May 09 2008

Creativity in Hardware Storage: Altoid Tins.

Published by at 7:51 pm under Shop Organization,Thoughts & Musings

During the evolution of a woodworkers development… A development which never ends by the way, a person observes design, considers various methods of joinery, acquires the tools that coincide with their preferences for the various methods of work, develops a style they enjoy as they continue to grow, and accumulates a TON of hardware along the way.


Back in the 30’s, 40’s 50’s and 60’s of the last century, woodworkers commonly used containers named “MJB”, “Hills Bros”, and “Folgers” for the proper containment of “hardware”. The proper methodology for sorting the “hardware” was to sort through the top inch and a half of the can, and then up end the contents on the bench for a closer sort of the needed hardware at the bottom of the can.

A higher tech solution was to use mason jars, commonly used for canning, and errr, other handy and imaginative uses, and all you had to do was deny knowing anything as to where the canning jars were when it came time to put up preserves, and the high tech part was that you could see in advance that the “hardware” you were looking for was at the bottom of the jar.

Advances in baby food preserving had the Beech-Nut Corporation putting 13 varieties of food into glass jars, beginning in 1931, and the resourceful woodworker in fatherhood found this as a boon to “hardware” storage. The thing was you see, the integral lids could be mounted to the bottom of shelves, making use of otherwise unusable space, and the woodworker could simply look from underneath and see the needed hardware at the bottom of the jar, and not have to spread as much on the bench to sort for the needed pieces.

The 70’s brought forth the use of plastics and many innovative storage solutions came to light. Boxes and bins made from plastics that handily held large quantities of hardware, mixed quantities of hardware where the odd sized and weird shapes would fit, and the part you needed would still furrow to the bottom of the bin.

Then there were the tiny metal cases full of even tinier transparent drawers filled with barely any hardware, which would fail if you tried to actually use it, so you tossed the hardware you bought into it but eh, still dumped the contents on the bench because your fingers wouldn’t fit in the drawers.

The steel fab folks came up with some wonderful hardware storage solutions, and when you went to town to the parts houses, you asked for parts and the counterman would reach back and grab a drawer, set it on the counter and open the lid and man, you wanted the sliding drawer storage cabinet worse than you wanted the “hardware”. So you ask the guy behind the counter and he shrugs and says eh? “That comes that way from the supplier”… Bummer.

The Fishing Tackle industry went big on modular storage containers in the 90’s and boy was that stuff great, but… But then you had to choose, because if you used that, what would you store your gummy worms and crappie jigs in? Worse yet, you have the hardware boxes with the worm and lure boxes in the shop, so on the last second phone call from your buddy for fishing excursions, invariably you wind up in the boat with a box full of jewelry box hinges. Wait! Trout hit shiny stuff right? Rig the hinge with some donor leader and some split shot… Of course McFeely’s came to our confusion issue rescue with the Super-Sortment Chest, and Adjustable Compartment Tray.

Problem solved. Right? Well, no.

The Calliard and Bowser Company has been supplying those curiously strong Altoids in metal tins since the 1920’s, c’mon… You can’t throw those perfectly good tins away, can you? Nah, and you haven’t been either. You got them laying around, and saving them up for when there is something you need to store, just in case, or something. Besides, they are shallow, they latch shut, hardware can try to furrow to the bottom but they are (ahem) shallow, and your fingers fit in them! Eh, so why not use ‘em? You can’t save them all for a “what if” situation forever, so stop the hand wringing, and make some of them into hardware storage.

My approach was to use the Altoid tins for organized hardware storage. The costs of having them was almost nothing since they were purchased over time, yet Costco will sell you a dozen full tins for around $13 dollars. That is still so cheap that the costs are nearly negligible even if you throw the mints away.


You can use them just the way they come, once they are empty if you like, or you can give them a bit of an upgrade by getting one sheet of 12 x 24 x 1/8th inch thick cork, and two sheets of 9 x 12 inch self adhesive felt, all for less than five dollars. This is enough material to line 24 tins.

Make some cardboard patterns for measuring and marking the needed sizes from old shoeboxes. It is a heavy and durable cardboard for this purpose. The altoid tins, bottom inside measurements are 3-11/16 x 2-9/32’s inches, and the radius on each corner is 1/2-inch. This will mark your cork. The sides of the altoid tin, after the cork is installed, measure 5/8ths inch wide to under the lip. My template is 10-7/8’s inch long and has some overlap, which is desirable to me. I overlap the felt in a corner.

For tooling, I use a sturdy hobby knife with a fat handle, a 24-inch, straight edge, but a ruler is just as useful, I just prefer the heft and high sides of the straightedge. I also use a 4-inch engineers square. I use these as layout and cutting guides. I also use a washer with a 1-inch diameter to trim the 1/2-inch radius corners of the cork. It may be useful to be able to re hone the blade of the knife as you work.


Once the cork is cut to length and width, the washer is placed in the corners as a guide to trim the radius.


It is a nice press fit to the bottom and since cork compresses a bit, the cork stays put once installed, without needed adhesives.


The cardboard template lays out the needed width for the self-adhesive felt strips, and the straightedge is a great cutting guide. Honing the knife a bit before you cut the felt is a good idea, and you may need to run the knife through a couple times anyway.


Then remove the back and apply the felt to the sides of the tin. I am right handed and decided it was easiest to deal with the lid hinge side first, so I start in the back left corner of the tin, and I wind up with approximately 1/2-inch of overlap in that corner when I finish. The overlap isn’t a requirement, but it works well with big fingers.

Then all there is left is to load up the tins with whatever it is in your hardware storage you want to organize more accurately. Best of all, the size of the tin is such that your part can’t furrow too deep, contains enough for a project and your fingers will fit into while not taking up too much space on the bench while it’s needed. And the tins latch shut very well. All qualities I enjoy in a hardware storage container, and they look cool as well as being a useful way to recycle something.


Oh, there’s one other detail… How are you going to organize all those altoid tins full of hardware? Well, in a cigar box of course! Everyone saves those too, don’t they? I found some that will store a dozen altoid tins stacked on end in two columns, six on each side. The cigar stores sell empty boxes between one to five dollars apiece all the time.

It is just another way of tackling shop organization, and helpful on a budget, if you would rather spend your discretionary income on projects or tools.

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© Copyright 2008 by Rob Hanson for All Rights Reserved.

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