be easily circumvented.
A cabinet that can be unlocked with a single key is usually more convenient than a cabinet that has multiple locks.
Additional security can be provided by attaching a cable or chain to the cabinet itself so it can’t be rolled away.
There used to be a time when most toolboxes and storage cabinets came in standard basic colors. Red was a long-time industry standard, but nowadays you can get tool storage cabinets and chests in almost any color. One tool cabinet supplier said black and blue are now popular colors, and are outselling red cabinets by a margin of 10 to 15%.
The quality of the finish on the cabinet is important so it holds up over time. Nothing diminishes the resale value of a toolbox more than rust. Nobody wants to own, let alone buy, an old rusty toolbox. So make sure the manufacturer offers a quality paint job or powder coating. Stainless steel edging on the drawers can help prevent unsightly nicks and dings.
We’ve seen tool cabinets with a stainless steel or metallic finish. They look great, but show every fingerprint. You want a cabinet that can be easily cleaned and maintains a like-new appearance.
Custom graphics on toolboxes is also a popular trend these days. A lot of race teams have their team logo or other images on their tool cabinets. Graphics may include photos of cars, racing celebrities, company logos, or almost any image that can be reproduced in vinyl and applied to a toolbox. We’ve also seen boxes with elaborate show-quality flame paint jobs like those you might see on a custom car or hot rod. You obviously pay extra for graphics or a custom paint job, but it’s your toolbox and you should be able to have it any way you want it.
One word of caution, though. If you ding or scratch the fancy graphics or paint job on your tool cabinet, what will it take to fix it? A toolbox also has to be practical for a working technician. It can’t just be a work of art.
You also can accessorize a tool cabinet with various types of top chests, side cabinets, risers, vertical storage cabinets, lighting, trim, power outlets and even built-in audio systems. Adding a lot of bells and whistles to customize a large tool cabinet may impress your friends and customers. But unless you work on cars for a hobby, your primary focus should be on adding features that make your tool storage system more efficient and productive. In other words, will an addition or other accessory save you time, improve the organization of your tools, or help you earn more money? Those are the practical considerations you need to keep in mind when customizing a tool storage system.