Reader Question: Can I Use Modular Tool Storage in the Workshop?
Modular tool box and storage systems have never been more popular, with near-constant product line expansions and the steady introduction of new competition.
What’s the big deal about modular tool boxes? Why have they become so popular? Can they be used in a workshop? Are they right for everyone?
A reader wrote in with some great questions that I will do my best to answer. Nathan wrote:
I have a couple floor-standing toolboxes that hold most of my hand tools in my workshop. I do have odds and ends around that I’d like to put somewhere a bit more organized. I generally work in my own shop or on my own property, and if I need to take tools somewhere else (less often), I usually just throw what I need in a toolbag and go.
After reading your recent posts today about both the US General toolbox and the Bosch L-Boxx, I’m again left wondering: what is the big deal with portable, stacking boxes (e.g. Milwaukee Packout, DeWalt Toughsystem, etc.)?
I’m clearly missing something, due to the popularity… or am I? Perhaps it’s not just for me? I wonder if you could help me and perhaps others with me that are in the same boat. Could you possibly do an overview on how these storage systems compare to more traditional storage, like basic plastic bins, metal toolboxes / tool cabinets, etc.? I think this would be helpful for me to decide whether to take a pass on these somewhat pricey, yet popular, storage systems, or to jump in with everyone else and improve my (shop) life.
In addition to reporting on developments in the modular tool storage industry, I have been using different tool box systems for more than a decade now.
To start off, they are absolutely not for everyone, or all circumstances.
Modular tool boxes offer two things – portability and organization.
With respect to portability, modular tool boxes, bags, and organizers typically provide strong, convenient, and versatile ways to move tools, parts, and equipment around.
I often need separation and organization more than I need portability. Modular tool box systems allow for tools to be grouped together in common themes.
A stack of modular tool boxes takes up less space than most single-bay rolling tool cabinets, and allows for greater configuration options. Rather than trying to shoehorn a collection of tools, parts, and supplies into a tool chest, you can go with a more optimized selection customized to your specific needs.
They’re not better than drawers, shelves, industrial bins, and other such solutions; modular tool storage products simply present another approach, even if portability is a minimal or completely irrelevant consideration.
Modular Tool Box System Launch Timeline
It all started with Festool Systainers, which were pricey and typically only popular with Festool users. Certain Festool products, such as their Sortainers with drawer compartments, proved decent for shop use, presenting a portable alternative to typical bin cabinets or hanger systems.
(In my experience, Sortainers are really bad when stacked – all of the drawers start to bind together and are difficult to open and close.)
Bosch L-Boxx, a Sortimo-made tool box system, was officially announced in 2010.
Dewalt ToughSystem tool boxes were announced in 2011.
Dewalt Tstak, a smaller system similar in size to Systainers and L-Boxxes, were announced in 2012.
The Ridgid Pro Gear system came out in 2014.
Milwaukee first launched their Packout storage system in 2017.
There are other systems – Craftsman’s Tstak-compatible Versastack system, Craftsman Tradestack, Makita MakPac, Flex Stack Pack, Kobalt CaseStack, and the upcoming Klein ModBox, just to name a few.
Some brands have launched new generations of products: Dewalt launched ToughSystem 2.0 in recent years, and Ridgid also recently launched their Pro 2.0 tool boxes.
Why are they so Popular?
Have you ever heard of Akro-Mils? Quantum Storage System? Durham Manufacturing? There’s a much greater chance you’ve heard of Milwaukee Packout than those industrial-focused brands.
Modular tool storage systems have become highly visible. They’re prominent on retailers’ websites, at jobsites, and definitely on social media.
I spotted this Milwaukee Packout setup in the field a few years ago – at an arts supply store where techs were repairing the checkout system. Now, the bin on top could be replaced with a Packout-compatible cordless vacuum.
Modular storage systems have been popular for years, just not here. Now they’re more popular than ever in the USA and elsewhere, thanks to high market visibility, aggressive promotions, and the regular launch of solutions and products aimed at easing common user frustrations.
Can They be Used in Workshops?
Ryobi had a stackable tool box system designed for workshops, Toolblox, although they were only ever available overseas. Now, they have the Link system.
Craftsman also had a modular tool chest system, made by Keter.
Facom integrated their mobile tool chests with ToughSystem products.
BluCave had a modular wall-mounted storage system where tool box modules could be removed and carried around.
There were many attempts at modular shop storage products.
Milwaukee now has shop storage accessories within Packout, as well as shelves and their other horizontal-surface mounting accessories.
Is Packout perfect? Of course not. The same is true for L-Boxx, ToughSystem, Systainers, and other modular storage systems.
In my experiences, every modular storage system has compromises.
I used Bosch L-Boxxes in ways where nothing else would have worked better at the time, at least with respect to off-the-shelf solutions, even from industrial suppliers.
It’s all about problem-solving solutions that reduce frustrations.
How many people who use Packout, Systainers, or other modular systems in their workshop have ever opened an industrial catalog to see what else is out there? There are plenty of other storage options out there. Visibility is important.
The beauty of Packout and other systems is that they bridge the gap. Portable solutions can be used in stationery setups, but it’s a lot harder for products designed for fixed location use to be made more mobile.
Dewalt’s ToughSystem was the first durable modular tool box system. Systainers and L-Boxxes are decent, but they’re not anywhere as robust. That kick-started things.
Packout is not just a tool box system. They rapidly and steadily expanded the system with more. The line launched in 2017, and in 2018 the brand announced slim organizers, tool bags, a rolling cart, and cases with custom foam inserts.
Milwaukee’s steady expansion put the pressure on Dewalt, prompting ToughSystem 2.0 to improve upon the first-generation offerings.
With modular storage products gaining sales, more and more brands wanted a share of the action. All of that competition has helped to propel things forward.
With all of these options, it’s easy to find a solution that fits one’s needs. The more solutions there are, the greater the chance an individual product or two will draw in new users. Once a user buys into a system, they are more likely to make additional purchases.
Modular storage systems have also become the Trapper Keepers of the construction industry.
Some people will argue that many modular tool box systems are a waste of money, but there are also some folk who don’t see the merit of cordless power tools.
Looking on social media, there are some great examples of van and truck integrations.
But, I’m also sure some users buy into modular storage systems when other products might have better served their needs.
I use a couple of different storage systems in my workshop in ways that benefit me. Would I recommend it to others? That’s the difficult part. These are highly versatile systems designed for mobility. Some of the benefits are lost in a stationery workshop setting. There are also many other options if portability is less of a priority.
It’s tougher to recommend modular storage products to individual workshop users than professionals who need durable on-the-go solutions.
But on the other hand, there’s no easy substitute. Sometimes modular tool box systems are the clear answer.
A lot of people look at all of the setups online and on social media and think “wow, it works for them, could it work for me too?” That’s something only you can answer.
I have been using modular storage products for many years now.
I also have the privilege of being able to explore many new products and accessories, whether for free or on ToolGuyd’s dime.
Workshop storage is tricky. Unless you recognize clear benefits in modular tool box systems, keep searching until a superior solution presents itself.
Also keep in mind that you don’t need to buy an entire stack or tower of products. If a singular tool box or accessory fits your needs, start there.
I have tried so many different product systems over the years. Something that works well for one person might be a complete waste of money or inefficient nightmare for others.
Looking at others’ setups can work for inspiration, but never forget that individual needs can vary. Everyone prioritizes time, effort, and money savings in a different order.
Modular tool box and organizer systems have worked out well for me over the years, some better than others. But I also don’t treat them all as modular.
One of my favorite tool bags is the Milwaukee Packout compact tote. I don’t use it with any other Packout products, although I have considered pairing it with a parts organizer. I like it for its size, features, and quality.
I use Dewalt ToughSystem trays, despite not owning any tool boxes to put them into. My Packout vacuum sample is used by itself 99% of the time. Dewalt recent sent over a ToughSystem 2.0 charger, and I like its size so much that I will likely buy two or more of the deep tool boxes once available.
Can modular tool boxes and storage products be used in the workshop? Yes! Portability, stackability, and compatibility aspects usually do create compromises that can take a little away from their versatility in workshop settings.
Can they work for you? That depends on whether you have identified any needs they can meet, problems they can solve, or frustrations they can ease. If you’re not sure, start small and see how well it works out.