Best Practices for Storing Power Tools: A Cautionary Tale

Scenes from a tool-storage nightmare -- my old basement.
Scenes from a tool-storage nightmare — my old basement.

I used to be a cabinetmaker and general contractor, and I’m an avid home-improver, so I’m the type of handyman who is loathe to part with anything that might someday be useful. Even when living in New York City, I had my own trove of tools and building supplies in storage.

When I moved to the Washington, D.C. area 12 years ago, an occasion arose to use my amassed tools. I got married and bought a nice 100-year-old farmhouse to work on.

Once we got settled, I announced to my wife that I was going to spend weekends building steel-reinforced block retaining walls around the basement perimeter to stabilize the foundation and dry things out. She cried. Then I told her that I wanted to build a shed. She hollered. On weekends, my wife wanted to get out and do fun things—and she wanted help with the baby.

So I put my plans on hold and my crates of tools on makeshift pallets and shelves in that wet basement. I also bought a snap-together shed for the backyard, for what wouldn’t fit in the basement. What follows is what I should have done.

Set Some Goals

Goals for setting up and maintaining power tool storage systems should include:

  • Protecting tools from damage, dust and moisture
  • Organizing specific tools along with related accessories and supplies near at hand
  • Using available storage space efficiently
  • Facilitating your access to your tools while preventing access by children and others who might not use them safely
  • Facilitating transport where and when necessary

The best ways to achieve these goals depend on what tools you need to store, how you use them and where you intend to store them.

Get Tools Off of the Floor

Drill bits stored in a metal box in a damp basement get rusty.
Drill bits stored in a metal box in a damp basement get rusty.

It’s important to have a dedicated space where you can keep tools — leaving them on the floor or strewn on shelves just isn’t a good idea. It only promotes sprawl, which eventually eats into usable space, and if the floor of a garage or shed workspace is damp, it could lead to rust.

Sturdy shelving may be part of the answer to getting tools off the floor and saving space. Steel shelving works well for dry, conditioned storage spaces, but where dampness is an issue, brightly finished wire or plastic shelving are better bets.

Control Dust

Open shelving does little to prevent tools from collecting dust, which is one of the biggest problems in workshop spaces. Dust can foul motors and stick to lubricants.

The cardboard box in which I kept a finishing sander buckled from basement moisture. The sandpaper stored with it became useless.
The cardboard box in which I kept a finishing sander buckled from basement moisture. The sandpaper stored with it became useless.

To control the accumulation of dust on tools, consider storing them in:

Cabinets with doors and drawers. Heavy-duty shop cabinets are readily available, but old wall cabinets reclaimed from kitchen remodeling jobs can also serve nicely for workshop storage.

File cabinets. Used steel file cabinets, which can be obtained inexpensively, make sturdy, convenient storage places for many portable power tools and accessories.

Mobile work centers. One or more tool chests on casters can work well in workshops and garages. Available in many configurations with shelves, doors and drawers, mobile work centers enable you to stow tools out of the way when not in use.

The Case for Modular Tool Storage Systems

It’s always best to store power tools in hard cases to protect them from dents, dings and dirt. Many pro-grade tools are sold with a metal or plastic carrying case designed to hold the tool, the power cord or accompanying battery and charger, along with a few accessories like a chuck key or wrench needed for changing bits.

As nice as those carrying cases can be, they don’t always meet all tool storage needs. Modular storage systems, available from a number of manufacturers, offer solutions to the most persistent tool-storage issues. The best systems include a set of hard plastic boxes that accommodate various size power tools, a drawer module for nuts and bolts, handles to carry each box individually and a latching system that allows the modules to be stacked together.

Special Considerations for Storing Cordless Tools and Batteries

The battery I’d left attached to a prototype cordless drill for years was difficult to remove. When I got it off the machine, neither it nor the spare would hold a charge.
The battery I’d left attached to a prototype cordless drill for years was difficult to remove. When I got it off the machine, neither it nor the spare would hold a charge.

The way in which cordless tools and their batteries are stored can have profound effects on how well they work and how long they remain serviceable. Here, a few simple rules and facts:

  • The recommended storage temperature for most rechargeable batteries is 59⁰ F. While batteries can tolerate an extremely wide temperature range, it’s best to keep them from freezing and from temperatures exceeding 100⁰ F.
  • Remove batteries from tools before storing.
  • Try to store batteries at about 40% charge. NiCad batteries can be stored for five years or more even at zero voltage; discard Li-ion batteries whose voltage has been maintained at less than 2 volts per cell for longer than a week.

What I Learned from Storing Things Haphazardly

Eventually, the time came to leave our old farmhouse behind. I packed up the basement for the movers, lamenting the wasted time I spent hunting to find certain tools that I had believed to be down there. Sometimes I’d find a cool tool accessory that I’d forgotten I had, but my delight in such discoveries paled next to my humiliation at finding traces of rust on barely used tools, oxidation on measuring tools that rendered them barely legible, and the corpses of insects alongside no-longer rechargeable batteries inside of tool cases.

Packing up the shed led to similar discoveries. The arbor on my favorite circular saw with the electric brake would no longer secure a blade. Someone furry had made a nest in my hardhat.

As I work out my new storage setup, I’m keeping a basic set of principles in mind:

  • Heated/air-conditioned, aboveground spaces are better for tool storage than damp basements and sheds. If conditioned space is unavailable, apply anti-corrosion spray to metal tool parts before storing. Pack desiccants such as silica gel or activated charcoal into toolboxes stored where humidity is high.
  • Store power tools and related accessories off the ground in toolboxes and cases to stay organized and protected from impact, dust and moisture. Plastic cases are usually better than metal. Modular tool storage systems generally offer the most utility and flexibility.

Ideally, a tight, temperature-controlled space is the best place to store your seldom-used but valuable items, but when that’s not available, it’s important to take the aforementioned steps to keep your tools in good shape.


Michael Chotiner is an expert in home improvement and building products who writes about tools for Home Depot. With a background as a cabinetmaker and general contractor, he has written many articles on projects involving power tools. To view the complete selection of power tools available at Home Depot, click here.



5 thoughts on “Best Practices for Storing Power Tools: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Thanks for sharing this info. It’s very helpful for new homeowners like us too!

  2. I don’t like to throw much away,I can always use it for something. Thank for the reminder,on what’s important.Time to clean my storage room.

  3. Dear Michael, thank you so much for your recommendations regarding the most effective way of storing power tools. I’m a 73-year old [female] homeowner with a number of power tools I have accumulated over the years and a wet basement despite a sump pump. I treasure my power tools and recently added a reciprocating saw which is still sitting in the kitchen while searching for a solution regarding proper storage.
    Many years ago I worked as a German-English translator for a heavy component manufacturer and I remember that we used silica gel to ship a reactor vessel to Germany.
    Do you know whether Home Depot sells silica gel or other desiccant?
    I have even considered filling old nylon stockings with cat litter in the bottom of plastic containers.
    Looking forward to your reply.

  4. Thanks and good advice but what is the ideal humidity for a basement that is, say, 60-70 degrees F, for preventing rust on tools (you can’t reach every surface with a protective coating, some parts of power tools are inaccessible, and not everything is in an airtight box for you to use a desiccant or a volatile corrosion inhibitor) —- yet at the same time not drying out the area too much so as to crack wood furniture? Everyone just says protect tools, use a dehumidifier if necessary, avoid basements (impossible for me, no other place for my tools) but nobody gives specific numbers. Please don’t say just use the same humidity as the house, Alabama is different than Arizona. Thanks.

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