Project Shoebox: Making a Physical Filing System

Project Shoebox: Making a Physical Filing System

Shelving and Shoeboxes About two weeks ago, I was cleaning the office to prepare for a big new project. As usual, I ended up with an unsightly pile of small items that didn’t really have a home. Adding to the aggravation was the large number of tools heaped around my livingroom, the carpet pockmarked by fragments of plastic detritus from the deck tomato planter build over the weekend.

I got to wishing for a project compartmentalization system, so I drew from choreographer Twyla Tharp and her creative process, as described in her book The Creative Habit. When she starts thinking up a new show, all the inspirational source material goes into a big box. In the early stages, this box provides the raw material with which one contemplates and works through the fuzzy imaginative process, each element serving as a portal to new possibilities, thoughts, and ideas. It beats the heck out of just staring at a blank wall. Since I also happen to like boxes a LOT, I thought this would really work for me. The thought of having all most interesting crap in one gloriously centralized heap is exciting too…what categories my stuff would fall into? What would I learn about myself?

Gathering the Supplies

In the past, I’ve used old USPS flat-rate priority mail boxes for storage. They’re leftover from when I used to ship Emergent Task Planner pads from home, but this is a misuse of the USPS’s terms of service. I figured I should actually acquire new boxes without bumming a free ride from Uncle Sam. I happened to notice my tax receipts box, a sturdy boot box from Timberland, was exactly what I wanted. I liked that there was a solid lid on the top to seal the box without tape. The lid can also be slipped snugly under the bottom when the box is in use.

Uline Boxes - Two Kinds!I searched online and decided to take a chance on 50 shoeboxes from ULINE. They ended up being around 2-3 dollars a box with shipping factored in, which isn’t great, but they are big enough at 10″ x 14″ x 5″ to hold a pad of paper. I also ordered a narrower box for projects that didn’t need to hold so much stuff.

Uline Boxes - Flat-packed, ready to turn into boxes!The boxes arrived flattened, designed in such a way that they “pop into shape” in a few seconds. While the cardboard isn’t as thick as I’d hoped, they are sturdy enough for the job. No tape or glue is required to assemble the box and lid, which is a plus. I may reinforce the boxes with tape, but in my informal tests they hold their shape well enough when stacked. It’s also cool that they are all the same. At some point I’m going to design some fancy labels for the boxes, so they take on a more mysterious aura.

SHF-01440 Wire ShelvingWith the boxes ordered, I looked for an inexpensive-but-sturdy shelf system to keep all the boxes in one place in my basement. I hate flimsy shelves, so I ordered a 5-tier unit from Home Depot Online capable of holding 800 pounds per shelf, the Honey-Can-Do SHF-01440, measuring 18″ x 42″ x 72″ and costing a mere $125 w/ free shipping. This is an astonishingly good deal. The shelves are heavy gauge steel wire with black powder coat, and are cleverly engineered for ease of assembly by one person of average height. There are small details like leveling feet, precision-cut screw threads, and pre-installed pipe caps that I appreciated. Even the packaging was a marvel in efficient use of space and material. The hardest part was spacing the shelves evenly, but I just measured 18″ between each shelf with a ruler as I assembled it, and it came out about right. The Honey-Can-Do website shows the availability of more shelving accessories. It looks like a versatile system.

Organizing The Files

I started with a heap of old boxes filled with gew-gaws and trinkets, and just started moving similar things into the new boxes. It took about three hours to collect everything, box, then label with Post-It® notes. I didn’t think too hard about the categories, making them up based on my own sense of whimsy:

  • Mini-DV Camcorder & Accessories
  • High 8 Camcorder & Accessories
  • Specialty Camera Gear & Accessories
  • Personal Identity & Business Cards Past and Present
  • Other People’s Marketing Materials
  • Tarot & Other Card Decks
  • Good Luck Charms
  • Interesting Cards and Small Paper Items
  • Business Cards and Other Keepsakes
  • Fountain Pens and Fine Stationery
  • Unusual Pens & Desktop Props
  • Notebooks of Note
  • Design Swatches, Pantone, and Type Specimens
  • Drafting Supplies / Measurement Tools / Rulers
  • Labeling Machines and Stamps
  • Paper Samples for PCEO Projects
  • Development Tools & Operating Systems
  • Computer Diagnostic and Hard Drive Recovery Tools
  • Portable Hard Drives
  • Electronic Prototyping & Arduino Stuff
  • Small Mobile Devices and Handheld Electronics
  • Watches and Everyday Carry Gear
  • Optical Devices, Calculators, and Digital Recording
  • Cigar Smoking Supplies and Accessories

None of these are really “projects”, but are instead collections of materials and tools that I use in support of them. For example, the box full of Unusual Pens & Desktop Props is likely to be used for photo shoots of my stationery. Some of them are collections of all the parts related to a particular vice, like Fountain Pens & Fine Stationery (lots of ink and a handful of pens) or Cigar Smoking Supplies (various cutters, lighters, and humidors I’ve collected over the years, despite not smoking). The categorization is a work in progress. A few of the boxes collect materials that I think are interesting, like Other People’s Marketing Materials, Tarot Cards and Other Card Systems, and Notebooks of Note.

The contents of the Unusual Pens and Desk Accessories box For the first time, I have a place to keep a lot of the gadgets and gizmos in one place. It’s kind of exciting. My goal is to try to keep things organized, adding boxes or renaming them, as I embark on various projects. I’m sure the system will evolve as I move other pieces of my kit, notably the camera gear and audio recording equipment, into more modular carry systems. I’m already using clear travel pouches to store a lot of tiny accessories, but I’d like to make it so I can mix-and-match larger items (like microphones and cabling) to whatever bag I happen to be using. I also have to figure out how to store sample paper products, shipping materials, and other office supplies so I can efficiently grab what I need.


  1. Michelle 12 years ago

    Ooh, I do like the urban shelves. Very chic. I can’t wait to see what the whole thing looks like with mysterious labels.

  2. Christoph Luehr 12 years ago